THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA by FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA is an all time classic play that has found traction all over the world since being published and performed almost eighty years ago. Its performance history is unmatched to this day owing to a prolific output. A gut punch comes visiting on our minds as the tale of an austere matriarch and recently widowed Bernarda controlling the levers of her five nubile daughters’ fate, censuring them from the outside world and especially the male gaze, juxtaposes itself with every society’s rustic fabric and closed door policies of insulation tantamount to women and their shaming of youth for exhibiting instances of a natural desire for the opposite sex. It’s far removed from the league as not a single male character makes an appearance in person. As I had said in the earlier post, when we examine the minutiae buried under our gentility, that strain of conservative wheeling dealing of a younger generation’s fate gets inexorably linked with an ancient history of honour and a valorised code of conduct, most stringent in the rural upper class, with no clear originator but followed to the bitter end of the rope by one figure who demonises himself /herself to a long suffering sentience. It’s there in every country’s secret nook and in the far off crannies of our social belonging even in the most cosmopolitan of settings.
This play, set in rural Spain, actually makes us recognize the brutish undertones in all our larger cultural orientations. It’s all the more prescient and relevant in these Trumpian times where certain notions of the developed and developing world have fused to form a matrix of debasement and sexist principles endemic and common to both.
I have had the honour of reading Lorca’s other play BLOOD WEDDING in college so I know the similarities of cultures in terms of moral standards and double faced entendres are dealt with a simmering brutality by him, universalising every damned emotion and since I had known about BERNARDA ALBA too, I was absolutely impressed by the fact that an auteur and world class cinematographer like GOVIND NIHALANI had chosen the right provenance to transplant the play,that is Rajasthan. He stays true to the whole sequencing, emotions, exchanges and characterisations of the original source . It’s just that BERNARDA ALBA has beautifully and sullenly adapted her Indian roots. The separation of concerns ends there. You need an enlightened ensemble to preserve with acute fidelity an universal template of honour that the play addresses and Nihalani and his team is a perfect match, fending off each other.
RAJASTHAN, the folk embodiment of our diverse country. Land of unending sand dunes and heat waves. Provenance of mesmerizing, unique physical beauty and sparse vegetation. The country of the most heroic royals and aristocrats where a mere mention of its antiquated past sometimes wears kingly / queenly charm for those who haven’t set foot here. A state monopolized by the exotic and erotic, clothed in dense attires, jewelleries , headgears and traditions of grandiose mannerisms and delicacies. Mystical and magical, unforgiving and breathtaking. The acme of architectural brilliance. A mystical desert of tales and refinement .
RUKMAVATI KI HAVELI is set here but boils things down to a bare minimum as the women are mourning the death of their long standing male patriarch and in the absence of a masculine presence, complex density of its screenplay is arranged to show them able to fend for themselves yet tied to the opposite sex, showing the tough determination and stoicism of the state’s martial blood and able to rule out any untoward blasphemy by a mere look. Yet they are reigned in by suffocating customs. The stoicism and valour, unbending and unheeding, prevails. That’s what Rajasthani Rajputs, male and female, exemplify to a starstruck mass and since this warrior class has upheld its honour and integrity against marauding, pillaging populations for centuries, a myth making and folkloric halo is justifiably attached to them. It’s an instantly attractive starting point.
RUKMAVATI KI HAVELI shows the sombre flipside of all this, set in an upper class family and confined to the breathless quarters of the eponymous mansion.
Hot summer months are creators of necessary indolence and heated personal tempers. Boredom and gossip and acclimatization to this stark milieu, even indoors, are a natural fit and stings in a manner pre-disposed to those living under such harsh conditions. When in this sticky, humid cauldron is thrown testing interpersonal warring for freedom and hopeless weight of further disillusionment, the grand illusion of palatial airs and symbolic pride in wealth and communal prestige evaporates. What remains is the primal urge to come out of this perpetual personal state of inertia. The majesty of a royal kingdom then comes second to the avalanche that cripples an already repressed sexual/ social economy. This point of recession is one with the mind, body and soul.
Daughters of this soil, as in the screenplay, occupy the four walls. Heat has penetrated these dominions and bleached boundaries of any signs of life. The unforgiving sun, it seems, offsets their own sterile landscapes of body and mind. But for how long can a restless spirit lay in hibernation? An indefinite period of abstinence from the outside world and male company has affected them so much that their father’s passing away has brought them pangs but they mingle and assimilate to pursue their gazes towards an impossible breakthrough. The tele- film, broadcast on national television network Doordarshan in an economically liberalized India in 1991, is representation of a younger demographic and gender visibility in an era where both came out of their shells . That’s why the timeline is not important here as the dressing and customs are culturally significant to the ethos . The film moves beyond cultural appropriation to make solid impact.
In the next post, I will pursue its technical skills, so important in a chamber drama as this one. Also, the fact it’s divided neatly into four parts on YouTube can be likened to structures of a play so it’s a clever touch. Just know this, for those who deny to acknowledge the agency and intelligence, desires and wit of womenfolk of varying ages and stratas, this work is a revelation. I don’t know but personally the dynamism, layers and conversational felicity of females can never be outsmarted by men, atleast that’s how I feel. The aesthetics of their way of the world and worldviews is something I find to be transcending one set of ideas. Read the play to get the first taste of its eminence and imminent impact. Otherwise, this movie is a great introduction.
** my heartiest thank you for many of the photos put up here courtesy of tumblr blog STOP WHITEWASHING. It’s such a lost gem that photos are really sparse and this blog came in handy. I wholly acknowledge this contribution from the writer of the blog.