Theatre & The Witness Mode (Sakshi Bhava)

Theatre & The Witness Mode (Sakshi Bhava)

Paul Mathew

The international premiere of Girish Karnad’s “The Dreams of Tipu Sultan” was staged by the Madras Players several years ago in Chennai. Madras Players is India’s oldest active English Theatre group and this was a mega production. There were over 60 actors on stage and the roles of the British officers were played by expats from US and UK. The venue was the open-air theatre at YMCA, Nandanam, a huge circular space with half the circle constituting the stage and the other half, the audience space. This was a big-budget production with Sarika Kamalahasan doing the costumes.

Nandanam is not too far from the Chennai airport and sometimes planes fly overhead to land in the airport.

There were several shows and all were well received, with packed audiences and intense emotional feedback. There is a particularly emotional scene in the play where Tipu has been betrayed by his allies and the Britishers have surrounded Seringapatnam, threatening to destroy the city unless Tipu sent his 6 and 7-year old sons as hostages to the British. Tipu is desperate. Ruqaiyya Banu, his favourite wife is on her death bed. He refuses to send the children as hostages.

Realising that if the British destroyed Seringapatnam there would be little chance to regroup and reclaim what had been lost, the noblemen get together and request Ghulam Ali, and elderly uncle of Tipu to persuade him to send the children. After all, they reasoned, the children would be treated like royalty and no harm would come to them. Within a few months, they could come back to Mysore.

In a scene loaded with intense emotion, Ghulam Ali tries to convince the scared, crying children to agree to go as hostages. “I am coming with you,” he reassures them. “They will treat us like royalty and we will be fine. After a while we will come back home. Remember you are the sons of Tipu Sultan. Be brave and say you are ready to go.”

The children are terrified and resist vehemently. For them the British were monsters. The turning point in the scene comes when after an intensely emotional appeal by Ghulam Ali, the younger child played by a 6-year-old actor says, “I am ready to go”.

The scene went off particularly well in all the shows. One night, as Ghulam Ali was about to say his dialogue after which the child would state his agreement, a plane flies overhead to land in the airport. Now Ghulam Ali is played by a senior, experienced actor who realises he has to compensate for the sound of the plane and raise his own volume. He also realises that the child may not do this, and his line if unheard, would ruin the scene.

So, Ghulam Ali does something that was never done in the rehearsals. He seems to be overwhelmed by emotion himself, moves to a side, prays to Allah for strength, and after the plane has passed over comes and delivers his line. His line is heard. The child’s line is heard. The scene goes well.

For me this was a profound metaphor for Sakshi Bhava or the Witness Mode. The character was in deep emotion. The actor, while experiencing and portraying the emotion realistically and convincingly, was detached from the emotion. He was neutrally aware of the need of the scene, the need of the child’s line to be heard, the sound of the plane, and was able to response competently to the need of the moment with his total presence. Had he been caught up in the emotion of the character he would probably not even have noticed the plane, and the scene would have been lost.

One of the fundamental principles of theatre that I have personally experienced over 50 years of performing on stage is that unless the actor experiences the emotion, the audience will not experience it. When the actor experiences, the body instinctively aligns to the emotion and the right body language and facial expressions manifest themselves, transferring the emotion to the audience. At the same time, a certain part of the actor’s consciousness remains unaffected, watching the character perform and acutely aware of the audience energy, the fall of the light, the awareness of the set, the movement of the other actors. In that sense, the actor is an acutely aware witness of the character and the character’s environment, moment to moment.

The same detached neutrality, if applied to the roles that we play in our lives – brother, sister, son, daughter, spouse, parent, friend, colleague, boss, subordinate, and the roller coaster of emotions that we need to go through, maybe we could be more creative and effective in our responses to constantly changing stimuli.

Paul Mathew, Founder- Facilitator "Corporate Theatre" has over 47 years of theatre experience, having earlier worked in the Indian Army as Captain and Godrej as Regional Manager.