Asian Music and Dance


Untouchable is a work of remarkable power. Written by Peter Oswald and directed by Kathryn Hunter, it debuted in RADA’s [R]Evolution In Theatre season. The play is unflinchingly political. It addresses the plight of Untouchables or Dalits, those whom Gandhi tactlessly degraded/uplifted to Harijan (‘Children of God’). Its hero is India’s civil rights champion Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956), visionary architect of India’s constitution. A Dalit who transcended.

Combining drama, music and dance, Untouchable began, fittingly, with a tanpura drone. Mrityunjoy, composer-musician Jataneel Banerjee’s nom de scène (sorry, it was RADA), added musical flourishes. The first, Vande Mataram (I praise/bow to thee, Mother, in which Durga Maa represents Mother India), became self-rule India’s national song in 1947. Subsequently, Untouchable had pre-recorded instrumentation while sound designer Candice Weaver wove in ‘atmos’ like water, for instance. The opening exchanges were contentious in good ways; yet, I believe, wholly appropriate in their condemnation of slavishly garlanding Ambedkar’s statues quasi-deity fashion. 

Untouchable wholly sidestepped the failings of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. As if aping Bollywood, Jabbar Patel’s feature film went on and on. Oswald told Ambedkar’s life tersely through a series of rapid-fire narrative vignettes or scenelets, many under three minutes long. Some manipulated temporal space as flashbacks, sometimes with a wink to the audience. As 1927 followed 1931, “It happens in stories” was the audience aside.

Historically accurate though the narrative was, the playwright drew on mythology and mood-lightening allusions. The Mahabharata has the ‘know-your-place’ tale of Eklavya, the top-notch archer. His guru eventually demands his right thumb in payment for imparting esoteric knowledge. Perhaps with a nod to tales of the French mutilating captured English or Welsh bowmen during the Hundred Years’ War, Oswald has the V-sign fingers of the Bowman (Nadia Nadarajah) cut off. Keeping the British flavour, with a nice touch of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’s Windsor Davies, at one point the sergeant (Julia Tarnoky) sprinkled panto dust, post-Oh, What a Lovely War! with end-of-pier banter in the style of ‘He’s behind you’ or ‘Oh, yes, he is/Oh, no he isn’t’.

Brace yourselves! Despite his portrayal in Richard Attenborough’s received-truth film, Gandhi wasn’t Ben Kingsley. His threatened starvation-unto-death blackmail ploy was bought with Dalit rights – out of fear of backlash and reprisals, in the event of his death, against Untouchables. Although Kali Chandrasegaram – the play’s Lord Buddha – was the choreographer and primary dancer, Untouchable’s most memorable dance sequence was the dance-off symbolising the struggle between Ambedkar (Adam Karim) and Gandhi (Gavi Singh Chera).

Every actor played multiple roles, if only in crowd ‘appearances’. Allow a personal indulgence. Deaf Theatre interests me greatly. Nadarajah’s ‘voice’ in British Sign Language added another dimension, like Shirley Childress Johnson signing freedom and resistance songs with Sweet Honey In The Rock in American Sign Language. Watching Nadarajah’s re-composed face for different characters was eye-opening. 

Mrityunjoy artfully slipped in a song from Kabir the Unifier, the Builder of Bridges, the Unpicker of Walls. This last song sang, ‘Bhram ka tala laga mahal re/Prem ki kunji laga…’ Rabindranath Tagore re-poeticised it: ‘The lock of error shuts the gate/Open it with the key of love…’ in One Hundred Poems of Kabir (1915). A dovetail.

Choosing Untouchable as the title is masterly. It is a word freighted with perniciousness and perdition. Dalitphobic caste discrimination carries the further blow of being religiously sanctioned. Let’s face it, few people of South Asian bloodlines don’t know their descent origins or what caste, if converts to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, their ancestors once were. Untouchable is a significant play. Plus Ambedkar should be spoken in the same breath as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Untouchable returns in 2018. Go.



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