Back in those tedious school years, December indeed heralded a season of merriment. Right after the Dussera break in October (usually), it would be a month of unit tests or even half-term exam. And after that, it would be time for the school plays, and the Christmas play...or even a film show if the heavens were kind. And then, it was winter vacation. For a month I could forget about my dismal performance in the exams – of how I had rearranged and relocated Mughal dynasties, or how I had come up with my own laws in Physics.
But the merriment was really about the school plays. They would usually start post lunch, and on such days, the morning classes seemed to go on forever. There would be a general restlessness in the classroom in anticipation for the afternoon hoopla. The teachers usually went easy on us on those mornings...I mean they would not even have the heart to punish me by asking me to face the wall or stand outside the classroom for this or that indiscipline.
I was extremely interested in participating in the school plays – but there were no auditions as such. It was a given that to ‘get selected’ for a school play you had to be brainy, or some kind of leader – like the house captain or class leader. Anyway by default the brainy ones became captains and leaders. Now apart from these qualifications, if one the leaders felt a girl could fit in a role, she would be summoned. Of course, I’m sure if I had asked them if I could participate, they would have tried me out politely. But I was too chickenshit for that – imagine talking to those house captains who checked our nails, ribbons, badges and ties every morning, and herded us in straight lines to our classrooms...brrrrr...the very thought made me quake. These were girls who were 3-4 years senior, who scored ridiculous marks like 98/100 and who won first prizes in almost all the events they took part in. I mean they represented the school in interschool quiz competitions and debates and won rolling shields; so for most of us, they were like celebrities.
The school plays would take place in the ‘Hall’. This was a huge ballroom type hall, with an elevated stage at one end. The walls were pastel cream (oil distemper for easy maintenance) and the floor was polished concrete slabs. Chairs were lined against the wall, meant for the teaching staff. We children sat cross-legged on the floor in neat rows.
The sight of the closed curtains thrilled me no end – what wonderful magic lay on the other side? When the curtains parted, the stage would reveal a living room, or a kitchen, or a park scene. The girls would be transformed into beautiful maidens or handsome boys. The costumes would be so spectacular, the dialogues so witty and the scenes so well laid-out that I would be in a daze for days together. Yes, the December break would go in finding solitary corners in the house, and ‘practising’ my roles. I would daydream about being summoned for a role. I would perform so well that the school would erupt in a thunderous applause and the judges would weep with happiness – they’d never seen such acting talent before.
Now it so happened that The Sister, who was then in the first grade or thereabouts, was selected for the Christmas play. It was a historical moment for the family as far as I was concerned. Before I get into the details of the role, I have to give you a background about The Sister.
The Sister always had a dignified, sombre bearing (as she has now) and she was as pink as cotton candy (as she is now). Now, The Sister was also blessed with hair as tough as steel wires, yet as soft as velvet. Every Sunday when Amma gave the mandatory castor oil and seegepudi bath – her hair would assume a volume of gigantic proportions as it dried. The castor oil acted as a conditioner, but the seegepudi would knot the hair strands. By the time Amma had tamed it into two plaits, The Sister’s face would look like beetroot with all the bawling. Such bawling could be heard from other houses too – Sunday was officially the oil-bath day.
Fed up of seeing her only quiet child go hysterical every Sunday, Amma decided to do away with the problem. The Sister got a ‘boy cut’.
And this ‘boy cut’ coupled with her inherent serious dignity landed her the role of one of the Magi – the three wise kings who came with gifts for infant Jesus. The Sister was to carry ‘gold’. It was a time of tumultuous excitement. The crown had to be designed and her costume had to be designed. We bought 'kg cardboard' and golden gift wrapping paper and Amma made the crown. Then I told Amma to put ‘precious gems’ on the crown. So the shiny red wrapping paper of Vasu Special agarbathi was used to make rubies.
Then we went to Malleswaram 8th cross to buy the bling. A king had to wear rings – so Amma asked the bangles shop fellow to show some rings.
‘Rolled gold aa, Uma gold aa?’ he asked. Rolled gold was apparently the cheaper version of ‘artificial gold’. We bought ‘Uma gold’ – well...it was for a king after all. Then we bought a whole lot of glittery beads and a ball of silk thread – I would bead the necklaces for the ‘king’. Appa bought shiny velvet pants and matching shirt from T.D. Shah on Sampige road. Amma made golden bows with the gift wrapping paper and stuck it on to The Sister’s shoes. There. The King was almost ready.
