Friday, 23 April 2010

Quo Vadis - Theatre in English?

Brian Mendonça

Last Saturday, with a friend in tow, I trooped along to take in what was billed as Asmita’s Summer theatre Festival here in New Delhi. The play was Court Martial written by Swadesh Deepak. The venue – the breezy amphitheatre at the India Habitat Centre. Hoping for some English theater, I discovered later, much to my chagrin – that the play was in Hindi!

This linguistic masquerade sums up the theatre scene in Delhi. The English-speaking ‘cognoscenti’ of the capital is lured with English titles of plays in pamphlets printed in English to plays which are actually in Hindi. Once the public arrives, and realizes they have been taken for a ride, they settle down to enjoy the evening anyway (as I did) – much to the detriment of the cause of English theatre here or anywhere else in the country – except Mumbai.

It is not an exaggeration to say that good English theatre in the capital is still to make a stand save for a few gallant sparks. Tom Alter quit the capital in disgust and I hear he is happier in Mumbai. Way back in the 1980’s I had seen him on a balmy evening acting in Chapter Two in Kamani auditorium when I was visiting Delhi. Everything really is up for a spoof now – even Delhi’s most revered icons. Ghalib in Delhi directed by Dr. M. Sayeed Alam & Niti Sayeed of Pierrot’s troupe is a Hindi comedy telling of Ghalib’s rebirth in New Delhi in the 21st century and has the doyen of Urdu literature staying in a servant’s quarter in Patparganj.

Brave attempts by Smita Gupta and Sohaila Kapur, actors and directors of the Hungry Heart Theater group, like 45-35-55– a ‘Hinglish comedy’ have focused mainly on the nuances of woman’s experience of ageing with sometimes risqué fare taking in its stride menopause and female compatability. Even the flagship WelcomTheatre – ‘An expression of ITC-Welcomgroup’s commitment to nurturing and promoting the arts’ -- felt it appropriate to stage a bedroom farce entitled Love in a Tub, directed by Aamir Raza Husain and Virat Husain for its well-wishers last year at Kamani.

It is meet to ask the question is art reflecting life here? Do metrosexuals sleep around more than is usually admitted? The numbers will tell. This sort of theatre has a huge following, if this season’s finely nuanced Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dark Place is any indication. The play, staged in the magnificent new theater site, Epicentre, in Gurgaon’s Sector 44 had me dashing across the border into Haryana on a Saturday just in time to catch the 7.30 show. The fact that it was devised and directed by Feisal Alkazi of National School of Drama fame was an added plus point – besides the gloriously quirky title that is.

The hall filled to capacity was about ‘relationships’ as Poonam of the bookstore Quill and Canvas in Gurgaon nearby, put it baldly. The play was much more than that as it turned out. It was an exploration about the aspects of love at various stages in life. This was about couples and singles hitting middle-age. One of the couples was breaking up with a daughter behind them. ‘When a woman has a baby, everything is different. You can never mean as much to her again. But a baby doesn’t complete your world. Not if you’re a man. A baby is a rival. And you can’t compete. She found someone much more lovable than me – my daughter,’ rues the guy.

Another guy has his current paramour wanting him to undo his vasectomy, since she really wanted a child . . . In the third couple’s scenario the wife had had an abortion when she was a teenager – what would people say? – and as a result could not now conceive. What gives the play its fire and its impulse is that all the 3 couples know each other and the script beautifully excavates their inner yearnings and motives in dialogues on set. I liked the play for its rawness, its haunting music (Armaan Alkazi), and its unabashed usage for f’s and b’s, flung by erstwhile lovers at each other in a torrent of hurting.

Wedding Album written by Girish Karnad and directed by Lilette Dubey was staged by Puravankara at Chowdiah Hall in Bangalore last July. Here too humour seeps through beyond the ‘penumbra of hidden life.’ The play, published by Oxford University Press is about arranged marriages in today’s globalised village. I am told the play brought the house down when staged in Delhi with people ready to pay any price for an invitation to the opening night.

In his foreword to his first play Yayati (1960) translated recently from the original Kannada by the author Karnad himself, Karnad describes his opening encounter with Satyadev Dubey who was later to stage the play in Hindi with Amrish Puri. ‘What’s the point of writing plays in English? How can you write anything meaningful in that language?’ Dubey had said. This schism was addressed when Dubey later produced many English plays and even wrote one himself .

Recent excavations by Scholastic publishers have revealed a delightful collection of 5 plays written by Vijay Tendulkar and translated from the Marathi into English by Ajay Joshi (2008). It is another matter that I am trying to do the first play in the collection, viz.Missing: A Father in sadak Hindi with the street children of Salam Balak Trust opposite the teeming New Delhi station. Robinson Raju, an English hons. student from St Stephen’s college, New Delhi has gamely developed the script in Hindi.

