theatre Posts

“Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi” by Sudhanva Deshpande

Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi is an account of the left activist Safdar Hashmi who was brutally murdered on 1 Jan 1989 at Jhandapur, Ghaziabad. Safdar Hashmi was 34 years old. Jan Natya Manch was staging a 30-minute play called “Halla Bol” on the road when the actors were interrupted by some politicians who wished to cross. Hashmi requested them to return in a little while. They seemed to listen and turn away except they returned bearing iron rods. They attacked the troupe leaving Safdar Hashmi very badly injured. He had been hit on the head many times. By the time of his death Hashmi had been hugely influential in street theatre with his group called Jan Natya Manch or Janam. He was a member of the CPI ( M).

In Halla Bol Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the earth-shattering events of the day. He was one of those who took the injured Safdar Hashmi to hospital. Working “backwards” from the opening scene of the murder of Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the main highlights of Safdar Hashmi’s life. Both men share similar qualities of being street theatre practitioners and a political activists. So while this book is promoted as a biography, it falls more into the category of a memoir and an unusual one at that — a collective memoir. Through much of the book Deshpande is able to rely upon memory as in many instances he bears witness to the events that occured but for many others he interviewed many people who knew Safdar Hashmi and/or had worked with him. There is a veritable army of people mentioned in the text and acknowledged at the end of the book too. It is a democratic inclusiveness of all those who knew Safdar Hashmi — as a man, a colleague, a relative, a theatreperson, a political activist etc. Deshpande’s account while highlighting that Hashmi used the arts for communicating his politics. As cultural critic Kunal Ray mentioned in his review of the book, “Street theatre is political. It began as a workers’ movement against capitalism. As a medium of performance, it facilitates direct conversation or confrontation with the audience or onlookers defying the restrictions and gentility of a proscenium space. It also undermines the hierarchy of the performer and the audience. Street theatre is democratic and Safdar Hashmi believed in a vision of the arts that is secular and people-oriented. He also believed in an art advocating social justice. It is therefore impossible or perhaps unpardonable to think of Safdar without his politics.” ( Kunal Ray, “Review: Halla Bol – The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande”, Hindustan Times, 24 April 2020) . Interestingly enough National Street Theatre is 12 April which is also Safdar Hashmi’s birthday.

Nandita Das, Sudhanva Deshpande, Moloyshree Hashmi et al reading out the first two scenes of Halla Bol in Mumbai, March 2020.

Halla Bol is an interesting testimony of a life well lived and rudely cut short by hooligans. It may be considered a biography but is more of a primer on theatre in India with a fascinating account of the evolution of street. More importantly an amalgamation of traditional forms of artistic expression that was combined with drama for a public performance. Today we take this for granted, whether watching a play, reading a book or even watching a film. In the 1980s it was still a brand new concept and had the desired impact upon the audience, mostly workers for Jan Natya Manch performances, and who suddenly did not feel alienated any more from cultural performances as plays like “Halla Bol” used vocabulary, situations, dialogue etc that was familiar — “Just like us”. Safdar Hashmi was undeniably sharp, intelligent, a hugely gifted artist, a visionary and knew how to combine smartly political acts with creative expression. Yet there are moments in the book which make it seem like a hagiography since all those interviewed or reminiscing about Safdar Hashmi continue to miss the man fiercely. In a biography one expects there to be a distancing between the author and his subject offering a perspective to the reader but this does not always happen in Halla Bol. Nevertheless this book is a treasure trove of memories, a people’s history of theatre movement in India, evolution of street theatre, documentation of various attitudes towards performing theatre, empowering future generations of theatrepersons by enabling them to be confident in borrowing elements from traditional forms of theatre/ folk art and making it their own. Within months of its publication the book has been translated into quite a few Indian languages. It is a seminal book on Indian theatre.

Read Halla Bol

4 May 2020

Diwali 2017!

In June 2017 while inaugurating the National Reading Mission programme the prime minister of India said that instead of presenting bouquets people should gift books. A great idea! During Diwali, festival of lights associated with the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, folks gift presents to each other. Why not books?

Here are my recommendations of some beautiful books. It is an eclectic list of books meant for readers of all ages. Diwali is an excuse to indulge oneself. Why not buy delicious books as gifts?!

