This review will consider a one-woman show, Bad Hindu, written and directed by Sunandha Raghunathan and staged at the Pentameters Theatre.
I was lucky to be able to attend a Q&A after this performance, giving me a slightly better insight into the development and production of this play. In this Q&A, it became apparent to me that Sunandha Raghunathan felt that her culture and background would not be so readily accepted in British theatre, which I did not agree with. Perhaps a result of this, I felt there was a sense of hesitancy in her conveyance of her culture. This performance felt to me as though a preface to Indian culture rather than an enticing adventure into it.
One of the main reasons for this was the amount of Indian culture the audience were allowed to see and its depth. The biggest limitation against this was the decision to repeat the overture of the performance again and again throughout, making for an extremely bipartite structure. Raghunathan stated that she had decided upon this repetition, which she called an “iteration”, in order to allow the audience to “drift off”, as though a well-needed and earned break from the main body of the performance that would permit them to refresh their focus and come back with a deeper concentration and readiness. For me, this had the opposite effect; rather than a permission to drift off, it was more a cue to switch off. If one believes one’s audience should need a moment out of the performance to refresh their enfeebled interest, the material is evidently not strong enough and not working. Good theatre is not something that an audience would want a break from. Challenging theatre, yes, but I sincerely negate that this was a challenging piece of theatre. There is nothing more powerful than a person’s imagination. If permitted to daydream, the audience member no longer has to seek an imagined space in the theatre. Whilst theatre should aid imagination, it should not aim to have the entire audience do it for themselves. This was, for me, this performance’s biggest downfall — and a huge downfall at that.
This iteration included a traditional Indian dance and a rendition of an Indian song, followed by an introduction of the performer, a set of cheeky, ironic, and derisive jokes and then an introduction to the next ‘chapter’ of Raghunathan’s adaptation of The Mahabharata. The repetitions of this were preceded each time by the interruptive voiceover of a grunting woman (also Raghunathan). Raghunathan retrieved a mirror from the floor and spoke to the voiceover which would say a phrase in Indian before claiming that Raghunathan is a bad feminist or artist or daughter etc., changing each time. Being in Indian, I can only use the English spoken and the visual of Raghunathan’s body language to interpret this as an implication of the cultural ideologies and pressures in India: what it is to be a woman, what it is to respect and honour one’s family, and so on. We see a relationship, then, between Raghunathan and her roots, her culture and her people. If this was not the desired result, however, I am not sure this would have been effective.
I felt other techniques and directorial decisions influenced by Indian culture to be rather hesitant and lacking. In the Q&A, Raghunathan explained the Tamil and cultural influences: her makeup, traditionally worn in Kattaikkuttu (a rural Tamil form of street theatre), traditional Indian dance and song, the iterations, and direct audience address. It felt, however, as though these techniques were simply chosen and excused because they were applicable to a Tamil stage. Were these elements true to Kattaikkuttu? Yes. Were they effective in producing an authentic Tamil theatre experience? Not really. Did they facilitate a profound theatrical experience? Definitely not.
Theatre should take us to another world and should never reflect our own unless under the guise of a certain thematic to highlight the errors of our ways and suchlike concepts. In improvisations during the iterations, Raghunathan spoke of chiefly British themes: for example, England and its continuous loss of the World Cup. Whilst Raghunathan demonstrated a high knowledge of Britain as well as other cultures, addressing audience members who were from other countries and commenting jokily on their nationalities, this constant focus on other cultures forced us away from a clear concentration on the Indian themes in the performance.
The recent development of direct storytelling in theatre has been quite popular in the past few years. For this performance, this technique was used poignantly and well. The writing, vocabulary and general style of the storytelling was fluid, articulate and engaging. However, this was not sufficient. It was difficult to gauge the aim and meaning of this performance. Was it simply to retell The Mahabharata, uncommon to know completely but not unheard of in Britain? If that is the case, why the breakaways and iterations (remembering that “To stop the audience from drifting off” is not a valid enough reason)? If my interpretation was correct and the aim was to show Raghunathan’s own identity in relation to her culture, is “You’re a bad daughter” enough for us to fully comprehend what the social pressures are and how they are different from any other country’s?
So, the reason I thought this performance was hesitant in its conveyance of cultural identity was due to its sheer lack of depth. It simply scraped the surface of Indian culture, providing us with a repetitive structure that could have been taken out of this performance and placed into any other and would still have made sense. The limitations stressed by this repetition meant that meaning was not easily obtained, neither was education.
This performance should have either gone full-throttle in its exploration of themes and culture, or it should have changed its focus completely. Traditions such as painting the stage with coloured rice flour should have been explorative and profound theatrical moments; instead, they seemed to have been utilised simply because they’re Indian, a basic nod to Indian culture.
In summary, I felt that a lot to the decisions in this performance were made haphazardly without true thought of reception and theatrical/dramatic effect, and those that were thought-out were very lacking. Raghunathan spoke in the Q&A of the sociopolitical pertinence of The Mahabharata in regards to transgenderism, to sexist ideologies, amongst others; this remained, in my eyes, a stimulus for the performance as opposed to its exploratory focus or message. One audience member stated that she failed to understand the relevance of the iterations, and I wholeheartedly agree. Other than producing humour for certain audience members, this frustrating monotony — taking up more than half of the play, I would say — did nothing for the performance whatsoever.
Sunandha Raghunathan seemed unconfident about her performance; in fact, she disparaged it slightly in her explanation of its international as well as national worth and entertainment value. I believed this showed.
“A play with an interesting substructure and room for much experimentation, yet a performance with such a tedious and wearisome structure.”