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Monks against hate

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30th-Aug-2018       
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Life Desk :
With the clanging of cymbals and loud chanting, the monks appear among the students at Ambedkar University. The latter have been milling around the chai shop between classes, creating a hum of conversation. They part for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis and follow them to an open space where more than a hundred other students have gathered in the shade of neem and peepul trees. The scene resembles a gathering for a sermon but it turns out to be a play. Shorn of their yellow robes, the monks transform into actors of Delhi-based Jan Natya Manch who are presenting Tathagat, their new production.
Named after Buddha, the play is about the people who worship him. It is presented by the SFI at Ambedkar University and the space, where the performance is held, is splashed with graffiti. One wall bears a battle cry in red paint: "When politics determines education, you must determine your politics." The pre-play announcement alludes to the attack on Omar Khalid at JNU the day before.
In this hub of youth activism, Tathagat unfolds as a story about a mythical empire, where the king has sentenced a sculptor to death for creating a statute of the Buddha from black rock rather than white marble. The plot is a cover for deep satire. As the sculptor's case is argued in the royal court, distinctions are made between rajya and rashtra, opposing the government and being anti-national, and the colours of a shudra's complexion and a king's. Reality masquerades as fiction, the news of the day as history. For 35 minutes, the actors and the audience are tied together by the sub-text.
Every so often, the play gets less allegorical and more direct. There are dialogues, such as "Mehlon main Tathagat nahin dikhte… mehlon mein Rahul dikhte hain (In palaces, you cannot see Tathagat… in palaces, you can see Rahul)". The final scenes show the importance of tears and travel in realpolitik as the climax becomes as much about the sculptor's fate as the country's. The caste of the sculptor is a symbol of multiple others. When the king tells his wife, "Yeh kisi ke nahin hote (They are loyal to nobody)", the students pick up allusions to communal tensions. Ditto for the daasi's desperate plea, "Hamaarey jaat ke kitne log aapkey sena mein hai Maharaj… hum kaise rajdroh kar sakte hain? (There are so many from our caste in your army…How can we we be anti-national?)"
Director Abhishek Majumdar has been exploring the space for tark or debate in ancient Indian culture. It featured in award-winning play, Muktidham, and Tathagat reiterates it with the arguments in court. The audience plays the role of crowds at a hearing, clapping every time the sculptor's defenders made a powerful point and, when his wife denounces the king, shouting in support.
The play is driven by text rather than performances - the former is uniformly steady but the latter is uneven across the cast. When the performers go among the students to get donations at the end of the play, it is as bhikkhus and Rs 10 notes fall into their jholi. A few minutes later, the crowd disperses - and the buzz of academic life take over.
-Indian Express

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