Dayanita Singh: Museum Bhavan   An extraordinary publishing achievement is to package the mind-blowing exhibition curated by photographer Dayanita Singh into this nifty, limited edition, box. Every piece is unique. A timeless treasure!

The Illustrated Mahabharata This has to be one of the most scrumptious books ever available. It is a retelling of the Hindu epic with beautiful illustrations and layouts.

The Chocolate Book

Scholastic Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses

Hungry to Read

Diwali Stories

Bloomsbury Academic’s Object Lessons list is fantastic. For instance, BookshelfVeil, Dust, Cigarette Lighter, Silence etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vikas Khanna’s richly produced collection of recipes My First Kitchen 

Rehearsing Freedom : The Story Of A Theatre In Palestine 

Words from the Hills  A beautifully illustrated diary combining the talents of Ruskin Bond’s remarkable words with the stunning watercolours of Gunjan Ahlawat. A must have!

M.G. Leonard Talks Beetles with Bookwitty

I interviewed the fabulous award-winning writer M G Leonard for literary website, Bookwitty. It was published on 1 August 2017. The original url is here but I am also c&p the text below. 

M. G. Leonard is the award-winning, bestselling writer of the Beetle Trilogy. So far, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen have been published to a resounding welcome from readers worldwide. These are delightfully told stories about Darkus and his father Dr Bartholomew Cuttle who get mixed up in Lucretia Cutter’s mad, hair-brained, bordering-on-dangerous scheme. The two novels published have a big dollop of the fantastic but are an utterly delicious blend of modern science and imaginative storytelling that explores the plausible but so far speculative limits of life as we know it. The stories are meant for middle-graders, and deftly etch the grey area children and adults cohabit, as children enter their teens. M. G. Leonard spent her early career working in the music industry, and then trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write stories. Maya Leonard lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

Why write a trilogy about beetles? Was the trilogy worked out as one composite plan or did the stories develop as you wrote them?

Beetles are so interesting, that it would have been impossible to fit everything I wanted to say into one book. It was always going to be a trilogy because I like tightly structured stories, and didn’t want to write an open ended series that went on until readers were bored of the concept or characters. I had a loose outline for each of the three books, but these developed as I wrote them. One thing I’ve always known is the ending for each book in the trilogy.

How did you get into storytelling? The blend of science and stories come together so nicely.

I became a storyteller by working in the theatre. I have worked at some of the best theatres in the UK for nearly twenty years, and had the honour to share a working space with some of the greatest writers and performers in the world. This has been both a joy and an education, and given me the confidence to start telling my own stories. I have never been a scientist, but a playwright that I respect once told me that you should write about what you want to learn about, because the joy of discovery and the wonder of understanding will infuse your work. This is what I have done. At the beginning, I knew nothing about beetles and was afraid of all insects.

How did you get into writing for children? What is your routine?

I did not make a decision to write for children, but I knew my protagonists had to be children because they have open minds, hearts and are curious about the world. More often than not, Adults have made up their mind what they think about the world. An adult could not experience the same journey as Darkus, because they already know what they think about beetles. Of course, now that I am writing for children, I’ve also realised that my inner age is around twelve, I don’t feel like I’m a grown up. I don’t know many adults that do.

If I’m on the road, promoting, then I will write on trains, in hotels or in airport department lounges. If I’m at home, my writing routine is to get up early, before my children wake and write as much as I can. Then I must begin the day and take them to school. Once I return I will edit something else and take care of admin. I write best in the early hours.

Although Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen are meant for children, these stories address a range of “adult-like” issues: environmental disasters, evolution, genetics and transgenics, funeral rituals etc. It seems if you have been concerned about these for a very long time. Is that so?

I am a mother and a gardener, and I fear our attitude to the planet is abusive and will ultimately lead to great suffering and perhaps our own extinction. I mourn the number of creatures who have become extinct because of our attitudes to their habitats, and hope that by writing about these things I may inspire children to care about insects and the environment. Once a person cares about something, they are more likely to protect it.

What is the most interesting aspect of genetics for you?

The debate about when it is right to interfere with the genetics of a creature and when is it not goes back as far as Frankenstein, which is one of my favourite books. I do not have an opinion on what is right or wrong, as I don’t understand the complexities of the science or the implications of the act, but I know that humans have modified fruit flies and mosquitos. It is only a matter of time before someone modifies a beetle, and they are the most evolutionarily successful creatures on the planet. This both terrifies and fascinates me.

