“I doubt if any theatre company, anywhere will bring the disappointment and disillusion of 1947 so grittily to life.”
The Times, London, 1997
“The writing and characterisation throughout are shrewd, full-flavoured, full of delicate strokes, touchingly human.”
The Financial Times: August 15th 1997
Short stories about India: The Edinburgh Festival
The theatre in Scottish Television's Gateway building in Edinburgh has become a festival venue this year, beginning with Tamasha Theatre Company's production A Tainted Dawn.
Following the company's success with Ayub Khan-Din's East Is East, director Kristine Landon-Smith, co-writer Sudha Bhuchar and the company have fashioned what is less a celebration of Indian independence for its 50th anniversary than a meditation upon the human tragedies caused by the partition which followed it.
Drawing on a clutch of short stories by various writers as well as on company improvisations, Landon-Smith has assembled a dramatic mosaic.
Some scenes - the simmering communal prejudice in a crowded train compartment, the grim comedy of a couple of Parsee corpse-bearers facing a vulture shortage because the birds have abandoned the funeral grounds to pick over the victims of rioting - stand alone, others form episodic narratives.
With only eight actors, they nevertheless manage to convey at least a microcosm of the terrible scale of human displacement as even the supposedly enlightened middle classes came to abandon hope in the ideals of secularism.
The violence of "the troubles" is present almost entirely through suggestion; what we see are the effects in terms of sundered families, individuals migrating to Hindu-Sikh India or Moslem Pakistan, sometimes as an act of affirmation but more often out of compulsion or despair, pilgrimages made years afterwards to former homes only for those returning to find towns unrecognisable and houses reduced to rubble.
The most poignant of the plotlines is based upon Bhisham Sahni's Pali, in which a Hindu boy separated from his parents in flight is adopted by a Moslem couple; although prejudice and bigotry are outweighed by a concern for blood ties when the boy is tracked down after seven years, even this is not a happy ending, as the Hindu community in which his natural parents live refuse to accommodate his re-assimilation.
The diffuseness which is often a hallmark of devised work leads to no weakness here: it is plainly impossible to portray the experience in a single linear story. Members of the ensemble subsume themselves in the process of painting the fabric with a host of characters.
In the end we sense not only the privations of partition, but the determination of individuals to carve out lives for themselves; the taint of what has gone before may darken the dawn, but cannot wholly obscure it.
by Ian Shuttleworth
The Glasgow Herald: August 5th 1997
My father was born in the small Punjabi city of Ferozepur. He was 12 years old in 1947, the year of partition, the year of independence. Ferozepur lay on the cusp of old India and the Islamic homeland - the brave new world that was Pakistan. But for a last minute decision by Mountbatten, my father and his family would have found themselves displaced in the new territory, no longer Indians, no longer welcome. How our history shapes our future.
Half a century on from the riots, the deaths, and the fragmented communities, it is time to reflect on the events of that most troubled era of the sub-continent's past. And where better to showcase such a reminiscence than at Edinburgh in August, almost 50 years to the day of Indian independence.
A Tainted Dawn is a pull together of nine stories of partition which Tamasha Theatre are devising and developing for the stage. As you can imagine, creating a realistic feel of the time and capturing the tension of the enforced migration of so many people is no easy task. But there are no theatre companies more qualified than Tamasha, and no director with a more incisive understanding of theatre and drama than Kristine Landon-Smith.
Originally Tamasha had commissioned a stage play from a writer but for a number of reasons this didn't work out. Landon-Smith and her co-artistic director, Sudha Bhuchar (who will produce the show), decided to take the work on themselves. Drawing on a diverse range of well-established short stories and novellas, they combined many of the salient elements of the period, drawing on the divided loyalties of a secular nation heading towards a sectarian solution. From The Indian Lauren Bacall to We Have Arrived in Amritsar, A Tainted Dawn aspires to be the most incisive piece of partition theatre this year.
Tamasha have undertaken a gruelling, almost around-the-clock schedule to prepare for their east-coast opening. They have a mere five weeks to effectively collate and write the play, as well as direct, produce, and perform it. Landon-Smith and Bhuchar leave rehearsals to update and write in time for the next day's work. But then one must suffer for one's art.
Unlike formal, text-driven theatre, the only way to get a handle on this play is to attend rehearsals. So it was with more than a little irony that I entered St Andrew's Church, down Waterloo way. I happened upon the cast, sitting in the hallway, smoking roll-ups, deep in conversation about their work. So many familiar faces, all of them Asian. This was going to be a strange experience.
In the main hall Landon-Smith and Bhuchar were working out the lighting plan. "What follows the looting is fire." I could tell this was going to be a realistic production. It seems that so much of the energy of this production is driven by the timescale. Three weeks to workshop 50 years of history requires a concentrated mind, neat handwriting, and a photocopier. Scenes are fed to the actors as and when they are written and ready. As Landon-Smith said at one point: "I'll give you the second half of the Train script once they've stapled up."In devised theatre, the ownership of a stapler is paramount.
