Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Appropriating Epic Theatre: A Study of Habib Tanvir’s Charandas Chor

Shyam Babu
Research Scholar, Dept. of English, 
Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

German poet, playwright, social thinker, and theatrical reformer Bertolt Brecht (1896-1956) was one of the highly influential literary figures in 20th century Western Theatre. He is popular for his avant-garde experiment in theatre which is known as ‘epic’ theatre.This new experiment has impressed the theatre practitioners across the world, cutting barriers of nation, culture, language and so on. Indian theatre in many ways was the source to the Brechtian epic technique because its ingredients like sutradhar as nat-nati samvada,narrative (i.e.kathavachaka),and employment of vidushak (clown) and high stylized physical performance etc have been integral part of ‘epic’ theatre but with some variations. And this Brechtian theatre has been by virtue of its co-mingling of narrative into drama and spirit of enquiries instead of emotional involvement in the performance which he has called ‘illusion of reality’, for the better understanding of the society, was much acclaimed and sought after. The paper will develop into two sections. First section illustrates Brechtian concept of ‘Epic’ theatre and the second discusses Charandas Chor respectively.
‘Epic’ Theatre: In his works Brecht is concerned with encouraging audiences/spectators to think rather than becoming too much involved in the story and to identify with the characters. So it appeals less to the spectators’ feelings than to their reason. In this way, the political design of theatre became apparent and the play going experience became a catalyst for individual and collective change. His commitment for social change was Marxist legacy where he firmly sticks to the line of principle of Karl Marx –“philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to ‘change it”. This dawn of change was drawn out on the different levels and from heterogeneous ways. Brecht was influenced by many performance traditions including Chinese, Japanese, Indian theatre, the Elizabethan (especially-Shakespeare), Greek tragedy, German drama fair ground entertainment, and Bavarian folk play. He abhorred the Aristotelian theatre  and its attempt to lure the spectators for ‘willing suspension -of –disbelief’ state, a total identification with the hero to the point of complete self-oblivion and resulting in feelings of terror and pity, and ultimately an emotional ‘catharsis’. ‘Brecht criticizes the aesthetic tradition initiated by Aristotle for its preference for dramatic narratives that please but do not instruct or provide real learning about the sources of human suffering. He attacks Aristotelian catharsis as a kind of “opium of masses”, arguing that empathizing with characters prevents viewers from “reflecting critically on the social causes of human suffering” (Curran: 2001:2).He did not want his audiences to be emotional rather he wanted them to think and towards this end, he was determined to destroy the theatrical illusion.
Brecht goes against the Aristotelian concept of epic meaning i.e. he does not follow any rule of consistency or logical coherence which is essential to build the structuration of the Aristotelian plot. Where Aristotle has enunciated: “It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, middle, and an end” (Butcher: Poetics: xxiii). Instead of tight knit plot Brecht prefers episodic form of narrative, self contained scene complete in itself. He treated each scene as an independent entity not subordinate to the whole structure of the play. He distinguished between the dramatic and epic spectators. Dramatic and epic theatres have a different construction that were defined by Aristotle, whose laws, says Brecht “were dealt with by two different branches of aesthetics”. The dramatic aesthetic is the strong centralization of the story and momentum that draws the six poetic elements (plot, character, theme, dialogue, rhythm and spectacle) into a common relationship. The epic aesthetic by contrast “can take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual piece, while remain fully capable of life”. For centuries, theatre on the single stage was thought to be dramatic spectacle, while festival and carnival presented on multiple and simultaneous sites, was something done outside the theatre building. However, Brecht’s innovation in staging brought the epic on stage, and revealed that the relationship of dramatic and epic spectator is not a duality but a dialectic: there are dramatic aspect to epic pieces and epic aspect in drama. Epic theatre invites the spectator to take a critical and intelligent role; the actors and the script purposely do not invite empathetic viewing.
Epic theatre assumes “that the audience is a collection of individuals capable of thinking and reasoning, of making judgments even in the theatre, it treats it as individuals of moral and embodied maturity, and believes it wishes to be so regarded” (Short Organum: 1948) In his view Brecht is quite near to Augusto Boal’s concept of spect-actor where audience acts and observe at the same time. Dramatic theatre assumes just the opposite; the audience wants to be passive spectators, a kind of a mob, which must be and can be reached only through its emotions; that it has the mental immaturity and high emotional suggestibility of mob.
For this, Brecht deployed many theatrical devices or paraphernalia that helped promote to get alienation effect or making strange the spectators instead of giving air to empathy that was his recurring motives for theatre. So that, they could not identify the actors with them and would understand life critically and more comprehensively. Among the devices he deployed to offer the idea of alienation are: historification of the text, use of narrative, rendering the text into third person, use of songs that check the flow of the actions, gest (or Gestus), loose plot structure in the form of episode and each complete in itself, special use of set design and lighting effect, highly stylized performance, use of mask and mime, masquerade and dialects and regional folk myth as parable, mixing human and non human elements etc. All together these efforts were made to pull down what he called the fourth wall. Major concept of epic theatre is alienation effect which is being discussed below:
