Play Review: Karl Marx in Kalbadevi
By Varsha Ramachandran
Director: Manoj Shah
Writer: Uttam Gada
Artist: Satchit Puranik
Rangashankara, Bangalore, Friday 29th June, 2018
The play’s title Karl Marx in Kalbadevi perhaps summarizes the play better than any critic could — the renowned political theorist Karl Marx speaking to the audience from the bustling neighbourhood of Kalbadevi. It is a brilliant adaptation of Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho, written in 1999. Zinn’s creative production depicted the lionized philosopher as an ordinary human being, struggling to make ends meet to support his family in a time of political crisis. The play was set in the Soho district of New York, owing to Marx’s own life in Soho, London.
Karl Marx in Kalbadevi takes Marx out of Zinn’s American setting and places him in the crowded streets of Kalbadevi, in the city of Bombay, where no one has the time or the inclination to listen to the ‘high funda’ philosopher that Marx has come to be regarded as today. The narrative behind this quirky placement is that Marx, 160 odd years after his death, tired of being villainized for ideals he never advocated, comes to India hoping to clear his name. He goes to Bombay’s Mani Bhavan with plans to deliver a public speech but is comically turned away by the guard due to the new stringent timings of the museum. As the philosopher turns back in defeat, he meets Manoj Shah, the director of the play, who gives him 90 minutes of stage time to redeem himself with the sole condition that he gives the audience what they desire – entertainment. As promised, Manoj Shah’s play delivers precisely that which was promised to him by Marx; with the glorified icon Karl Marx rapping in Hindi to the lilting tunes of Psy’s Gangnam Style and ranting about his terrible experience with the ginormous Bhagat Tarachand Thali he was forced to endure by Shah, the play guarantees 90 minutes of straight up entertainment.
The play follows Zinn’s attempt to bridge the gap between the academic Karl Marx and the ordinary family man Karl Marx. With Satchit Puranik looking surprisingly like Marx himself, bumbling around the stage wearing a t-shirt sporting Gandhi’s picture and wreaking havoc with his large number of props, the audience begins to relate to the character on stage and Marx is slowly lowered from the elevated platform on which he is thought to stand. The plot revolves around Marx narrating to the audience the story of his life, family, friends and most importantly, his ideas of political economy. Shah uses ideas familiar to the Indian audience, ranging from Rahul Gandhi’s education to the BJP election slogan to what he calls Gandhi’s ‘perverse communism’, to communicate the essence of Marx’s philosophies. Marx narrates the story of his poverty stricken, practically nomadic life and paints vivid word images of his wife Jenny and his daughter Eleanor.
The fondly recounted anecdote of Eleanor demanding to wear mismatched footwear — a shoe on one foot and a slipper on another — acts as a metaphor for the play’s own incentive to make the character of Marx better understood. It further acts as a way for Puranik to simplify Marx’s understanding of the need to bridge the gap created by what he terms ‘the capitalism myth’ and thus bring together the bourgeois shoe and the proletariat rubber slipper.
The performance employs a highly sardonic tone for most parts, making constant digs at the current political scenario in India and ridiculing the (mostly sad) state of affairs. This serves Shah two purposes: it keeps the audience engaged, while also making Marx a figure very much involved in the now-and-here rather than in a distant spectral past. The hilarious image of Marx struggling to eat the Bhagat Tarachand Thali portrays the concept of excess and alienation that Marx argues against in his works. It is intriguing that this metaphor is itself explained quite explicitly to the audience when Puranik uses the term ‘alienation of labour’ when narrating an episode with a waiter serving him a portion of the Thali. Shah’s classic tendency to stick to simplicity and mock unnecessary complexity becomes evident here, just as it does through numerous other similar instances in the play.
However, despite its attempts to bridge the gap between the audience and the academic by ridding itself of all jargon, the play would appeal more to an audience familiar with Marx’s works. The play, fortunately, is extremely self-aware of this: through another fond memory of his wife Jenny pointing out the unnecessary denseness of his voluminous Das Kapita l—and the resulting arguments over the dinner table — Marx communicates this to the audience. He tells his wife that his work is not meant to entertain, but is meant to explain and communicate and hence cannot be simplified any further, perhaps communicating the same message to the audience of the play as well. The language — constantly switching from English to Hindi to Gujarati to even German for bits — acts as a reminder of this density of content as well; it simplifies content to the extent possible and attempts to reach out to the masses, but there will always remain parts partially incomprehensible to an amateur audience member.
The continuous disruption of the fourth wall with the (purposeful) faux pas in the music and lights, aside from Puranik’s own maverick behavior, keeps the play lighthearted and the audience smiling, despite the intensity of the content delivered whilst doing so. Puranik constantly reminds the audience of the performative element of the show by poking fun at the light changes and sudden drops in background music. The set is kept minimalist — going with the idea that the performance is on a tight budget — and save for a couple of suitcases, odd tables and chairs and scattered books, Puranik is the sole attraction on stage which perhaps justifies the need to have made it an interactive theatre show. It is, in all, an interesting watch and will give you your money’s worth, as promised to the audience by both Shah and Marx at the very beginning of the play.