A point worth noting is that a number of the ‘English’ plays staged here in Delhi are reruns. Whether this is for want of imagination or funds is not clear, but it is a sad commentary on a populace of a billion – give or take a few. Court Martial for example was written in 1991 and is still going strong. At the end of the performance director Arvind Gaur dwelled on the absence of financial support for his productions – to be fair his minimalist set included a couple of benches, a witness stand in the courtroom and a chair for the judge.

Many moons ago, the now legendary George Pulinkala of the Delhi Music Theatre directed Ain't Misbehavin (2000) - a musical, choreographed by his son Ivan. A delightful experience to behold, the musical was about a young woman's search for the man of her dreams and which ‘tells the tale of jilted love and promiscuous relationships among youth.’ There has been no play since, the musical going perhaps the same way as Evita played by Sharon Prabhakar and directed by Alyque Padamsee in the 1980’s.

It is well known that the English theatre also offers a slice of the real world instead of only showing half-clad characters cavorting around the wrong beds. Bringing her experience with disadvantaged women in Tihar jail into play, Smita put out Jail Birds (2006) acting with her daughter Anchal Bharti in a play directed by Sohaila. In Goa, Isabel de Santa-Rita Vas of the Mustard Seed Art Company has written and produced an English play entitled On the Holy Trail (2009) which addresses the sale of land in Goa and the sale of Goa itself to the highest bidder.

This summer playwrights are keeping themselves busy with new ideas. Last month Mahesh Dattani opened his stage adaptation of The Alchemist by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho to the public in Bombay. This weekend, First City Theatre Foundation, New Delhi will stage Taramandal [Planetarium], a story of an ordinary man in the autumn of his life who yearns to play a part in the movies. Directed by Neel Chaudhuri what strikes me is that this play is in 3 languages – ‘part-English, part-Hindi, part-Bengali.’

Yesterday, I peeked into Ruchika Theatre Groups May production for children of all ages called Children of the Magic Pen.The India International Center (IIC) auditorium was overflowing with kids (and their parents) chuckling away to the antics of characters stomping all over the delightful wooden stage. The clear favourite was the ravenous screeching witch – the slithering croc, a close second. It was heartwarming to notice that the play was presented in collaboration with the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC) based in New Delhi.

All the characters like supercalifragilistic Mary Poppins, Long John Silver - the pirate in Treasure Island, R2D2 of Star Wars, Aladdin, and even Satyajit Ray’s private investigator Feluda, in quest of the magic castle, were shepherded by a young girl in the real world who helps them find the treasure. The lone monkey sprinkles her dialogues with Hindi. As it happens, the keeper of the castle turns out to be a librarian yes, you read that right, who grants all the characters the gift of immortality. For, who can forget the fairy tales of his/her childhood. The librarian then exhorts the spellbound audience to visit libraries and read about the adventures of these characters so as to keep them alive! Ingenious, I say! – and the entry of an awfully sexy young “Ranee” who enters stage-left dancing mesmerically to Moorish music, really picks up the plot when it seems to be sagging. We certainly hope Ruchika has a long innings.

English theatre in India is groping for its métier. To my mind India’s diversity cannot be contained in English. For English theatre to resonate with the pulse of theatre-goers it is best received if it does not shy away from dabbling in a medley of languages since most of their audience is anyway multilingual. This may seem ridiculous at the moment but not if Aparna Dharwadker has her say. Aparna mulls over the fact that though English is the ‘national’ link language for Indians, in relation to theatre, why is it a weaker critical medium than some so-called ‘regional’ languages?

'As translators of the work of other contemporary playwrights, Tendulkar and Karnad stand apart in their understanding of the importance of transregional routes in theater, and by rendering his major plays into English, Karnad has applied that understanding to his own work. All these playwrights construct authorship and authority as activities that must extend across languages in order to sustain a national theatre movement in a multilingual society.'*

If this be the criteria, ‘English’ theatre in India is headed the right way. Swadesh Deepak, the writer of Court Martial is still awaited by his theatre enthusiasts at Asmita. In 2006 he went for a morning walk but never returned. What the future holds for English theatre in India is uncertain, but like we wait for Deepakji we also wait for it to find its feet.
Published in MuseIndia - The Literary eJournal July-August 2009, uploaded today, 23 April - Shakespeare's birthday; *Criticism, Critique and Translation’ in 'Talking Theatre: A Symposium on Theatre Practice in India Today,' Seminar 588 August 2008, New Delhi: 62; Stills from Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dark Place. Courtesy -;

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really interesting observations and a neat summation of the theatre scenario in the capital and the metros. I totally agree with your suggestion that multilingual plays could be the linguistic medium for the urban Indian theatre today.