Just returned from a pleasant evening, with Kaybe, visiting from NYC. First a play -- Habib Tanvir's AGRA BAZAAR at the Kamani, followed by dinner at "PLOOF", a restaurant I went to for the first time two weeks ago and liked a LOT.
So, the play: it was two-and-a-half hours long and a bit like travelling in time -- mythic-time, that is, not real-time -- the happy never-neverland, before those nasty, red-faced colonials with all their horrid rules and railways came in and made a mess of India. It was quaint and likeable, a slice-of-life in the bazaar, in Agra, rather like seeing a museum diorama come to life. I didn't understand a whole lot because it was in Urdu-ized Hindi and since I don't understand much Hindi at the best of times, most of the dialogue went whizzing past my comprehension centres. On the other hand, the form of the play makes comprehension a minor asset, as it is accompanied by songs, dancing and -- in one section -- an agile contortionist's performance. At the high point of her act she -- OUCH! -- picks up a pair of darning needles using only her eyelids ... while arching over backwards, supported on her hands and feet.
There wasn't much in the way of plot. It was a celebration of the flow of life, so beginnings and endings weren't the point -- just BEING THERE was enough. The performers were so authentic that I found it impossible to think of them as actors -- as I explained to Kaybe later -- they looked and behaved like indigent people who were merely doing on stage what they do in real life -- and of course, that's extremely unlikely. At the same time, I think in the case of at least some of them, they really are people who used to be street-performers, now performing to a theatre-going audience, through the intervention of the sprightly and white-haired playwright who came on stage to take a bow at the end of the show. I know too little about him to write with any authority, except that of course he's been one of the cornerstones of Delhi theatre, amongst its best-known names and a person who believes in retaining the "folk" in folk-theatre.
Maybe because I couldn't enter the language of the play, I found my mind wandering while watching the performance, thinking about the messages I got from it, despite not following the dialogue. One of the messages was the sense that this past -- in which nothing either very awful nor very wonderful happens, in which even the authority figures are only mildly cruel, in which men might while away whole lifetimes in contemplating rhyme-schemes for words like "cucumber" and "laddoo" -- is the fantasy world that Indians return to as an antidote to the casual savagery of our collective today. There were no cars in this idyll; no electricity; no TV. The whores had sweet-voices and pliant personalities. The hijras were always smiling, never offended by gender-bending jokes, always ready to jerk their hips suggestively for a dance. The beggars were dignified and golden-voiced. Even the communal riots ended happily, in a shared song or two.
It was a static world presented in the form of play in which everyone remained exactly where they were at the end of the play as at the beginning, except for the addition of a poem or two to their repertoir. It was also a world in which women appeared only as ornaments to the "norm" -- i.e., to men. It's a world we don't see today -- at least, not in films or on TV -- a place where the normal condition of men is to be companionable with one another, joking, laughing, discussing the world and conducting their business. In such a world, there was no space for the presence of women as companions -- they were part of the entertainment, the consumable aspect of life, in the form of courtesans, singers, dancers etc. and also, presumably, as wives, sisters, mothers -- that is, as part of the invisible, unquestionable superstructure of the lives of the men -- but in this play we really only saw "public" women, not private ones.
Of course what made the play so very gracious (for me, at any rate) was that the prevailing aesthetic was Islamic. The language, the costumes, the sensibility was of an otherworldly form of Islam, in which the graceful arabesques of the written script were a perfect facsimile of everything about that life -- beautiful languid curves and mysterious, poignant dots. So yes -- it was exotic and possibly that's why I liked it. But only at a distance. It's not a world I could ever inhabit. What would I be in it? Nothing! I would have no part to play -- a woman who does not live a woman's life -- I could only be a curiosity, exhibited perhaps like the little bear (i.e., a small child dressed as a bear) that appears during the play, as part of the oh-so-charming street entertainment.
And so to dinner -- nice! "PLOOF" according to the printed message on the placemats at the restaurant is the sound made by a stone when it falls in water. Errm, right. If you ask the waiters for an expanded explanation, they waggle their eyebrows charmingly and say, "Madam, it is the sound made by a stone ..." And if you persevere, they look a little put out and explain that the owners thought of the name and ... what would Madam like to drink, please? But the ambience is -- surprise! surprise! -- coolly sophisticated, with no overkill elements like cut-glass chandeliers or imported Spanish-speaking chefs just ... pleasant, interesting, well done. The food is fish-accented -- and this is how you can tell it just HAS to be a good place -- coz I DON'T like fish, and rarely ever order it. But in this restaurant it's fresh, tasty and attractively presented. So I have twice ordered fish dishes and twice enjoyed them. They don't have a liquor licence yet, which makes it all the more amazing that they are well-supplied with customers (though not bursting, as they would be, if they DID have a licence). It's not cheap, but then again, it's not unbearable.
Okay -- enough of the food & beverage tour -- I'll conclude by saying that it's got a bathroom better than most hotels can offer. There. Aren't you absolutely dying to run over right away? You won't regret it.