Mahesh Dattani sees greater acceptance of indigenous English stage

South Asia-Culture

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Madhusree Chatterjee
Thimpu /New Delhi

The rain had thawed after a night and a half of the morning of torrential downpour- washing picture postcard Thimpu, the capital of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, in shades of sparkling aquamarine. The sun shone on lush Thimpu that spread out like a stage on the slopes waiting for a new drama to play itself out.

At the Nehru Wangchuk Centre in Bhutan – the official cultural exchange centre between India and Bhutan – more than 50 children took to the stage – overlooking the Thimpu Chhu river and pine-clad hills in the distance – to express their flair for “high drama” with noted Indian playwright and director Mahesh Dattani on August 11, the final day of the four-day Mountain Echoes Festival Aug 8-11- an India-Bhutan arts and cultural fiesta.

“Theatre is the best way to bridge the cultural divides around the world and foster understanding. Contemporary theatre is a mirror of reality, cultural identities and lifestyles,” Dattani told this writer/reporter on the sidelines of the workshop. He was helping the participants articulate their stories with body language in a curious cross-cultural fusion of “Indian acting methods in an indigenous Bhutanese milieu that included ethnic content and liberal doses of English as the language of communication”.

“I see three major trends in modern Indian theatre that were not perceptible even a decade ago,” Dattani observed. Theatre in India is “more multilingual than before”. There is “greater reflection of who we are, greater sense of linguistic identity and more acceptance on the mainstream cultural stage- especially of the English theatre” after a long lull in the aftermath of cinema.

At the same time, in countries like India where more than 300 million people use English as a link language, while moving across 450 official vernacular languages among diverse caste and language communities, “the conflict between regional and urban identity still persists in theatre”, Dattani said.

English theatre, Dattani’s oeuvre, is yet to reconcile with regional language theatre that stands out with distinct provincial ethos, mythological and cultural archetypes, the playwright says.

In contrast to the millennia-old Indian regional stage, the English stage is new-born, barely 150 years old, owing its umbilical pangs to the erstwhile British colonialists who gave English classics to the Indian stage, paving the way for the contemporary English stage.

Over the years, English theatre has struggled to remain afloat in infrequent attempts at grand productions, especially in the first few decades post-Independence till the 1970s when it found a surprise taker- the corporate mega-entities who found English theatre a good way to extend their commitment to the culture welfare of their rainbow workforce and also contribute to the arts in an effort to shed the tags of ruthless “profit merchants” pinned on them by progressive radicals and the Socialists of the 1970s.

English theatre in the meantime grew to become the genre that connected the Indian stage to the world as well – largely so.

“I have a feeling that Alyque Padamsee set the contemporary English stage rolling with corporate support for his grand revival productions like ‘Evita’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ starring Indian line-ups. Such scales on which Padamsee operated required corporate thinking and support,” Dattani pointed out.

Even now, it thrives on corporate support. Companies sponsor English theatre on their social events calendar – an evening of theatre, followed by cocktails and dinners, Dattani said. As a result, the theatre has changed its format. “The running time of a play has been reduced to 90 minutes usually without break—  away from the traditional two-hour full length drama with one or multiple intermissions in between the acts. This 90-minute structure suits the corporate sponsors,” the playwright said.

The corporate English plays are modern in outlook, exhumed from reality – with elements of niche for the “guests are by invitation”.

Dattani’s new play “Big Fat City” that played on the national capital stage Aug 8-9, is set in a familiar urban realm. It brings to light the “blues of the economic slump at Mumbai’s Lokhandwalla locality, an upwardly mobile suburbia, where the playwright lived early in his career in Mumbai”.

“I wrote the play between 2005-2007 when I from Bangalore to Mumbai. Lokhandwalla was inhabited by ‘aspiring young people. Many of them were keen to join the arts and climb the corporate ladder. They all wanted to put their best foot forward. They all wanted to exude success- that was the starting point for my story… About people who wanted to maintain the lifestyles but could not afford it,” Dattani said.

The “Big Fat City” is a tapestry of three different narratives—-  about a corporate couple who has lost their jobs but has to pay the monthly EMI on the loan for the home the duo has purchased, a fading television star who was a huge success in 1990s, but no longer gets work but with a penthouse and lavish lifestyle she can no longer afford and a young aspiring actor who has come to Mumbai with her boyfriend. She has a dark story.

All the three stories – drawing from common set of circumstances – are strung together into a greater structure of yet another narrative like a mosaic- the new urban reality in Mumbai, Dattani explained. It has been inspired by real characters that the playwright met at Lokhandwalla. “It is a look at values in moments of adversity,” the playwright muses.

Dattani has rarely moved out of the urban Indian landscape in his plays. Born to Gujarati parents in 1958 in rapidly-urbanising Bangalore, Dattani went to an English medium school, college and management school. After a brief tenure as a copy-writer, he decided to devote time to English theatre – opting for city stories that crowded the urban space. He made spotlight with plays like “Final Solutions”, “Dance Like a Man”, “Bravely, I Fought the Queen”, “On a Muggy Night in Mumbai”, “Tara” and “30 Days in September”.

Dattani is the only English playwright to have been honoured with a Sahitya Akademi award.

A sense of linguistic detachment haunts Dattani, who regrets the loss of his language – Gujarati – blaming the English medium school that his parents sent him to. It grounded him in the language of the queen.

“I was encouraged to speak English, not Gujarati. It was a great undoing… I lost a part of my identity. It was as if I didn’t have a language,” Dattani says. Writing successful and powerful plays has nothing to do with the language, but with his edge as a playwright and story-teller, the playwright introspects.

Dark characters and crisis bring out the best in Dattani – it leads to sharply contoured and nuanced characters and situations in plays. Dattani’s role models help him stay close to reality.

“My early influences have been American playwrights like Tennessee Williams. His plays, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Summer & Smoke”, “Street Car Named Desire” and “Not About Nightingales” taught me how to use poetry in drama and plot big dramatic moments between the past and the present- across time,” Dattani said. The Indian inspirations come from likes of Marathi legend Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Gujarati playwright Madhu Rai.

Mahesh Dattani believes in the power of original scripts. “That is what theatre is – original plays. Adaptation is a skill. Most playwrights here transpose western plays into Indian languages by changing names as pass them off as adaptations. It seems easy…” Dattani hits out. He has been conducting workshops for the last 20 years to nurture young script-writing talent.

“I don’t teach them to write scripts. I mentor them. My job is to understand the kind of stories they want to tell and identify their strengths as writers”. Some of his students have done Dattani proud abroad.

English theatre has great potential to evolve as any other regional language stage in India, the playwright ends on optimism.

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