Phalguni Desai | SEPTEMBER 22 2016

An ongoing art show based on a 100-year-old court case combines theatre, art, performance, and history.

lmost a 100 years ago, the second son of a large and moneyed zamindari family in Dacca (now Dhaka), Bangladesh died while recuperating from syphilis in Darjeeling. What happened next, as the aggregators say, is the stuff of telenovelas and K serials. And a performance project by theatre director, Zuleikha Chaudhuri that is currently unfolding at the Mumbai Art Room: Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case.

The imposter

The story, which is now been recounted by a few books, a couple of Bangla movies, and bed time tales locals told their kids, is about the second Kumar of the Bhawal zamindari, who was declared dead and cremated, but walked back into town as a sanyasi, covered, they say, in ash.

Even with these meagre details, the mind creates images of a pristine Darjeeling, where the Kumar is said to have been cremated… and swept off the burning pyre, amidst thunder and rain, by holy men who revived him. One conjures up images of a sanyasi walking into Dacca one foggy morning, with locals recognising him to be the ‘late’ Ramendra Narayan Roy, second Kumar of Bhawal.

Then starts the drama.

Pictured: The original, undisputed picture of the Kumar before his alleged death.

The Kumar’s wife refuses to acknowledge ‘the imposter’. His sister backs him, initiating court proceedings with him to reclaim his inheritance. The case drags on, is appealed, and lasts even up to the Second World War.

See? The story sets itself up for at least one Bollywood blockbuster which takes the side of one or the other of the protagonists.

But there’s more to the Bhawal Court Case than wild imagination and an even wilder claim.

For one, it involved the production of a staggering amount of forensic evidence, which brought the questions of identification to the fore. Even today it comes up in law schools in India as a reference for possible misidentification and the need for scientific data and evidence-gathering methods. This could be entirely owing to the fact that of all the famous imposter and misidentification stories of that time, this is the only one resolved in favour of the “imposter”.

So what was it about this imposter that convinced not just the Dacca and Calcutta Courts but also the Privy Council? The case also brings to the fore questions about evidentiary findings: what evidence is produced, what evidence is created, to begin with, what is evidence? Can recreated photographs count as evidence? Can someone’s memory of another’s gait help decide that they are indeed who they claim to be? Do syphilis marks really disappear over time without the help of NoMarks cream?

Luckily, those interested have the chance to at least resolve for themselves the question of the imposter, via Chaudhuri’s project. Rehearsing… combines contemporary art and theatre to tackle questions of self-identification, evidence-making, archival documentation, and most importantly, the truth — or as Chaudhuri calls it, ‘the real thing’.

The creator

Ms Chaudhuri has converted the Mumbai Art Room into an audition-exhibition, where actors, artists, writers, philosophers, lawyers, doctors recreate the sensational trial as actors auditioning for a possible theatrical production that will open in Kolkata in autumn 2016. It’s a premise located at multiple crossroads of theatre, art, performance, and history.

From the choice of working with the Mumbai Art Room itself — which, as its Director, Nida Ghouse says, has been exploring the question of ‘What is an exhibition’ through its choice of shows in 2015 — o the scripts handed out that insist the participants don multiple personalities for their audition, the project forces you to confront dualities of form and self.

The “impersonator Kumar”.

The second round of auditions commences on January 6. Here Chaudhuri will ask the audience to reconsider what a rehearsal or what an audition is, so as to configure its relationship with ‘the real thing’. Her interest in what is real is a long-running one, through her career as a set and lighting designer, director and eventually someone inhabiting a contemporary arts space. Sparked by the discovery of a Felice Beato photograph in the Alkazi Collection of Photography, Chaudhuri found herself interested in what one does with archival material. “It exists, but then what?” she said in an interview with The Hindu. In an archival photo, she says, is “a trace of something that has happened, but it is now a photograph, so how do you access what has happened?”

To figure this out, she created a performance piece called Seen at Secundra Bagh, based on Beato’s photograph of the interior of Secundra Bagh, in Lucknow, site of a massacre by the British to quell the 1857 Mutiny.

“I also found that the link between theatre and photography interested me, because both are kinds of framing devices, so it’s as much about what’s left out as it is about what’s left in,” she adds. Beato’s image, shot a year after the massacre, includes gory remains which may or may not be placed there for the photograph.

With the Bhawal Case, which she also came across via the same collection, Chaudhuri found an additional link: “For me, the question of identity has a direct link to the idea of acting, which produced very interesting questions that I’ve engaged with as a director. Like ‘who is that person on stage?’” It’s a question actors (and their directors) have to answer right in the beginning, so a character may develop through a series of rehearsals.

The project also tries to further the point of an archive. The exhibition involves recreation of multiple images in the likeness of those before, and of course the actual trial, where the claimant (the possible imposter) was re-photographed in stagings exactly similar to official photographs of the Kumar before his ‘death’. These photographs were then used to point out the anthropological and physical similarities between the subject in the original photographs and the subject on trial. Recreating these photographs, with actor Saif Ali, give Chaudhuri additional insight into evidentiary processes from another time, pointing out the confusion that could have been caused by a ‘similar-ooking’ imposter.

Chaudhuri was also interested in this case because a trial is ultimately theatrical. There’s a performativity involved that inspires belief or disbelief, in this case particularly in the identity of someone who has been missing for over a decade.

