Theatre Review: Kitchen Poems, Ranga Shankara, 2 and 3 Jul 2016

It’s always intriguing to watch poetry being dramatized, and I was keen on going to watch “Kitchen Poems” by Dhiruben Patel, a 90+ year-old Gujarati writer. Padmavathi Rao, who was the solo actor in this performance produced by Aantarya Film and Theatre House, is well-known to the theatregoers of Bangalore, and it was with pleasant anticipation that I went to the performance.

I was not disappointed. Dhiruben’s poems (written in English) were translated on to the stage seamlessly. Padmavathi’s command over the words showed in the effortless way in which she seemed, not to be playing an archetypal woman and her relationship to the pivotal part of her household…the kitchen…but was an actual person, just talking to the audience. The blank-verse format of the poems certainly helped her, but she, in her turn, brought the words of the poems to life. The poems flowed in one continuous stream.

It cannot be easy for a single actor to hold the stage, and the audience, for more than an hour, but Padma managed it with the ease born of long practice.When there is a monologue, the production can stand or fall depending on that one actors ability, or lack of it, to involve the audience. Padmavathi rose to the challenge.

The audience watched Padmavathi enact various ages, and indeed, transform herself from the old woman of the opening minutes of the play, into a child, a young girl, a bride, a pregnant woman, a mother-in-law…each form changing into another fluidly.

Her diction was clear, and several of the lines lodged in my head: Fast and processed food is called “Man’s never-ending crusade against Time”; Speaking of the amount of time a woman must spend in even a well-built kitchen, she asks, “Does it make a difference if a prison is big, or bright?”  About rice: “How does a little grain change its shape, and grow?”

The little girl who disdained to enter the dark, nether regions of the house where the food was cooked,  the young woman who’s asked by the man he loves, that eternal male question, “Can you cook?” The mother in law who says, in typical Indian fashion, “I have given you my son…not my kitchen!” and the old woman who realizes that she cannot eat what she wants, when she wants….Padmavathi brought Dhiruben’s poetry alive in the various ages of a woman, and her relationship to the kitchen.

The stage design was very simple. A chair, a rocking chair with a table beside it, and another stool..that was all it took to see a woman growing from childhood to old age, cooking all the while, and musing upon her life. The mobility of her expressions, and the ability to communicate with the audience to the extent that when she asked a riddle about corn, someone in the audience actually answered…I must laud Padmavathi on this.

I must particularly mention the costume. Padmavathi wore a black top and white pyjamas (I do not know the exact names for these!…a kind of salwar/kameez) but it was the shawl that was an integral part of the play. It was a dupatta, it was a a saree, it was the covering of the head denoting the woman’s status, it was a way of showing how an old woman covered her head for warmth. At times it was a thing of grace, at times a symbol of the woman’s authority. A bindi was applied and then taken off; a “gajra” of jasmine, to me, seemed a metaphor about how the poems were strung together to make an effective play. As the woman takes off her bangles…the audience felt the play, too, winding down.

The words were interspersed with snatches from various Hindi film songs, which added depth to the whole performance.There was very little background music.

Some amount of choreography also went into the performance. The young girl skipping along merrily with her doll (which also later became the young woman’s child) the movement to the “kitchen” where various foods are chopped, jars are stored and used, and food is cooked…..the movements on the stage were well-planned and executed.

The lighting was excellent. It brought into focus the various moments that Dhiruben describes as the woman’s relationship with her cooking evolves, as does her personality. The sound production was also well executed.

For all the free-flowing verse, and the frequent changes from one stage of womanhood to the other, the play had a definite build up and denouement, and brought to a very neat close.

The direction of such a play is also a big challenge. The director did a great job of providing a light touch, which did not show up intrusively at all.

The negative  criticism I have to  make is one that I often add. There was no brochure of the play, and I had to rely on Padmavathi’s introduction to get the names of the supporting crew who have done such a good job. I’ve looked for the names of the crew on the net, too,but cannot find them. So I am listing them below, and hope that if there are mistakes in spelling, I will be able to correct them. A brochure giving more details is always helpful to the audience after having spent more than an hour watching, and soaking in, the performance. I would request the theatre group to at least add the names of the crew online.

But this is a minor point, and I’d strongly recommend this play to anyone who would like to watch an excellent production:  the ordinary life of an ordinary woman, narrated as a sketch of her role in the kitchen at all the stages of her life.

Kitchen Poems (75 min)

Poems written by Dhiruben Patel
Cast: Padmavathi Rao
Directed by Naushil Mehta
Produced by Aantarya Film and Theatre House
Actor: Padmavathi Rao
Light design: Surabhi
Sound design: Abish
Backstage: Akash
Ranga Shankara, 2 and 3 July 2016, 3.30 and 7.30 pm on both days.

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