by Charlie Bowles | Link to the article here
Have you discovered your destiny? Do events keep changing the direction of your life?
As I look back over my years, I can make an argument that I never planned anything. It seems every good thing, and a few bad things, just happened. And they seemed disconnected, random events. I took advantage of a few and advanced my lot. I barely survived some. But maybe, despite my lofty goals, I’m just living a life of serendipity. Or maybe that’s my destiny. Who’s to say those chance encounters and unplanned events weren’t just turns on the path? And could this all be tied to some past life I lived?
The Red Pashmina, an original production of thinkIndia Foundation, in collaboration with MainStage Irving-Las Colinas, explores those questions. Serendipity or destiny? Can you link events in past lives together?
What’s a pashmina? It’s a hand-spun shawl woven from Kashmiri wool. In the West, this wool became known as cashmere, seen mostly in sweaters. Why is it red? Well, that’s the story. It ties together many events from the past. A psychiatrist, Dr. Sen, uses regression therapy with two patients to address personal issues and memories from those regressions create a short history of India. In most Western nations, regression therapy might focus on what happened in a patient’s early life, but in a culture that naturally accepts reincarnation as a fact of life, regression takes on a much different scope. Can you connect events of past lives into a cause for a patient’s current psychological symptoms?
Those regressions created the grand spectacle of The Red Pashmina. This Broadway-style show has a story that unfolds across several eras in India’s history, songs of the ancient cultures, native dances as only large groups of fabulously-adorned dancers could perform, and costumes you wouldn’t believe! The Red Pashmina was created by thinkIndia, specifically its collaborative artistic directors, Anisha Srinivasan, Shatarupa Purohit, Shibani Limaye, Malti Srinivasan, and Ravi Srinivasan. But the spectacle fills Irving’s Carpenter Hall with movement and color that kept the eyes focused for the whole two hours.
This production involved movable set pieces that put us into the journey through time. We visited a fishing village, a palace, a desert caravan, an officer’s club, a dungeon, and an ancient temple. Scenic Designer Joseph Cummings and Video Designer Vijay Gurow provided plenty of visual scenes, albeit leaving most of the huge stage empty for dances. These settings were colorful and carried us deeper into the Indian culture at every turn.
A real negative came out of this, though. Scene changes were interminably slow and seemingly unnecessary on such a large stage with a large cast and production team. The small set pieces were set against, in front of and behind a 50′ wide mid-stage scrim screen on which scene images were projected, including some moving pictures, and behind which some shadow acting was seen. But this had to raise and lower from scene to scene. And set pieces had their entries and exits along with various prop pieces, taking longer than necessary. It slowed down the performance and created some disjoint actions. With that said, the musical interludes during those times were very nice.
Sets were brilliantly lit by Kyle Harris who married the movable set pieces with Vijay Gurow’s projections to enhance the already-brilliant colors in the sets and costumes. Though a stage as large as Carpenter Hall has the benefit of many lighting instruments to play with, the size and configuration can be challenging when creating interactive colors in a show like this. Harris made all the performers easily visible and lifted them out of that cavernous stage to highlight their bright costumes.
Isaac Abraham designed a sound program to support the a live band, led by Kartik Rajagopal, and live singers in the pit. This small band created an accompaniment that changed with each scene and underpinned dances and songs. From modern contemporary piano themes for a 2017 Calcutta doctor’s office to traditional, Hindustani (and Carnatic) music in the historical scenes, both instrumental and beautifully-harmonic singing was a memorable facet of the show. Both supported a story that affirmed the qualities of Indian culture and basic humanity for all. There were a large group of choral singers in the pit with the band who sang for the dancers on-stage and these combined traditional half-tone song structures with modern-day harmonic progressions that turned even traditional music into a form even Texans could understand and enjoy. For a show who’s primary mission was to bring together the two cultures, the music made that more possible than almost anything.
Costumes were brilliant! Created by the team of Shatarupa Purohit, Radhika Ganesh, Shanti Ravi, Rhea Kamat, I can’t do justice explaining the rich variation in colors, textures and styles. The color explosion was eye-popping and styles changed across eras and regions of India to viscerally draw us into each story element.
I also can’t do justice as a native Texan to the variety of dances. There were a variety of folk and tribal dances, all of which originated in religious performance and mythological sources. Indian religious dance began around 2500 BCE and Indian cave paintings from 30,000 years BCE show dance was a part of their culture. Choreographers for these dances gave groups from small to large a strong connection to those early historical periods in the story. These were the visual elements that had the strongest connections to native Indian culture.
