Storm Still: A performance standing for both hits and misses

Posted by Kaahon Desk On April 3, 2017

There can be no denying that Storm Still, in its printed form, is a difficult text. The foremost challenge it poses to its readers is one of generic identification. Peter Handke, the controversial Austrian writer, has quite deliberately blurred the formal borders that distinguish drama from poetry from prose fiction from memoir. The text, set against the backdrop of World War II, was written after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia into several nations – both events, erasing and re-drawing borders of nations at tremendous human cost, must have played some role in Handke’s unease and dissatisfaction with borders. This sense of challenging borders, questioning them, spills over into the performance of Storm Still (adapted and performed by Tanaji Dasgupta and Varun Kishore) that I watched on 25th March evening at Victoria Memorial. The performance on that evening was advertised as bringing together Music and Theatre; the subsequent performances that took place at Padatik Little Theatre were advertised as combining Literature, Music and Theatre.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

The performance at Victoria Memorial lasted for 1 hour 50 minutes and had just two men on stage, Tanaji Dasgupta, the performer, and Varun Kishore, the musician/music designer. Though light was an important element of the production design, sadly, we were not given any information about who designed and worked the lights. Another omission was not mentioning that the production was based on Martin Chalmers’ English translation of Handke’s German original.

The performance that unfolded was to me one that was characterized by hits and misses. The prime item in the hit column has to be the performances of Tanaji and Varun. It is no mean task to present an intensely demanding performance for close to two hours without any break (and with only one intelligently implanted throat moistening opportunity for Tanaji). The text allows for multiple production approaches – it is possible to have a number of actors playing the various characters who populate the text; there can be many musicians too. But Tanaji and Varun decided, with courage characteristic of the young, to do it alone together. Thus Tanaji was not only the narrator but all the ‘forbears’ who appeared in his dream/imagined reminiscence. The challenge at the level of ‘acting’ was to convey the various characters – the mother, the grandparents, the other members of the narrator’s family – through nothing but subtle modulations of voice, differentiation of speech patterns and marking out the linguistic registers of individual figures. Varun, on his part, had to be extremely versatile in playing the guitar, the drums, the percussion instruments and the computerized pieces. To my mind, both Tanaji and Varun overcame (and more) the steep challenge they had set for themselves. Tanaji conveyed with feeling (without ever over-emoting) the pain and anguish, the loss of and longing for cultural, ethnic and personal identities of a familial group caught up in the storm-surge of a ravaging war. Varun found and projected in the music he played (consciously non-melodious, deliberately grungy and harsh at times) a sonic interpretation of the human emotions as well as the great rumbling motion of historical time.

However, the great miss to me was that Tanaji and Varun did not consider the possibility of thematically contextualizing their performance. As far as finding a local equivalence in terms of form, one had to think of, say, Shaonli Mitra’s Nathabati Anathbat or Gautam Halder’s Meghnadbadh Kabyoor the Pandavani performances of Teejan Bai. However, a text that spatially locates itself in “A heath, a steppe, or steppe-like heath, or whatever” and temporally in “Now, in the Middle Ages, whenever” is indeedscreaming out loud to be adapted, in terms of content, with a unique sense of freedom that most texts will not permit. Our land has had its share of traumatic historical events that had devastating effects on the lives of peoples, families and groups.And the immediate environmental context of the performance was the Victoria Memorial, its thousands of tons of sculpted marble evoking India’s (Bengal’s)colonial past. Not trying to find some means of connecting to local history when such an opportunity had been served on the twin platters of text and context is, to my mind, a miss not easily rectified.

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It was not ironical (as the gentleman from Max Mueller Bhavan pointed out while thanking the performers at the close of the event) that Warren Hastings had his back turned on the performance, but indeed fitting,because the performance of Storm Still presented by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts had quite definitely turned its back on our historical and cultural past.

Dipankar Sen

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