An account of Indian theatre in Guyana has much to contend with. It must consider the rise of intellectualism among descendants of indentured labourers in the decades spanning the period from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The concerns for education and cultural development among the sons of India deeply felt by Joseph and Peter Ruhoman, as well as the awareness of Ramcharitar Lalla translated into publications and activism.
It must consider the significant advancement in ethnic and cultural consciousness which followed, and the attempts among the rising professional middle class to recapture, foster and promote Indian culture. Of greatest relevance would be the activities of this class in the British Guyana Dramatic Society (BGDS), which read and performed the works of Rabindranath Tagore and produced playwright Basil Balgobin.
Any account must also contend with the oral and folk traditions developing on the estates and the villages they generated. The theatre among these people included the great traditions of Tadja and Ram-Leela as well as the sub-culture around the lively and changing bhoj puri singing. The account must cover the drama of the village folk totally ignored by the BGDS and accommodated only by a few such as Lalla and dramatist Sheik Sadeek.
There has been even more to contend with in more recent times when the wide range of Indian performing arts make it increasingly difficult to generalize. Examples of these include varieties of poetry, music and dance by Laxhmi Kallicharran, Nrityageet and Naya Zamana; the Indian Cultural Centre's dance dramas with classical, folk and excerpts from the Ramayana; and an extremely relevant, progressive and accomplished Guyanese play from Richmond Hill in Queens, New York, titled Till I Dance With My People I've Never Danced Before.
The recent production of Tulsidas directed by Neeaz Subhan and produced by the Indian Arrival Committee may be looked at within this broad context. It brings to mind many of the factors involved in a historical coverage of Indian theatre in Guyana, including the IAC's mission as stated by Subhan, "to help foster and promote Indian culture." This recalls exactly what the BGDS set out to do and the fact that that previous aim of the BGDS neglected one of the main concerns of the man Goswami Tulsidas (1532-1623) whose life the play dramatizes.
The saintly Tulsidas was very concerned that in his time the Hindu scriptures were not reaching and including the folk, and felt there was a need to popularise them. After his conversion and devotion to Rama he travelled around the countryside doing just that, and is credited with having translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit, which only the educated elite could read, into Hindi, a language more commonly understood by the populace. By dramatizing this man's life, the play Tulsidas used drama to teach Hindu principles, and this same objective has been at the centre of the performance of Ram-Leela (tales of Lord Ram) by the people of the villages since the days of indentureship.
This is Neeaz Subhan's second attempt at the play, having produced and directed it some years ago during a period in which he made his own contribution to efforts at Indian drama in Guyana. During that time he did versions and adaptations of American drama and other works. Subhan took these dramas and tried to recast them in a Hindi mode. While he did not quite succeed in forging a new form, these efforts were important in terms of Guyanese drama.
The play presents a version of the biography of Goswami Tulsidas which is not fully faithful to the story as told by other sources, but which does not do much violence to the truth. The play communicates the man as a legend, a saintly prophet and worker of miracles after his conversion. It is, not unexpectedly, more dramatic, sensational and humorous than what is recorded in other accounts, but foregrounds the major irony that is true of Tulsidas's life. From an obsessive idolatry of doting on his wife, he converts to a corresponding single- minded devotion to Lord Rama, forsaking his previous life and the wife who drove him to seek out the divine Ram. He was a great Hindi poet whose most celebrated work is Ramcharitamanasa (The Lake that is the Story of Lord Rama).
In presenting this life, Subhan's production was an adaptation of a film, and took with it aspects of the style and preoccupation of film - to be more exact, the style and preoccupations of Indian film, if not Bollywood. There was the customary laughter driven by the clown figure, and the interludes of recorded songs which came over as stagey and artificial, leaving the actors with a few awkward moments.
Subhan's staging of the work was tolerable on a set that was plain and Spartan - reduced and sparse rather than artistic. It was simplistic rather than indicative of a work that sought creative ways of staging disparate, far-flung locations. There was none of the colour and spectacle for which Indian theatre and film are admired.
The acting was promising rather than professional, but with commendable efforts from the leads, Dimple Mendonca and Shawn Hastu, who were new to the stage. Others were the comics like Aditya Persaud and Kirk Jardine, while yet others like Terrence Sukhu were melodramatic, overacting with comic effects, thus evoking laughter where pathos would have worked better. The group work, including dance, was however better handled.
Despite its limitations, which include an unnecessary attempt to reproduce filmi treatments, Neeaz Subhan's Tulsidas was important in the historical context of 'Indian theatre.' It provided another dramatic alternative on the Guyanese stage while continuing the role of bringing instruction to its audience, an aim it shares with the largely neglected traditional Indian folk theatre.