Water vows

Sameer Sheikh News & Media December 20, 2019

Published in Dawn.com

The main theme of the play, according to Faisal Malik of the theatre group, is that ‘water is a precious commodity.

Directed by Dr Kanta Kochhar Lindgren in collaboration with Thespianz Theatre, and staged at the PACC auditorium in Karachi, Water Calligraphy is more than mere storytelling as it instigates rare theatrical techniques that employ games and corporeal theatre, thus expanding the performances of the artistes to move, dance and act dynamically.

Admitting water to be a fundamental part of life, Water Calligraphy is a dance theatre that illustrates the adventures of three interesting characters and their misadventures with water, making it further enigmatic with pragmatic and implausible water stories originating not only from local suburbs but also from far away.

The curtain opened to a singer performing to The Keepers of Stories. The lights then shifted to an old man (Osama Ghazai) who mops, as if in a dream, across the stage floor in one place using three sets of brushstrokes — the first in silence, the second with musical underscoring and the third with the mixed sounds of music and scraping through sand. The feel of the scene augments when, in the middle of th second and third set, the singer interweaves his singing with what the old man is doing.

Water Calligraphy is intellectual theatre that invites a latent message of the act. Blended with heavy fondles of classical English and written with artistic feel, the main theme of the play, according to Faisal Malik of the theatre group, is that ‘Water is a precious commodity. The play takes place at a time of drought followed by a series of urban scenes where the scenes shift between Karachi, New York and an unnamed place, and at various moments short interludes of a dance have also been incorporated.’

Soon after, two new sets of characters represented by two brothers, Bahaar (Haseeb Alam) and Aban (Hamid Malik), ridicule the old man for wasting water on a useless job like ‘writing’. However, the old man keeps at it, followed by a song, Finding Water.

The credit for the live music and singing goes to 26-year-old musician Shahzeb Waheed, a Napa graduate and head of the music department at Thespianz Theatre. All of the eight songs presented in the act are composed by him, besides hosting the musical arrangement. ‘Working with Dr Kanta has been an overwhelming experience. She gave me the lyrics and without her guidance the performance wouldn’t have been this good.’

The scene set in Central Park transports one to New York City where you meet the two characters Malika (Qurut-ul-Ain) and her Aunt Abida (Mehreen Hasmi) strolling in the park and discussing the hot day and the newspapers flooded with the headlines of water shortage across the country. An old man wheels in a cart containing loads of junk with painted signs. Malika can’t resist asking the old man about it who interprets the junk as ‘stories’. Malika laughs to which the old man says that if you shake it the stories would fall out, showing how people in the past have dealt with water issues. In a poetic undertone the old man describes, ‘Stories would come out like long ribbons of confetti, swirling from the sky like snow on a cloudless day, like calligraphy written across a path through the park. They appear and disappear…’

The strength of the act is further complimented by powerful dialogues and some of the lines are really touching, especially when the old man pulls a piece of paper and reads out loud while addressing no one in particular ‘Water is continuity; it is the river as it slips into the dream of the hands.’

The scene where Malika falls asleep and dreams of the old man riding a strange contraption similar to a bicycle, asking her to come along was somewhat difficult to comprehend and needed better execution. The act also introduced two actors as water detectives which executed the idea of finding new sources of clean drinking water and ways to eradicate its shortage.

The last few scenes of the act showed the old man busy drawing again and saying, ‘Water flows where the heart is; my love has long since gone to the river and will not return, but now the grace of water comes towards us on quiet feet. Then, three large plastic puppets dance together and then fade out under the diminishing lights.

‘Working with Dr Kanta has been an incredible learning experience for all of us, and I plan to invite more cultural envoys to Pakistan in future,’ said Faisal Malik, adding that Thespianz Theatre is likely to tour Italy in November, Moscow in December and India in January for a series of performances.

An associate professor at the University of Washington and currently a visiting faculty at the University of Hong Kong, Dr Kanta came to Pakistan on an 11-day tour; the first American cultural envoy to do so during the last 30 years.

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