Tales of 1947
Tales of 1947
Directed by Marta Schmidt
Performing again at SOAS on the 2nd of June
Reviewed by Aaminah Patel and Seetal Gahir
The partition of India in 1947 led to one of the largest and most painful migrations in human history. As the British Indian Empire collapsed, religious segregation dominated the Indian subcontinent, uprooting Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from their homes and scattering them across the country.
It is this historical backdrop that director, Marta Schmidt, has made the focus of her creative energy. Tales of 1947 is her artistic adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh. Manto’s political satire focuses on mental patients during 1947, waiting to be transferred to India. The protagonist, Bishan Singh, a Sikh inmate, longs to return to his village, regardless of what nation it falls under. Marta and music director Amrit Kaur Lohia have transformed Manto’s work, merging additional stories into the narrative and coupling scenes with poetry and music, yet ingeniously keeping Manto’s original message intact.
The play unfolds with stark black and white photographs of citizens migrating and we are instantly faced with the violence, trauma and reality of partition. Rhythms of the pakhawaj drum accompany the slideshow of pictures, transporting us into 1947. The same drum also starts up when Bishan Singh, played by Eice Muhammad Khatana, takes the stage, paralleling his dishevelment with the migrating citizens. Eice’s dysfunctional gestures faithfully depict Bishan Singh’s disturbed mentality. It is interesting that in a country that grows increasingly chaotic, Bishan Singh, the most deranged of all the inmates, ironically speaks the most sense in his final monologue – written by Eice himself. ‘I literally wrote the final speech the day before the first performance’ he says. ‘I think it sums up the human essence of the whole play.’ Beautifully performed, Eice’s poignant monologue pinpoints the message of Tales of 1947: ‘If you wish to understand partition, ask the mother who has lost her sons to this senseless violence.’
It is exactly this human side of partition that is the essence of the play. One of the most emotional moments is the depiction of ‘honour killings’. In an attempt to protect their honour, women were convinced that death at the hands of family men was more honourable than being taken by the enemy. Scenes of slaughter are sensitively represented through shadow theatre. Silhouettes of ethereal women draped in white are hauntingly projected from behind a screen, kneeling down as the high raise of a sword slices their necks. Sounds of the blade were heard intermittently throughout Sada Chirrian Da Chamba, a traditional Punjabi song sung at weddings. The lyrics create a parallel between brides departing from their maternal homes and women leaving the world, embracing their deaths. The voices of Hernoor and Sukhman Grewal along with sensitive instrumental accompaniment intensified the emotions of this powerful scene. ‘We had to find a way to bring in the women’s narratives’ says Amrit, ‘and so we’ve added so many more layers to Toba Tek Singh – the play is more than just Manto’s narrative.’ It is the music that harmoniously binds these layers together, keeping them cohesive with the human message.
Another creative addition, and one of our favorite moments of the play, was the characterization of the lawyer Javed. His estrangement from his lover, Husna, who now belongs to Pakistan is poetically explored through music and dance. The melodious voice of Piyush Mishra heightens the heartfelt lyrics that reflect the separation between the two lovers. The blend of classical dance and expressive hand gestures bring the fantasy to life, depicting Husna appearing and inevitably fading back into memory.
Although Tales of 1947 includes many narratives, Marta says that she ‘didn’t want to make too many innovations. I wanted to remain faithful to Manto’. The element of political satire is retained through scenes of confrontation with political leaders, Nehru and Jinnah. When Bishan Singh desperately asks them ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh? Where is my home?’ both politicians disregard his frantic pleas, paralleling the lack of understanding between leaders and citizens.
Although satire is a thread that runs throughout Tales of 1947, the expression of the human experience is at the heart of the play. Marta herself has remarked that ‘partition is not just a history of South Asia, but the history of humanity’ and it is from Tales of 1947 that we see how national trauma and political decisions affect people. Tales of 1947 is not just a play in which we are merely an audience, but an emotional and heartrending experience which we become part of.
The performance has had an overwhelming response. Both days were sold out in March, so it’s no surprise that Martha and Amrit are staging Tales of 1947 again on the 2nd of June. ‘Everyone from my team is excited about doing it again’, says Marta. In addition to performing Tales of 1947 back at SOAS, interest has been expressed in staging in the play in Peterborough, Leeds and the Midlands.
We look forward to experiencing Tales of 1947 again early next month, and are excited about the prospect of it reaching audiences across the nation.
Buy your tickets online now at www.thetalesof1947.eventbrite.com and follow Tales of 1947 on Facebook to keep up to date with future plans.