Sunday, 7 August 2011

An evening of culture

Delhi has many things going in its favour: great food, beautiful parks, friendly people (until you put them behind the wheel), lively markets...but a thriving theatre scene is not generally seen as one of them. Mumbai and Kolkata are known as India's main centres of the arts, in comparison with which Delhi tends to be seen as a bit of a cultural backwater (as much as you can ever describe a city of 17 million people as such). Most of the theatre that does exist is in Hindi, which hopefully in a year or so will be less of an obstacle than it is now. But for the moment, I have a very limited choice of English language productions.

However, you can't keep a good theatre buff down, so tonight I armed myself with my trusty Time Out and set out for the Akshara Theatre, a venue that according to the Hindustan Times has "a certain feeling of deity in it, a stillness that feels like a temple or a church at vespers." I figured that sounded like the kind of place it would be good to know in this enormous, noisy metropolis.

They were showing a play called The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, about a privileged city dweller who chooses to renounce urban life and take up with the tribal people of Chhattisgarh, a state in East-central India with a large indigenous population. I don't know much about Chhatisgarh, except that it is one of the more unstable states in the country due to an ongoing Maoist insurgency and to conflicts between the indigenous population and the government over its extensive forests and mineral resources. But the play sounded interesting.

Alas, my evening of tribal drama in an atmosphere of sacred peace was well and truly hijacked by the aforementioned metropolis. Misled by my map of Delhi (for the first time, I have to concede) I went to entirely the wrong end of the road on which the theatre is located and ended up wandering around Connaught Place - possibly the most confusingly-laid out piece of urban planning in existence. The local tourist office had never heard of the Akshara, and nor had the first five people I asked for directions.

Finally I found someone who did know it, who plonked me in an auto rickshaw which then spent the next ten minutes moving approximately 100 metres through the nightmarish traffic. Giving up on the rickshaw, I started walking in the direction I understood the theatre to be in, only to give up when, 10 minutes after curtain up, I hit a massive roundabout designed to put off even the most determined pedestrian.

Delhi had thwarted my cultural plans, although I did stumble upon the largest (and clearly thriving) Sikh Gurudwara in the city, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, which looks fascinating and is definitely somewhere I'd like to go back to:

Anyway, I may have given up on Chhattisgarh, but as it turned out Chhattisgarh had not given up on me. Re-checking TO showed that a performance of music from there was being staged at the India Habitat Centre, somewhere I was already familiar with. It's a beautifully landscaped business, culture and hotel centre near the Lodi Gardens, with a red brick architecture that owes nothing to India's heritage (and is probably not to everyone's taste) but which I find very pleasing in a similar way to Robinson College (which is also not universally popular).

Anyway, I digress. I just about had time to get there in time for the concert, so I hopped into an autorickshaw (after rejecting an offer from the first driver I approached to charge me three times the going rate and take me via Gandhi's burial place and the Red Fort, neither of which are particularly on the way). (On the way, incidentally, we drove past India Gate and the Raj Path, and in the warm evening light with families and friends chatting on the wide lawns, I have to admit it looked rather idyllic. Maybe my previous harsh judgement about the place was just due to going at the wrong time of day.)

The concert was interesting. I wouldn't go crazy for the music, although there was some impressive drumming and a really beautiful performance on a high-pitched pipe. But the costumes pretty much stole the show:

There was also some enjoyable singing from the lady in the middle here. At the same time. she and the lady next to her expertly kept up a rather complex 5/4 rhythm on their drums, until the chap on the other side of her joined in rather too enthusiastically and at a 25% quicker tempo, earning some truly dagger-eyed looks from her...

And there was some athletic dancing from these chaps, including at one point a move reminiscent of 80s break dancing, when they planted one hand on the ground, held themselves horizontally and propelled themselves round in circles, keeping the drum beat going with the other hand the entire time. It was really quite  impressive.

But my favourite person on stage had to be this chap, who looked about twice the age of everyone else on stage and had a rather perplexed air about him for the whole performance. I'm not sure where the string attached to those birds on the end of his instrument goes, but as he hit the bottom of it they pecked and bobbed along in time to the music.

And the night was rounded off by this lady, from Uttarakhand in the Himalaya, who sang traditional songs in a rich and lovely alto, though still marked by that warbling, nasal quality that characterises Indian singing and which I have to confess I still find a bit difficult to listen to.

Having thus established my credentials as a connoisseur of world culture, I rather spoiled matters by eating at the All-American Diner, which serves hot dogs, peanut butter shakes and nachos (though the burgers are strictly of the chicken or bean variety, naturally) and which looks like this:

But the food was damn good. You don't have to be American to enjoy a big ol' plate of stodge (with a big ol' glass of stodge on the side) from time to time.

Anyway, I may have failed in my first attempt to visit the theatre, but the evening did make me even more curious to learn about India's tribal areas (they caught my attention at the national museum too). Another thing to add to the very long list of must-dos I am acquiring...


Sonya said...

You're getting into your stride, Chris! This reads really well, and you are obviously getting your Delhi mojo on too, navigational issues aside (I am frequently lost here too, after six months.. aren't cities BIG nowadays?!).. xx

Chris said...

Thanks Sonya! And yeah Delhi is certainly big...I think the problem is also that I get to know a little pocket of it and I start being all self-congratulatory and think this navigation thing is a doddle. More fool me.

anasuya said...

what a pity you missed the show, chris. next time (hope there'll be a next time?) pls tell the auto-wala we're next to RML Hospital. We'll be doing another show of Billy Biswas later in the year (Timeout will have info) and "when once you've seen it, you will be quite content', as Humpty Dumpty told Alice. Also don't miss The Ramayana on Oct. 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Chris said...

Thanks for taking the trouble to post, Anasuya! I will certainly try to get to the theatre for the next run of the production, and will use your instructions to make sure I get there! Unfortunately I am in London for the first half of October though so I will not get to see the Ramayana this time.