Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, a story about repressed physicality and how it finds expression, has been staged many times. When it was performed on December 13 at the Thespo Festival at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, though, it was not just the inherent evil in the plot that held the attention of the audience but also the excellent production by a group called Tricycle.
Radhika Chopra, Rohit Mehra and Kartavya Anthwaal Sharma played multiple characters, deftly slipping in and out of each to create a world populated by nobility, commoners, hakims and maulvis.
The immensely controversial short story written in 1942 by Ismat Chughtai was not so much a story about sexual preferences as it was about sexual exploitation. A young Ismat, rebellious and aggressive, is packed off to an aunt’s haveli, where she is exposed to events of the strangest kind. Her aunt, Begum Jaan has married into nobility, and is a neglected wife – her rich husband has a weakness for young boys whom he ostensibly educates. Bursting with pent-up physical desires, the begum finds an outlet for her itching limbs in the arms of a masseuse. Their vigorous activities under a lihaaf (quilt) lend the story its innocuous name.
A bewildered Ismat is witness to these strange goings-on under the quilt, as she sleeps in the same room as her aunt. In the semi-darkness of the night, the swelling and moving lihaaf takes on such monstrous proportions that she imagines it to be an elephant.
“Since we were presenting a short story as a play it gave the three of us the liberty to be not just actors, but dancers, musicians, singers and more.” said Mehra, explaining how the trio approached Chughtai’s story. “Our theatrical language was inspired by the 1000-year-old Sanskrit theatre form Koodiyatam, in which one performer plays different characters. The performer has different mudras and physicality, for each of the different characters. There is also a musician who takes the lead from the actor, to provide rhythm to the piece. Since we were on a tight budget we hoped the performers’ skills would compensate for minimal sets and costumes.”
The play opened with a shadow play and a lullaby in the background, which gave way to the sound of beats on a tabla, building up to a frenzied crescendo. In the foreground, whirling figures danced faster and faster, creating an frenetic energy on-stage.
For Chughtai to have written this play in the 1940s was an amazing act of defiance against hypocritical social mores. Writing about sex was shocking enough, but exposing the sexual perversions that lay beneath the so-called respectability of the nobility, was truly an act of courage. Young boys being lured under the garb of philanthropy, the masseuse playing sexual politics by taking advantage of the begum’s repressed desires, the begum, herself, trying to exploit a helpless Ismat – the grand haveli, which once fascinated Ismat, soon reveals itself to be suffused with evil.
The acting and direction were complemented by the brilliant lighting, designed by Adi Shastri, which behaved like the fourth actor in the play – dim during the explicit and terrifying scenes that young Ismat witnessed, focused sharply and suddenly, creating a surreal mood perfect for this story about the hidden passions, which reveal themselves only in the darkness.
Dressed in neutral bottle green pants and kurtas, the characters were distinguished by the headgear or cloaks that the actors wore while playing them – Mehra played both the nawab and the androgynous masseuse, Chopra the begum and the maid, and Sharma performed as the tomboy Ismat, as well as the nawab’s toy-boys. Through their complex body language and balletic grace, the actors elevated the play from mere spectacle to a moving, aesthetic experience.
In particular, the scenes in which the young Ismat fervently recites verses from the Quran while her aunt is entangled in the quilt, as well as the ones where her aunt tries to entice her into similar activities, by teaching her how to play cards or make a perfect paan, were depicted with tremendous sensitivity, balancing the interplay of innocence, religion and sexual frustration perfectly.
One’s heart went out to Ismat, as she longed for escape even if it meant going back to her squabbling brothers and unsympathetic parents.