Alienation effect: The corner stone of epic theatre is, Verfremdungs effect variously known as estrangement, disillusionment, making strange or alienation effect but by whatsoever name it may be denoted, its relevance lies as he himself likes to quote the pudding analogy ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. It was to make the spectators adopt an attitude of enquiry and criticism in his approach to incidents shown on the stage’ (Willett:1964:177) He saw Chinese performance and was impressed by its artful act of self- alienation that stop the spectators from losing himself in the characters completely and lent a splendid remoteness to the events (ibid.19). He might have also got simulated from the Russian Formalist Viktor Shlovsky’s concept of ‘making strange’ (priem ostranenniya) and Marx concept of ‘Alienation’ which has a bit different connotation. In its totality ‘verfremdung’ was a weapon in his theatre mission to describe the way in which art ‘by its own means’ could further the great social task of mastering life’ (ibid: 96). Thus, it endeavours making the spectators to think instead of shedding tears on illusion of reality shown on the stage and thus triggers the process of change in society.
Thus, Brechtian concepts of alienation effect, strange making, simultaneous looking at the incidents, pedagogic bent of the story, catering nature of play by topsy-turvy and folk theme and so on, are hall marks of his theatre which are seemingly seen a tool of appropriating epic theatre in the play Charandas Chor. This becomes, indeed explicit when we view Tanvir’s opinion in connection with Brecht: “I respect Brecht very much. He has deeply impressed me. I see many similarities in his German theatre and in our Hindustani theatre. Brecht wrote ‘to establish the new creative principle, we should begin with the necessary task of radical changing because it inherits the probability of reconstruction of the society. In this, we assess the complete interpersonal behaviours and relationship and it is but essential to observe every thing from social angle” (Saapeksh: 2006:34, translation mine.)
Habib Tanvir (b.1924) is an eminent director, actor, playwright, poet and literary personality who began his career as a journalist as early as in fourties, and has been actively associated with Indian People Theatre Association and Progressive Writers Association from its very inception. Though he has widely experimented and learnt form many sources-from Shakespeare to Brecht and from Indian Classical theatre to Parsi theatre, he is world wide known for his tremendous works in folk theatre especially Chhattisgarhi folk culture with rural people of Chhattisgarh. Hence, he writes and performs plays in Chhattisgarhi (a dialect of Hindi which is spoken in the state).His are the many brilliant plays like Agra Bazaar ,Mitti Ki Gadi,  Gao Ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damaad, Dekh Rahe Hai Nain, Hirma Ki Amar Kahani and Charandas Chor which is his major breakthrough in Indian drama after independence.
Tanvir's theatre journey reaches its high water marks with his play Charandas Chor, which has almost become a classic of contemporary Indian theatre repertoire. The play has an interesting background which involves experimentation and improvisation until it reached in the final shape in 1975.Tanvir took up the Vijaydan Detha’s Rajsthani folk tale and gave a mould to it according to his purpose. In Detha’s version, the thief is killed for his vows and the queen’s offer is accepted by the guru who becomes the king thereafter. The playwright, having the consummate artistic sensibility uses this tale not only as a narrative which is bent itself upon contemporary socio-political realities but also as the very structure of the meaning in the text. He does not stick him to the original form of the story but makes the variations and dramatically ends on the highest dramatic point of the thief's prosecution. And thus, with the chorus the play closes with an anti climatic note. The play has been staged across the Western world where it has also received the Fringe First award in 1982 at International Drama Festival in Edinburgh and got much acclaimed over the world. 
Charandas Chor (Charan, the Thief) was first performed in original Chhattisgarhi by Naya theatre (writer’s theatre company) at Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi on 3 May 1975. It simply consists of two acts including ten scenes. It is at the same time exemplar of the satire of an autocratic power and the commendation of a thief's moral uprightness. The episode of the guru and his many shisyas continues through out the first act and which may be understood in the rubric of subplot. The second act is entirely pervaded by the presence of Charandas and his confrontation with leader and officials and ultimately Queen where he meets his death as a punishment because of the preservation of the values and denial of the will of authority. These incidents function as the base of the main plot in play.
Charandas is an ordinary thief but of unique quality. Playwright did not romanticize or produce the protagonist in a conventional style i.e. heroic but rather as ordinary man of lopsided who on account of ‘naivete, ignorance, conservative nature, and old fashioned belief in vows’ meet his final undoing. Though he is scared of death and shows all the fears that a common man has, he is at the same time has caught up in the web of vows, no matter he had taken it non-seriously or inadvertently. In development of the play his oaths are crucial which intensify the story and lead to the denouement of the play. His four simple, paradoxical vows are – (i) he would never eat in a golden platter, (ii) he would not ride the elephant back, (iii) not ever he would be the king, and (iv) lastly he would never marry a queen. Realizing the hypothetical day dreams, his guru took pity to add a new -never to tell a lie.
The curtain rises with the songs of Satanami Panthi (a religious sect) and guru’s eulogy:

