Polka Theatre, London (and on tour) ****
Partition, seventy years on and perhaps only now, to a completely different generation, is the full horror of that appalling event becoming apparent and felt by audiences beyond the Indian diaspora.
Down the years it has been marked in a thousand different ways in literature, film, on stage and in music. Gurinder Chadha’s recent Viceroy’s House was a more than frank portrayal of the dismal and quite shocking divide-and-rule politics practised by His Majesty’s government as the count-down to Indian independence and the splitting into two nations – Hindhu India and Muslim Pakistan – approached at midnight on August 14/15 1947.
Now we have Sudha Bhuchar’s Child of the Divide, first premiered in 2006 returning for a national tour to remind us – as indeed in a rather different context did Garth Davis’s film, Lion, this year – of those events as seen from a child’s perspective, as Bhuchar calls it `the lost narratives of children.’
Child of the Divide launches Bhuchar’s Boulevard, a new development on from the company, Tamasha, she founded with Kristine Landon-Smith in 1989 and which premiered Child of the Divide originally in 2006.
This time around, it arrives as part of the Partition 70th anniversary, backed by a plethora of national initiatives: The Partition History Project – which will take the play into schools – and Big Imaginations Festival celebrating theatre for children and families on a nation-wide level.
Based on a short story, Pali, by Bhisham Sahni, Child of the Divide, like Lion, follows the fortunes of a little boy lost in the terrible upheaval of partition, when India became two nations divided by a border.
Hindu Pali is found by a Muslim couple on the `wrong’ side of the border, adopted and converted.
It’s not easy at the beginning of Jim Pope’s production to work out exactly what is going on – mirroring no doubt the desperate confusion of people at the time! But the beauty of Child of the Divide is how, scene by scene, a picture emerges of how a small boy adapts to new surroundings through play, friendship and the love of his adopted parents.
Bhuchar shows it is not an easy process. How can it be? But gradually the message comes through, loud and clear, of the individual fall-out from that political act: the pain of dislocation and confusion of identity within Pali as to who he is and where he belongs. Is he Hindu, or Muslim, underlined when his Hindu father, Manohar, after searching for him for seven long years, finally locates him, not far from the family home from which he and his family had all been uprooted.
Aimed at 7-14 year olds, initially I wondered how the younger members of the audience might cope with a show that runs for 75-80 minutes without interval.
I shouldn’t have worried. No doubt identifying with Pali, those around me were quite clearly drawn in by Pali’s story, the parental sadness on both sides of the divide – his real parents lamenting their loss, his adopted parents heartbroken at eventually having to hand him back – and Pali’s growing attraction to a young girl and half-caste Hasina, herself part Hindu-part Muslim.
Bhuchar and Pope’s production mixes narrative with plenty of action – games and play between the children helping Pali settle into a new environment – using lighting (by Peter Harrison), Arun Ghosh’s sound score and simple stage effects dominated by a large map of India. And there are lovely performances from each of the small cast, doubling up as parents and children.
Youngsters will come away not only with the beginnings of an understanding about Partition but more importantly, the destructive power of religious intolerance and hate.
No doubt in decades to come, similar stories, sadly, will emerge from the current war-torn turmoils of Iraq, Syria, Myanmar.
For the moment, all one can do is thank our lucky stars for theatre like Child of the Divide and the hope it brings about the importance of love and understanding.
Child of the Divide,
By Sudha Bhuchar
Pali: Karan Gill
Zainab/Hasina: Halema Hussain
Shakur/Pagal Head: Devesh Kishore
Kaushalya/Aisha: Nyla Levy
Manohar Lal/Buttameez: Diljohn Singh
Director: Jim Pope
Designer: Sue Mayes
Composer/Sound Designer: Arun Ghosh
Lighting Designer: Peter Harrison
Movement Director: Deborah Galloway
Assistant Director: Emily Aboud
First perf of this production of Child of the Divide at Polka Theatre, Sept 29, 2017. Runs to Oct 15.
Then on tour to Nov 17. See www.bhucharboulevard.com