On a sultry afternoon in 1930 in the Indian city of Jummapur, the portrait painter Nirad Das explains the essence of art to his subject, the English poet Flora Crewe. “A painting must have its rasa, which is not the painting exactly,” he tells her. “Rasa is what you must feel when you see a painting or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you.”
It’s an odd conversation for the central characters in a Tom Stoppard play, odder still that the scene should serve as a fulcrum of the action. After all, even a devout Stoppard fan would concede that arousing emotion is not what drives this playwright. Witty wordplay, epistemological queries, historical musings, sure. But it’s hard to find what Das describes as the “juice” of rasa coursing through Stoppard’s work. Indian Ink—a 1995 play having its New York premiere with the young Alter Ego company—is no exception.
Crewe (Lethia Nall) has come to India “for her health”—or at least that’s the official reason—as her doctor has recommended a warmer clime. More so, she is tromping the well-worn track of the Lady Adventurer, touring India and lecturing on Bloomsbury for the local Theosophical Society. (It’s a grand setup for Stoppard’s usual literary name-dropping. Crewe has anecdotes about everyone: she acted for Shaw, posed for Modigliani, conducted a brief affair with H.G. Wells, was kicked out of Gertrude Stein’s apartment, and so on.) In the little house where she stays in Jummapur, Das (Sendhil Ramamurthy) installs an easel across from her writing table. “We’ll both be working,” he enthuses, “poet and painter, work in progress.” Meanwhile, they banter about the Empire, Crewe scolding Das for being so enamored of Dickens and the neighborhoods of London, and urging him not to be so “Englished-up and all over me like a labrador.”
Their discussion of rasa—and, later, an asthma attack Crewe suffers that leads her to yank off her dress and ask Das to pour a pitcher of water over her bare back—inspires him to paint a more “Indian” portrait, a miniature in the Rajasthani style in which she reclines nude within a colorful border of birds and stars and trees in bloom.
But all the chatty West-meets-East encounters between these two artistes merely sketch the outlines of those events. The fill comes from a parallel plot that unfolds in alternating scenes set some 50 years later, as a lumpen academic named Pike (Brian J. Coffey) conducts research for a volume of Crewe’s letters that he is collecting. Meanwhile, Das’s son Anish (Deep Katdare) visits Crewe’s elderly sister Eleanor (Helen-Jean Arthur) in London to share secrets over tea and cakes. Poking through Crewe’s letters to Eleanor in England, and then touring Jummapur, Pike pipes up from time to time, to offer pedantic footnotes to the action. For their part, Anish and Eleanor pick up the arguments where Crewe and Das left off. (He refers to the Rising of 1857; she calls it the Mutiny.) All three in their own ways attempt to piece together the truth of Crewe’s short time in India, where she died only months after her arrival.
Trouble is, she’s not that mysterious, or even that interesting—certainly not intriguing enough to sustain the three-hour running time. And her poetry—what we hear of it, anyway—is execrable: “Heat collects and holds as a pearl at my throat/lets go and slides like a tongue-tip down a Modigliani/spills into the delta, now in the salt-lick/lost in the mangroves and the airless moisture . . . ”
There is some fun to be found in the Brit-versus-India repartee. “Even when you discovered India in the age of Shakespeare, we already had our Shakespeares,” Anish tells Eleanor. “And our science, our architecture, our literature and art—we had a culture older and more splendid. We were rich. After all, that’s why you came!” Eleanor retorts, “We made you a proper country! And when we left you fell straight to pieces like Humpty Dumpty.” Stoppard, of course, doesn’t give anyone the last word. Always more intrigued by contradiction than resolution, he never takes sides.
Alter Ego, composed largely of South Asian Americans, might have. But the company makes no ironic, postcolonial gestures toward this Passage to India. (Stoppard gives Forster a nod in the play, to boot.) On the contrary, the production (the group’s fourth), under the direction of Ashok Sinha, is slavishly faithful. Indeed, like the footnote-obsessed Pike, it needlessly strives to authenticate in a most literal-minded way. Bizarrely, Sinha provides a soundtrack to set scenes though the play’s language easily suffices. When a British officer arrives at Crewe’s house to check up on her, horse hooves clomp through the speakers. Car doors slam, engines rev, and if someone mentions a bird, chirps are sure to follow. Sinha does not yet have a firm grip on actors, either, though several—Arthur, Ramamurthy, and Katdare especially—come through with clarity and charm.
But like Stoppard himself, Sinha and his crew miss the imaginative life-force, the emotion, the juice of the story. Still, they can hardly be blamed for bad penmanship when Stoppard’s Indian Ink has already run dry.