"Praise the guru, he one greets
Who alone brings down to us?
The Devine nectar of Truth.
This nectar will redeem us
Brought down from high –
Where pure truth resides –
By our holy guru.”

(Charandas Chor.: 55)

And ends with the same kind of praise of hypocrite guru which is very akin to the invocation of Vakratunda (crippled) Ganesh (who drives all hindrance away and solve the problems) for peaceful performance in Karnad’s play Hayavadana and epic pattern (of India).But still the play is not religious. The setting of the play is a rectangular plate from centre stage about 6’ft deep, 12ft wide, and 9 inches high. The places created by this austere architectural design are used in different ways throughout the production. For the opening scene between police man and the thief, only the fore stage is used. But in the guru dakshina scene, the entire stage comes into the use with guru and his followers sitting on the entire platform and the rest scattered all over the stage.
In an innovative and visually planning method, the plat form on the stage is approached some times in rectilinear fashion (as in guru dakshnina scene) and some times diagonally (as in the temple scene). This creates interesting variations in the spectator’s perception of the stage, which appears psychically altered. Stage props are kept to the minimum. The objects which are actually used in the action are – such as the treasure chest or the idol or the sacks of rice. Change in the locale is suggested almost entirely through changing the grouping and not by any physical rearrangement of the stage. During the early scenes, the stage is quite flexible and informal. But after half of the play, it suddenly takes on a formal and sharply defined quality in order to present the royal treasury, the queen’s court and bed chamber.
The texture of the play lies in the organizing skills of the actors and improvisations. This minimalist stage prop reinforces the sense of the openness that is in the soul of the story. He used simply stage props, like a triangular plat form with just one tree, which was continued till some shows. But finally he deployed only two bamboos, and a little foliage piece, the branch of a tree connecting them. As Tanvir has commented: “Then I got rid of even that, keeping only one bamboo, one branch, and it stayed at that. In other plays also, the bare minimum, absolutely simple” (Katyal: 2004:48). Unhampered by any physical changes in the scene, the action unfolds briskly and grippingly from scene to another action of the folk or mythical tale, until the final episode when its serious import all of a sudden comes into focus.
Thematically this story is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Charndas earns his bread and butter by gulling and robbing people off and flouting the laws and order (as his pious duty). Charandas, the protagonist of the play first comes before us after the opening Satnami song with heavy bundle of clothes on his head .He is caught by the Hawaldar who is in the search of the thief of the golden platter. He escaped away from his clutches by bluffing. Then he came across a peasant who was carrying edible thing tied in a piece of cloth. He also snatches his purse tucked into the waist and hand of his loin cloth and threat him away. Charandas now got a chance to loot a wealthy merchant’s wife and instantly he caught the site with amazement:

