Anurupa Roy’s new play reinterprets the Arabian Nights with puppets
After touring France and Egypt, ‘The Nights’ is ready for its India premiere at Ranga Shankara this Friday
By Reema Gowalla
Retelling a slew of centuries-old folk tales with a fresh perspective is crucial to Award-winning puppeteer Anurupa Roy’s new work, called The Nights. While it cannot be denied that the delicate art of puppetry has evolved over time, graduating from fringe productions to underpinning its identity in the mainstream via hard-hitting stories, when it comes to writing for puppet theatre, we are not quite there yet. This new production by Delhi-based puppet theatre company Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust strives to better that by reinterpreting three fascinating tales of yore, and a few others in between, through a modern lens.
Written by noted playwright, theatre director and actor Neel Chaudhuri along with writer Adithi Rao, The Nights revolves around Scheherazade — the primary female character and storyteller of the Middle Eastern collection of tales, titled the One Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights) — as she tries to enchant her captor and muse so that she can be a survivor and a witness. The piece revisits and reimagines stories that have been told through centuries to listeners in various contexts — as exotic modes of entertainment sold at markets, as moral fables told to children and as chronicles of the continuing dream and desire for power.
After premiering in France and Egypt last year, the play is gearing up for its maiden show in India. Designed for adults, the piece is scheduled to take place at Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru, on December 2 (at 7.30pm), with more shows lined up on December 3 and 4 (at 3.30pm and 7.30pm). The performers of the play are Kriti M Pant, Avinash Kumar, Mohammad Shameem, Anurupa and Neel. Watch the trailer here.
“The Nights does have a few similarities with my previous work, Mahabharata, but the approach here is completely different. It’s a reinterpretation of The Arabian Nights from a new vantage point. The narrative technique is contemporary, where three principle tales (along with vignettes of a couple of other stories) are interwoven instead of being shown in an episodic format. The storyline and its characters overlap, pulling threads from one another. It’s an experimental piece created in the Bunraku genre, using rods, masks and shadows,” says director Anurupa, whose recent plays Teelapur Ka Rakshas and 1..2..Tree have been widely appreciated across the country.
Presented in English and Hindi, The Nights runs for a duration of about 75 minutes. The masks, shadows and puppets for the play are created by Maneesh Pachiaru, Mohammad, Asha Roy and Anurupa, while the choreography is done by Avinash. Neel has also composed music for the play and is handling its sound design. On the other hand, Bharavi is in charge of light design and Gunjan Arora is taking care of the costumes.
Supported by Le Tas de Sable Ches Panses Vertes, The Nights premiered at the Festival Mondial Des Theaters de Marionettes in Charleville-Mézières, in 2021. Around that time, Sylvie Ballion — Director of Le Tas de Sable Ches Panses Vertes — also conducted a workshop, mentoring Adithi and the puppeteers at Katkatha. This was backed by the French Institute in India.
The script of this play, according to Anurupa, is one of its most significant aspects. “Unlike our previous projects — where the puppets take precedence, so much so that the narrative is sometimes changed a great deal to suit them — in The Nights, the text has been our guiding light from the word go. To be precise, there has been a better balance in this context. It’s also the first time we have had two writers collaborating on the script. The words have added essence to the play, instead of just supporting the puppets and the actors. The piece is mindfully put together at every stage, making the creation of the play a rewarding experience for everyone on the team,” she elaborates.
Speaking about the crafting of the scripted document for the play, Neel — who is also the Founder and Artistic Director of The Tadpole Repertory in Delhi — says, “Discussions about the making of The Nights had begun a year before the pandemic hit. Thus, much of 2020 was spent deliberating on the first drafts over Zoom meetings. We were writing, reading and discussing the stories, while also responding to the propositions made by the puppeteers. This collaboration helped us to adapt the scripted document to puppetry as an art form as well as narrate a popular classic with a contemporary voice.”
What differentiates puppet theatre from a play with real actors, according to Neel, is the economy of language. “In puppetry, one must economise on the dialogues, meaning you are constantly reflecting on the script and cutting down words. It’s essential to maintain the physical reality of the puppets on stage. Along with the dialogues and actions, you have to keep a tab on the silences of the puppets too. Being present at the rehearsal sessions of The Nights (because, I am also performing in the play and handling its sound design) has enabled me to keep making the necessary tweaks until we’re all convinced with the final product,” he elaborates.
Although modern playwriting has grown manifold in recent years, writing for puppet theatre remains a specialised craft, with playwrights still figuring out what works and what doesn’t. “Stories for puppetry are predominantly made of metaphors. The 1990s witnessed a surge of writers in this genre, with France being the forerunner. Later in India, we saw the likes of Anamika Mishra, who took interest in retelling the epics through the medium of puppetry. They did this by carefully juxtaposing elements of poetry, dialogues, scenography and visual effects, without losing the essence of the art form. We need more workshops and collaboration to inspire new writers, who can narrate compelling stories through puppets,” says Anurupa, adding, “At this point, experimentation is more important than worrying about the final outcome. The need has to be created among puppeteers and a curiosity among writers. This will help things emerge organically and in a more sustainable manner.”
After nearly 10 successful shows abroad, The Nights is all set for more shows on home turf. Describing his experience of working with Katkatha as enlightening and fulfilling, Neel says, “It’s been a great learning experience for me, in a positive way. Katkatha is a dedicated ensemble that has made my journey with them truly engaging. I am intrigued by the sensibility, ethos and politics of their work. Their projects are intricately tied to life and its moments. I have particularly enjoyed the challenges this project has thrown my way. The fogginess and ambiguity of things make me feel more alive. I prefer that rather than being complacent,” he sums up.
You can book your tickets for the shows at Ranga Shankara here.