DanceDramaLondonReviewSpoken Word

Samaadhi – Riverside Studios, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Ivantiy Novak

The shameful story of the British massacre of peaceful Indian protesters at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar in 1919 is one that deserves to be retold. Fearing a mutiny as a result of growing civil unrest, Anglo-Indian Brigadier-General Dyer instigated marshal law. When an estimated 20,000 protesters gathered in the garden of Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer’s troops followed his orders to block the only exit of the garden and, without warning, open fire on them.

Samaadhi, a piece created and performed by Ivantiy Novak and Mohit Mathur, is a work in progress. The pair have ambitious ideas, aiming to use poetry, physical theatre, dance, clowning and archive records to address the enduring issues raised by the massacre. There is evident chemistry between the two performers and they clearly feel passionately about the story or stories they want to tell. Unfortunately for the audience, these stories remain for the most part opaque.

The pair roll energetically round the stage or cling to one another, but the reason for the choreography is often hard to fathom. There is strange business with props, limited to a scarf, a bent walking stick and a battered wheelie suitcase which seems to symbolise something significant. They repeatedly mime both firing rifles and being shot. At times Novak effectively embodies the ramrod stiff Dyer. Less clear is whether Mathur represents a single, haunted survivor of the massacre or a range of other characters. His facial expressions and gestures are undifferentiated, expressing only a narrow range of intense emotions. Greater nuance would bring clarity to his role.

The piece uses a considerable amount of spoken word – the work of Novak. It is oddly portentous, shifting uncomfortably in register between empty modern idiom (something described as ‘cute’ ) and hopeless archaisms (‘Speakest thou an apology?’ one asks the other at some stage). Thus words frequently misfire and Novak’s fondness for rhyme brings is all perilously close to pantomime couplets. There is an incomprensible section in which Mathur lengthily addresses a white wolf.

The programme notes ask ‘Why Samaadhi?’ but the term itself remains unexplained.

Samaadhi stands badly in need of a director who can help these young creatives communicate successfully to an audience.

Runs until 5 February 2022

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One Comment

  1. I watch Saamadhi today. It was a difficult watch. I am from Punjab and the story of Jillian Walla Bagh is very close to my heart as the family’s effects are close to me. I was disappointed to see that the play was far from what happened. Firstly, there were many Sikhs that were killed in the massacre. The play never mentioned them. Secondly, the play sympathizes with the actions of General Dyer. There is a moment where the peaceful protestors were referred to as people who had acted in terror and the character played by Mohit, asks Dyer to have issued a warning to them instead of killing them, cementing the fact that these people were bad actors and there should have been consequences for what they did, just the massacre was too extreme.

    The massacre is a big part of Sikh history. It also is very important in the all-Indian independence movement, because after this act of the British government the entire country was outraged and even Gandhi changed his strategy with the British and started to fight for complete independence.

    The title Saamadhi for a massacre is something distorted as well. Saamadhi is a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation. In yoga, this is regarded as the final stage, at which union with the divine is reached before or at death. There were children and innocent people killed at gunpoint, who wanted to live not to die. It is far from a Saamadhi. It is a massacre. They are two different things.

    I feel that this play disrespects the truth and distorts history. It disrespects the pain that many people feel and are quiet and say nothing. Their silence is not heard and rather being capitalized in a play that may help a few artists come together and have a good time at the cost of an entire nation.

    Before I left, I asked some people what they liked. Everyone spoke about how beautifully the play was presented, the dance, and the lighting. They learned nothing about history. I asked Mathur afterward, what inspired him to organize this play. He mentioned he is from India. Since coming to the UK, he saw how the people here in the UK don’t know what happened back in history and that he is trying to bridge a gap. Also, he is trying to see the day of this massacre from the point of view of General Dyer who actioned the massacre and understand why he did what he did. I respect that both sides should be looked at. However, it is important to know what one is trying to achieve. This play does not heal the pain. It is similar to something like understanding Hitler’s point of view, however also normalizing what Hitler did.

    I understand that the actors and dancers are amazing, however, it is their duty to portray the truth. Healing is necessary, but it should be based on the truth.

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