Written first as a radio play called “In the Native State” in 1991, “Indian Ink” is an expanded version for the stage,which had its premiere in London in 1995. The original two strand plot has been increased to three. The play begins in 1930 with English poetess Flora Crewe’s first letter home from India on the day she arrives in Jummapur. She has gone to India for her health but has also contracted to give a series of lectures. At her Jummapur lecture, she meets local Indian artist Nirad Das who asks to paint her portrait to which she agrees. A member of the artistic and literary life of London, Flora has been a friend or an acquaintance of such figures as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein and Modigliani. She has also gained a scandalous reputation as her second book of poetry has been taken to court under the obscenity laws.
Sixty-five years later, in Shepperton, England, Flora’s widowed sister,Eleanor Swan,meets with American college professor Eldon Cooper Pike who has spearheaded the renewed interest in Flora by editing “The Collected Poems” and is now visiting her to get more information for “The Collected Letters.” However, Eleanor does not like Eldon or his prying and sends him off on a wild goose chase to Jummapur to recover a missing nude portrait of Flora that has never turned up. While the play continues to develop the relationship between Flora and the artist Das and show us the outcome of her visit to Jummapur, his son Anish Das (also an Indian artist but one who lives in England) visits Eleanor in 1985 to find out about the painting on the cover of “The Collected Letters” which he recognizes as one of his father’s that he has never seen before. Throughout the play, either Flora or Eleanor read aloud from the letters in chronological order as a kind of narrative frame for this complex play. Often, two time frames are on stage at the same moment, Flora in Jummapur in 1930 and Eleanor reading her letter or discussing Flora’s life in 1985.
On a cursory viewing, the play at first seems to be simply a convoluted mystery trying to solve baffling references in Flora’s life in India in 1930 in her surviving letters. On a deeper look, the play deals with Anglo-Indian relations under British rule and after Indian independence. Aside from Flora’s personal experience of Jammapur, and Anish and Nirad Das who hail from there, Eleanor has been married to a District Resident under the British Raj, and having lived in India for quite awhile, she has a fourth point of view, different from the other Anglo-Indians.
Flora comes to understand the natives in an entirely different way the longer she lives there, while Anish has a totally different point of view looking back at his father 65 years before. However, these nuances would probably be better understood by those who are British or who have some knowledge of Indian history, Gandhi’s Salt March, for instance. The play also satirizes the mania for publishing biographies and letters of literary figures which make suppositions which do not happen to be true. By the end of the play, we the audience are left holding all of the pieces of the puzzle, but Pike is still left in the dark to conjecture wrongly about things he knows nothing about, the final irony. The witty title has at least three meanings including the name of Flora’s third book of poems and the fact that she is continually sending home letters written in ink.
Director Perloff does better with some things, less well with others. The beautiful Garai, probably best known for her period roles in such films and television series as Atonement, As You Like It, Daniel Deronda, Nicholas Nickleby, Vanity Fairand Emma, has a magnetic allure on stage. However, initially she is rather shrill as Flora and takes some time to settle into the role. Firdous Bamji as the middle-aged artist Nirad Das, always polite and refined, is almost comic in his deference to all things English. The trouble is that although Flora is writing a poem called “Heat” while she is sitting for her portrait, there is no heat between them so that we are never certain as to how far their relationship has developed.
On the other hand, the relationship between Eleanor Swan and Anish Das is flirtatious from the outset. As the 75-year-old Mrs. Swan, Harris is a joy, making even her unfinished sentences perfectly obvious as well as her very English prejudices. Bhavesh Patel plays the younger Das with matinee idol suavity. As Captain David Durance, the British army officer who falls in love with Flora at first sight, Lee Aaron Rosen is suitably stiff, stalwart and handsome. Ajay Naidu as Mr. Coomaraswami, the gracious and cultured president of the Jammapur Theosophical Society and Oscar Makati as Flora’s not quite honest servant are various Indian stereotypes who get the most comic relief out of their roles. Rajeev Varma as both the 1930’s Rajah and 1985 Politician is both distinguished and elegant as these authority figures separated by two generations.
Neil Patel’s all-blue unit set allows for easy transitions from India to England. However, neither the set nor the lighting by Robert Wierzel suggests the ever-present heat in the Indian scenes to which Flora constantly refers. Candice Donnelly’s costumes have limited Flora’s outfits to the primary colors which gives the play a fairy tale-like feeling against the blue walls. The original music and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier adds appreciably to the exotic atmosphere.
Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink is a fascinating puzzle which does not immediately give up all of its hidden secrets in its attempt to depict two very different cultures. Carey Perloff’s uneven production does not always work to reveal the many layers of this play. However, it marks the New York stage debut of the lovely Romola Garai and the return of the ever delightful Rosemary Harris. They are both worthy of the price of admission.
Indian Ink (through November 30, 2014)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre, Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one intermission