“In the last decades interest in hunger artists has declined considerably. Whereas in earlier days there was good money to be earned putting on major productions of this sort under one’s own management, nowadays that is totally impossible. Those were different times.”
So begins Franz Kafka’s short story titled, A Hunger Artist - the extraordinary tale of an artist who takes on elaborate fasts for the amusement of the general public. A public, that is soon losing interest in this genre of performance. He struggles to retain their attention and is forced to prove the authenticity of his hunger repeatedly. One day in desperation, taking his fast to an extreme, the protagonist starves himself to death in his cage. Only to be replaced by a young, gluttonous panther, whose insatiable appetite for food, begins, once again, to attract large crowds to the zoo.
Like all great pieces of art and literature, this archetypically Kafkaesque parable written in the 1920s lends itself to many complex interpretations and themes that become more definitive and veracious, as the years go by. Until in the end, this begins to be seen for what it has been all along, a story simply about the ‘condition’ of the modern human being. About what it means to be human in our times. An idea which is at once, fiercely political as well as deeply psychological. This is the exact path of inquiry we embarked upon as part of making this theatrical production.
Our Hunger Artist, however, is several people at different points in our shared history. In one case, for example, he is a man from the interiors of a drought-stricken Maharashtra put in a cage in front of us, the present-day audience. He speaks in a muddled varhadi dialect of Marathi, he is hungry and has decided to stay so until he tells us his story. His family’s story. Until he persuades us to hear him, to see him. His story and he himself, bone-tired and starving in nothing but a pair of black tights, areas removed from us as an abstract museum piece. We, on the other side of the cage, peering in, areas alienating for him. And yet, somehow a conversation begins.
The production looks at the idea of ‘hunger’ from a variety of reference points. What does it mean to a farmer facing a prolonged drought and rising grain prices? As the FAO data recently confirmed that, “no country comes close to India in terms of the absolute number of people living in chronic hunger”, malnutrition is still very much a part of his reality. What does it mean when we lose interest in his story? On the other hand, what does it mean to an activist like Irom Sharmila, whose fast, much like the fast of Kafka’s Hunger Artist, lost our national interest? From the famines in Bengal, to Gandhiji’s fast for our independence, Mid-day meals, to the recent deaths from starvation due to lack of proper paperwork - through the late farmer Poet, Krishna Kalamb’s poems as well as the revolutionary Namdeo Dhasal’s haunting verse ‘Bhook’, a layered and dialectical web of narratives is spun. And our protagonist and his ‘performed hunger’ lies at it’s centre.
For us, Kafka’s story is as much about the Spectators as it is about the artist and they too are worthy of acute examination. Who are these people who gather around a cage every day and entertain themselves by watching a man starve himself. Who are these people who then lose interest in him, get bored of him and now need something else to amuse themselves with. When they watch him, what do they really see? Are they simply passive observers, an audience only meant to consume unthinkingly whatever it is that is served?
Or is their act of spectatorship, a deliberate act of aggression? Their loss of interest in him, the result of a carefully cultivated sense of apathy? P. Sainath, an acclaimed rural journalist of our country, often refers to the idea of ‘Nero’s Guests’. By putting the audience at the center of our story, we explore the social and psychological moralities of those who stand by, watch and illuminate themselves by the flames of those burning at the stake.
Another major aspect of our production is the use of a grotesque looking puppet of the panther in the end, operated by the actor. The panther is a recurring metaphor throughout the play and is represented in various forms until it takes a physical shape in the end and like in Kafka’s circus, we on the outside cannot look away. The panther, as seen in the video plays a critical role in the narrative of the hunger artist. It stands for everything that he isn't yet they are both more similar than may appear to be. In a sense that both of them at the end of the day perform for and exist at the mercy of the spectators.
The play, to conclude, asks questions about the artist's identity, his relationship with the land and its tiller, the violent act of spectatorship, what does it mean to be on display and most of all what does it mean to be hungry.