Birds: Rajiv Krishnan’s new play is a social satire about resilience amid stifled human rights
After premiering at Adishakti Theatre on March 18, ‘Birds’ — by Perch — will be staged at Ranga Shankara on March 21, 22 and 23
By Reema Gowalla
What started off as a workshop in Pondicherry with 17 actors in October 2022 has now taken the shape of a full-fledged stage production. Perch theatre group — which is known for plays like Mondays Are Best For Flying Out Of Windows and Under The Mangosteen Tree, among others — is all set to open their new piece, Birds. Written by Vinod Ravindran and directed by Rajiv Krishnan, the social satire is premiering at Adishakti Theatre on March 18, following which it will be staged at Ranga Shankara (in Bengaluru) and Medai — The Stage (in Chennai), before returning to Indianostrum Théâtre (in Pondicherry).
Birds is a mélange of song, image, movement and storytelling that promises to take the audience on a fascinating journey. The narrative is lighthearted and with plenty of comic elements. However, with a story about power, human greed and resistance at its core, the piece is also a parable and a reflection for our times. The play will be performed in English and other languages.
There are basically two stories. The first one is about Mayil, her father and their neighbours, who are on the brink of getting evicted from their homes, as a new metro line is going to be constructed in that area. The narrative suddenly changes direction and slips into a fantasy world, inhabited by humans and birds. This parallel story is inspired by ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ play by The Birds, which was first performed way back in 414 BC. The original piece was a comedy that centred on a couple of people, who were fed up with life in Athens amid ongoing wars and legal proceedings. So, they sought help from birds to show them a better place to live. At some point, the themes in these two stories begin to intersect, leading to a surprising finale. Peppered with elements of fantasy and reality, the purpose of Birds is to keep the narrative engaging and entertaining, as it draws your attention to a relevant topic and in tandem with the contemporary world.
The play features actors Siddhanth Sundar, Harshini Boyalla, Radhika Prasiddha, Dharanidharan, David Salamon, Ajithlal Sivalal and Parshathy Nath. Joseph Bernard is incharge of the sets for the play, while Vijay Ravikumar takes care of the props and puppets. The costumes are by Kaveri Lalchand and Bharavi has done the lighting and production. Fawas Ameer Hamsa has curated movement and Anjana Raghavan has composed music for the play.
Describing Birds as both a parody and a satire, Rajiv said, “In the past, the play has been performed almost always as a comedy, although people frown at it being used as a kind of social satire about one man’s rise to power. Birds are representatives of humans as well. It’s a metaphor, but I thought that might be an interesting track to follow. We all know about dictators — how they come to power; how they sway people with these promises; eventually assert full control; and then those very promises become the ways of controlling people. However, we had to find a way to root it in something real. Just talking about that in a fantasy thing would probably have been interesting. But there has to be something real, which sort of parallels this story of the birds. So, we have a real story of a village, where a metro line is coming up very soon and the people are protesting. But there’s one person who’s kind of siding with the authorities and saying, ‘why do you fear progress and development?’. He insists that this metro line is going to bring great things to them. There are several characters in the play, but central to it is a young girl (Mayil) — who has a special affinity with birds — and her father, who sells bird encyclopaedias for a living. It’s a story about stifling people’s rights, and how they fight it with resilience and courage.”
The team has been practising at Adishakti for the past few weeks, where the actors are further exploring their characters and finding new ways of telling the stories. This they plan to continue doing through the maiden tour of the play that includes 10 shows.
“It’s a very collaborative process, where everybody has to explore what the stories mean to them and come up with suggestions; things that we can explore on the floor. It’s interesting how we have tried to stretch this short time period to allow for that kind of free exploration, keeping things non-judgmental and democratic, and of course, without losing our cool. Generally, when you put a lot of pressure, you tend to lose it and become very anxious. For me, it’s been quite a lesson, actually. Normally, we work for at least three weeks for a shorter play. Sometimes, that goes up to six weeks. Birds is not a hugely complex story, but within that we have to find what is interesting; find a certain connection; and an interesting way to tell the parallels within the narrative. Not sure how far we have succeeded in doing that. Only the shows will reveal,” the director elaborates.
Adding to that, Radhika, who plays Mayil, said, “The process has been very interesting, because we started with reading a play that was made ages ago. It was about figuring out what it means for us today. If we were to tell a story with this right now, how would it be? We did a lot of improvisation. And because it’s about birds, we tried to do character improvs as well. We have also been part of the writing process. The story has been evolving. It comes from a lot of personal spaces. It also comes from a political space. So yeah, it’s almost like an amalgamation of everything that all the actors and all the creators have brought into the place.”
Giving a sneak peek into her character, the actor said, “Mayil’s one person who lives in this community. She is like a representation of all the questions that the community has about survival, freedom, the future and about how life is going. What gives direction to your life? Is it you or is it a larger organisation — a structure that is steering your life. The character represents these questions.”
Speaking about the presence of birds in the narrative, Radhika said, “It’s a fantasy realm of thoughts that we’ve explored through the play. We worked on the body, on movement and sounds. It was more about how we see birds; what they represent to us; and what are the different ways in which humans look at birds.”
So, was it difficult to intersperse themes of fantasy and reality in a play that is narrating a rather topical story? “No, I think you need to allow yourself to create space for it. I’m not saying that our play is one that only two-three people can understand. It’s a simple story. But the point is to allow people to kind of imagine and interpret it in their own way,” the director explained.
When asked if he sees any change in the way plays are created after the pandemic, Rajiv said, “We have worked on two-three plays in the recent past — one during the pandemic, one just after and another short exploration. And now, Birds. It’s nice to see that people want to get out and see theatre. But again, OTT has grown so much of late that many people don’t want to leave home. When it comes to the size of production, I don’t think we made large plays during the pandemic. But we tried taking short, smaller performances into people’s homes and other such informal spaces. In some ways, that also kind of made our plays simpler and less theatrical. Somewhere, we felt the need to tell stories more simply, which enables us to connect with the audience in a better way. We need to tell stories that matter, and at the same time are fun and engaging.”
After opening at Adishakti Theatre on March 18, the play will be staged at Ranga Shankara on March 21, 22 and 23; at Medai — The Stage on March 25, 26 and 27; and at Indianostrum Théâtre on March 31.
You can book your tickets for Birds here.