Shakti Bhakti @ Diwali in BC

"Festival of Light" theatre series celebrates Eternal Feminine

Bedtime fairy tales from "Faak Layne." Photo:

While the whole rest of the world tends to celebrate the victory of Light over Darkness sometime around the sidereal solstice, count on India to jump the queue.

Deepavali – aka Diwali, the South Asian “Festival of Lamps” – pegs its lunar calendar advent in mid-autumn, around harvest time, just as the days get noticeably shorter and cooler.

It’s an occasion of much feasting and frolic and entertainment, including, locally, a yearly Vancouver theatre series that now bids to extend its reach province-wide as “Diwali in B.C.”

Living a few years in Delhi, I was annually dazzled by the virile hijinks, martial pantomimes and effigy bonfires of the Diwali season’s culminating Ram Leela mela.

But then I moved south, to Bangalore, where, for some of our neighbours, Deepavali took on a whole other meaning: a celebration of Shakti, the feminine life force, claiming its due share of the world-consuming Shaivaite godhead. It’s this feminist reading of the holiday that’s showcased in this year’s Diwali in B.C. theatre series with a trio of Shakti-centric productions.

In form and content, they couldn’t be more unlike: a multi-role, solo tour de force about Bombay’s down-market sex trade, a highly stylized agitprop soap opera of India’s tribal hinterlands and a tense psychodrama in an upscale Canadian sanatorium. But all three plays pay moving tribute to indomitable womanhood.

*  *  *

Somewhere between the Art Deco splendour of the Royal Cinema and the high-rise aeries of Walkeshwar, Bombay Transit bus #102 crosses Falkland Road – a literal red light district, its human merchandise lurid as Donair kebabs under tinted bulbs.

Laundry lines span from chawl to chawl, strung with diaphanous saris. Children swarm the laneways. Pimps loll in doorways. Patrons cruise the kerbs. Brahmins hawk charms and blessings. Hijras (transvestite eunuchs) cadge coins.

All this glimpsed in an instant as the bus route presents just a fleeting peek up the alley and then rattles on to seemlier precincts. Most #102 commuters avert their eyes. But not Dipti Mehta in her South Bombay girlhood.

She combines an innate genius for spot-on mimicry and for scientific classification – skills she has gone on to hone in adulthood as a New York-based actress and a PhD molecular biologist. So the louche red-light district is ideally suited to the rare double barrel talent that she vaunts in her one act monodrama, Honour

The titular noun refers not to an ethical ideal or a prized encomium, but rather to a negotiable commodity: the purchase price for deflowering a first-time prostitute. In her self-scripted and solo-acted play, Mehta presents a 70-minute bildungsroman about a budding Mumbai “courtesan.”

In the process, she elaborates the whole ecosystem of Falkland Road (Bombay street argot warps the phonemes of the street name into “Faak Layne”).

We meet jaded old madams and their young protégées, street-tough “enforcers,” protection-racketeering politicos, wheedling hijra “aunties,” lecherous pandits, inter alia. Mehta, alone on stage, morphs into each of these specimens before our very eyes, often engaging in lively, fast-paced dialogues between her various avatars.

The portrayals are spoofs, to be sure, but loving caricatures, as deftly limned as the cartoons of Bombay’s doodler-laureate Mario Miranda. The script and the portrayals are Mehta’s own, but it’s all stitched together by versatile off-Broadway director Mark Cirnigliaro.

The barebones set – just a bed and a chair – is strung with sari-festooned laundry lines, so Mehta can weave between the gauzy fronds as she transitions from one role to the next. For a lot of this frisking among the drapery, at least in the brothel scenes, she’s gyrating in stock Bollywood bhangra tropes to the tune of composer Chetan Davdra’s original score.

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