Charandas:  Arrey baap rey! What a load of jewellery!    (ibid: 61)

Though he would have taken all the jewels of the woman easily, he took pity on woman and handed over her ornaments.Charandas is the protagonist of the play but does not come from the higher or noble descent family. Above all, he accomplished the task of masquerade or clown from time to time and produces the hilarious comic sense in the play. His double role is meaningful from two fold perspectives. First, as a noble and kind hearted who lives a life of values of human dignity like truth and strives for betterment of the poverty stricken people and secondly as a jest or masquerade who is fraud and deceitful and consequently dies out of his mocking pledges. Hence his portrayal as victimizer and victimized offers the viewers to look on the incident with altogether an objective or detached perspective. And here it paves the way for simultaneity and complex consciousness which ‘epic’ theatre is intended to put forth to spectators. 
In scene 2, we notice guru sitting on the platform spreading his mat. All his disciples including drunkard and gamblers touch his feet. Guru tries his best to solve their problems e. g. smoking, gambling, drinking, and stealing etc, but on the charge of the guru dakshina. According to the sum of the Dakshina, he gives guru mantra for their welfare and happiness .Because without money nothing is possible in the world:

Guru: You’ll have to give guru dakshina.
Smoker: No problem! I’ll just give it to you. Here! (Hands over his gamachha with something knotted in the corner).
Guru: Here is a true disciple! How much is there, beta?
Smoker: A full bundle of twenty –five, guru-ji.
Guru: (undoing the knot). Arrey, what’s this? I thought it was twenty five rupees, but you’ve given me bidis! - - -
Guru:             Look, beta, nothing happens without guru dakshina .It’s a must.
Smoker:         But I don’t have any money, gurudev.
Guru. (Begs): Beta, if nothing else, at least fork out a few coins for a cup of tea. (ibid: 69)
 And ultimately smoker has to pay guru dakshina unintentionally .Then comes Charandas followed by hawaldar (policeman). He tells about his profession. Guru coaxes him to give this job up and take ‘only one’ vow which is not to tell a lie. But Charandas is willing to take four pledges (analogous to four Arya Satya as has been stated in Buddhism) that is mentioned above. And guru from his behalf adds a new –not to tell a lie.        
 But he is also a man of commitment and principles. His strong sense of social justice and humanly and sympathetic treatment with the impoverished and the poor, makes him no less than a social reformer, to some extent virtuous man. That's why the chorus announces "Charandas is not a thief, no way?”(ibid: 84). 
Stealing for him is a sacred duty. It has become as essential as the breathing itself for Charandas. On asking about his promises and stealing (the things), two contrary things by the queen, he gives breathe taking answer: “but it is my dharma! How can I give up my dharma? (101.)
On other question and his oaths which astonished to Rani and seemed absurd, he speaks frankly so as to expose the hidden theft and deep corruption prevalent in the ruling mechanism and governmental institutions:

Charandas:  Good or bad, every one steals rani-sahib.
Queen       :  What do you mean?
Charandas:  Others steal on the sly, while I do it in broad day light, with great fanfare. That‘s the only difference. (ibid: 99) 

 The wretched condition of the poor is deteriorating .The peasants are compelled to starve and die .However, landlord has so much who did not bother about the poverty of the his   Ploughmen. Instead, he is interested in seeking the way to spend on like merrymaking and feeding the animals like horse. The irony that is visible in the conversation between landlord and peasant is pathetic and shocking:

