8 September 2019

Abhishek Majumdar: Theatre Interview

A two-part interview with the multi-talented Abhishek Majumdar, published on Firstpost in August:

At 38, Abhishek Majumdar is one of India's most exciting playwright-directors. An alumnus of the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA), Majumdar grew up in a Bengali family in Delhi. For the last decade he has been based out of Bengaluru. The Indian Ensemble, which he co-founded in 2009 and ran until 2018 with his friend and colleague Sandeep Shikhar, has produced some of the most interesting Indian plays of recent years: the Kashmir trilogy of Rizwan, Djinns of Eidgah and Gasha, the 10th century philosophical-political drama Muktidham, and the Allahabad-set Kaumudi, which is both a tribute to Mohan Rakesh and a complex engagement with the epic heroes Ekalavya and Abhimanyu.

His plays have been published by Oberon Press, UK, and translated into multiple languages from Marathi to Czech. His play Djinns of Eidgah was staged by Jaipur's Jawahar Kala Kendra this January and at Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre earlier in August. Another production of Djinns by the Bread Theatre and Film Company of Cambridge is currently being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe until 18 August.

In this interview, he speaks about theatrical form and content, the politics of language in India, and his many interests beyond the stage.

Muktidham, written and directed by Majumdar
The first time I heard of your work wasn't a play; it was at Lekhana, in Bengaluru in 2013/14, where you read a Hindi short story. Do you still write short stories, or things other than plays?
I do, but I don't share them with the world. They're not necessarily about personal subjects, but the act of writing a short story is for me very personal. I like to keep it for my friends and family. I have consciously never published my stories. I compose music sometimes, for other people, for other plays, sometimes for professional musicians. I also paint a little bit. That helps me in scenography, but mainly I paint for myself.
Coming back to the short stories, there is a series called Lakdi ke Makaan, which I have been working on, about women who live in the villages of Shimla (my aunt lives in Shimla). Someday it might become a monologue by an actor. But right now only about 10 people in this world know that I write stories.

Your short stories are in Hindi, but would it be true to say that you wrote plays in English earlier, and now write plays in Hindi?
I write in three languages: Bangla, Hindi and English. My first play, an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel Pratidwandi, was in Bangla. Later I wrote Dweepa in Bangla, but it has only been performed in Kannada.

I'm currently writing an adaptation of Shakuntalam, that's in Hindi. I recently wrote a satire about Communist history, which hasn't been produced as yet, called Dialectical Materialism Aur Anya Vilupt Jaanwar. That's in Hindi, although it starts in Calcutta at the time of collapse of the Berlin Wall, and then goes back to Karl Marx and Adam Smith at the Garden of Eden. I'm still working on that play, but strangely it's been translated into Czech and won an award in Prague. [laughs]

Translations of my plays are happening/have happened into Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, French. Rizvan got translated from Urdu to Bangla, because there is a show in Bangladesh.

All my work internationally is in English. I write those plays in English whose natural language would not be Hindi or Bangla. So for example, Pah-la, which was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London last year, is set in Tibet; that I wrote in English. I have another recent play, Batin, set in Medina on the two nights between the Prophet's death and his burial. It's about what happens when the word of God is not understood by everyone in the same way. The natural language of Batin would be Arabic. So that's in English. An early play of mine, Harlesden High Street, was in English. But now I don't produce any work in India in English.

So there has been a move towards Hindi?
Directorially, yes. Five years ago our company did make work in English. I consciously stopped. For two reasons. One, English is the only language in India where knowing the language is enough. In any other language, you also have to know how to act. Frankly, I find far fewer options for actors in English than in Hindi or Bangla or Kannada.
Secondly, an Indian audience watches Hindi or Bangla theatre differently than English. Their bodies change. Because theatre is fundamentally a community thing, you watch it with people. And when you get the third layer of the language — the language that you may have not gone to school in, but the language in which you make fun of people — that is the right language for that stage.
For example, if you read [Girish] Karnad in Hindi, that works much better than reading it in English (though some of the English translations are fantastic).
In India, my rehearsal room is also much more alive when I'm rehearsing in an Indian language. I am directing a play in New York in English, but there my actors' natural language is English. The contract of language is three-way: between the maker, the actor who is performing and the audience. [The play] has to be in the most suitable language for all three, not just for one.

