Ever since the CLCE conference, Nina Sabnani’s words and images had permeated the Bookworm Library like friendly spirits, popping up from the shelves at odd moments. So when St. Thomas Boys Primary School said they wanted us to contribute to their “Independence Day” program with something, Nina’s book ‘Mukund and Riaz‘ seemed an obvious suggestion.
A text that Bookworm frequently uses in classrooms, and a story that is profoundly personal – ‘Mukand and Riaz’ deals with the dark shadow of India’s Independence – Partition. While this was all very well on a theoretical level, actually making it into a play with students was a whole other ball game. But still.
“Why don’t we adapt it into a play with the students?!” I chirped at the meeting (note that at that time, by “we” I meant “you”).
‘How will you do that?’ they asked me right back.
‘It’s very doable! Don’t worry! We’ll figure it out.’ I continued, in this vein, to babble a whole bunch of confident things. Bluffing seemed like a good idea at the time.
Recall that I had minimal working experience with children. Recall that Aldona is pretty far away from the Library. Recall we had one month- which meant four official library classes- to create a ten minute long play. So we all agreed that Class 4 – a class legendary for their mischievousness- would be the lucky souls we’d recruit for this.
Flavia introduced the story to the class through a read-aloud. ‘Mukand and Riaz’ was well-received, except for a slight blankness regarding the context of the story. She then nudged me forward with a “this teacher will now tell you about the Independence Day Program.”
I looked at a sea of unfamiliar faces. Class 4 regarded me with something like amusement, something like irony.
“Hello, Class 4. I hope you all like the story of ‘Mukand and Riaz’?”
‘You all are going to put it up as a program for the senior boys!’
‘A play! We are going to do a play on this story.’ As if on some cue, they all erupted into cheers and laughter, and then an ominous silence.
‘Are you ready?!’
We went outside, and played some theatre games. Or rather, they played some things and went wild while I died a thousand deaths inside.
So, how does one divide a class of thirty-eight students? I’d decided, early on, to introduce the idea that production crew and actors are two parts of a whole- equally important to the success of the play and the story. They took to the idea with remarkable ease. It went like this:
“Those who want to act onstage, and those who don’t- please form two lines.”
“Those who want to act, form two lines of those who want dialogues and those who don’t.”
“Those who don’t want dialogues, how many would like to play cricket?”
“How may want to be soldiers?”
Those who remain, do you agree to be the “Core Team”? Doing multiple scenes, and playing many characters?
“In the production crew, who are interested in helping with Sound?”
“How many will help with the Cricket scene?”
How many will help with the Soldiers?”
“The rest of you – will you be our Core team? The play will rest on your shoulders.”
“Those with dialogues- would you agree to be Old Mukand, Mukand, Riaz, the Old Bone-Setter, the Falooda-wala?
They were then told to go into groups, scene-wise, and become familiar with each other- actors and production crew. That they would be working in close proximity as a team hereafter. Over the course of the play, these groups would shift and morph a little, changing as the script modified itself and the characters themselves emerged. But the students remained faithful to the framework, and the spirit of the thing. Production Team and Actors worked together with mutual respect, and an absence of hierarchies.
As if by magic, an old exercise cycle that had been discarded outside the Class 4 room, became a pivotal prop. It would become the pride of place whenever it came onstage, even having a personal guard of three boys responsible for it. The play revolves like two bicycle wheels around it. In the pre-partition carefree first half, it is symbolic of Mukand and Riaz’s childhood and their intimacy. In the panic-stricken post-partition half, the cycle becomes the mast of the immigrants’ ship, from which Mukand flings his favourite cap to his best friend as a final gift. It was incredible to see how that old gym equipment, hitherto a fossil of a fitter past, suddenly attained a gilded quality. Keeping actors and production off the cycle during rehearsals may have constituted one of the major disciplinary issues we faced.
Early on in the conceptualization of the play, we had decided to keep dialogues minimal- and focus more on choreography and soundscaping by the students. A series of special clapping, sounds effects and percussion from backstage made up much of the atmosphere of the play.
The Getaway vehicle, driven by Riaz to carry Mukand and his whole family to safety, was created using two benches facing the audience, exceptional sound design by Saiesh, and the actors swaying in unison, as if to curves in the imaginary road.
The Ship- SNN Shirala, according to the book- was created by the core team forming an outward-facing semi-circle around the exercise cycle, and a broad ribbon which became the railing. As the ship blows a horn to announce its departure, all those “on board” start waving wildly at the shore.
