“Anjali was right when she said we was queer”, bemoaned Veronica. The lament was unabashed, the disgust undisguised and the resignation plain. Her gaze was disturbingly fixed on a small but perfectly circular hole which just a few minutes ago was the undisturbed part of a shining bald pate. As the orifice slowly began to ooze blood, its owner let out a violent yelp before trying to staunch any further flow by pressing a worn and tired looking handkerchief to the wound. He was assisted in this endeavour by a young boy who seemed both awed and repulsed by the nature of the old man’s injury.
Although jolted out of a momentary reverie by both Veronica’s words and the sight being taken in by her gaze, the first thought that assailed the stricken mind of Vinay related to grammar. Shouldn’t Veronica – or rather Anjali since the former was just repeating what the latter had said – have used the word ‘were’ in place of ‘was’? Members of the “Rookie Rainmakers Artists Club”, RRAC for short, Veronica and Vinay were the two promising stars in an otherwise motley crew of seven. Both of them were standing on a worn out carpet hiding the creaking pieces of wood that made up for a makeshift stage. Chairs which were arranged in orderly rows thirty minutes ago, lay strewn in a manner resembling chaos. Thin plumes of dust rose from the ground just where a part of the roof had come crashing down. A cavernous hole now revealed a clear blue sky framed against a dangerous looking electric pole from which flimsy wires were hanging. While the able had dove for the doors, the injured were being tended to and driven away in ambulances. A curious crowd had gathered outside and a few amongst it constituting the intrepid were craning their necks while balancing themselves on their toes to catch a glimpse of the carnage that was happening within. The remaining members of the RRAC had scurried away to expedite various urgent errands necessitated by the unfortunate mishap, ranging from taking care of liability insurance to lodging police reports. Yet another ill-fated play of the RRAC had been nipped in the bud. This time it was “Julius Caesar”. Just when the indomitable King was about to holler “Et Tu Brute” in incredulity and pain, the roof came crashing down and Caesar’s roar was muffled by an even bigger cacophony making up for the assorted screams, yells and shrieks of the unfortunate audience upon whose even more unfortunate heads misery had literally and solidly rained down!
The ‘jinx of the queers’ was back to haunt RRAC yet again. Formed with lofty aspirations, and funneled by loftier intentions, RRAC was the spontaneous agglomeration of seven carefree spirits woven together by random events. The one binding and cohesive thread uniting the seven amateur self-proclaimed artists was an untrammeled love for mythology and a noble motive to bring theatre to the common man. This latter objective was largely instrumental in RRAC being incorporated as a non-profit organization.
Veronica was the most affluent member of the group. She was also the brain behind the formation of RRAC. The daughter of a construction magnate, and a self-made entrepreneur, she dabbed her hand at both writing and drama. With the Mahabharat her favourite tome, she had in her graduate days essayed the roles of myriad characters in reproductions of India’s most revered mythology. The attendant stress of Corporate culture and the pressure of living up to familial expectations spurred her into taking a sabbatical. With her not so insignificant savings, she decided to form a theatre group thus setting up RRAC. Through a combination of word of mouth and social media, she connected with the other members making up RRAC.
The Peacock Comes Marching In – The Jinx Begins
Anjali, a bank teller by day was an impossible Greek tragic waxing eloquent over the reforms of Sophocles and the realism of Euripides. During the initial promising performances or half performances (since the group had the rare ignominy of not seeing a single play through to its completion) of the RRAC, she garnered rave reviews from her sparse but sincere audience many of whom felt that there was an apparent metamorphosis when Anjali took the stage. She also doubled up as the Production Manager, Director, Stage Manager and Script Writer by virtue of a rare combination of talent and ingenuity.
