When we, the audience, knocked at 32 Ashwini Dutta Road, a handsome, 80-year-old South Kolkata residence, a young girl opened the door and welcomed us in absent-mindedly. She led the way to the baithak khana (living room), a high-ceilinged room belonging to a different Kolkata, the Calcutta of yore, which had grand houses with window sills wide enough for two to sit comfortably. The girl settled us in before getting into a heated chat with her friend and neighbour about the family pressure she was facing to get married. What we were witnessing was the play, 32 Ashwini Dutta Road, arguably the first site-specific production in Bengali.
As the girls bickered, the domestic help led us away and up the burnished red-cement stairs and sat us down hastily in a bedroom. There, a young man in a towel was in the midst of changing. He sat in front of a dressing table and applied lipstick. Unlike the living room where the paint on the wall was smooth, the paint in this room was peeling — a bit like the young man in the room who was moulting too, chafing and bruising against the hetero-‘normal’ appearance he had to put on. This closed-door dressing table confessional, the most affecting of the series of performances, was broken by a loud hurry-up call at the door, much in the way our own getting-dressed reveries end in real life.
Then, led out into the dining space outdoors, the audience sat around the young man’s mother and her sister-in-law — who had gathered around the table and stairs. The two women, close to each other in age and in the disquiet of their marriages, exchanged notes and came to a difficult revelation. They seemed to share an unusual bond, the sort of bond you imagine would have existed among members of joint families that filled up the old Calcutta houses. Not houses as in apartments, but baari, the beautiful ancestral homes of north and south Kolkata. In a film like Piku, which is partially set in such a house, this kind of close-knit relationship among family members has ruptured.
The 80-year-old house where ‘32 Ashwini Dutta Road’ was staged.
The last segment of the performance was set in another bedroom where a married couple was arguing, caught in the storm of an angry, inarticulate grief following a miscarriage. The audience settled in the sofa and bed around them. One of the walls in the room was stylishly coloured, as if from an advertisement for paint, suggesting the touch of a new bride. Mid-argument, the couple and the audience were led to the dining table for the couple’s anniversary celebrations — a cake was cut, a song sung and a box of sweets distributed among everyone, including the audience. The branches of the joint family, each negotiating their private compromises with the world in their corners of the house, come together in a shared space.
More than for the performances and the play’s text which are credited to the members of an amateur theatre collective, 32 Ashwini Dutta Road is interesting because of its site-specific nature. The play is conceptualised by the interdisciplinary artist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, who first saw such a performance in a heritage house in Toronto, which was once home to a former mayor. Site-specific theatre, a term that The Guardian says has been gaining traction since the 1980s, refers to productions that are not in the traditional theatre space but grow out of the sites where they are performed. For instance, in this play, the story centres around the sort of upper-middle-class joint families which once dwelt in the striking mansions of north and south Kolkata.
Kolkata was once packed with these family seats, described by Amartya Sen as “eccentric” and “beautiful” in his letter of support to novelist Amit Chaudhuri’s campaign for conserving these heritage properties. The city’s centre was the business district, made up of British neo-classical buildings and Armenian and Jewish mansions. A large number of these family houses have been replaced with unlovely apartments today. The houses that remain have emptied out, many of the rooms are locked up, their residents now in distant cities.
A still from ‘32 Ashwini Dutta Road’.
Chatterjee’s project, running till March, wants to make use of such houses again. Not only in the older, more historic neighbourhoods of Bhawanipore and Ballygunge, but also in relatively new suburbs like Salt Lake, where too many houses are now thinly inhabited. At the end of the performance, Chatterjee invites the audience to start performances like this in their localities. Aside from reimagining these spaces, he hopes that projects like his will rekindle a sense of community in these hollowed-out neighbourhoods. When you visit someone’s home and walk through their rooms and sit on their beds, it’s hard not to start a conversation.
There’s another thing that struck me about the project: the notion of caste and the unlocking of access to spaces. Brahminical Bengali society is highly exclusionary in its practices. My great-grandmother had swept away her son’s (my grandfather’s) Japanese friend’s presence in her courtyard with buckets of water. “Mlechha, mlechha (untouchable, untouchable),” she had told her daughter-in-law from her room above the courtyard, who dutifully threw a bucket of water each time the Japanese man stepped inside. Later, the man had commented admiringly to my grandfather about the ‘traditional cleansing welcome’ he had received. Another great-grandmother allowed the toilet-cleaner to enter the flat she lived in in central Bombay only from the backdoor, and prohibited her from every part of the flat except the passage where the toilet stood.
These practices have leftovers in upper-caste homes today, perhaps even in mine — questions of where the live-in domestic help will sleep if there are no ‘servant quarters’; where the electrician will wait for his fee or the garbage-collector who asks for a glass of water — can they be asked to sit down?
It’s a long shot, but imagine your plumber or conservancy-worker buying a ticket to your home ‘theatre’ and sitting down on your bed to watch. The home and the heart might both have a change then.
The Kolkata-based independent journalist writes on public health, politics and film.