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Photo by Natasha Narula

bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company presents JATINGA, by Purva Naresh, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel. 9 June – 24 June.

JATINGA is the latest project from bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, following on from its startling play and production earlier in the year of THE LADEN TABLE in the same theatre space.

Suzanne Millar is Co-Artistic Director (with John Harrison) of bAKEHOUSE, and 4 years ago was working in Mumbai, at the Apne Aap Women’s Collective in Kamathipura. Kamathipura is one of Asia’s oldest and largest red light districts. In the program notes we are told:

Of the 10,000+ brothel based workers in the area, 45% are homeless; 74% are HIV+ and 1 in 4 is under 16 years. 88% are victims of sex trafficking. The average age of arrival is 12.

The Apne Aap Women’s Collective is an anti-trafficking organisation that serves the women and children of Kamathipura, by providing tools and resources to create a better quality of life for the women and their daughters living in this environment.

Purva Naresh, is the writer of this play and it was originally written in Hindi. This is the World Premiere of the play. It is being played in English. Ms Naresh has travelled to Sydney to help supervise the translation and adaptation, by the artists of bAKEHOUSE. The play will be taken to Mumbai in November, 2017.

There are several strands interwoven into this play. The first important one is the natural yearly phenomena concerning the migration of thousands of birds to a village called Jatinga, where on arrival they hurl themselves to death from the surrounding cliff tops to the village below. It is now a significant tourist event for Westerners. The next tells the story of a group of run-away girls (women) who have been recruited (kidnapped) from their village and farms and not finding proper work are on a train and accidentally find themselves in a ‘first class carriage’ to become the interest of a female reporter, who is on commission for another story, but who, consequently, attempts to gather their story instead. This strand emphasises the relative ‘medieval’ practices and simplistic beliefs of these country village women in contrast to the sophisticated contemporary city world of the iphone and computers of Mumbai. In incident we also observe the clash and behaviours of various political stances of that vast country that makes up modern India – resulting, in this narrative, with menace, assault and death from a pro- Communist train invasion. The other dominant strand takes inspiration from the country’s folk-tale heritage and the poetry of prominent Hindi poets, Vinod Kumar Shulka, Naresh Saxena and Katayaini.

On an authentic and – knowing this small traverse space – amazingly detailed and ‘beautiful’ Set Design, by Suzanne Millar and John Harrison, the story unfolds in a surrealistic juxtaposition of hard nosed contemporary reality and haunting folk myths in song, dance and puppetry (Puppetry Design and Construction by Aleisha Jelbart). The complicated and beautiful Lighting Design, by Benjamin Brockman creates a broad, and when needed, a detailed feature-guide, to help focus the audience’s attentions for narrative impact, in co-hort, with a truly wonderfully culturally redolent soundscape of music and atmospheric support by Nate Edmondson. Suzanne Millar is also responsible for the Costume Design. The visual and aural creativity to assist us to suspend our disbelief is first class.

It is this craft mixture that is reached for by Ms Millar that recalled for me some of the lure and magic of Ariane Mnouchkine’s six hour production: LE DERNER (ODYSSEES) LE FLEUVE CRUEL ORIGINS ET DESTINES, that was part of the Melbourne Arts Festival – the story of International Sex Trafficking – in 2006. (Sydney, memorably had seen, as part of the Sydney Festival, in 2002, The Theatre de Soliel’s production of THE FLOOD DRUMMERS – those were the days when the Sydney Festival was truly an International Festival of the Arts!) The resources of these two companies are, admittedly, ridiculous to compare, however, what I experienced with JATINGA was the visionary aspiration and grasp of the Mnouckine work, staged here, by bAKEHOUSE, on a pocket-handkerchief scale and size, but with no less ambition, and some success.

Besides the writer coming from Mumbai for this production we also have two actors: Faezeh Jalali and Sapna Bhavani, and the Stage Manager, Yael Crishna (who, incidentally, is an international graduate from the National Institute of Dramatic Art – NIDA – of 2002), as well. The rest of this largish company are all Australian artists Amrik Tumber, Bali Padda, Claudette Clarke, Karina Bracken, Monroe Reimers, Sheila Kumar, Sue Mawer,Teresa Tate Britten and Trishala Sharma. The discipline of their work is tremendously convincing and vital taking us imaginatively into the situations of the journeys of the play with ease.

The contemporary issue of these young, naive, innocent but enormously spirited women been taken from their village lives to a life of unwilling degradation contrasted within the cruel, volatile politics and mechanisms of modern India mixed with the haunting mythical folk-tale of Jatinga, as Ms Millar tells us is a “big sprawling, beautiful thing … a lot like India itself.’ and that is what we view. It is, though, a magnificent ‘mess’, a work-in-progress, but no less, less admirable for being so, and is worth witnessing for that.

Like the recent bAKEHOUSE production of THE LADEN TABLE, this production of JATINGA is an ambitious contribution to the Sydney theatre scene and is outstanding in its achievement and leaves one questioning the product, ambition and courage of more financially advantaged companies such as the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir and the Griffin. Australia Council and the relevant Government bodies ought to be taking notice. bAKEHOUSE alongside PYT Fairfield (TRIBUNAL, JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER) seem to be meeting the challenge of telling the stories relevant to the diverse multi-cultural community that makes up modern Australia, and do so inventively, thrillingly and in spite of straightened financial conditions. The passion combined with artistic nous and invention as exampled here makes theatre of a most valuable kind. Modern and mythical India, alive in Kings Cross. Amazing.

Do go.