The small village of Jatinga in the Dima Hasao District of Assam in India is home to approximately 2,500 tribal people. Today, it’s an international tourist destination because of a strange phenomenon that occurs at the same time each year, which has come to be known as a mass ‘bird suicide’. For over a century, that phenomenon has involved dozens of bird species flying off a cliff, suddenly becoming disoriented and apparently throwing themselves to their deaths. The precise combination of factors that draw the birds annually to the skies above the cliff remains a subject of intrigue for researchers across the globe, but the reality of their demise reveals an uglier, uncomfortable truth.
These events provide the backdrop for a brand new work that had its world premiere at Kings Cross Theatre last week, produced by bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company. Written by award-winning Hindi playwright, Purva Naresh, Jatinga tells the story of five girls (played by Faezeh Jalali, Karina Bracken, Sheila Kumar, Teresa Tate Britten and Trishala Sharma) who, owing to a variety of circumstances, have been pushed to the brink. In a desperate bid to change their destinies, the girls board a train to Jatinga and meet Madhumita (Suz Mawer), an investigative journalist from Mumbai, keen to tell the girls’ stories. But what will it take to have those stories heard? What can Madhumita do in order to bring the girls back from the edge of the cliff?
Jatinga was inspired by a trip that director Suzanne Millar (bAKEHOUSE’s co-artistic director) made four years ago to Mumbai, when she spent three months in Kamathipura, one of the oldest and largest red-light districts in Asia. There are more than 10,000 brothel-based workers in the area, of which 45% are homeless, 74% are HIV positive, 88% are the victims of sex trafficking, and the average age of arrival is 12-years-old. Of the five girls at the centre of this piece, Champa (Sharma) is the one we find has escaped the grip of sex traffickers; however, each of her four new friends is running from a life of hardship and, like Champa, are vulnerable and marginalised and are consequently ideal candidates for even tougher times in the future. Jatinga recognises the disturbingly high number of women and children who find themselves in similar situations, and forces its audience to think about what can be done to affect meaningful change.
Jatinga is a highly provocative, intelligent and engrossing theatrical experience, which challenges romantic ideas of India. It reveals not just the gaping chasm between rich and poor, but city versus country divides and a country grappling with modernisation while much of its population is not included. In fact, the myths and romance that cater to tourist notions of India play a part in perpetrating ignorance and disadvantage.
The extent of the research conducted and involvement of creatives working on the ground in the region is evident, and it’s a credit to Millar and her team that they’ve worked to ensure the involvement of two Mumbai actors. There’s a tangible sense of authenticity about this production, and that very obviously owes to that care and thought in creating the work.
Millar’s cast demonstrates total commitment to the story. Mawer convinces as a journo who’s sympathetic but also uncompromising in her efforts to find – and tell – the big story. Each of the five central actors (Jalali, Bracken, Kumar, Britten and Sharma) ensures their audience is invested in their individual back stories and yearns for them to have the ability to escape to a better life. Playing the victim of sex-trafficking, Sharma creates a character who is appropriately pricklier than her friends and more sceptical of a caring stranger. As the elderly woman weeping for the approaching birds, Sapna Bhavnani is captivating but, simultaneously, disturbing as the oracle – keeper of the knowledge of all the wrongs occurring around her. And as a guide luring tourists to Jatinga to witness the ‘bird suicide’ phenomenon, Monroe Reimers is suitably charming but undeniably slippery.
In speaking to Theatre People recently to discuss the piece, Millar spoke of her aim to put “a little piece of India on stage”, and this production achieves precisely that. Thanks to the performances, simple but beautifully incorporated movement content, Nate Edmondson’s lush and sometimes cinematic soundscape, and Benjamin Brockman’s sensitive lighting of the intimate theatre’s traverse stage, Jatinga creates a sense of being a genuine bystander to the unfolding events. It is original, it is important, and thoroughly gripping.
JATINGA – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 24th June
Times: 7.30pm Tuesdays – Saturdays, 5pm Sundays
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre – Level 2, Kings Cross Hotel, Kings Cross
Tickets: Adult $35 | Concession $30 | Cheap Tuesday $25
More information and bookings: www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au