Peasant: My children have not eaten for three days. They’re half-dead of starvation. If you could spare a kilo or so of rice, it would save them, malik…
Landlord: Am I under obligation it save everyone’s sons and daughters?
Peasant: By the grace of god, you have so much, malik! I’ll repay every bit as soon as I can .Save my children!
Landlord : Just because I have plenty, doesn’t mean I start giving it all away to the likes of you! (ibid: 80)
 And so, the entire thread of the play has been woven into the fabric of socio-political ideology.
Charandas’s effort is also to bring in the limelight the irregularities of the beurocrats of the kingdom of rani. In the case of gold coins theft, he confessed his guilt of stealing the coins and hence enforced the high officials to investigate impartially and exclusively in the matters. And thus, helps puncture the false system of ruling class and their hierarchy with utmost frankness. The playwright employs many elements like chorus, which renders commentary through songs; stage is devoid of all sets, minimal props are used and panthi tunes of satnami religious sects are incorporated. Again this "complex consciousness” principle presents a complex and dialectical process of things in such a way that its underside also becomes visible. This is explicit in the three representations which run simultaneously. Firstly, the Guru Dakshina scene where there is mass gathering but to serve only their own grinds by hooks or by crooks .There is almost a lack of discipline and understanding between ‘guru’ and ‘shishya’ (the traditional concept of Ashrama Parampara in the Hindu religion). The guru ashram has turned into a safe place for drunkards, gamblers and thieves and many of the like.
The second stance is quite visible in the Arti scene where everything is religious except the faith in the deity. Police man and thief’s coming in and out of the crowd throughout the "arti' undermines the religiosity and invokes us to think over with critical distance. Is there any religious sanctity in the prayer? This spirit of enquiry reaches to its climax when the prayer celebration ends away with the stealing of idol itself.
The third stance, which is also the end point of the play, is Charandas’s prosecution. . He was a life long thief but became a canonized saint after death. His Samadhi is to be erected and floral tribute is to be offered. However, clearly speaking, we are persistently made alert to the contexts of the play as a whole. We are familiar with the process of getting sainthood of a man from the troublesome thief over all the enactment of the performance.
The play appears out and out hilarious because of Charandas’ actions are intimated as masquerade or gest till the end of the story. And suddenly death strikes Charandas. We are left speechless and spectators are suspended and emotionally disturbed. There is a total silence in the last due to the prosecution of him-a strange silence. Tanvir has spoken at length on the experience of performanve in the interview “People got up thinking, when the next line will come? Disturbed. The restive, Delhi audience was moved. And then, before going out they stopped, turned and then stood for several minutes, watching from the door, uncomfortably” (Katyal: 2004:43).Thus Brechtian theatre is revisited in the play .And this is how spectators are enforced to think over the story coolly and a sense of dissatisfaction is aroused in them instead of providing a ready made resolution so that they can draw out their own conclusion accordingly.
Charandas Chor is also premised on the principles of carnivalesque and reversal, the principle of a world upside down where hierarchies are blurred. This reversal of hierarchies particularly on moral and ethical levels that of truthfulness, honesty, integrity, ethical values and even profession efficiency are shown to belong exclusively to a thief.
Thus, the play is steeped in comic irony and incites us for ‘complex seeing’. The way in which Charandas is confronted with the choices that oblige him to keep up the pledges that he had mockingly taken; the very co-existence of honesty and sincerity in a thief; the guru’s acceptance of stolen goods as ‘guru dakshina’, narrative pattern of the play, religious songs which punctuate the flow of the action, minimal props and bare stage manager - these are the elements which contribute towards the illusion of reality, the idea that leads to what Brecht has called ‘A (alienation) effect’.


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Ø   Katyal, Anjum. June 1996. Seagull Theatre Quartly, Calcutta Issue 10.
Ø   Maharishi, Dr.Anjala.2000.A Comparative Study of Brechtian and Classical Indian Theatre. New Delhi, National School of Drama.
Ø   Tanvir, Habib.2004.Charandas Chor. Calcutta &New Delhi, Seagull.
Ø   Willett, John.1964.Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic.11 New Fetter Lane London EC4, Methuen and Co.LTD.
Ø   Wright, Elizabeth.1989. Postmodern Brecht: A Re-Presentation. London &New York, Rutledge.

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