A Broadcast we choose not to hear: Saadat Hasan Manto’s tales of Partition
In a museum an old radio has suddenly sputtered to life, and it is narrating stories that even 70 years on, make us cringe about our relationship with history, especially the violence of the Partition. This is the nightmare that Saadat Hasan Manto, perhaps the Indian subcontinent’s greatest literary export, wrote about in 28, one-to-four line, short stories that the radio is now broadcasting. There is a degree of paranoia and horror attached to Broadcast, a performance piece that is an ensemble of three different elements, Fouzia Dastango’s narration, Stefan Kaye’s music and Ishaan Bharat’s improvised, and engineered-to-period design.
Bringing the three artists together and enabling this complex piece of performance and politics is Udayan Chakravarty, Director of Broadcast. “Fouzia and I met some time ago. And she told me about these really short stories that Manto had written that had so much force, that I wanted to do something around it,” Udayan says. But why choose Manto alone, given the fact that a number of authors have written around the Partition. Fouzia, a Dastangoi artist, says it is because Manto denudes ones conscience.
“There is no sympathy in Manto’s writing. It is like being slapped repeatedly with a wet hand. And he is unique because he is not only a mirror to the partition but to the violent climate we have since kept,” she says. Fouzia in invoking the continuation of violence in the years that have followed the partition touches on something that is personal for her. “During the 87 riots I saw my uncle being shot through a hole in the door. In 92, during the demolition of the Babri Masjid, I witnessed similar things. In Manto’s writings I have always found a window to the world I have experienced up-close,” she adds.
Broadcast can be situated somewhere between the musical piece and theatre, between performance and experience. Fouzia gives voice to Manto’s stories, while Stefan, a British musician and founder of the jazz band Jass B’stards, performs his musical pieces besides her. But neither is restricted to complementing the other. They stand out on their own, as individual performance pieces, yet enhance, what the other is does.
In such a complex piece, where one of the two actors is sound, it becomes important how that sound is chosen.”We couldn’t simply choose instruments that did not fit the period. There have to be sounds that help people relate with the time, and also the brutal period back then. But I’ll confess it was difficult and only made sense when I read the translations,” Stefan says. He uses a variety of objects and instruments, 29 in total, to mime gunshot sounds, even thunder; objects like an earthern pot, a broken cymbal and a wooden spoon that he plays against a saw. It is all very organic, and real, as it would have been in that pre-digital age. All of it live.
That said, tuning a performance between words and music, both driven by tones, pitch and pace is no easy task. “I did not even know what jazz music was before this.. So I’ve had to learn as much about his role here, as I know about mine. There has to be synergy,” Fouzia says. There is a real risk that both Stefan’s improvised music, in which he changes instruments in front of the audience, can either overpower Fouzia’s chilling recitation or become completely supplementary to it. Neither of which is ideal.
“It is important for me to keep things moving. There has to be continuity even if we complete one piece and move on to the other. So it was the transition that took me the most time to figure. Picking the instrument, be it the sitar, the tabla , the dabuka or piano wasn’t as difficult as figuring when they would come in, how they would fade out, and what would replace them,” Stefan says. The importance of the correlation here is the fact that the music and the narration cannot, at any point disagree with each other. In horror there can’t be irony, in grief there can’t be indistinct sounds of life refusing to stand still and contemplate.
A crucial aspect of Broadcast which makes it both immersive and gives it its immediacy is the design. “My family shifted from Pakistan after the partition. I had so many things lying at home, that had a story, or a sort of symbolism attached to it. When Udayan wanted me to do the set, and create a museum, I had a clear idea of what I wanted people to feel, as if they were a part of it when they walk in. Some of the objects we have used, we did not even clean. The dirt signifies history,” Ishaan, who has designed the set, says.
At the centre of the whole performance, though, is the idea of a flawed radio. And therefore it makes sense, to close your eyes and listen, from time to time, rather than just watch Broadcast with open ears. “I think the radio was a direct connection. Here it is speaking of violence that has, in a way, never really stopped. So this is a broadcast that we choose not to hear anymore because we hear what we want to hear. In a way, I guess, the dead radio is where we have left our sense of guilt,” Udayan says.
When: 8.30 pm, July 15 and 16
Where: OddBird Theatre, SSN Marg, Chhattarpur
Nearest Metro Station: Qutub Minar