The overcast skies of Mumbai, amidst the gentle rustling of leaves, is an ideal setting for some inspirational writing. What better than gloom to get you reminiscing over the stories of Tagore such as The Postmaster or Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ that I watched one Sunday afternoon, with my Bengali mother translating all the difficult words to me. “Classics” is what she would often call them. And I’d just dismiss them as an aging mother recollecting her childhood spent flopping about in the marsh along the pond of her Midnapore home.
In my opinion, we Bengalis are the biggest victims of the colonial hangover. Playwright Manjima Chatterjee (known for her original work The Mountain of Bones and Two Men on a Tree) views it more as an act of collusion, however. Regardless of what the conspiracy might be, growing up on a rich diet of British and American classical literature is a rite of passage for any Bengali. I grew up a voracious consumer of Dickensian literature, some Jane Austen’s, less Ronald Dahl’s than I would’ve liked, among others. And once I was introduced to the world of theatre, classical texts became synonymous with Shakespearean works.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just me, but a considerable number of theatre novices viewed Shakespeare’s works as an echelon of intellect; or what both Manjima and playwright and director Neel Chaudhuri humorously refer to as “high art” during my conversations with them. Interestingly, both point out the irony of this belief, given that, in his time, Shakespeare actually wrote for the masses – the middle class, the proletariat.
So what does, in fact, constitute a classic?
Manjima considers a classic to be a piece of work that “covers all the rasas” (nine forms of expression as postulated in the Natyashastra). There is a certain universality and timelessness to it.
Neel, who is a playwright and director of original works such as Taramandala, is more apprehensive of ascribing the term “universality” to a classic. He believes it “makes the work sound rather flat.” He believes timelessness is a rather rare quality to come by, one that he, personally, has found only in the works of Anton Chekhov.
Instead, a pivotal element of a classical text is what Neel refers to as “resonance”. And Manjima concurs, saying that universality implies a resonance. An exploration of a base human experience, is what I would summarise it as.
Would an adaptation of a classical text still be considered classical?
In this regard, who better to consult than Chanakya Vyas, playwright and director of Algorithms. One of his recent works includes a series of online performances as part of the Science Gallery Bengaluru’s exhibit PSYCHE (2022).
As part of this series, he picked out six different soliloquies from Hamlet, which were reinterpreted and performed by six different incredible performers. The performances were gender agnostic in the choice of performers but drew from the lived experience of each of these performers, with which one’s gender identity is inextricably linked. It is a striking example of how classical works can be re-contextualized based on the social milieu of the moment in time it is being performed in.
While Neel and Manjima both specify how integral the language is to a Shakespearean text, Chanakya agrees whilst also believing that an adaptation can also be Shakespearean and just as classical even if interpreted completely differently, and performed in a language far removed from the “prithee” and “thou” of Shakespeare.
Manjima is inclined to agree. I mentioned to her my experience of watching What’s Done is Done, Rajat Kapoor’s renowned adaptation of Macbeth. I spoke about how I thoroughly enjoyed it but didn’t leave the theatre feeling like I had witnessed anything Shakespearean. And the one question she repeatedly posed to me was, “Did that thought come in the way of you appreciating the performance?” And my response each time was a resounding, “No!” It was as simple as that for her.
Manjima also recalls a time when she caught a production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in London. It was an all women cast, one that subverted the power dynamics in the original play. Yes, it was Shakespearean in the way that the production used candlelight as the only source of lighting and “eventually did unspeakable things with the candles,” she adds coyly. Yet, instead of being a play with extreme gore and violence, it was a musical which was funny, while also raising important questions about the gendering of violence. Was it anything like the original play? Not in the least bit. Did it take away from the integrity of the play being a classic? Not in the least bit.
Which texts other than Shakespeare would then be considered classical, especially within the context of Indian theatre?
