It was evening time at the Mitra youth hostel. Many gathered downstairs at the common kitchen area, holding their empty metal plates patiently waiting for dinner to be announced. During the wait, some indulged in casual conversations about their day, and about possible evening plans. I remember chatting with a friend when my work colleague approached us about a play happening in one of the villages surrounding Auroville, and asked if we’d be interested in joining him and a couple of other locals. We were both very curious and eager to see this foreign piece of theater, and since neither one of us has seen a play in Tamil before, we had no expectations.
The play had already started when we arrived. The setting was very basic. A large wooden platform was placed on top of the soil, with a couple of big bricks in every corner to lift it up from the ground. A handful of colorful pieces of cloth were hung at the far back and acted as a separation between the stage and whatever was behind it, creating a very small and easily visible backstage area, where the actors waited for their turns, freshened-up, and hydrated themselves. There were no seats. The audience, a group of about forty people, either stood up or sat on a thin carpet on the ground.
The characters were painted and dressed as Hindu deities, as one my local acquaintances pointed out. They alternated between conversing, singing, and even dancing. The play involved three central characters; Ram, his brother Lakshman, and another figure embodying the monkey/human deity by the name of Hanuma. The latter was the most energetic of the trio, exploiting all the stage area to express himself, running, jumping, and even using his long monkey tail to harass the other characters. At one point, he hastily climbed up a nearby tree. At another, he hopped off the stage and snappishly grabbed one of the spectator’s backpack (mine), in an effort to induce a comedic effect. In the background, live traditional music played. A band of five men sat at the rear back. Some played instruments while others sang. As I understood, the band wasn’t quite part of the play, but more of an accessory, for they did not engage with the characters in any dialogue. They merely provided the cheery tunes for the dancing deity figures.
My reactions throughout the show were a mixture of astonishment, admiration, and utter confusion. Due to my inexistent Tamil language proficiency, I was not able to grasp even the general idea of the show. Simply, I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the loud singing voices coming from here and there, the equally loud laughter, clapping noises, and chatter of the amused audience, and most conspicuously, the idea of being the muddled stranger.
Tonight, I claimed the opportunity to perceive and evaluate things from an exterior position. I walked into an entirely foreign situation stripped almost completely of expectations and bias, sat tranquilly on the ground, and assumed the role of the observer, not solely of the show, but of the surrounding environment. I observed attentively as the great energy produced by the dynamic characters on stage rapidly transferred to the engaged audience members. Whereas I sat calmly and silently with a stupefied look occupying my visage, my local friends were laughing hysterically at the numerous punch lines, pointing at Hanuma whenever he says or does something comical, lightly nudging and elbowing each other while bursting out in laughter. I was not envious of their ability to properly engage with the art, nor was I disappointed for going through a different, possibly less amusing experience than theirs. After an entire day of being active and performing vigorous tasks for my NGO, it was both refreshing and relaxing sitting and watching actions unfold before me. Attending this play was an excellent reminder to self that some things needn’t be deeply understood to be enjoyed and appreciated.
By Dhouha Djerbi.