When Mumbai-based theatre director Atul Kumar and his group were researching for their new play, Aaeen, based on the Indian Constitution, they asked people they knew, of all ages, what the word “Constitution” meant to them. Few had a clear idea about it. “We understood two things. Firstly, in spite of its complicated language, issues of accessibility and loopholes, such as not doing justice to the people of Northeast, Kashmir or the Muslim questions, the Constitution manages, to a great extent, to bring the people of India together and gives them equal opportunity,” says Kumar. “Secondly, there are agencies such as the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR) in Bengaluru that are working hard to reach the spirit of the Constitution and its various interpretations to the people, especially students,” he adds.
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Aaeen, which was commissioned by CLPR, is an artistic effort to generate conversations around the most important —and least understood — book in India. After packed shows in Bengaluru and Mumbai, it will be staged at The Box, a theatre in Pune, on June 17 and 18. The play comprises stories by five politically conscious writers, Lawai BemBem, Amitosh Nagpal, Purva Naresh, Sarah Mariam and Varun Grover. They highlight issues such as the dynamics and politics in the room where the Constitution is being made (Move: Remove); the fantasy of a chaat-pakoda vendor called Raj who wants to set up his own country (Kala Akshar Bhains Barabar); a strange baraat of a dulha that nobody has seen (Aaj Shahni Hai Raat) and the fear of two people who are guarding a field at night from a mythical animal (Pashu). Grover, a standup comedian who had composed the viral poem Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge during the CAA protests, has penned the story, titled Desh Drohi Akshar, about a standup who is in jail after telling a joke. It deals with the misuse of the sedition laws.
Did the creators of the play feel a threat to their freedom of expression? “I had no choice but to tread the ground carefully. We all know what threat artists, writers, thinkers, journalists and philosophers can be to ‘absolute rule’. While I must fight, I need to protect myself and others who make and see art. We need to survive to continue the fight. Freedom of expression need not only be given, it also has to be reclaimed every moment,” says Kumar. He adds that, after the recent shows, when audience members came to them to say they had been very brave, “it felt like a threat again but we are still breathing”.
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Kumar, in his forties, has spent most of his life on stage. He is famous for Piya Behrupiya (2012), a rambunctious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that has won several awards and traveled widely, but theatre regulars know him also for constantly pushing the envelope as an artist such as in the lyrical Khwaab Sa (2017), for which he collaborated with contemporary dancers. Kumar has acted in Rajat Kapoor’s play, Hamlet — The Clown Prince (2011) as well as in This Is All There Is When There Is All This (2018) whose narrative delves into the theme of “orchestrated chaos”.
He brings musical comedy, dance, comedy and interactions into Aaeen. “It is through music, dance, frolic and easy communication that we wanted to bring certain aspects of Aaeen’s making, history and its role in our present life to the fore. Most of it is, obviously, satire by our writers. The actors play on that. This device helped us find a space with our audience that is trusting. In that space, we place our political thought that is, then, easily, received,” he says.
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