I made The Sister practise her walk. I spent a long time explaining the importance of her character – she would be one of the first men to see baby Jesus. ‘A historic moment,’ I yelled. The Sister had a glassed out expression. I studied her posture as she walked about and gave tips till she threatened to pinch me.
Then we had the dress rehearsal at home, and Appa said the only thing missing was a robe. And so, Amma’s pink benaras silk saree was draped on The Sister and a king was born.
On the day of the play, a moustache was drawn on all the little kings and they were ready to go. They were supposed to walked through the length of the hall, amidst the seated students, climb the stairs that led to the stage and kneel before Jesus.
The stage was beautiful – blue plastic paper was wrapped on the tube lights to give a mellow effect. Potted plants from the staff room dotted the stage and the manger was a tent of sorts. Every year, a doll was used to depict baby Jesus, but this year, for the sake of originality, an LKG kid was playing the part. She was a wee little thing, chubby as a pumpkin. As the kings walked by slowly, I nudged my friends. The Sister had, after all, taken my tips. I was very proud of The Sister’s performance. Meanwhile, little Jesus had sat up, yawned and had started to pluck the leaves from the fern nearby. Mary and Joseph had to wrestle with a cackling Jesus and put ‘him’ back in the bamboo platter that served for hay in the manger before the kings arrived. It was all very dramatic if you ask me.
My own debut came years later, in middle school. My friend V and I were loitering near the classroom, exchanging lyrics of a popular Hindi song, when one of the teachers and a house captain summoned us. A series of skits had been planned for that afternoon as a precursor to the ‘drama competition’ between the houses. For one of the skits, two soldiers were required, and the ‘casting team’ was on the lookout for tall girls. All this had been a last minute addition, so they were quite desperate.
‘You are too thin child,’ the teacher eyeballed me while selecting V.
But then, there was no time so they took me along.
‘You don’t have dialogues,’ the house captain explained as V and I wore our costumes of black jeans and black shirts and draped red dupattas as robes. A cardboard sword was attached to the belt with Velcro.
‘You are supposed to stand in front of the stage as the king completes her soliloquy,’ the captain said. ‘Then the king will say “Soliders! Draw thy swords”. That’s when you just rip the Velcro and hold the sword upright okay? And then you will follow the king out.’
By now our plaits had been pinned up, and moustaches that curled in concentric circles on the cheek had been drawn with a kohl pencil. I listened with rapt attention.
‘In the second scene, you just have to act as if you are fencing with two other soldiers okay?’ The captain continued. ‘You are fighting for the king. That is only for one minute. You will get out as soon as the lights dim.’
I was thrilled. I had not watched the 36th Chamber of Shaolin for nothing – now was the time to show some moves as a soldier.
We went on stage. The king’s soliloquy had started. V and I stood at either ends of the stage. I sensed a twitching movement from the corner of my eye. I turned my neck slightly. It was V. Now V was a gentle soul, given to humming and singing. She was not used to being stared at by hundreds of pairs of eyes. And so, she had assumed her comfort pose - she was cracking her knuckles and swaying gently from side to side, no doubt humming a tune in her head.
Tcha! I wish I’d had time to instruct V about ‘getting into character’. Look at me. I stood with arms crossed, scowl and contempt on my face, looking down upon the vulgar commoners sitting cross-legged in front of the stage. I drew to my full height, hoping V would follow suit. But V was now tugging at her costume out of sheer nervousness.
In contrast, I was very sure the audience would remember my role forever. They would never have seen such a dignified soldier – why, I was like Alexander The Great. And in the next scene, I would fight fiercely, and even if the lights dimmed, I would keep up my sound effects to make it all real.
‘Draw thy soldiers, Swords!’ the king thundered.
V let out a giggle. But I had only heard ‘swords’ so I ripped the Velcro and held my sword in combat position, staring in a deranged manner at the audience. V did not get the urgency of the situation. The king has heard enemy footsteps, so she must get into position to protect him. Instead, she took her time to remove the Velcro, peeling it slowly, carefully...as if it were band-aid.
The king, having realized the enormous mistake in her dialogue delivery, now fidgeted with her cape nervously as V finally drew the sword.
The sword, being made of cardboard, vibrated like a Japanese fan in V’s hand. She turned around and looked at the king and giggled some more.
‘Get out,’ the house captain hissed from behind the curtain, at the side of the stage.
And we trooped out, V and the king giggling, me still in character - fierce expression, stealthy gait, upraised sword and all. The second scene was shelved, and the house captain merely announced the king had died on the battlefield. I was crushed.
That was the end of my acting career. But then...who knows? Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost ;)
© Sumana Khan - 2012