Originally a street play, Sheher-e-Naqab was put together by Pune-based group Swatantra Theatre.

The scene opens with a man wearing a mask reading news related to Coronavirus in a newspaper… His son walks in excitedly to show the college letter informing him of a scholarship from Barcelona University for a Master’s of Science. The father is not happy though, because of the corona pandemic across the world. When the son says this is a lifetime opportunity, the father quips, “We only live once.”

Swatantra Theatre’s new play Sheher-e-Naqab (City Under Mask), COVID-19 is a character with a voice. It comes silently, begins destruction and says, “I have had many friends, like swine flu, Ebola, Nipah, and Dengue. I have captured cities, countries and now the world. You cannot take me lightly. There can be consequences if precautions are not taken seriously.”

Directed by Abhijeet Choudhary, the play unravels the connection between Nature and mankind where “Mankind has destroyed Nature for many centuries”. It’s about our relationship to the planet, and the signs we dismissed where we could’ve curbed the disease before it caused thousands of deaths worldwide. We paid a big price for this ignorance,” says Abhijeet. The 17-minute play was originally planned as a street play but once travel restrictions were imposed, the group launched it digitally, bringing in elements of street and stage theatre.

Rehearsals for Sheher-e-Naqab. Directed by: Abhijeet Choudhary. Swatantra Theatre. Performed in March 2020. Photo courtesy of TheHindu.com

The play blends both mediums by using a black backdrop in most scenes while keeping the street feeling intact with minimum musical instruments. “My team — Dhanashree Heblikar (creative director), producer Yuwaraj Shah — and a team of actors have created a different style of approach to performing. The voice was toned down to create a street from on the stage easily. The actors clapping and snapping fingers became the set, voice, and music sung live with help of minimal instruments. Colorful dupattas have been used to create images. We had to create time and space through content and delivery.”

With eight actors wearing masks, the aim of Sheher is to bring multi-fold awareness. The play deals with the virus, past pandemic situations, people’s casual attitude, rumors and how even virtual marriages can be done so those huge gatherings can be avoided. The play also talks about the black marketing of fake sanitizers and selling masks at an unreasonable price. “Many rumors are being spread on WhatsApp. We want to bring awareness on how fake sanitizers have become a business and if sanitizers are not available, cleaning hands with a good soap and water is also enough.”

Co-founded by Dhanashree Heblikar, Yuwaraj Shah and Abhijeet, Swatantra Theatre was launched in 2006 and now has 55 members. In its 14-year journey, the group working mostly in Hindi has done a lot of thought-provoking and experimental theatre. “We work mostly on social issues. Some of the themes were on swine flu, trafficking, water conservation and saving endangered tigers.”


This article was originally posted at TheHindu.com on March 25th, 2020, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, click here

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This post was written by Neeraja Murthy.

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