Remembering the Beauty, Majesty and Troubles of 1930s India

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Indian Ink



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


There is a moment in Indian Ink, a revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1995 play, when 1930s India stands still. Flora Crewe, a controversial British poet living in India, comes out of her pastel colored mansion to greet someone and servants surround her. Light beams down from the heavens and baths her. Flora’s smile is softly, perfectly in place and all are glad to see her. It is a mystical, historic moment, a distant memory of the Raj, a reminder of Britain’s historic foothold in the vast country. It is a movie-like moment, full of lush color, rich sounds, romance and vivid memory.

Stoppard’s play, that opened last week at the Laura Pels Theater in New York, is the tale of beautiful, blonde and sickly poet Crewe’s trip to India “for her health” in 1930 and the men she meets there. At the same time, it is the story of her sister’s search for Flora’a old letters and chats with people in order to remember her better. And, too, it is the search for a portrait of Flora, naked, that all seem to remember and none seem to be able to find.

Most of all, though, the play is a tender, and yet scalding, look back at the historic tensions between the Brits and Indians in the last days of the Raj, highlighted by the Salt March of Mohandas Gandhi and others. The country is shaking badly, the Brits are losing their grip and in 17 years independence will arrive. This time in the ‘30s, and Flora’s story, is the Raj’s Last Hurrah.

Stoppard’s play is long and complicated, full of characters, sub plots and nuance. The first act is very tedious. Flora starts to get sick and develops a relationship with the artist, Nirad Das, who is painting both her official and unofficial (naked) portraits. It stretches over 90 minutes of very slow moving plot and character development. You start to squirm in your seat.

Act two is much better. The characters are fully developed by then and you can feel the animosity between the Brits and Indians building. Flora is shown as not just a poet, but a beautiful woman who tumbles into three difference relationships with men. She is the toast of the Jummapur province and London at the same time. She goes to parties, dances, and takes trips to the country. Stoppard shows India as a Technicolor movie, bathed in luscious light and the caress of history.

Throughout the story, though, and you have to sit and sit for it to unfold, there is trouble. The servants snap at all the Brits, talk of protests and riots fill the parties and there is the fabled Salt March that everybody discusses. The Brits brag about how they created a wonderful and efficiently working government in India because the Indians could not do so themselves. The Indians want to do nothing more than kick the Brits into the Indian Ocean

My one deep gripe about the play is that it merely mentions the Salt March, a tell-tale moment in Indian history. Gandhi led 78 followers on a 231 miles walk to the ocean beaches to illegally take up handfuls of mud from which salt was produced. By British decree, Indians could not manufacture salt. Only the Brits could do that. It was, to Gandhi, symbolic of nearly 250 years of illegal British domination over the country. Tens of thousands greeted Gandhi on his journey and swarmed over the beaches where he famously took the salt filled mud. The march, Gandhi’s subsequent arrest (he was arrested again a month later) and the beatings of hundreds of salt protestors later, was one of the most important moments in Indian history. The publicity from it helped to unite different religious sects and people from all of the provinces in the vast country into one people. Stoppard should have done far more with this event and how Crewe and her associates viewed it.

The playwright might have dropped some of his tedious dialogue in the first act and added more of the nation’s exciting history to liven the play up a bit.

From time to time, 1980s Brits and Indians swoop in through the play in an effort to remind the audiences that the old India of Kipling and Gandhi are gone forever. These days it is all Bollywood and Boom box music, tee shirts and computers. The juxtaposition works, but people already know all that.

The play is held together with superb performances. Romola Garai dominates the play from its first few seconds until its last as Flora Crewe. She is sexy, intellectual, and charming. Equally good is Firdous Bamji as the painter, Das, who steals the show from time to time with his development as an artist and yearning to be Flora’s lover. Rosemary Harris, one of the theater’s most honored actresses, is the proverbial icing on the cake as the aging sister, ever in search of her sibling’s ghost.

The set, by Neil Patel, is breathtaking. It is a big, old Indian mansion that Patel must have yanked out of a dream. It is filled with tables and chair, mosquito mesh covered beds, terraces and thrones. The lighting by Robert Wierzel is haunting at times and cheerful at others. The whole play rolls on like a 1950d movie.

Despite its first act slowness, the play is a nice look at old India.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Sets: Neil Patel, Costumes: Candice Donnelly, Lighting: Robert Wierzel, Fight Director Thomas Scull, Choreography: John Carrafa. The play is directed by Carey Perloff.



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