Dr. Sen, played by Ranjan Misra, was the mainstay of The Red Pashmina’s story line. As a modern-day psychiatrist in Calcutta, he believes in the power of past life regression to bring forward a patient’s deep-seated psychological issues. With a psychiatrist style of talking, Misra intoned guided meditations to puts patients into hypnosis and asks questions to direct them to look at their past lives. He was steady as an actor, his steady voice and calm attitude grounding any chaos that might come out of a regression. There wasn’t much of an arc for this character, though he did discover a surprising connection at the end of the show. As the main character, I would have liked a crisis or transformation in his development as a doctor or a man, but that’s a script issue. Misra acted the perfect psychiatrist.
Aarthi Ramesh, as Ananya Gupta, created a young girl who appeared to fear almost everything, including the doctor and hypnosis. Her life is difficult because of expectations by her mother and herself to find a relationship. As most patients in this kind of therapy, the cause of her fears are completely unknown to her and the doctor’s therapy tries to uncover those causes. In her regression sessions, Ananya “sees” numerous past-life stories that slowly show her life path. Some of those involve a red pashmina that floats through stories across the different eras. Ramesh handled Ananya’s reactions to these stories, which unfolded in scenes on the stage behind her, in various ways that showed feelings and discoveries about herself. In the end, there’s a surprising realization for Ananya that creates a new connection for her. Ramesh let her character transform from anxiety to comfort and showed those emotional gradations with skill.
Manav Kapoor, played by Samir Shah, also suffers from unexplained fears, including the elevator to the doctor’s office. He too undergoes hypnosis and imagines his stories from past lives, some of which also involve a red pashmina. A boy in a fishing boat, a prince in a palace teaching sword fighting to a young princess, time in a palace dungeon, all these seem to be causes for fears he has. Shah had a stronger Indian accent than some of the others and so, to my Western ear, was sometimes hard to understand. I fault myself – not him. But he entered the story with a significant amount of anxiety and angst, struggled with that throughout therapy, and found a new version of himself in the end. His character had the greatest transformation of all and Shah played that very well.
Every other character in the cast supported the regression stories through scenes, songs and dance, part of each past-life episode. This included a group of British ex-solders in a London pub in 1961 reminiscing about their time in India during the formative British occupation in 1925. One of these has an important love affair story to tell that feeds into the discoveries for Ananya and Manav. Played by Clayton Cunningham, as the old George, and Jonny Edgett as the 1925 George, as well as James West as Richard, Keith Kubal as David, and Stephan Singleton as Michael, these guys put on their best British accents and played up their old-soldier memories of that grand adventure in the old days.
Parul Bhatia, as a mother in an ancient fishing village on the coast of India, sending her teenage son, played by Aarnav Kamat, on his first fishing trip, showed us a common fear and hope for her son’s life. Her songs, surrounded by the tribal prayer dances for the fisherman, were deeply moving. Parents in every culture fears for their children leaving the nest and going into a dangerous world. That story crosses all generations and cultures.
A beloved grandmother, played by Renuka Kant, tells folk stories to her young granddaughter, Rajeshwari Prabhune. Stories, songs and dances from the caravan, the palace and temples also introduced other characters, like Karanvir (Shravan Gaddam), Firoza (Shukra Seshadri), and Princess Avantika (Swathi Harikumar), who filled roles that were past-life versions of one of the patients, Manav and Ananya. These performers mixed closely with dancers and singers, and showed a strong versatility in their roles, as fleeting or involved as they were. They all worked closely as an ensemble.
The Red Pashmina is a story that resonates with ideas we understand today. There are people and events throughout history with unknown, but important, connections. Are they accidental or have they some purpose? Some affect the balance of our lives and, maybe, the balance of nations. Cultural differences are pretty small, when looked at with a wider perspective across time and space. To link cultures more closely, especially when those cultures are living closely together, is a way to strengthen our relationships and our unity. In the end, our lives are about connections, regardless of culture. We need to remember this in a time of fractious society.
This co-production by thinkIndia and MainStage Irving-Las Colinas was a celebration of unity that has grown stronger since the first production last year. The Red Pashmina is worthy of the effort to bring it to the public in DFW and a revealing look at how we can all live together. There’s only one more weekend. Make the trip to Irving for this grand experience.