“We’re playing Kabaddi, not politics.” “It’s not a game.” “What if that’s all it is?”
Games, politics and personal and national identity are inseparably intertwined in Satinder Chohan’s new play Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi. The play, co-produced by Kali Theatre and Pursued by a Bear Productions, examines two time periods, two countries and six characters through the conceit of the popular Indian sport Kabaddi.
The first half of the action is set in London 2012, where the basic set of a construction of scaffolding serves as the playing-field for Shera’s dominating presence as he harbours illegal immigrants Eshwar and Azadeh. They are all connected through a history of Kabaddi-playing: Shera’s great ambition is to win Olympic gold as his ancestors did; Eshwar, reluctant to join Shera in Club UK taps into his muscle memory, trying once more to ‘breathe Kabaddi deep’; and Azadeh struggles with both her flair for the sport and flinching fear of male violence.
Chohan captures cleverly the ironies and complexities of British Asian identity with wit and depth. In a scene where the trio have broken into the Olympic Stadium past the lax security post-Games, Shera soaks up imaginary roars of the crowd. With great dignity and pride, he steps up onto the victory podium (a bag of chapatti flour) and receives his gold medal and garland of flowers (a pot of coriander), singing the British national anthem in his Desi-London accent. Shera relishes the power of his status as British, derogatively admonishing the ‘freshies’, fresh off the boat, taking advantage of their dependence on his opportunities luring them into battles of will and Kabaddi.
The second act travels back through the generations to Punjab, India in 1936. With an angular shift of the scaffolding construction and its decking in coloured cotton bunting, the set becomes a shanty deck in Punjab glowing in an orange wash of light. Here Pavan and Fauji practise their sport in the Akhara, hoping to be picked for the team going to demonstrate Kabaddi at the Berlin Olympics. Azadeh returns from her political imprisonment but prepares once more to fight for her freedom, and it is to her utter shame that she discovers Fauji wearing shorts made in Manchester and joining the British ranks.
Helena Bell’s direction excels in its simplicity and showcases the actors’ abilities through their focused interpersonal relations. Shalini Peiris gives two strong and defined portrayals as Azadeh across the generations. She begins as a ruffled-haired, bare-footed immigrant girl and transforms into a confident, shining-eyed independent woman. Asif Khan, expertly playing Eshwar and Fauji, is solemnly understated in his battle through hardship and turmoil. Pushpinder Chani revels in thrusting his hand through his Bollywood locks as both Shera and Pavan, although his boundless energy and overt confidence could be reined in to give a more nuanced performance.
The production doesn’t quite deliver what the writing promises: if one closes one’s eyes and listens to the low rumblings of the characters’ breath, ‘Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi’, the well-designed music by Arun Ghosh, the stamping of feet and slapping of bodies, then the images of the red dust rising in the Akhara that the mind conjures are much more rich than those painted by the bodies on stage. There is a battle between the naturalistic and the symbolic and although Jasmine Simhalan’s choreography captures the rough and tumble of tactics, a stronger commitment to the realistic or symbolic would result in a more firmly-rooted depiction of the beautiful and brutal sport.
This year, the South Asian contribution to the arts in Britain has been celebrated on a global scale in relation to the Olympics and Cultural Olympiad. Chohan continues this work with her deft dramatisation of the connections between Olympic sport and British and Indian socio-political histories infused with personal plights. Topically relevant, it tackles issues of present-day Asian diasporic experience as well as finding a deep connection to the past through spiritual and ancestral roots. As part of Kali Theatre’s 21st birthday celebrations this production will run for a week in London at the Arcola Theatre. I urge viewers to support this important and groundbreaking work to ensure that such beautifully told stories reach a wider public domain and excite the British consciousness.