This story is worthy of good speculative fiction. Do you enjoy reading sci-fi? If so who are the writers you admire?

I do enjoy sci-fi, but have not read it exhaustively. My favourite sci-fi book, and one of my favourite books ever, is Dune by Frank Herbert. There is so much to be admired about this book. A great sci-fi book marries philosophical thought with science and Frank Herbert does precisely this. As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is possibly the greatest science fiction book ever written. The third science fiction writer I have to take my hat off to is Douglas Adams, because I like to laugh and I find humour a wonderful digestive aid when it comes to facts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a delight and ferociously clever. All three books I have mentioned I’ve read more than three times, which is a testament to how good a book they are.

What are your views on the debate about environment versus evolution?

Several well-respected scientists have suggested that there is no intelligent life form on other planets capable of communicating with us because whilst there will be life in the universe, intelligent life evolves to a point where it causes its own extinction. I suspect, unless we alter the way we live, putting the environment first and preserving the balance of the ecosystem, this is what will happen to humanity. There can be no positive evolution without protecting the environment.

Will Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen be optioned for film or an animation series? These seem to be stories that would work very well in the edutainment space.

I will do everything in my power to create a film or animated version of the books, because I wrote them with this in mind, however I feel very strongly that the central message and educational content of the books not be thrown out in a desire to make it commercial. I am searching for producers who will honour these important elements of the stories as well as having the clout to get a production off the ground.

Your writing is very visual. Do you draw as well?

I do draw, but not well. I think the visual element of my stories comes from being a producer and working with film, which I’ve done on and off for over twenty years.

What are some of the more interesting questions children have asked you?

I get asked all sorts of questions about writing but mostly about beetles, and I can usually answer them, but, after explaining about the short life span of some adult beetles, one child asked me if beetles experienced time at the same speed as humans, and I was flummoxed! Other than saying that time was a human construct, there was no real way for me to answer, and I think it is a wonderful question. I often sit and think about it.

Both the books are originally published by Chicken House and distributed in India by Scholastic India. 

2 August 2017

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

World Theatre Day, 27 March 2016

It was World Theatre Day yesterday— 27 March 2016. I missed it. Nevertheless I am posting a short note about a couple of books published recently about theatre in India that are worth noting.

  1. A. Mangai Acting Up: Gender and theatre in India, 1979 onwards Leftword, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 278 MangaiRs.495 : It is an astounding book written by a feminist who has been closely associated with Indian theatre for more than thirty years. It is an astonishing book not just for the breadth and variety of theatre that exists in India but also for the fine analysis. It is by a woman practitioner who understands the nuances as well as the academic discourses, the historical and political context of theatre in post-Independent India and the influence of women’s movements in performance and how more recent performances have challenged heteronormative, patriarchal structures. For this book Mangai interviewed many women theatre artistes. She has also included accounts of performances, plays, troupes and fascinating bits of information such as reference to Neera Adarkar’s work on highlighting little-known aspects of women in theatre history. “For instance, Adarkar refers to an all-female theatre company called Belgaonkar Stree Sangeet Mandali founded by a prostitute called Ekamba, which performed a social play called Dandadhari: a pro-Tilak play that cautiously addressed the issue of widow remarriage. It even featured Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale as characters. But this did not hold back the critics: the women who played these famous men were viewed as ‘ugly, cheap, and abnormal’!” ( p.138)  It is a path-breaking book for its encyclopaedic knowledge about theatre in India. Every time you read it you discover something more.
  2. The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai (Edited by Shanta Gokhale) Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp. 210 Rs. 599: Mumbai theatre has been and continues to be with theShanta Gokhale establishment of Prithvi Theatre an influential space in India. This particular book focuses upon three spaces — Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas School Hall. But the structure of the book is interesting since these are oral history accounts of noted theatre personalities like Ebrahim Alkazi, Vijaya Mehta, Satayadev Dubey, Sulabha Deshpande, Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. It is an incredible book for it plunges you straightaway into Mumbai of 1950s and brings it to the present. What comes across is the very close knit community the theatre artists formed and continue to do so. Shockingly the brilliant introduction by Girish Karnad is not mentioned on the cover or in the list of contents. It contextualises the theatre movement with a superb overview of the Indian playwrights inheritance from the West and their attempts at experimenting with the folk form in a modern play. Girish Karnad says “Could one, we kept asking, write a contemporary play, sensitive to modern concerns, using the conventions of medieval theatre, such as masks, mime, monologues and songs, without becoming regressive in content?” ( p.xv) It is a book I treasure.

But the book I truly am waiting for is noted theatre person and publisher, Sudhanva Deshpande, writing about theatre. Some years ago as he sat by his father’s sickbed, the noted Marathi playwright, G. P. Deshpande, Sudhanva wrote a series of long Facebook posts interweaving GPD’s significant contribution to Indian theatre with an incredible account of the theatre movement. If published albeit slightly expanded this firsthand experience of being part of Indian theatre would be an invaluable contribution to theatre.

28 March 2016

Saikat Majumdar, “The Firebird”

LR

LR

(Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird, was published recently by Hachette India. I enjoyed reading it. Saikat and I exchanged a few emails. With the author’s permission, I am publishing an extract from the correspondence.) 

Dear Saikat,

I realised in my mail of the morning I did not specify how much I enjoyed reading your novel. I liked it for the sparing use of words but just enough to keep the story moving on. Yet it was packed with sufficient information to create an atmosphere. I would be careful not to use the word ‘detail’, since it does not have much, only that which is required. The story is evocative. And for many of us who may not have lived in Calcutta but were familiar with the Naxal movement and rise of the Communist Party, it does bring memories of stories conveyed by eyewitnesses. I particularly liked the way you wove in a decaying theatre with the determination of a young actress to work. Obviously given the set up at home there was no crying urgency for her to step out. Women were looked after. But I liked the steely resolve of this woman to step out every evening to perform, irrespective of the comments made at home, snide remarks directed at her in public and later the interference of the party members. She was trying to do the balancing act with no help from her husband. He really comes across as a weak man. In the slim novel, you take one through a range of conflicting emotions. I was not even very sure at the end whether to feel sorry or plain angry at the madman who strangled the young girl. I did feel very sad for the young girl and empathised with the young man when he left his mother’s apartment, years later. As for the father and aunt, no chance. Painful creatures.

It is a sad, sad novel with a claustrophobic air to it. But it gets the spirit of Calcutta and Bengali families ever so well. While reading it, my senses were tickled. I could get the smell and visualise much of Calcutta, even though it was not etched in as many words by you.

And yet, it is a wonderful story. Memorable.

One day, you must tell me more about it. How did you begin to write it? What inspired it? 8 years is a long time to spend writing it. Did it involve a lot of research?

I hope it sells well.

Warmly,

JAYA

Dear Jaya,

Thank you so much for your lovely words on The Firebird! It means the world to me! I wrote it after having done a novel and a book of criticism, as it were, getting the ‘firsts’ out of the way, after which I felt ready to write the ‘first’ real book! It sounds strange, but if you have read my first novel, Silverfish, you will perhaps know what I mean. I’m happy I wrote Silverfish and yet it obviously feels like a first novel now, and no, not one of the magical first novels that some writers produce either!

It took me about five and a half years to write this novel. I started this in August 2010, after abandoning about 80 or so pages of a novel that I realized was not going to work. Also, this was the period when I wrote most of Prose of the World, my book of criticism, so my attention was somewhat divided, especially during the early part of this period.

I think the most important that happened between my first and second novels is that I learnt, or rather unlearnt, the shadow of the intellectual, the metafictional, all that clever stuff that stays with us from our engagement with much 20th century fiction. Silverfish was similar to The Firebird in setting and even time period, but for all its attempt to evoke the local, there was something ethnographic about it, which is why, I think, the emotions did not pack the punch they should have. This one came out more viscerally, with more raw, physical power, almost beyond my control. However,  I worked hard to get the ‘spareness’ that you point out so well. I’ve always been a descriptive writer, something of a sensualist, but in The Firebird I learnt to achieve effect with minimal words, a hard lesson for a writer who grew up on Joyce and Woolf. Sometimes the narrative instinct and the descriptive instinct, I think, work against each other – one moves through time and the other through space – and description can slow down narrative. One of the most satisfying things about this novel for me is narration and description seems to have found a mutual equilibrium, and one has not hindered the other. People seem to be taking from it what they like. While most say they are gripped by the narrative, there are also those who have told me that the larger arc of the narrative seems – happily – overwhelmed by the fragrance of Chinese food or the odour of rum with Coke, or the blistering dust of burgeoning suburbs, whatever, and they didn’t even care about the narrative at those points. Completely paradoxical reactions, but I’m happy that the novel has evoked both.

Warmly,

Saikat

31 August 2015

Saikat Majumdar The Firebird Hachette India, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. 

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 2015 

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin ShahThe same year I watched a play for the first time, in the Sem concert hall. It was called Mr Fixit and has faded from my memory almost entirely but while watching it the only thing I wanted was to be up there with those people. When a long limousine, which I later discovered to be plywood cutout on wheels, came gliding on to the stage, I was back in the same universe of wonder where I had watched ‘that man’ dancing on that stage a hundred feet high. And I have since steadfastly believe that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage. Films take you captive, they feed you everything on a plate, the legerdemain they create transports you into a state where you may as well be dreaming, but theatre takes you into a world where your imagination is stimulated, your judgement is unimpaired, and thus your enjoyment heightened. It is only in the theatre that there can be this kind of exchange of energies between actor and audience. The finest definition of theatre that I have come across is ‘one actor-one audience’. Implying of course that any meaningful interaction between two people anywhere fits the definition of ideal theatre, with the same qualities needed of both participants as are required from them in an actual theatre. Theatre really is a one-on-one experience.” ( p.13-14) 

Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, And Then One Day, is a fabulous example of what a memoir should be –an insight into the personal life of the man/memoirist combined with the vast understanding with their life/passion. A good memoir should not consist entirely of personal details and who said what to whom, where and when; given that it is about an individual who is admired and looked up to for the success they have achieved in their career, a reader wants to know more about the industry/niche the author represents. This is what Naseeruddin Shah does. This is a smartly written memoir which is not a necessarily sugar-coated description of success having come easily to the actor. He attempts to be as realistic in his telling with his love for theatre and films being apparent from childhood.

A life of performance is what he yearns for, knows it is hard work and is willing to do it. For instance after the disastrous workshop of Grotowski held in Poland, that Naseeruddin Shah fled from, made him realise “no one at all could in fact help, and whatever I wanted to learn I’d have to do on my own”. It is a love for films and theatre that seeps through the pages of the memoir, Naseeruddin Shah does not merely rattle off names of films he has seen, plays he has acted in or actors he has hobnobbed with, there is a reason why every person mentioned in the book is present. Whether it is Mr Kendal and his love for staging Shakespeare or Captain Hook in the animated Peter Pan, Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, Jose Ferrer in I Accuse!,  Peter O’Toole in Becket or appreciating Shammi Kapoor and “Hindi cinema’s certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar” and Mehmood, “one of the most skilful actors I’ve ever seen, was not quite up there with Chaplin in terms of ability but much ahead in terms of self-love”. Every description and analysis is filled with a love and understanding of the profession, it is as if being in the world of cinema is like oxygen to Naseeruddin Shah.

Also as a good memoir should be the historical background of newly-independent India, the growth of Bollywood, the emergence of alternative cinema and changing tastes of the audiences is neatly woven through And Then One Day. This is a book which will continue to sell well beyond the immediate buzz of a beloved and admired actor having written his memoirs since it is a rich repository of information about the profession, the literature and theories around it, without being dull.

Of the many, many news stories, reviews, blog posts about the memoir, so far the best interaction has been between Barkha Dutt in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, NDTV, 14 September 2014 ( Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai) – http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/watch-master-s-take-in-conversation-with-naseeruddin-shah/338122 . As of this week, the publishers, Penguin Books India have collaborated with the Hindustan Times to release a series of short films called “Naseer on Naseer”. The first one was released on 22 September 2014 – http://www.hindustantimes.com/audio-news-video/AV-Entertainment/Naseer-on-Naseer-How-and-why-I-became-an-actor/Article2-1266974.aspx . These short films echo the sentiments of the actor as recorded in his memoir – his love for acting and the stage.

“I wanted more, I could happily have stayed on that stage forever, and in a sense I have. Whether I’d done well or badly was of no consequence. As an imitation of Mr Kendal it wasn’t too far off the mark, but the real revelation for me was the charge of energy I felt that day, and have continued to feel whenever I am onstage. I found myself doing things I hadn’t planned and doing them with complete certainty and to the approval of the audience. It was as if another hand was guiding me. This feeling has stayed with me till today; and therefore, though I am grateful for compliments, I never take full responsibility for either my successes or failures but do try to make sure that they ‘theatre god’ does not turn his back on me. ” (p. 60-1) 

Naseeruddin Shah And Then One Day: A Memoir Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2014. Hb. pp. 330 Rs 699

 

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Guest Post: Shovon Chowdhury on Bengali-ness

Shovon Chowdhury is an ad man. His debut novel The Competent Authority is being published by Aleph in August 2013. I have reviewed the book and interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Supplement, to be published on 4 Aug 2013. Meanwhile we got chatting about Bengali literature. I do not speak or read Bengali, but in response to my question, I received a lovely email from Shovon last night. I am reproducing it as is, with permission.

30 July 2013
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Hi Jaya,

Sorry I didn’t respond yesterday. I was working from morning till midnight, and then I passed out, shortly after my wife whispered in my ear, “You’re getting old now.”

To answer your question, I was hauled back from the UK at the age of 10, in 1973, to Calcutta. Once I got over the shock of learning that there was no TV, I was told that I had to pass Bengali in my annual exams, around a year from that point, or I would be kicked out of school. They weren’t as impressed with my English origins as we had thought they would be. You can’t really learn a language until you read stories, and in this respect, Satyajit Ray was a godsend for me. The first Bengali book I ever read was Felu-da’s Baksho Rohoshyo (The Box Mystery), purchased at A.H. Wheeler and read on the train, through the night, under a tiny bulb. I traced my finger along the words as I read it.

Further investigation of Satyajit Ray led me to Sandesh, a kid’s magazine he and his family ran from their house. Most of us young subscribers met him at one point or the other, and he would hand over our copies with the utmost gravity. In the very first issue I met Professor Shanku, an eccentric, but intrepid scientist, in ‘Eksringo Obhijan’ (The Unicorn Expedition) which was published serially in the magazine. I thought it was the best thing since Twenty Thousand Leagues. It would make a great movie. I was lucky that the first two Bengali books I read where so very up my street. I scraped through the annual exam, eventually, and remained part of the education system, to my lasting regret.

In the next few years, I spent most weekends in my grandfather’s two rooms in a narrow lane in Bagbazar. I had six aunties and one uncle, and usually they and most of their kids were in situ. Having been brought up as an only child, this was a thing of great horror to me, second only to the absence of Scooby Doo. Luckily, like all good Bengali households, they had complete sets of Rabindranath, Bankim Chandra, and Sharat Chandra, which nobody ever read except my grandmother. So I would park myself in a corner every weekend and pick myself a volume.

I ended up reading most of it. Bankim Chandra was rather tough, his Bengali very classical, his whole aspect very Old Testament. I knew all about the Old Testament because of bible classes back in Yorkshire, although as a matter of principle I never sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Rule Britannia’. Rabindranath should have won the Nobel prize just for his short stories, which are brilliant. His plays were great fun, too. I found his poems a little old-fashioned. Sharat Chandra was a flat out genius, and easily one of the ten best novelists who ever lived. No one had a clearer eye.

By the time I reached college, I was reading a lot of Bengali poetry, in the hope of impressing girls, but ended up being impressed myself, particularly by Shubhash Mukhopadhyaya. He was a disillusioned man. Much like the rest of us, he started out admiring Che Guevara, and ended up with Jyoti Basu. Some of us fled, while the rest gave up. I was one of the runaways, to Delhi, in my case. Many years later, shortly before he died, I saw Jyoti Basu on TV, and was consumed with horror. I had no idea he was still alive. It was like The Return Of The Mummy. But that was much later.

Back then, even though the Party was consuming us all wholesale, like a crimson anaconda, we managed to have some fun. During my time in Cal, I did around two decades of movies, from the point where Uttam Kumar was doing the cha cha, to when Aparna Sen was doing the twist. In fact, all the members of the Very New Young Men’s Bodybuilding Society – Bhanu, Johor, Robi, Chinmoy and Tapen — are named after Bengali comedians I remember with great affection.

