New Hindi play Kaala Yug questions how we respond to mental illness

Created by Delhi’s Mrit Pathshala theatre group, Akshay Raheja has written and directed the piece; premiering at Studio Safdar on October 16

The play draws inspiration from Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s poetry

By Reema Gowalla

Picture this: a little girl who lives with her mother in a dingy city neighbourhood is speaking with a Vedic demon, Brahmarakshas, that she thinks emerges from the big drain in front of her house. Michlis suffers from mental illness and her mother Rama is struggling to cope with the situation. These are the three central characters of Akshay Raheja’s new play ‘Kaala Yug premiering this weekend. Inspired by the verses of one of modern India’s most prominent poets, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, this piece investigates how society perceives or ‘institutionalises’ the state of delirium and how those who suffer from it are considered ‘useless’.

Giving a glimpse into the narrative, Akshay — who has written and directed the play — says, “This is the story of a day in the life of the mother and daughter. Michlis is ready to be admitted to a psychiatric ward but before that she takes Rama to meet the demon (also a wise saint who could question the gods). There are very clear references to the Atharva Veda in the play, indicating that the story is set somewhere in North India.”

Akshay Raheja

It all began in 2019 when Akshay began writing the play. “I was researching court jesters and how they play an integral part in performing arts. Around that time, I was also re-reading the Ramayana, which brought back memories of me watching Ramleela all night in the neighbourhood as a child. The character of Michlis is some version of the epic often used to intrigue me. I was also influenced by Michel Foucault’s book ‘Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’. One thing led to the other and I began delving deeper into historic texts to find out how these narratives perceived and portrayed the subject of madness as a disease,” he elaborated.

Produced by Delhi-based theatre group Mrit Pathshala, the actors in the play are Jyoti Rana, Sahejmeen Kaur, Nitika Goel, Rochan Mathur, Kunal and Shivam Khurana. Light design is by Vipul Gupta and Nishi Paliwal is handling documentation and production. The two-hour performance will also feature live music by a young Hindustani classical musician, Aarrav Thakkar. The score, which has classical connotations and ragas, is composed by Nalin Vinayak and Sahil Asthana.

According to Khyati Narang — who is in charge of stage and costume design — the subtle yet clear explorations about the state of madness and how human civilisation responds to it form the focal point of the play. “In terms of design, we have experimented with a number of elements. Apart from opening in an arena setting, ‘Kaala Yug’ uses materials such as ropes, charcoal, acrylic sheet, sand, black paint, polythene bags and water. The behaviour and interpretation of these materials change as we switch the context and move from one scene to the other,” she adds. In a way, audiences also play an integral part of the performance — be it as gods in temples, ghosts in a house or simply as members of the crowd.

‘Kaala Yug’ is scheduled to take place at Studio Safdar in New Delhi on October 16, 17, 22 and 23 (6.30 pm). You can book your tickets here.

Ropes are a pivotal part of the narrative

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