A Doll’s House: Dancing to the Tune of Mitski, Colonialism, and the Male Gaze
Dania Kamal Aryf
Image description: Drawing of a wooden house falling apart and floating at sea.
Niru Helmer is everything that a man (read: a British colonial officer in 1879 India) could want. She is beautiful and intelligent, a dedicated mother, daughter, and wife – and in the eyes of her husband, Tom, she dances gracefully like divinity. He affectionately refers to her as his ‘Indian princess’, his ‘little skylark’, and his ‘pretty but expensive pet’. Together, they have built a loving home in Calcutta with their two children, Peter and Bob, and enjoy the many privileges that an upper-middle-class life has to offer. When Tom gets promoted to the position of Chief Tax Collector, Niru is inevitably overjoyed. Yet, her short-lived excitement is gradually replaced with betrayal and tragedy that shatter her entire reality. Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Ibsen’s classic play is a cleverly written piece that brings together the question of class, community and colonialism, and ultimately, the exoticism of women of colour within inter-racial marriages. Initially brought to life at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in 2019, the show received critical acclaim for being a breath of fresh air. Gupta has been praised for encouraging new ways of rethinking classic texts, colonial societies, and the lived realities of such times.
This year, a group of Oxford students aim to do the same in taking Niru’s personal story to the stage of our very own Keble O’Reilly. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Jigyasa Anand and Srutokirti Basak to discuss the team’s vision and creative direction, and their perspectives on the many important themes within the play.
“But I knew I didn’t want to do something that was about white, middle class people, because it’s not representative of mine, and so many other people’s realities. It is so important to me to correct the gaps that currently exist in OUDS. I wanted to make something that had doors for people of colour, and roles for people of colour – and that’s when I found Tanika Gupta’s adaptation.”
Jigyasa, as Director, has previously been involved with acting and drama throughout Oxford and London, and excitedly tells me that this is her first time directing her own production. I ask if she had reasons for specifically choosing Gupta’s adaptation of ‘A Doll’s House’ as her debut, and she tells me that, “I just wanted to make the kind of theatre that I’d also want to watch.”
“I absolutely loved the original. I love Ibsen’s play, and the original is great because it’s so character driven,” she continues.
“But I knew I didn’t want to do something that was about white, middle class people, because it’s not representative of mine, and so many other people’s realities. It is so important to me to correct the gaps that currently exist in OUDS. I wanted to make something that had doors for people of colour, and roles for people of colour – and that’s when I found Tanika Gupta’s adaptation. So over the summer of 2021, I seriously began thinking about how to put on the show, and by the end of Michaelmas we started working on it and putting together a team.”
Hence Srutokirti, as part of the production team, holds a crucial role as their ‘resident historian.’ Being a final-year History student of Bengali descent herself, she has extensively studied the time period and the context of colonial societies that frame the backdrop of Gupta’s play. Srutokirti’s historical insight has given the production team the opportunity to delve deeper into the many systemic and subconscious forces at play, which shape the lives of Niru and those around her.
“Tanika Gupta’s adaptation is set in 1870s Calcutta – the heart of the British Raj during an era of high imperialism. Inevitably, there is much more tension within this story than in Ibsen’s original because it centres around a mixed-race marriage between a Bengali woman and a white British man, who is a high-ranking colonial officer,” Srutokirti says.
“This play is meant to be a form of historical fiction, and while writers should be able to do whatever they want with history, an important part of the process is also figuring out how to convey it to your audience.In a similar vein, just because this story happens to be a work of fiction, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any bearing on reality.”
“We witness that the character of Tom Helmer staunchly supports imperialism, because it ‘promotes civilisation and education’,” she continues. Srutokirti explains how Tom also repeatedly exoticises and glorifies Niru for her ability to dance Kathak, an Indian classical dance which was performed extensively in Mughal courts, and he asks her to dance for him. Yet ironically, he also refers to her community as ‘savage heathens’.”
She adds that, “this play is meant to be a form of historical fiction, and while writers should be able to do whatever they want with history, an important part of the process is also figuring out how to convey it to your audience. In a similar vein, just because this story happens to be a work of fiction, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any bearing on reality.”
“As a historian, Srutokiriti has also played a really important role in noticing or pointing out certain things which the rest of us on the production team may not have realised otherwise,” Jigyasa adds.
“For example, when I read the play and noticed there was a Christmas tree in one of the scenes, I wondered if there were actually Christmas trees in India at the time. Srutokirti was able to research this and confirm that there were, and she also helped shed light on the pronunciations of certain words, the clothing styles involved, and the ways in which the characters interact with each other.”
This extensive historical insight has been invaluable for the show’s creative team and the set designers as well – an emphasis how the play is meant to be a safe space to creatively explore and express these deeply important and personal narratives.
As the story progresses, one begins to question whether Tom Helmer had ever genuinely been in love with his wife, and if he was perhaps merely “in love with the idea of her.”Although the same could be said about Nora from Ibsen’s original play, Gupta’s adaptation highlights how Niru’s pain becomes inevitably double-edged and a lot more complex, due to the additional element of colonial dynamics involved.
“Also, I hope you don’t mind this, but I really want to add that I absolutely love and am the biggest fan of Mitski,” Jigyasa continues, laughingly.
“So whenever I re-read the play, I keep going back to the lyrics from Mitski’s song, ‘American Girl’, where she sings how ‘your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, and you’re an all-American boy, I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl’, and I feel like the same could be said about Niru, when she struggles to live up to Tom’s fantasies of an ideal wife.”
I smile wistfully in response to what Jigyasa has just said, realising how Mitski’s lyrics are not merely reflective of Niru, nor Nora’s, story from Ibsen’s original – but of the all-too familiar narrative surrounding women who eventually learn to grapple with the painful realisation of being dehumanised, especially by the men they once loved. Hence, Gupta’s re-writing of this play sheds a particular light on the grief, anger, and heartbreak that often accompany the continued attempt in re-building and re-discovering one’s identity, especially after such a shattering revelation.
When we talk about humanising the characters within the stories we tell, Jigyasa emphasises that, “we’re not going to kill ourselves for our art. We’re still making a piece of art, and I don’t want the focus to be on the fact that this play is specifically about a woman of colour, or about race, or about colonialism. This is just another piece of theatre that aims to tell the story of a character’s life, and that Niru is the main character of this story.”
Ultimately, the question of humanising, and of perceiving, continues to resonate deeply with Niru’s poignantly admirable pursuit for a more honest, and genuine self. Beyond the constricting gaze of an ignorant lover’s unattainable ideal, Niru’s journey merely reminds us to live as authentically as we can – as human beings, above all else.
Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of A Doll’s House will be staged at the Keble O’Reilly theatre in 8th Week of Hilary Term 2022. More information about the show will be available closer to its release.