Modern theatre, Mumbai and Indian aesthetics

By Tanvi Parekh, kathak dancer and travel scribe

He shares a love-hate relationship with Mumbai, the city which is at the heart of most of his plays. She has been lighting, directing, and conducting workshops all across Mumbai. The two collaborated for Ambu and Rajalakshmi, officially. But unknown to Ramu, she has lit most of his play-productions for the past few years.
Gurleen Judge and Ramu Ramanathan kick-start the Conversations@theDSM series, a celebration of the guru-shishya tradition in theatre, at Purandare Hall in Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh.
“As a writer you have an obsession to say something that is true. This has to be backed by the rigour to follow the truth,” says Ramu Ramanathan. And this is a common thread that runs through his plays. Words bring to fore the intertwined social, cultural, and political realities of the time – most times bracketing the plays as historical, political, social, and documental. Be it Postcards from Bardoli (2013), Cotton 56, Polyester 84 (2006) or Mahadevbhai 1892-1942 (2002).
Mahadevbhai was the playwright’s response to the phase of anti-Gandhi plays in Maharashtra. “The anti-Gandhi ideologies that Gandhi Virudh Gandhi, Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy, and Gandhi-Ambedkar followed, affronted me. There had to be a necessary response. You respond as an artist, a playwright,” he says.
It is post Mahadevbhai, Ramu Ramanathan says, that he was expected to wear a political hat. “The responsibility weighs you down. You feel you are bound to write serious plays.”
Another play in point, Postcards from Bardoli, set in post-Liberalisation India, puts the spotlight on India’s agrarian crisis. Is the play addressed to the middle class, and challenging their smugness, asks Gurleen Judge? Not all says Ramu. “I was worried with the right wing appropriation of Sardar Patel in a crude nationalist way. There was no understanding of the larger Gandhian context that Sardar operated in. Secondly, it was about familiarising today’s young city audiences about the Bardoli satyagraha.”
Reaching out
Ramu Ramanathan’s idea is to reach out – to fit the writings in a module that is accessible to all strata. For this, he takes cue from capitalism. There is a clear shift in how the middle class is consuming; earlier what the middle class saw as wastage is now a necessity, thanks to the capitalist module. “The assessments and reading of situation by the capitalists is sharp. HUL introduced shampoo sachets priced at Rs 1 as part of Project Shakti. Thus, a commodity which was considered a wasteful indulgence and western, is being used by 70% of the population. If the capitalists can solve the ultimate socialist paradigm, then there is something that they are doing. And in a sense, as artists we neither understand nor are we catering to it.” The idea, he says, is to create that Rs 1 work of art which reaches out to the bottom of the pyramid.
Postcards from Bardoli is bound to make the middle class uncomfortable when an ebullient Mihir, taking a cue from the historical Bardoli Satyagraha – and drawing inspiration from its hero, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, embarks on a perilous journey. All this, while his helpless, flawed and muted father (is it all of us?) watches his son.
The language of theatre
Theatre is ultimately about the spoken. Playwrights will borrow from what is around them, words being created around their community, the lingual dexterity of its people. Languages are dying and the society is growing more inarticulate. Half of the 6000 languages which the planet speaks will die. Over 50 languages have only one speaker left. Then, how does a playwright write?
Ramu Ramanathan quotes two examples from the 1990’s, both adaptations, of Indian English playwriting – Rahul daCunha’s I’m not Bajirao (1995), adapted from Herb Gardener’s I’m not Rappaport) and Naushil Mehta’s A Suitable Bride (1996), an adaptation of Madhu Rye’s Gujarati novel Kimball Ravenswood. He says, both daCunha and Mehta (and to some extent Adi Murzban and Dinayar Contractor) experimented with language and gave legitimacy to Indian English speech. This is akin to the tribe of Indian English writers who were NRIs – Salman Rushdie, V S Naipaul, Rohinton Mistry. Rushdie followed an unusual track and picked up his lingua franca from Star & Style magazine and even Shobha De. “What Indian English literature had achieved 20 years ago, playwriting had achieved it and subsequently many more people – like today’s stand-ups and TV anchors – have started experimenting with it.”
Ramu draws a parallel to another Indian invention, Urdu. He says, Urdu has succeeded because it has been a language of urbanity and communication and it always managed to adjust. Another advantage Urdu and Indian English have is, both are pan-India, instead of being confined to a region or a state.
“For me, theatre is a living museum that preserves words.” An example of this is how the Mumbai-wallahs came to know of Chattisgarhi through Tejan Bai’s performances or Habib Tanvir’s plays. We know of Maithili through Nagarjuna’s poems. Or Bhasa’s Sanskrit plays through Panniker Sir. “In this land of thousand of languages, the question is about how many are we preserving and in what form. Till such time as there are actors that are collecting these words as a part of their repertoire and speaking them aloud for a living audience, this museum will stay alive. That is why in this age of dumbification, which means acronyms and abbreviations and labels, you need the theatre.”