Chanakya considers Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam as a piece of classical work. Why so, one might ask. Because “you are still telling a story but there is an element of adventure; a large epic quality to it.” At the same time, he categorises the works of Badal Sarkar, and even Girish Karnad’s, as contemporary works.
On the other hand, Manjima believes there is a reason why Badal Sarkar’s Evam Indrajeet keeps resurfacing time and again. There is a recurrent relevance to it, which she believes speaks to the timeless quality of it, but is hesitant to comment upon the classicism of it.
Chanakya also speaks of Sanskrit playwright Bhasa’s Urubhangam, another classic, based on the epic Mahabharata, but focused on the character of Duryodhana before and after his battle with Bhima. Chanakya speaks of the manner in which they never really show the war – just speak of it. The only totem of a war having taken place is the image of Duryodhana lying on the battlefield. There is an element of narration to Indian classical forms, in Chanakya’ opinion. As an Odissi dancer, I agree. There is a rich aspect of storytelling to most Indian classical works across forms. For instance, the performance of Odissi always begins with Mangalacharan which marks the entry of the performer onto the stage. As part of this routine, Bhumi Pranam (offering salutation to Mother Earth), is followed by seeking the blessings of Lord Jagannath for an auspicious beginning to the performance. Each of the dance routines from Battu Ntitya (a dance offering to Lord Batuka Bhairava, one of the 64 aspects of Lord Shiva) to Dashavatar, all narrate stories through their music, rhythm, Abhinaya (expressions) as well as movements.
As a fellow bookworm, I gushed to Neel about my love for mystery fiction, especially the stories of ‘Feluda’, a character created by filmmaker and author Satyajit Ray, inspired by his love for the all-knowing-least-revealing Sherlock Holmes. I ask him whether he would consider that as a classical text. His responded that while the nature of the character specifically might seem dated, contextualizing it would certainly help it transcend time. A striking example of it, although from the world of film, is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, directed by Dibakar Banerjee.
Can plays written today ever constitute a classic?
We are living through an era where works of experimental and devised theatre are predominant. The forms of expression are taking on a fluidity which allows them to break away from formal structure, from the way it occupies space.
And so while it may be hard to predict whether contemporary works would eventually fossilize into classics in the distant future, Chanakya certainly believes that documentation of them through written text is instrumental.
Neel feels that it is becoming increasingly harder to create work which will stand the test of time. Mostly because a lot of the work created today is very dated, it has an increased relevance in the period in which it is being created but may lose the transcendental nature of it unless the power dynamics and relationships explored through the text are resonant, like they are in most Shakespearean works.
What aspects of a classical play inspire a playwright’s original work?
Through all my conversations, a concurrent theme was the idea of exploring a base human experience.
For a work of theatre to be compelling, it must evoke in the audience what Neel refers to as “doubt,” Manjimaas “dissatisfaction,” and Vyas calls as “adventure”. In my opinion, all three coalesce into a journey of exploration.
Manjima renounces the restrictions of a 3-act structure to her plays. She allows the story to dictate the structure that best serves it.
On the other hand, Vyas moves away from any reverence for the Shakespearean structure and allows the interpretation of the performance to mold the structure, the visual and literal linguistics of his works.
Neel articulates his original plays as, “a way of pursuing a question and not necessarily finding the answer.” He isn’t driven by the stories of heroes. Instead, he is drawn to stories that seem familiar but have a strangeness to them.
Is there a gendered approach to the interpretation of classical texts?
In all honesty, I don’t know. Manjima, Neel and Chanakya appear to be moved by the lived experiences of humankind, which I would consider as the female gaze – an in-depth exploration of the inner world of a character. It is where an emotional journey for those witnessing it takes place with an element of self-discovery and resonance for both the performers and the audience.
I am not entirely sure I found the answer to what constitutes a classic and who decides what a classic is. These conversations may not have alleviated my doubts about being able to one day pen a classic myself, but, I suppose, this was my “way of pursuing a question and not necessarily finding an answer.”