Hence it came as no surprise to the rest of the team when Anjali proposed that they take their plunge into the world of drama with a play on Hera and Argus. What however surprised them all was the choice of location proposed by Anjali for the play. Since the peacock plays a vital role in the Greek lore involving Hera and Argus, Anjali was vehement in her belief that the play be staged in the quaint setting of Thiruvannamalai, a city in the State of Tamil Nadu boasting a modest population, a sprawling temple, a tranquil spiritual sanctuary that was the abode of one of the greatest saints in Indian history and, you guessed it right, peacocks!!! Anjali was of the firm conviction that the effect of realism and profundity would be magnified if the play was to be held within the confines of a peacock habitat. With great reluctance, a mutual consent was obtained and small tracts and pamphlets were distributed in advance to the city dwellers and pilgrims alike. A small hall with a seating capacity of a few hundred was rented out equidistant from both the temple and the sanctuary. The rectangular hall had a high ceilinged dome with tall windows that opened outside in. Since the concept of air conditioning was still a luxury and not a necessity these windows were more often than not kept open to allow a lazy breeze to waft in. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, the play began on time and the audience watched enraptured as Anjali in the role of Hera, ranted, raved and spewed venom at Zeus illicit love towards his mistress Lo. Just as Hera prepared to confront Zeus, mayhem wrongly shifted location moving from the stage to the hall. A giant peacock gracefully slid in from an open window brushing the bodies of a bewildered few who were seated next to the window. The peacock had in its beak a malevolent looking black snake adorned with a glittering patchwork of yellow and grey. The snake was twitching and hissing desperate to wriggle itself free from the vice like clutch of its predator. Oblivious to the predicament of both its prey as well as by now worked up frenzied crowd, the peacock nonchalantly began preening around the hall exhibiting its magnificent plumage while a frightened mass of people began hurtling themselves towards the exit and – in the case of a dew desperate ones – out of the windows including the one from which the unexpected intruder so marvelously flew in. Cries of “Paambu” “Paambu” (snake in the Tamil vernacular) rent the air as men and women dashed helter-skelter, while at the same time crying out to their children and carrying their babies. As a shell shocked audience fled the hall, the dumbfounded pair of Hera and Zeus couldn’t believe their eyes. The curtain had come down on RRAC’s debut performance – involuntarily.
Setting the Stage on Fire – The Jinx Continues
Vinay, nicknamed “The Firang” was admired for his impeccable use of and flawless hold over the English language. Prone to quoting Oscar Wilde and Christophe Marlowe by rote, his favorite role amongst all the RRAC productions, – nay, half productions – was that of the evil Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s “The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus”. When not involved in acting, Vinay discharged his duties as the vice-principal in a State University. An artistic flair and a self-taught proficiency in painting gave Vinay the credibility to bag the position of ‘make-up artist’ in RRAC.
After the initial fiasco involving peacocks and snakes, RRAC’s next go at redemption was a co-opted production with Vinay’s University. The play titled “Draupadi’s Revenge” was a satire aimed at highlighting the plight of women in a world filled with misogynists and chauvinists. In yet another attempted tribute to realism, Vinay was chosen to essay the part of Draupadi, as only when a man puts himself in the shoes of a woman will he be able to impartially and insightfully assess her travails. Vinay plunged into the venture wholeheartedly. Displaying an enthusiasm that verged on the maniacal he began to live the life of Draupadi. Another Daniel Day Lewis who couldn’t comprehend the distinction between reality and reel.
His mother walked into the room just as he was about to apply her new lipstick. She was startled. He was startled. “What are you doing with my lipstick? It’s new…I haven’t used it so far. Couldn’t you have waited?” He smiled and handed it back to her. “I forgot to tell you…I am playing Draupadi in our college production… rehearsals start this evening.”
The play was scheduled to be staged in the smaller of the two auditoriums at the University. A veritable relic, it was past its heydays. Dethroned by its newer, more glamorous and much bigger counterpart, its use was severely restricted to playing the role of a stand in or a backup option. “Draupadi’s Revenge” was one such back up situation since the flashier auditorium was undergoing repairs and renovation. Embedding an elliptical stage that looked down upon 25-30 rows of worn out seats, the auditorium induced a feeling of claustrophobia. The play began at the stipulated time and Vinay as Draupadi was putting on a magnificent performance. Halfway into the play and a tense scene, the RRAC jinx struck with a vengeance. Holding a candle, Vinay a.k.a Draupadi engaged in a furious verbal banter with her powerful husband Bhima. “Fie on you” screeched the protagonist and flung her hands violently. The lighted candle flew from the flung hands and unfortunately connected with a protruding end of a cardboard prop that was resting against a blue curtain behind the stage. A small insignificant flame took shape before imperially licking the curtain before metamorphosing into a blaze that threatened to engulf the stage. The dramatis personae as well as the spectators whirled and took to their heels piercing the air with cries of horror and anguish. By the time the fire brigade was summoned to put out the fire, significant damage was done to the stage. “Draupadi’s Revenge” came to an abruptly ‘burning’ end.
