Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players)

Shatranj ke Khiladi

Shatranj ke KhiladiAlmost a hundred years after Munshi Premchand wrote the short story, “Shatranj ke Khiladi”, Naatak’s team of Anush Murthy and Ritwik Verma reimagined it as a stage adaptation, and opened last week at Cubberlyin Palo Alto, California to a packed theater.

A classical satire that transports us to the world of 19th century, Lucknow with its nawabiandaaz  (style), set in opulent palaces whose denizens indulge in the finer arts of life to the exclusion of all else. The socio-political pulse in Wajid Ali Shah’s tenure, as the last independent ruling nawab of Awadh, featured his refined taste, preferring music and dance to governance and statesmanship, and mistakenly content in the security of British protection owing to his loyalty towards the rulers. Against this backdrop of political conniving, plays the story of two noblemen, Mirza Sajjad Ali (Dhananjay Motwani), and Mir Roshan Ali (Anshul Malik) so engrossed in their game of chess that they are oblivious to the plight of unhappy wives and servants within their homes as well as outside in their beloved city. Ironically, they expound on the strategies of the game, while the British cunningly use the same maneuvers, such as “checkmate” and “voluntary resignation” to annex Awadh, which is considered quite a coup!

Shatranj ke KhiladiThe sheer absurdity of the main characters, the simplicity and elegance of the language, the splendor of costumes, finery and dances, the darkness of the unexpected morbidclimax and the mood setting live music integrated seamlessly under the direction of AnushMurthy. In this nuanced adaptation, some directorial liberties were also taken by way of inserting a funereal wake, where the insistence of playing chess by the incorrigible noblemenand thecomical interaction between the singers and the mourners, albeit a tad long, brought some lighter moments. The British governor Outram’s liberal minded wife spouting Urdu poetry was another surprise, whichcharms the philandering nawab and the audience.

As the political doom encroaches, the threat of British annexation is disregarded by the Nawab, indifferent to his own fate and that of his crumbling estate, who dedicates time to producing a frivolous play. Shatranj (chess)- a game of strategy that could have been a valuable tool for the preservation of Awadh regresses as a daily addiction and leads to the fatal final consequences. All the main characters lose everything dear to them-the chess game, arts, music and dance, while all around them, everything is lost as Awadh succumbs to British capture, and the nawab exiled to Calcutta.

Shatranj ke KhiladiOther interesting characters are servants to the noblemen, Bheem (Pranay Verma), and Madho (Vineet Mishra) pivotal in moving the story forward, delight in the portrayal with authentic Bhojpuri dialect and naïve machinations to derail the nawabs’ ongoing games. The art forms used in the play were perfectly timed and of optimum duration-short Kathak interludes by dancers Pooja Ganesh and Varsha Naganathan set the tone and mood, as did the refreshing original scores and lyrics by Anitha Dixit and Ritwik Verma. History was recreated on stage in this charismatic ensemble!

Archana Asthana

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