The Indian way of doing things
A peculiar habit of Indian theatre, Ramu Ramanathan says is that actors don’t speak the line, they speak an approximation of the line. Then there is the cultural habit of repetition which is prevalent in our poetry. Ramu says, this was a practice which was criticised by Hegel in the early 19th century when he wanted to counter the Orientalisation of India by Goethe and Max Mueller. Hegel describes India as a region with unchanging institutions and ideas. It is a land of fantasy, beauty and the erotic.
Hegel is said to have relied on the early translations of the Vedas, the Dharmashastras (especially Manu), the canon of Pali, and the writings of philosophers. Given his time period, his knowledge of Indian philosophy is actually impressive. Hegel confronts some of the high thought in the Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools. But he is critical of the Indian habit of repeating and re-instating the point, and indulging in rhetorics.
Ramu says, if one follows this thought, and applies to an Indian stage actor, then it means our actors are programmed in a particular way. They apply this linguistic gharana to the written text. Therefore it makes the written text an onerous burden for their tongues. But individualising and internalising the 21st century lines to the 2 AD spoken habit, changes the context. This is unfair to the modern playwright who writes. This is something all Indian playwrights have been grappling with.
Indian aesthetics in making a play
In the Indian consciousness, metaphors and myths have become reality. Ramu Ramanathan quotes Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a poet and one of the leading Urdu critics and theorists, to explain Indian aesthetics. Faruqi has done an enormous amount of study to the fundamental question about what is aesthetics.
Is it truthful? This is the Greek belief. Is art seeking the truth
The Chinese, who have an equally long tradition, seem to be constantly asking – is it human?
The European question is, it is real
In the Indian sensibility, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi says, humaare yaha rupak real ban jaata hai (the myth is real). Ramu explains, If a poet is asked to write about transition of seasons, we will not have a bard sitting in the forest and making notes like say, Wordsworth or Whitman or Keats. He will improvise. Aap shaayar hote ho, ya nahi hote ho (You are either a poet or not one). It is that simple.
When Ramu talks of the rupak, he makes an interesting point about Triveni in Allahabad. He says, everybody talks about the Triveni Sangam; the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna. Nobody has seen the third river. You will notice that there is a super imposition of the myth which doesn’t exist but it is an integral part of our reality.
Today, the rupak has become real; as is evident in our mainstream politics or mainstream TV debates. That is India.
Modern theatre
So? What really constitutes theatre, and is devised theatre a legitimate form? This has been the big question. Which is why Gurleen Judge asked it to wordsmith.
The European young theatrewallah have the works of William Forsyth and a Martha Graham as a reference. Closer home you have contemporary dance performances by Astad Deboo and Chandralekha. “You don’t have to start from vacuum to give modern experimental theatre a form or a sense of movement. Unlike in India, world over artists come from a tradition. Here, you have not even taken someone of the sensibility of Chandralekha into your grammar. The reference points are fuzzy.”
He puts two artists in the spotlight. Ivo Dimchev, a Bulgarian artist, who works in contemporary forms of dance and performance. His show titled “Lili Handel – blood, poetry and music from the white whore’s boudoir” (2005), has been performed hundreds of times. Then there is Bruno Beltrao, a hip-hop artist, who impaired his back at a very young age. He met his guru, another well-known hip-hop artist in Brazil. And he designs and devices a piece using the master’s voice. There is text and if the guru is talking about transcreation and multiple images, Beltrao creates it using holograms. All this, in a small slum in Rio de Janeiro.
“These have been created without massive budgets, in impoverished conditions. If these are the possibilities, then there is a certain deficit of ideas in India and we aren’t pushing ourselves enough. We have a generation of people who know what to say but they are struggling to arrive at how to say this. The how part needs much more rigour. Thusfar we have been negligent about it.”
Quick takes
One glaring omission
Jyotiba Phule’s Tritiya Ratna. It is an important text but rarely staged. In spite of the greatness of Phule, the play never got recognised within the official manifesto of Marathi theatre. Even today it is difficult to stage it.
The most awkward question a director asked you.
Someone asked if he could intersperse a love story in the play Gagan Mahal to stage it at an inter-collegiate festival.
An important work that you have seen recently.
Khasakkinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak) directed by Deepan Sivaraman. By far the most important play I have seen in recent times.
Favourite line
The last four lines from Krapp’s Last Tape:
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back
On Samuel Beckett
Undoubtedly, the master. In every play that I have written, consciously or unconsciously, I have borrowed a line from him and kept that in the play. And whenever I have not borrowed a line from Beckett, the play has flopped. Be it Kashmir Kashmir or Angst Angst Coonth Coonth Boom Bam Dhandhal Dhamal Kaput.