Have you directed a play in a language you don't understand?
Yes, Kannada, which I follow, but don't speak. And I've done a play in London 10 years ago, which was seven vignettes: one in Hebrew, one in Cantonese, one in Arabic...

And that wasn't a problem?
No. Direction-wise, then it was less of a problem. Perhaps now it would be more of a problem. I was a drama school student then, more interested in form. Now I've gotten more interested in meaning.

Tell me more about your interest in form.
Essentially, a play is composing form over time. It's a bit like the work of an architect. One is always thinking about structure. And I've been an avid mathematics student, interested in pattern, shape, geometry, topography. Every play is a problem with multiple solutions.

Give me an example?
I'll give you two examples. For Muktidham, the problem was how do you write a play which from inside is European, but from outside is in the Indian epic format. Structurally, it's not a Greek play with three acts and five plot points; it is cyclical, there is a sense of elaboration. But the scene-work inside the play is not in the epic format: nothing is sung, for instance.

What is very Kathakali about it is that from the interval to the next scene, there is a big jump. We believe that time lapse for two reasons. One, because we believe there is a wall — the wall behind which the Buddhist king is standing. We never see it, but we believe it, and so we assume a certain urgency to everything else. Which is a very Kathakali thing to do. You know — “Duryodhana is coming”, but the scene only has Draupadi and the brothers. The other thing is that although you move forward in time, but the eclipse is stuck. It's nothing, really, it's one profab light on a disc! But it allows us, I think, to continuously imagine suffocation.
In Kaumudi, the challenge I set myself was linguistic: to write a play which used both the language of Aashaadh Ka Ek Din and Adhe Adhure [two classic Mohan Rakesh plays, one set in the time of Kalidasa, one in the 20th century]. So there is the play, and there is the play within the play. And there's a third language the characters use when they are playful, which is similar to Pandavani.

So each of your plays is a research project. Literary, anthropological, historical.
Yes. But art is about memory. It's about how you remember your research. That's the difference between researching and writing a paper, and researching and writing a play. A play has to go through oneself.  It can't be just your thesis — it's got to be your observation of life, your sense of taste, your politics, what you want to say.
But for me, if something doesn't have a hard problem to solve, it doesn't interest me. I can watch plays which are not very complex, I can watch anything live. But to work on an idea for two years of my life, it has to be intellectually complex.

Is there one idea that each play starts with?
The theatre is all about confluence. For an idea to become a play, seemingly different things must stick together. Like in Kaumudi, you have a father and son, who mirror Ekalavya and Abhimanyu. The father is going blind, and there is a theatre inside a theatre. These could be four different plays. But I am fond of density, that's my thing. Though that is also one of the criticisms of my plays.

 Playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar on theatre as confluence, its future in India, and directing a film
Abhishek Majumdar

Density leads us nicely to my next question. You work in Hindi, in a moment when there's increasing criticism of the elitism of English. But you also work in theatre. Do you ever think about reaching out to larger audiences?
I have a lot of confidence in the theatre. If a play is worth anything, it will outlive at least one generation. And over time, plays have large audiences with a much deeper level of engagement. So I think the idea of audience is a more complex matrix than just the number of people right now — it's also about density, how many, where. 
The paradox of our time is that in this political moment, you want to make work because it feels urgent. Which is of course necessary, in the face of what is going on. But at the same time there are so many philosophical problems in the humanities and sciences which are completely worth looking at. Is an entire generation of artists only going to look at Hindutva? Maybe it has to, but we also need deviations.
Having said that, I make theatre because I like every dimension of it. I love the craft of it, the art of it, the coming together of people to do it it, the teams that we build, having that audience live, reaching out, going to small towns, going to big cities. While closing Muktidham, we had a moment where Sandeep Shikhar's daughter Sanchi, who I have seen being being born, was sharing a room with Ram Kissar, who does our make-up, who has worked with BV Karanth since he was 20. This is possible in the theatre, because of the nature of its form. It's not like everybody has to be trained in one dance form. It is rough, rugged, it is mixed, it reflects the streets of your town. The street has an old man and a young woman, so the green room must have that. And that is for me the reaching out of the theatre.

