Syed Shahnawaz Ali scans the audience from the stage during a few moments of quiet while the background score rises in pitch. The words follow the pause calmly, almost soothingly: “I would not be around when you read this letter… I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.”
Ali’s Rohith stops and waits for a response from the audience. Nobody moves. Finally, two actors standing behind him break into a fiery rendition of Sangh Ghosh’s poem Mrityu (Death).
The Last Letter, conceptualised and directed by Riyaz Usman, had its first staging at Hyderabad’s Lamakaan, an open culture centre, on Thursday night. The play is based on the life and death of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar who killed himself in January after the University of Hyderabad expelled him for an altercation with a rival student group. A suicide note found later articulated his deep anguish at the prejudice he had faced as a Dalit.
That torment was mirrored in the setting of The Last Letter – Ali took centre stage and Vishal Mittal and Utkarsh Dixit play two shadows who voice and counter Rohith's inner divide, chaos, pain and anger. Before the final exit, the fateful decision is taken and the last words from the letter spoken.
Usman says the play was born of the rage and shame following Vemula’s suicide. A bright young mind who had wanted to reach for the stars was left broken by society.
The director saw a reading of Vemula’s suicide note by actor Zeeshan Ayyub, and felt the need to do more, to give it a dramatic extra. So he conceptualised The Last Letter, adding two additional characters who are shadows of Vemula’s soul and read a range of poems.
“I have an obvious left-liberal political slant,” said Usman. “I hail from a highly conscious and emotionally interested political active family from Kerala, with its members split across the idea spectrum, and a deep background of constant questioning, discussion and debate.”
Usman founded Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an amateur theatre group, in Hyderabad in 2013. Three years on, the group has over 20 members, all of whom hold corporate jobs, including Usman, who is a corporate trainer with Infosys. So far they have produced six plays and staged over 25 performances, including Gagan Damama Bajio (a Sikh war cry) on the life of Bhagat Singh.
“I believe artists have political and social responsibilities,” said Usman. “And for a mature artist, the difference between propaganda or canvasing for his worldview and art is merely of intensity and performance quality. Since we end the play hoping people in the audience would stand up to debate the issue, my political views are merely initiating a dialogue, not being claimed infallible.”
The devices in The Last Letter are typical of street plays – there are no frills, no special costumes, no backdrops, or even makeup. There is just a desire to use the theatrical setting to initiate a dialogue.
On stage, Syed Shahnawaz Ali’s Rohith tells the squirming audience: “Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.”
Satish Guntamukalla, a member of the audience, later says that the performances in the play were of “high quality but also very emotional and personal. We felt it”.
Art, Usman says, can heal. “The greatest and only solution I can think of for the Indian varsities where students and the government are at war is art. Theatre can easily become a social dialogue. Maybe we can heal, campus after campus, with play after play.”