The morning I spent with the cast was at the end of the first week of rehearsals. Landon-Smith's directing style is one that encourages discussion and debate and she spent much of her time listening as well as talking. When she does speak it is with the subtlest of Hindi lilts. Her mother is Indian, her father Australian. She even gives notes in two languages Hindi and English.
One such discussion centred around the company's treatment of the Bhisham Sahni story, We Have Arrived in Amritsar. This is pre-partition India. The story takes place on a train as a group of various travellers journey from Lahore (now in Pakistan) to Amritsar, scene of many of the most brutal remembrances of the period. A Sikh man, an elderly woman, two Muslim traders and a devout Hindu, trapped within the packed compartment of the train are an analogy for the future division of Indian. The journey itself is a metaphor for India's future, moving from traveller's conversations and ending in brutal violence as the train enters riot-torn Amritsar.
While any production about partition must deal with the wanton destruction and anarchy that ensued as a result of the creation of Pakistan, A Tainted Dawn hopes to create a genuine feeling for the time. From what I saw, these are real people living real lives; these are people for whom independence and partition had complex personal and political issues. Landon-Smith, whose last production was the highly acclaimed East is East, about a sixties mixed race family growing up in Salford, is much more at home with this type of visual, political theatre.
"This is very me. A Tainted Dawn has a lot of power, both visually and emotionally and the challenge is much greater. I want to create symbols of partition. I have to conjure up the feeling of hordes of people with just eight actors. And I could do with more time."
And that must be the greatest irony of all. In 1947 India had no time. Partition was almost rushed through and the consequences are well documented. Here Landon-Smith finds herself similarly driven by time. Edinburgh and the Festival are less than a month away. But Tamasha are arguably Britain's most dynamic Asian-based theatre company. The cast is strong and well motivated and there is a real sense of purpose about the work.
It's difficult to tell what the final play will be. More is to be devised and improvised; much more is to be written and stapled. What one can say is that it will be highly visually, episodic and enlightening: that, after all, is Tamasha's reputation. One gets the feeling that if the disparate stories are ably married together and Landon-Smith's vision is allowed to be realised, A Tainted Dawn could well be the most talked about production at Edinburgh this year.
by Hardeep Kohli
Issue 212 of Socialist Review: October 1997
Journey with no return
Originally working under the title Partition, A Tainted Dawn is Tamasha Theatre Company's excellently named play about the effects of the division of India which accompanied the subcontinent's independence from Britain in 1947. Nehru called Indian independence 'a tryst with destiny'. However, between half a million and a million people died in the intercommunal violence which was Britain's parting gift.
It is in reflecting how great hope quickly turned to one of the century's terrible horrors that A Tainted Dawn's strength lies. The play, based on eight short stories about partition, stands in the dramatic tradition of history from below. The cataclysmic events of 50 years ago are seen through the experiences of workers, peasants, students and the middle class, rather than the 'great men' who oversaw independence and separation.
In the story of the students on the Delhi campus, for example, we have an excellent challenge to the myth that communalism in India was, and is, to be found only among the 'lower classes'. It doesn't take long for the supposedly enlightened, cosmopolitan upper middle class students to find Hindus in their number advocating the migration of their Muslim colleagues to Pakistan, regardless of personal or romantic attachments. Secularism, they conclude, is dead, and India is nothing more than a Hindustan.
In the story of Pali, a little Hindu boy lost as his parents fled pogroms in Pakistan, we see the role of the religious authorities in stoking the vicious communalism. Sheltered and adopted by a Muslim couple, reclaimed by his Hindu parents, and encountering the unforgiving dogmatism of the leaders of both religions, Pali becomes a powerful symbol of the tragedy of partition.
A Tainted Dawn brilliantly exposes the irrationality of communalism, but also helps explain the conditions in which it gained such incredible momentum. The two armed supporters of MA Jinnah's Muslim League, who extol the virtues of the 'great man' who is creating Pakistan, are the exception to the rule of the mass migration. Most people making the journey one way or the other across the border are fleeing for their lives.
Tamasha's eight person cast wonderfully represents the striking similarities in the experiences of a divided community as each actor plays the roles of Muslim and Hindu or Sikh. The acting is superb throughout, in turns poignant, frenetically powerful and darkly humorous. The set, by the Birmingham Repertory Company, is an excellent combination of menacing bleakness and simple versatility.
There is, however, one significant drawback. While the piece benefits from the many narrative strands it draws from the stories upon which it is based, the play's whole never quite amounts to the sum of its parts. The weaving together of eight separate texts is no easy task and, in the end, the play loses more than a little pace and tension in the switches between narratives.
However, A Tainted Dawn is a remarkable play. This production serves not only as a window to India's recent past but also as a lesson for all our futures.
by Mark Brown