Rehearsals started the next week, and we worked group-wise and scene-wise, so as to avoid chaos.
Let me just interject that there was still plenty of chaos. It was as if the energy of multiple small suns had been liquefied and consumed by STBPS boys only to shine forth unfettered as soon as they were let out of the classroom.
But we began work, nonetheless. Here I cannot stress enough the amount of support we received from the teachers of STBPS. They sacrificed their own classes and practice sessions to us on numerous occasions, and often, were solely responsible for the children paying attention to our proceedings, especially in the earlier sessions. Their presence tended to be… calming, to say the least. Working alongside me, Flavia took on the responsibility of holding the production crew together backstage. She also took on multiple sleepless nights, and coordinating all the logistics with the school authorities.
We started with the cricket sequence, and scenes to establish the friendship between Mukand and Riaz. Old Mukand – the narrator of the play, who speaks exclusively in flashbacks- was also brought into the mix. Played by a boy called Antonio, Old Mukand completely internalised all the scenes’ movements and action- rising to the challenge of being the only character with dialogues exceeding ten syllables in the whole play.
His iconic first line will remain with me always. “When I was young, I had a cap. It remembered me how happy I was.”
Samuel and Cruz- the duo that played young Mukand and Riaz – developed a fine working chemistry through the rehearsal. It was through their dynamic that much of the play’s internal motivation came alive, and began to make sense to me.
The first few rehearsals proceeded without a hitch. The only cause for anxiety was that three large groups had not yet had their scenes “blocked” (that is, their movements onstage decided).
The actors who play Mukand and Riaz’s friends in the Cricket scene got the most practice. But they also conveyed all the wild playfulness of children unaffected by the political scenario of their times. The old Bone Setter managed to control his trickster instinct while onstage- becoming for those moments every part of a wise, indulgent and skilled old man.
The English soldiers, one of the groups with minimal practice, still came together by the end of it. They managed somehow, to convey both, menace and helplessness. Their well-coordinated marching was one of Flavia’s greatest burdens, and one of her snappiest achievements. Mukand’s family- consisting of the twins playing husband and wife, and Lynn as the younger brother. Welroy was recast, last-minute, from the Falooda Wala to Riaz’s father. The gentle protectiveness he brought to the character in those brief moments was delightful to behold.
The second stage of rehearsing, where we practiced three days in a row- saw us finish all the scenes and start run-throughs of the whole play. We even managed to practice onstage at the auditorium- and figure out exits and entries.
The core team deserves special mention as they shifted from one wing to another- creating a group of youthful passers-by, a background score of excitement, glee, and sorrow, the soundscape of a violent riot, then played refugees fleeing, and simulated a ship about to leave the harbour. Saiesh, one of the production crew responsible for sound, deserves another special mention. His depiction of cricket bats and car doors slamming won great appreciation from the audience.
With a week left to go, and essentially two more rehearsals, excitement was building- as was our collective confidence. Another great aspect was seeing the ease with which Class 4 picked up stage jargon, and the slightly manic quality that overwhelms most theatre productions. The most common statement at rehearsals-
“Teacher, should we take it from the top?”
In the meanwhile, costumes came together effortlessly (on our end), while Niju become responsible for backstage, sound and microphone management.
Then things hit a jarring note the Thursday before Independence Day. Admittedly, we had not met for practice for three days prior. But they seemed to have forgotten everything. The rehearsal consisted of two grim speeches made by Flavia and I, and much shuffling and whispering. I returned to Bookworm ready to shed tears of blood but instead we decided on having one final final rehearsal.
Friday- we had three run-throughs, the last of which was in full costume. The gravity of the matter suddenly seemed to sink in and now, as if by magic- Class 4 was working as smooth as silk. We also ironed out some last-minute stage directives, including the bow at the end. The day rested with us exhausted, and certain that the matter was now out of our hands.
The Final Performance
Needless to say, they pulled it off. With serious style. Scenes transitioned with ease, the sound design was intricately managed, and the character actors owned the stage in their individual moments. The audience was an appreciative one.
The feedback on the play, from the teachers, the principal, other Bookworm folk, was overwhelmingly positive. I could go on and on and on, but that part is done now.
We spent the rest of the morning of our Independence Day fervently discussing all that had just unfolded in ten minutes flat, and decided that overall, the students had shone, had taken on full responsibility, had become the story.
I realized that – I quote – “the story of Mukand and Riaz is a story about two friends, two countries, and two caps…” And a Class 4 of St. Thomas Boys’ Primary School that, sixty eight years down the line, brought it to startling life.