By James Karas
Anusree Roy’s Pyaasa is a powerful play that illustrates the lives of a large portion of the population of India – the untouchables. The Hindu religion has strict ranks or castes for people and the untouchables are debris who are degraded to such a level that they are not allowed to eat using the same utensils as people from higher castes. Even the shadow of an untouchable is considered a contaminant if it falls on someone of a higher caste. I find it almost impossible to comprehend this religious edifice of degradation and can only conceive it as a social, national and humanitarian disgrace.
Anusree Roy in PYAASA. Photo Credit: Michael Cooper
Roy in Pyaasa has set herself the task of telling us something about the untouchables by mounting this one-woman show set in Calcutta in Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace. The walls of the Backspace are painted black and she uses no set or props except for a pail. She is dressed in a traditional Indian costume and relates the story of one family of untouchables.
Roy is a highly physical and vocal actor. She changes her voice to represent the 11-year old Chaya, a girl who is the central character and her mother, and she is rarely still. The untouchables of her play live under a bridge. The father cleans the washrooms of a police station. The mother works as a servant and is already dehumanized or perhaps was born in a milieu where all she could do was kowtow to her “superiors” and barely exist. She has learned how to be slavish and make sure her tone of voice, every body movement and gesture and her soul, illustrate obedience and acceptance of her base status.
The little girl is being trained to be and act dehumanized like her mother. A tea biscuit becomes an extremely important object. Chaya’s mother begs and gets a menial job for the little girl in a teashop run by her boss servant.
The play and the performance are a choreographed cantata about the little girl and by extension millions of Hindus caught in a social structure that defies belief.
Roy and director Thomas Morgan Jones compress and express a hellish story in less than an hour. The little girl’s final tragedy is expressed in searing whimpers and short phrases as the lighting changes to bring home the horror of what is happening.
Pyaasa was first produced in 2008 at Passe Muraille and won Dora Awards as Best New Play and Outstanding Performance by a Female. No wonder.
Pyaasa by Anusree Roy opened on March 8 and will run until March 27, 2016 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.ca Tickets: