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India Gate

by on 2 May 2022

Snapshots and Perspectives

India Gate

by Howard Shepherdson, in collaboration with Tajinder Sindra

The Questors Theatre and Punjabi Theatre Academy at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 7th May, then on UK and international tour.

Review by Mark Aspen

For well over four hundred years the history of India and Britain has been inextricably linked. This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of India achieving independence as a sovereign country, and it is apposite that two local production companies should collaborate to commemorate the occasion with the premiere of India Gate.  Each partner has brought its own expertise and the play has a ringing authenticity, indeed much of the dialogue is in Punjabi.

During those four centuries India has become a unified country and now is powerful and influential in its own right.  However, the relationship between Britain and India has not always gone smoothly.   India Gate concentrates on two periods of history, the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in the Punjab in April 1919 and the events leading up to Indian Independence Day in August 1947.  The story is told largely through the eyes of two people, Lady Emily Lutyens, recalcitrant wife of the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens; and Udham Singh, a Sikh zealot, who became an assassin. 

From these foci, the lives and the views of their family, colleagues and friends also add to the examination of the times and mores of the human beings behind momentous turning points in history.  In the same way, the two defining events are ironically parenthesised.  The horror of the Amritsar massacre was preceded by the triumph, albeit a Pyrrhic victory, of the Sikh involvement in the First World War.  Contrariwise, the elation of the Indian people at independence was to be dashed by the horrors consequent on the country’s partition.  These parenthesising events, although alluded to, are left as shadows each side of the narrative.

We first meet Udham Singh, who is disturbed by nightmares about the Amritsar massacre where he was one of hundreds of people injured when troops, under acting-Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, fired on unarmed civilians at the Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden near the Golden Temple sacred to Sikhism, resulting in hundreds of fatalities.  Dyer’s heavy-handed action against a group whom he believed to be protestors, led to wide condemnation, including by Winston Churchill as “a monstrous event, which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.  However, Dyer’s action was approved by the governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, leading to Udham Singh nurturing a revengeful hatred of O’Dwyer, which festered over the next twenty-one years of both their lives.

Rajeev Soni cuts an imposing figure in the role of Udham Singh, both in his physical stature and his interpretation of Singh’s earnest and growing resentment (which was to earn Singh several periods of imprisonment).  His increasing agitation shows in Soni’s body language and his frustrations as the vendetta burgeons in his mind.

Lady Emily Lutyens was a multi-faceted woman.  Although of top-drawer lineage, as the daughter of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 2nd Baron of Lytton, one time Viceroy of India, she had a very radical bent.  She was a suffragette, a vegetarian long before it was fashionable, an occultist who believed in reincarnation, a bohemian in her teens and a life-long spiritualist.   Her guiding belief was theosophy, an esoteric amalgam of philosophy and various religions, and she befriended the young Indian guru, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was two decades younger.  She became a powerful supporter of Indian independence, which caused some friction with her husband, the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose prolific output included many of the buildings in New Dehi, the new Imperial capital, including the All-India War Memorial, called India Gate.

Clare Cooper is outstanding as Lady Lutyens, portraying the complexity of this strong character.  There is the rare combination of haughtiness and empathy, of stubborn disregard and kindness, of convention and quirkiness, carefully balanced and fully inhabited by Cooper.

The Indian settings gives a gift to Sarah Andrews costume designs, which she uses to great effect while subtle sound effects by Russel Fleet help set the scene.  With fifteen different locations in India and in London, Alex Marker’s effective set design is of necessity simple, an archetypical nine-pointed wheel pattern on the floor of thrust stage, which has Indian style arches as it backdrop. 

In seventy-five minutes played straight through, and the multiple scenes changing in location and time (from 1877 to 1947) there is much to get through and Writer-Director Howard Shepherdson does not do himself many favours by cramming a lot of information in there.  The plot does as a result become episodic and at times feels a bit like a history lecture, although Terry Mummery’s projections do give signposts to the audience.  Too many laboured back-stories stop the characters speaking for themselves, but when they do, the script really zings.   

A case in point is a scene between Lady Emily and Sir Edwin Lutyens in their Kensington house, on the morning after the assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, when the differences in their political and philosophical attitudes underline the gradual divergence of their opinions and their marriage; and show the strains on their marriage, something that had been hinted at in earlier exchanges of letters.   In the hands of Clare Cooper and Iain Reid the tension becomes palpable.

Iain Reid plays Sir Edwin as a likeable character, as pragmatic as he is practical, a man used to being at ease at all strata of society.  Reid is very comfortable in this part and very convincing.  Sir Edwin’s personality is shown in his relationship with Ram Singh, his assistant and structural engineer in the building of the India Gate.   Ram Singh is painted as a very intelligent, knowledgeable and above all diplomatic man, whom Lutyens warmed to and trusted.   Paul Singh Ladher, in the part of Ram Singh, puts across all these characteristics easily and accurately.

The text is both lightened and made real by the Punjabi dialogue, in passages written by Tajinder Sindra, the Artistic Director of The Punjabi Theatre Academy and assistant director of India Gate.   Sindra is not afraid to use humour to good effect in, for example, the scenes with the activists Ajit Singh and Sandeep Singh Brar, who came to London in 1929 to seek Lady Lutyens help in lobbying for Indian home rule.  In a nod to present times, they observe, “You can’t get a goody curry in London; it will never catch on in this country”.  In a nice visual gag, when taking tea with Lady Lutyens, each extends a little pinkie, as they pick up the cup and saucer.  Ben Sura and Anoop Jagan have great fun with these characters.

Jagan appears later as Piyara Singh, who with Gurmukh Singh (Balvinder Kumar), elders at the Shepherd’s Bush Gurdwara, strongly disapprove of the intentions of Udham Singh, whose actions polarised the Sikh community between condemnation and lauding as a martyr.    

In a flashback to 1877, we see the Viceroy, Lord Lytton stubbornly refusing to alter his stance on exporting grain in spite of the Great Famine caused by drought, which ravaged India in 1876-78, reagrdless of good council by medical consultant Dr Cornish and his Indian colleague Dr Patel.   John Turner is superbly starchy and unbending in the role of Lord Lytton, and James Goodden’s Dr Cornish is equally of the period in his balanced deference.  Dr Patel, who almost succeeds in convincing Lord Lytton of the self-defeating nature of his stance, is played in a doubling role by Balvinder Kumar in another well-studied part.

Equally, the optimism of Rani Gupta one of the Indian representatives to London at independence is enthusiastically portrayed in a bright cameo by Ruchika Jain, as Gupta visits Lady Lutyens expressing her hopes for the future, in an ironic hint at things to come at partition. 

Questors’ stalwart Maggie Taylor also offers well-pitched cameos in clearly differentiated roles as Sarah, Lady Lutyens’ artless unworldly maid, then as Sylvia Underwood, a diplomat’s wife, but without self-awareness, and finally briefly as the Chairman of the East India Association at its fateful meeting at Caxton Hall.   Taylor’s versatility and penchant for humour is undisputable.

India Gate uses its snapshots into the past to extract the diverse perspectives of the seventy years leading to Indian independence from British and Sikh viewpoints.  The co-operation of two talented theatre companies, who could be said to represent those viewpoints, makes for interesting insights and intriguing realisations on what was, what might have been, and what is.  Four centuries have united India under the British Raj, and a sovereign India is now on the verge of becoming one of the world’s superpowers.

Mark Aspen, April 2022

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

Production photographs show different casting

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Very much enjoyed reading this review of both the production and its references to British and Indian history. Despite references to the length of backstories, it sounds like a production to see.

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