But are you often accosted by the question of whether you want to direct a film? Or turn your plays into films?
Suman Mukhopadhay, I call him Lal Da, has won a major award to make a film out of Djinns of Eidgah. I am not a big fan of cinema, though I will direct a film at some point. What I am interested in is directing concerts. I grew up travelling a lot with Indian Ocean, and that gave me the idea that there is a dramaturgy to concerts. A couple of bands have asked me. Susmit [Sen] also asked, but I've looked up to him for so many years, I can't direct him! He will have no problem, but I will have a problem. But now I'm thinking of a concert of sound designers, as opposed to musicians.
Djinns of Eidgah, by Abhishek Majumdar
A still from Majumdar's Djinns of Eidgah

Would you write the music for such a concert yourself?
Some of it. Right now I compose mostly for plays. I took music for granted, because I grew up with Hindustani music classes in my house, and my mother playing the piano every evening and singing Rabindrasangeet. I can use Bengali notation, Swaralipi, which is often used on the piano.

How do you see the state of theatre in India? Are there exciting things happening?
I think art and science need a lot more government support. These things are important for human beings to exist, and they can't be market driven. This emphasis on the commercial, treating ticket sales as the parameter of existence, as if without it you're not speaking to the people: that's a cop-out for not thinking deeply about what the human race needs.
Individually a lot of exciting stuff is happening, from solo performances to technological things. What in Europe is called 'site-specific theatre' has been happening in India in Prahallada Naatak for a thousand years. Going to the proscenium is a new thing for us. But now, the urban Indian is coming back from the West with the idea that only what's being made there is work.
As a person who teaches in a university, I straddle some of these worlds. For the last five years, I teach playwriting at the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi for a semester every year. I have never had two students in the same class from the same country.

How many students in a class?
Eight to eleven, from India, but also Jordan, Palestine, Latin America, the African countries. And the challenge is that they all need to find specific solutions to their postcolonial situations. We are much closer in the arts and sciences to Bangladesh or Algeria than to New York or London. But we have started thinking of the world as a ladder. That's not helpful at all. Yes, there are great things to learn from a cultural exchange of that sort. But just as the first world person is always operating out of a particular context, it is also important for us to operate out of our context.
I was telling a student the other day that if you want to know where you are making art, you have to ask yourself two questions. One, if about 10 to 12 percent of a country's GDP is spent on arts, then public support for the arts in say, Germany, is about 300 percent that of India. Second, you need to be conscious of historical imperative. It is lowest on Broadway, in New York, which is farthest from colonisation. You can make anything, it basically has to sell tickets. And it is highest in the Gaza strip, because right now, as you're making that play, you are colonised.
Gasha1 825
A still from Gasha, written by Irawati Karnik and directed by Abhishek Majumdar

Why is your idea of historical imperative limited to the experience of colonisation?
Yes, I'm being simplistic, in order to find an axis that works globally. There are other axes not directly related to colonisation. Within India, how many plays do we see with lower caste women as characters? Nothing, compared to the many with upper caste men.

You mentioned that developing a Dalit dramaturgy is one of the things you're excited about.
Yes. After we moved on from Indian Ensemble, Sandeep Shikhar and I started a new theatre company along with  Vivek Madan. It's called the Bhasha Centre, and our main focus are at the moment is to work with Dalit texts and Dalit writers, from Daya Pawar and Limhale on Dalit aesthetics to published Dalit autobiographies and the work of lok shahirs. It might not be a literature that already exists. We're collaborating on a version of Kisaan that will open at Prithvi Theatre in March 2020. Iravati Karnik is writing it, drawing on Prithiviraj Kapoor's original play Kisaan together with Daya Pawar's Baluta.

Any other ongoing projects you'd like to flag?
There's Tathagat, a street play we did in collaboration with Jan Natya Manch, which played in Mumbai from 9 to 14 August. There's a version of Eidgah ke Jinnat with Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, with many Rajasthani actors. Djinns of Eidgah is also being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month, by Ananya Mishra and the Bread Theatre Company, formed by a lot of non-white Cambridge University students.

As someone who works in London and New York as well as in Bengaluru and Bangladesh, it is important to me to know how much time I work where. I am not making work in England in order to give up my work in India; that's not going to happen. But last year we were touring in Uttar Pradesh and sleeping in trains, and just after that I spent a month in New York. And that is absolutely fine in the theatre. But as time gets limited, it becomes important to choose, to measure.
I like that we have come back to the mathematics. Thank you, Abhishek.

Published in Firstpost in two parts, 19 and 20 August 2019.

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