Apprentices to the Rescue – The Jinx Ends
It was at this time that RRAC gained notoriety for reason of their own. The calamities that became their faithful followers came in for public scrutiny and deliberation. The team found themselves squarely in the eye of an ignominious storm. A local news daily described them as “the company of queers”. RRAC was on the brink of extinguishing their passion.
Mika, fondly known as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was Veronica’s younger sibling. She acquired her nickname on account of a fanatical devotion towards her elder sibling. Mika, a student pursuing molecular biology along with her classmates, Nirmal, Rohit and Aslam formed the remaining members of RRAC. Enervated by failure and deflated by disappointments, the senior members of RRAC were ready to give up the fight. Waging a war against an adversity that seemed ingrained, was but, an exercise in utter futility. They resolved to dissolve the company and go about their separate ways. However, the four younger members were not in a mood to accept defeat. Goading, cajoling and pleading with their more experienced fellow artistes, they succeeded in weeding out a conditional compromise. RRAC would stage one more play. It would either be their last Hurrah or a new beginning. With this feast or famine bargain struck, the only other thing to be determined was the play itself. A Shakespearean Tragedy perfectly encapsulating the current gloom was the choice of Veronica, Anjali and Vinay. However Mika and her classmates again turned out to be beacons of inspiration. “If we are going down we might as well go down in a blaze of laughing glory” suggested Aslam. The finally agreed upon choice was Mark Twain’s laugh riot “Is he Dead?” Coalescing elements of burlesque, charade, and social satire, the play relied on such contraptions as cross-dressing, mistaken identities, and romantic deceptions to tell its story, which raises questions about fame, greed, and the value of art.
There were few venues that were ready to accommodate a group of performers who were preceded by a reputation bordering on the calamitous. However an open air theatre made a noble exception to the general abhorrence by accommodating RRAC in a late evening slot. The play began in front of a sparse, apprehensive but stoic crowd who had clustered in a semi-circular enclave resembling a half moon. As the play progressed the sky turned overcast and ominous clouds gathered shape. Another predictable disaster was looming round the corner. Soon the heavens opened and the rain poured down in torrents. But the determined members of RRAC continued with their performance. People who were beginning to evacuate the arena, visibly moved by the dedication of the artistes stayed back braving the rain.
When Aslam exclaimed that he will take a potential client “to the Gleaners”, a bolt of lightning struck the ground a few yards right in front of his feet;
“I congratulate you on your polygamy” greeted Vinay with yet another bolt from the sky, this time a few inches to the right of him;
The situation was becoming dangerous and the audience gasped but never leaving their seats.
“Dialogue is the yeast that lightens the bread; & should be paid for at double rate”. It was Mika’s turn to face the wrath of the Gods as yet another bolt lanced down behind her sizzling the soil;
“Failure – – too loud – – Can’t wear them – – – distract attention from the rest of the exhibition – – – make a person look like a lightning bug”. Anjali shuddered when a dangerous flash of light lashed down to the left of her shoulder;
The crowd drew in its breath as ripples of panic spread alarmingly.
Three more ferocious bolts greeted Veronica, Nirmal and Rohit as they continued undaunted.
Exactly seven bolts of lightning struck the centre of the enclave where the performance was being staged, every time striking the earth right in between, behind or to either sides of the actors going about their job. All of a sudden the rain abated with the same vigour with which it had lashed out. When the performance ended, the meagre audience who had commendably withstood the rigours of the weather to encourage the young artistes rose to their feet and gave a resounding ovation to the stars of RRAC.
Tears welled in the eyes of the seven indomitable heroes as they also reciprocated the gesture of the audience by exaggeratedly bowing and acknowledging their applause.
The Jinx had ended!