by Rohan A. Rastogi
Twenty years ago SETU emerged as a theatrical troupe introducing Greater Boston to Indian drama. Since its 2003 founding it has staged 30 plays spanning reenactments of historical epics, sketches of love, and contemporary socio-economic realities such as casteism. Equally amazing as its breadth in shows is the fact it operates entirely as a non-profit. For two decades the organization has planned and hosted a wide-ranging suite of shows solely due to the talents and dedicated efforts of some 300 volunteers.
It is rightly fitting the troupe’s production of Andha Yug be a culmination of not only SETU’s excellence in live performance but also its leadership in promoting the visibility of Indian arts within the region.
Andha Yug, which translates to “Blind Era,” is an English adaptation of playwright Dharamvir Bharati’s 1953 signature script. It encompasses a philosophical discourse into the Mahabharat, the original oratorical masterpiece of India’s ithihaas. Harrowing, melancholic, and profound, Andha Yug offers a unique vantage point from which to view the filial fall-out occurring upon the fields of Kurukshetra.
The play’s setting is bleak. For 18 days two clans of kinsmen have waged brutal war against one another in the sake of honor, name, and pride. Only a handful of warriors have survived the colossal violence, and among them remains an open, unanswered question. Was a royal throne worth shattering the bonds of brotherhood? It is by this inquiry Bharati’s work diverges, somewhat controversially, from the canon. Andha Yug presents a novel interpretation of the battle of Kurushetra, one which frames the fight as foolishness, fruitlessness, and an utter insanity aided and abetted by the wiles and whims of Lord Krishna.
Stellar performances by Gitanjali Srivastava (Ashwathamma), Yogita Miharia (Yuyutsu), and Ketan Dave (playing Gandhari as the only male actor among an exclusively female cast) portray how the physical pains of war are often outweighed by its emotional agonies. With immense expressiveness the three illustrate the knotted implications of conflating the rights of raj and revenge hand-in-hand. Their stand-out stage presences invite the audience into what is perhaps Bharati’s core critique: is war ever genuinely justified by Dharma or is it but a failure and folly of man?
An impressive cast highlights the prominence of characters long considered secondary within the canon. The roles of blind regent Dhritarashtra (Meghna Karody), minister Vidura (Swapneel Batra), Yadav turncoat Kritvarma (Monisha Vaish), royal advisor Sanjay (Sugandha Gopal), and the mendacious mendicant (Chandrala Malkood) are presented with greater significance by their respective actresses. Royal guards (Jyothsna Luckshetty, Priyanka Banerjee), divine brothers Balraam and Bhagwaan Sri Kṛṣṇa (Mukta Manjal, Sirisha Viswanada), Pandav king Yudhistra (Shalini Sisodia) and other supporting roles contribute indelibly to the gravity and gloom of circumstances. Forceful gestures, somber faces, and admirable body intensities realize despondency, anguish, and wretched rage before the audience’s very own eyes.
And it is the eyes that matter, or so Andha Yug reinforces. The play begins in blindness and it ends in blindness. Its resounding theme appears to be the catastrophe and consequence that result from an incapacity to see people as they are, to foresee them as they will be. Kaurav rulers Dhitharastra (blind by birth) and Gandhari (blind by choice) rely upon Vidura’s sight and Sanjay’s clairvoyance to find their corporeal, psychological, and spiritual bearings throughout the play. Their blindness extends beyond the eyes; they cannot help but believe a beggar’s lies for false comfort and ephemeral assuagement. It is a blindness that consumes their court, their kingdom, and the fate of their world. Servants, soldiers, and even sages are affected, as if
blindness were an unchecked contagion, spreading heedlessly, wreaking havoc, obscuring judgment. Blindness, as well as its healthy obverse, is metaphor and motif.
Most aspects of Andha Yug are executed well. Colored stage lights paint war-torn, blood-stained brilliance upon the stage and targeted spotlights augment the spectral nature of post-mortem dialogues (all handled by Prateek Paul). The production also features a fantastic selection of costumes, carefully curated to suit the characters appropriately. Designer Jayanti Bandyopadhyay captures the elegance and majestic beauty of Lord Krishna with bright colors, modest jewelry, and his characteristic morpankh. Warriors wear golden breastplates and wield spartan weapons, while civilian characters are reserved to rustic vestments connoting simplicity of status. Ashwathamma is shrouded almost completely in black except for red undertones, a sartorial representation of his singular psychological state, and exhibits the mani of invincibility upon his forehead.
The vision and skill of director Subrata Das are clear and obvious. Featuring customary elements of Greek theater like a narrative chorus and interspersed dance sequences, his direction blends an Indian story with the style of Attic tragedy and English diction. References to broken chariot wheels and analogies of Astras to nuclear weapons subtly translate Andha Yug’s context for non-Indo audiences. From operating double casts to securing the Charles Mosesian mainstage, director Das’s stagecraft enables the troupe to showcase their best with minimal set management and auxiliary crew in a facility worthy of their ability.
But Andha Yug’s novel and creative edge is its election for reverse-gendered casting, ensuring access to roles conventionally regulated for one half of a troupe. Any skepticism in the appropriateness of female actresses for Andha Yug’s powerful, warlike dispositions is mitigated after the first scenes. The reversed-gender casting of Gandhari in particular enlightens a possible contention against the orthodox interpretation of the character. Canonically, Gandhari is construed to be an exemplary pious wife within the Indian ithihaas in light of her decision to blindfold herself forever upon her marriage to Dhitarasthra. Her choice is traditionally framed as one of virtue, prompted by empathy and proactive willingness to share in the sufferings, sorrows, and disabled stature of her husband. Her blindness is one of free will, personal volition, of agency, independence, and female autonomy.
Yet SETU’s staging of Andha Yug casts doubt and tenuousness into the canon. Is Gandhari’s supposedly pious choice truly the correct one? Does Gandhari’s pity and sincere desire to understand her partner’s condition actually serve her family? Or does her commitment to abide by customary spousal norms amplify and accelerate her husband’s ailment from being merely physical to one affecting internal balance? Is the self-imposed expectation of virtue Gandhari’s fatal flaw when it disempowers her from redressing her husband’s blind love, blind egoism, and blind judgment?
It is precisely these sorts of depths and layered dynamics which emerge from a show of Andha Yug. In a manner reminiscent of Oedipus, this theatrical tragedy evokes sentiment and provokes spectators to ponder. Was the destruction of the Kuru dynasty inevitable because it was preordained or was it preordained because it was indeed inevitable? No answer to these questions are definitively posited by the play, but a common truth held in both Western and Indian societies is illuminated: andhon mein, kaana raja – among the blind, the one-eyed is king.
With four weekend shows distributed evenly across matineés & nights plus offerings of free chai and samosas during intermissions, SETU’s production of Andha Yug is a uniquely memorable experience. The team’s labors to connect Western and Indian communities bear remarkable fruit for spectators to enjoy and appreciate. The whole SETU organization should be proud of having successfully built the bridge of live performance it has strived to do throughout the past 20 years.
Andha Yug is SETU’s most recent production, staged at the Dorothy and Charles Center for the Arts during the September 29 – October 1 weekend. Further details about the play are listed upon this web page.