Kirtana Kumar's 'Rhinoceros' adapts absurdist classic to modern Bengaluru, tackles conformity

Taking a creative risk with an adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is director Kirtana Kumar, who explores the dangers of conformity
A still from the rehearsal
A still from the rehearsal

BENGALURU: Fitting in and conforming to your surroundings to be more amicable instead of being yourself is a decision many face, in school, office or interpersonal relationships. Everyone is looking for some form of acceptance but often in the process of conforming, there is a risk of losing one’s unique identity.

Renowned theatre director Kirtana Kumar is bringing a fresh adaptation of Rhinoceros, a play exploring the dangers of conformity, originally written by the renowned French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco as a satirical commentary on rising fascism in 1930s France. Talking about her inspiration for adapting Rhinoceros, Kumar reveals that it was her teenage students who propelled the project forward.

“They had been reading sections of the text during class and were falling over themselves laughing. They felt connected to the themes through their own experiences with peer pressure, body image, and oppressive herd mentality. So they actually pushed me to stage it,” she shares.

The setting has been reimagined to resonate with the young performers, placing the town square in Bengaluru instead of France. The story unfolds in a small town square, where its inhabitants gradually transform into rhinoceroses. The play follows the protagonist, Berenger, who resists this metamorphosis while his best-friend Jean and others succumb to the allure of conformity.

“Our children are under enormous pressure of conformity today. A parent recently told me that the ‘uniforms’ of thought and appearance we’re seeing, in terms of what children will wear, consume, and so on is strangely like the uniforms worn in, for instance, communist China. Except this uniformity is one born of capitalism! Magnifying what children go through is the need of the hour,” says Kumar, adding that it should be seen as a ‘cautionary tale’.

Theatre director Kirtana Kumar
Theatre director Kirtana KumarPhoto | Express

The play’s most striking metaphor being the transformation of humans into rhinoceroses, symbolises the seductive nature of totalitarian ideology. Kumar acknowledges the challenge of depicting this transformation, particularly for 14-year-old Maaya Narrain, who plays Jean and undergoes a physical transformation within the structure of Act II Scene I. “Abha Vaijnath has created shadow puppets as well as the rhinoceros mask. We’re approaching the transformation with elements of physical theatre,” highlights Kumar.

Her directorial approach aims to stay true to Ionesco’s vision while also bringing her perspective, particularly through the lens of her young actors. “The guiding directorial principle here is that these are children performing Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. What are their concerns and how do they relate to the text? I try to watch the kids and see what they bring to the table and then magnify that. It could be a certain physicality or a way of articulation.” she explains.

Ionesco’s work is emblematic of the Theatre of the Absurd, a genre that Kumar and her students at Theatre Lab (Youth) embrace wholeheartedly. “It is a form that allows one to play and take creative risks. We often say that the breaks with logic, repetition of phrases, and use of clichés sometimes feel more real than so-called realism,” notes Kumar. This embrace of absurdity helps balance the play’s more serious themes, allowing the production to explore profound ideas in a manner that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Kumar hopes the audience will leave the theatre with a sense of laughter, wonder, and curiosity. “We hope the audience will go home thinking about things, like, what makes an anti-hero like Berenger resist fascist thought. Finally, we hope they ask the question – “Am I a Jean, or am I a Berenger?”

(The show is on July 5, 7.30pm at Jagriti Theatre, Whitefield. Tickets, priced at Rs 300, on

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