One with the earth

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Hindi play, Maati, which is a dialogue between abundance and deprivation, will be staged in the city on Friday evening.

Maati is happy for her friend, Sulakshana who is pregnant within five months of marriage. “When will it be my turn?” She wants an answer to her question. This is the plotline of the Hindi play, Maati, directed by Mahesh Dattani. It is an adaptation of the original Spansish drama, Yerma, by Federico Garcia Lorca. It will be staged in Pune at Sudarshan Rangmanch by students of  The Drama School, Mumbai (DSM).

We chat up with Dattani about Maati, questions of abundance versus scarcity of land and what it means to be a ‘proper’ woman. Excerpts... 

When did you first see or read Yerma?
I first saw a play by Lorca when I was in my early 20s. It was directed by Ebrahim Alkazi. The play was The House of Bernarda Alba translated as Din Ke Andhere. It was a brilliant interpretation with powerful actors in the cast.
I read Lorca’s rural trilogy at least a decade later and was completely taken up by Blood Wedding. At some point, a well-known theatre actress in Bengaluru suggested that I direct it. But somehow it didn’t work out.

Last year, Jehan Manekshaw (co-founder of DSM) suggested I direct a play for the students and mentioned Lorca, (Girish) Karnad, Shakespeare as possible playwrights to consider. I re-read Lorca and was completely struck by Yerma, as a strong possibility because of its predominantly female cast and the male-dominated DSM batch whom I was to teach ‘scene study’ to. 

What kind of perspective did you want your actors who are playing Maati to have? Also, two male actors are essaying Maati. Can you explain why? 
I tried out gender reversals in my scene study class and was hugely impressed by the sensitivity of the students in portraying cross gender. In my script analysis with the three Maatis — Tanvi, Vishnu and Sanket — it was clear to me that her yearning for a male child was not a result of social conditioning. So what could it mean poetically? It was almost half way through the rehearsal process that I came up with suggestion that it’s the maleness that Maati abhors. She only wants the freedom to roam that a man possesses.

In the original, Yerma categorically states she doesn’t find men attractive. If she could have a child by herself without the help of a man, she would have one. One of her deeper fears is that she is turning into a man. The women in her environs gossip that she behaves improperly, not like a woman would or should.

How did you interpret the play?
The play, in the description of the playwright, is a tragic poem. It is in the realm of poetry that the characters live. The attraction to the elements of earth and water have been explored in our interpretation as part of the poetry. A song is dedicated to a dialogue with the fertile earth.
I want my actors to find their characters through the rich poetic music of the text and the songs. It is not a play about grand emotions, although they are contained in plenty. The play is a dialogue between abundance and deprivation.

What feedback did you receive from the student actors about the plot of the play? Were their suggestions incorporated while working on the adaptation? 
The students did their research on Yerma and were hugely excited at the possibility of setting it in rural Haryana, as suggested by me. Later we expanded this to make the setting a bit more pan North Indian. The students took an active part in the research part. Some of them being from Haryana, went home and took extensive video footage based on my briefs.
At the same time, I invited Neha Sharma to work on the adaptation. The students were not involved in the adaptation, but I invited an alumnus of DSM, Abhinav Grover, to write the lyrics to the song. He brought in a wealth of suggestions. In the rehearsal process, there was extensive fine tuning to try and retain the playwright’s intentions and also work with the wonderfully transposed setting as worked on by Neha.

Have you woven in the Indian agrarian crisis in this play?
This question is with reference to Jatinder’s (a character) plentiful and fertile land vis-a-vis the barren and landless Maati.
It is not at all about the agrarian crisis. It is a crisis of humanity, the feeling of being incomplete in a world that seems complete when it is one with the earth.

ST Reader Service 
Maati will be performed on March 23,
7 pm at Sudarshan Rangmanch, Shaniwar Peth

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