And then there was theatre. I spent many evenings at the Academy, watching productions by Nandikar and Theatre Workshop and Bahurupee. I can sing you every song from Manoj Mitra’s Narak Gulzar, or the incredible Theatre Workshop production of Schweyk Goes To War. I also read a few contemporary Bengali novelists, like Moti Nandi, and Shirshendu, and whatever ‘Desh’ was serving up that season. But I have to admit that most of them were a bit too social realist for me. The flights of fancy were all happening in the theatre, with Utpal Dutta, and Badal Sircar, and Ajitesh of the booming laughter, and more Brecht than you can imagine, from Galileo to The Good Woman. I wish he could have seen it.

Been out of touch the last ten years, sadly, except for the theatre part. I often re-read Sukumar Roy, though, and discover new things every time. He died young, like Alexander, and did things like this — http://shovonc.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/pome-of-the-day-5/, which everyone says is funny, but do we not live here today? The last four lines always terrify me.

Just to clarify, I am not a UK citizen. I wish I could say it was some kind of stand I took, but the fact is, it never occurred to me.

Cheers!

Shovon

Irshad Abdul Kadir, “Clifton Bridge”

Irshad Abdul Kadir, “Clifton Bridge”

I have just finished reading Clifton Bridge by Irshad Abdul Kadir. I loved it! I suspect it is years of engagement as a lawyer, observing people, listening to stories, imbibing them that have been used in writing these stories. The words are just enough, not more, not less. Even the social climbing, ambitious Punjabi mother, Shabnam is only heard on a couple of occasions, but the Punjabi-English intonation is perfect. ( ‘Tariq, you’re talking about, he’s having tuition for final paper,’ Shabana explained….) And later when she is screeching hysterically, “yes, yes” on behalf of her daughter, Farah, at the nikah, her crudity, her desperation at improving her social status by marrying her daughter into the governor’s family (even though her husband is obscenely rich) are exposed so well.

Obviously listening to many stories over the years as a lawyer, also being a civil rights activist and a theatre critic have helped coalesce many skills into writing these eleven stories. There is a sharpness in the etching, there is a sensitivity in telling the tale from the point of view of the main characters and yet, always the shocking realisation that reality is cruel, life and its circumstances are ephemeral. It does not matter if it the family is the poorest of the poor like that of Jumma, Rano and Peeru in the title story, “Clifton Bridge” or that of the feudal lord, Malik Aslam and his Begum, the steps that the men take “all necessary steps to preserve order”. For Jumma it is selling off Bilal to a known paedophile, lusting after and nearly raping his “daughter” Noori ( “a dusky, dark-haired childwoman ripening early in the season”) and having no qualms about selling of the youngest child, Zeebu’s kidney for a decent pile of money. Similarly, Malik Aslam allows his Begum to keep Chumpa, an orphan in their home, as a companion-cum-housekeeper to assist her “in the tedious functions expected of jagirdanis”. Also the Begum genuinely believes her husband when he “promised my father, we would continue living like your liberal ancestors in the Raj…and…and…give a wide berth to the sick segregated lifestyle being foisted on us.” So she is horrified many years later when he summarily dismisses Chumpa from their service for no fault of her own, save that he did not want their household name sullied by rumours of an attempted rape by his prospective son-in-law. Malik Aslam’s explanation for the dismissal of Chumpa — “For being in the wrong place at the wrong time…for disturbing the order of our lives.”

This is a collection of stories that shows the rich and poor in unexpected hues–sure the feudal lords exist, just as the corrupt bureaucrats are a reality too. So is the fact that a mujahid has a child by a Christian lover and a globetrotting professor tries to cope with cultural and ideological barriers. I liked the powerful women characters. It could be the co-wives of Daud, a man with a roving eye; Chumpa the maid of the “big house”, Meher, widow, who opts to live alone with three daughters or even Sultana who becomes a world renowned singer, after her marriage. I enjoyed reading these stories. They present Pakistan as more than just the typical image of the country—seen as a hotbed of civil unrest, corruption and conservative mindsets. I hope Irshad Abdul Kadir does well.

13 April 2013

Irshad Abdul Kadir Clifton Bridge HarperCollins India Original, Pb. Rs. 299.