Complexity and Contradiction in being Indian in America, by Shahana Dattagupta

I saw The Banyan Tree by Tulika Kumar on its opening weekend to a sold out show, and I’m reflecting on what about it was so appealing even in three short vignettes.

Sheeba Jacob and Fox Rain Matthews in a scene from
United States V. Nani Ji. Photo: Joe Iano
The Banyan Tree touches and moves you because it presents universal themes in a very specific socio-cultural and temporal context – the Indian-American expatriate’s life in contemporary times. This particular frame provides the storytelling the specific idiosyncrasies of being Indian (in America) – palm readings and old cassette songs, pungent grocery stores and Indianized American homes, immigration and taxes, the nosy neighbor, mothers and fathers with specific behaviors that make you crack up in recognition. But within this frame the playwright touches the universal themes that matter to all of us, no matter where we’re from – the classic move of good storytelling. Challenges and questions of destiny and free will, tradition and liberty, family and marriage, womanhood and manhood, personal and political identity.  An older woman serendipitously finding herself while helping a younger one find her way. A father and son struggling to have the only conversation that truly matters. An immigration situation revealing the underlying inconsistencies, absurdity and hypocrisies of our world’s socio-economic order.

What I also loved about the play was that it raised the appropriate questions without providing the answers or any particular resolution – perhaps a happy outcome of the vignette structure. I also enjoyed the lightness of the storytelling. The play is meant to get us to think even as we laugh, but more importantly, feel – feel the tensions in the complexity and contradictions and ambiguities and absurdities and  ironies and paradoxes that make up what we believe, 99% of the time, to be a sane, regular, ‘normal’ life. It gets us to see our habitual insanity. And through this feeling, emerge a couple hours later perhaps just a bit different in our humanity.
Alpa Dave and Madhura Nirkhe in a scene from
The Palm Reader. Photo: Joe Iano

The actors do a wonderful job in bringing these complexities and contradictions to life, even in the relatively short time they have on stage to accomplish this feat. A special mention is due to Abhijeet Rane, who deftly brings out an annoying, dogmatic husband, a conservative but concerned father, and a ridiculous bum of a son all in three different swift moves. I also very much enjoyed Madhura Nirkhe’s, Alpa Dave’s and Sheeba Jacob’s portrayals of some very different-from-each other female characters. The sets and props brought the situations to life wonderfully – I began laughing before anybody even said anything on stage, because of the intense familiarity they kindled. And finally, kudos to director Agastya Kohli and the entire production team for taking on this project, and working hard to bring out the nuances of such a wonderful play.

Shahana Dattagupta is a Seattle-based writer, singer, visual artist, theater artist and creativity coach. She has written and published three books including one on Creativity, co-edits the monthly global magazine Courageous Creativity, teaches Hindustani classical, and facilitates Creativity Workshops, shaping the paths of many creative individuals. Amongst other projects, she is presently working on her second short play for ACT’s Represent festival.