The performance further remakes history with the inclusion of present day ‘expert witnesses’ to counteract the original expert witnesses in the trial: anthropologists, the photographer who took the pictures entered into evidence, art professionals who were called in to adjudicate the authenticity of the photographs.

The opening, on December 17, 2015, drew in experts like Akeel Bilgrami, the current Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York. Bilgrami, who has published widely on topics of identity and secularism, offered up his views on confession as evidence of guilt, and the performative nature of what happens once the confession is obtained in his testimony. In the upcoming edition of the auditions and rehearsal slated for (January 6 and 9), expert witnesses will include lawyers Malavika Jayaraman (who works broadly in the fields of privacy, identity, free speech and internet policy, and particularly on questions related to India’s UID project), and Mayur Suresh (who lectures at School of Oriental & African Studies); archivist Sabih Ahmed from the Asia Art Archive and anthropologist Brighupati Singh, among others. There will also be a series of auditions for the second run of the performance

The auditions

Open auditions form a large part of the exhibition and, according to Chaudhuri, are the best way of engaging with the project as a whole.

For her, the auditions also respond to the ‘Who is that person on stage?’ question; it takes up a large part of the audition script, which is divided in three: open-ended questions that the participant may respond to ‘any way you like’; scripted answers by an unnamed actor who is there to audition for a part; and text that is part of the trial transcript for the character the participant is auditioning for.

So is this even an audition? Continuing with the duality it displays, the project insists it is: Chaudhuri is auditioning actors for a possible actual production. At the moment, this exercise is far more satisfying than an actual production might be. She’s also looking at a subset of people whose professions have been handy in the original trial — artists, photographers, art experts, writers, philosophers — to complete a modern-day understanding of the case at hand. Mumbai-based artist Shreyas Karle, whose practice has in the past dealt with ‘making up stuff’, found the audition put him at ease, but not entirely. “The smallness of the space and the prophetic notion of the questions asked was intriguing. I try not to think as an artist always; it’s too easy to do that, it’s more difficult to be without a character (for the open-ended questions).”

Zuleikha Chaudhari’s recreation of the Kumar for the show as enacted by actor Saif Ali.

Karle auditioned for the role of an artist who, in the original trial, was brought on to confirm the authenticity of the photographs presented. Chaudhuri says, “It’s really about how much of yourself you allow (or don’t allow) into your answers.”

For curator and writer Gitanjali Dang, the audition was more a “cool construct, and the result of some very sharp artistic conceit, in the sense it made explicit the questions and dilemmas — such as the nature of truth and the process of evidencing — that are implicit to the Bhawal Case. And it recruited the unwitting participant for making these explicit, i.e. the dilemmas were no longer simply belonging to the court case but close to the bone of the auditioner.”

As ‘expert witness’-to-be Mayur Suresh says, questions of intention and volition, or even correctness, become hugely important in this situation, because the law as influenced by 19th century British Utilitarianism, takes into account rational, thinking individuals. Questions such as “Are you a moral person?” — asked in the original trials as well as in the audition — are entirely applicable.

Additionally, according to archivist Sabih Ahmed (set to give expert testimony in the matter on January 6), “This project presents another very important aspect of archives, which is about the documents that are there. What roles are they made to perform? And still more importantly, what roles are we made to perform in the service of the archive?” Ahmed also questions the ability of documents such as government records to ascertain identity: “Would we really like ourselves to be so neatly defined by the information that documents capture, that too for purposes of governance and control?”

Of course, not everyone finds the truth of utmost importance. According to artist Amshu Chukki, whose work is currently on view at Chatterjee and Lal, the audition gives him insight into Chaudhuri’s process, through which she scales the wall between theatre and performance art. For Chukki, her practice as a set designer is very visible in the show’s construct: the spatial configuration, the awkwardness of the viewer, the elaborate “interview” set-up that could resemble an interrogation room in an American cop show, displays a Hitchcock-like control over the mise-en-scène. Here, Chaudhuri is manipulating the conversation as soon as you step into the Mumbai Art Room. Attempting the audition, for this writer, was an exercise fraught with the tension of presenting your cards when you know the house has already won.

The play is the thing

The funny thing is, after all those poems and pamphlets (friends of both sides distributed lengthy writings on their versions of the truth), bed-time stories, nearly 20 years of trial, 11,000+ pages of evidence, three resolutions in favour of the ‘imposter’, the truth is still out there. Or worse, perhaps it never mattered, if you take the long view of things.

The reason we repeat this story over and over is because its end couldn’t be better constructed. In the midst of the Second World War the result was handed down a third time, this time courtesy a Privy Council made up of two Indian and one English judges, to favour the imposter.

The very next day the princeling-turned-ascetic-turned-Kumar of Bhawal suffered a stroke after concluding prayers at a local temple. He died shortly afterwards, his opponents claiming it to be God’s word. His wife-turned-widow-turned-estranged wife refused his estate, at the time valued at Rs 8,00,000. The money presumably stayed with the Court of Wards. In the end, no one was really the winner.

Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case , on view at Mumbai Art Room until February 20, 2016. Auditions January 6 to 8, 2016, 2 to 5 pm. Those interested can write to for an audition slot.

(The writer is a freelancer who covers art and culture)