Probing questions: A scene from the play  

Grave concern

Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha’s “Bury the Dead”, staged at the ongoing 21st Bharat Rang Mahotsav, makes a potent statement against war-mongers


Recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha’s productions are regularly featured at the annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM). One of his productions,“Queen and the Rebels”, which dramatised the theme of war, is still remembered by the discerning.

His brilliance as an actor in “Bare Foot in Athens” which was directed by the doyen of Indian theatre, Prof. Raj Bisaria, was very much in evidence. True to his artistic oeuvre, Kulshreshtha recently directed “Bury the Dead” for NIPA Rangmandali, Lucknow”, presented at Shri Ram Centre as a part of the ongoing BRM. It exposes neo-colonial forces which invade other nations to plunder their wealth. In Delhi, this play was staged about three decades ago. Today, after watching a new version of the play, one finds that the play has a striking contemporary relevance.

Written by Irwin Shaw, an American playwright, in 1936, it is adapted by Kulshreshtha in Hindi. The play opens in an unidentified space.

There is a raised platform upstage. Downstage, soldiers are digging a common grave for six dead soldiers whose bodies are kept right downstage wrapped in a piece of cloth. The soldiers engaged in digging the grave are constantly prodded by their supervisor, holding a gun. The time and place are not identified but gives the sense that a bloody war is being fought.

The soldiers digging the grave finally manage to finish their work and start to bring the bodies into the grave. To their horror and shock, the dead soldiers stand up and refuse to lie down. The dead are angry and protest against their unjustified killings to serve the cause of a handful of Generals. When the unusual situation is reported to the high command, it is at first amused and later shouted at the captain for his dereliction of duty. But he insists that the members of high command personally inspect the situation.

Furious at the blatant defiance of the dead, they order that the dead should be shot. Priests are called to perform last rites in the honour of the dead. The dead defy priests with disdain. As the last resort, the high command brings wives, sweethearts and close relatives of the dead soldiers. The conversation between the dead and their dear-ones reveals that the soldiers have come from lower classes who have suffered all their lives to make both ends meet and dreamt to lead a good life. Now their hopes are muffled and have bitter memories of the struggle for survival. A mother is shocked to see the horribly disfigured face of her son. The relatives make appeal to the corpse to lie down in the grave. But among them the stepsister of a dead soldier expresses her solidarity with her brother to stand up and renew struggle for peace and better life on earth. The dead express their anger that they are made cannon fodder in a war fought by war-mongers in control of state apparatus to plunder the wealth of weaker nations.

Imaginatively designed

The production is imaginatively designed which facilitates the flow of action without any interruption with focus on vital dramatic situations.

Director Kulshreshtha has created expressionistic ambience through stylistic lighting design to depict the resurrection of soldiers. This is a situation in which the boundaries between the past and the present, the living and the dead are blurred. He has projected a stunted tree and a huge piece of cloth in red upstage which tend to be a metaphor to suggest that war causes devastation. The use of various poetic pieces by different progressive poets enhances the anti-war message.

The play ends with the following couplet by Sahir Ludhiyanvi: Tank Aage Bade Ke Peechhe Hate, Kokh Dharti Kei Banjh Hoti Hai, Fateh Ka Jasn Ho ke Haar Ka Soug, Zindagi Maiyaton Pe Roti Hai. (Whether tank advances forward or moves backward, the womb of the earth becomes barren, whether it is the celebration of victory or the lamentation about the defeat, life weeps over the dead.) The poem is set to melodious tune that stirs human soul, making fervent appeal for peace.

A well-rehearsed production, “Bury the Dead” is convincingly performed by the large cast.