A two-volume compendium collects three decades of Manjula Padmanabhan's plays, underscoring their timelessness, urgency
In a two-volume compendium, Blood and Laughter and Laughter and Blood, author, journalist, illustrator and playwright Manjula Padmanabhan brings together all her plays right from her debut, Lights Out (1984)
In a two-volume compendium, Blood and Laughter and Laughter and Blood, author, journalist, illustrator and playwright Manjula Padmanabhan brings together all her plays right from her debut, Lights Out (1984) to her more recent works such as Blind Date and whole sets of performance pieces, including Hidden Fires and The Sextet.
This repository of plays that the writer has produced over decades encompasses the different social, political and cultural ideologies and conflicts which she had read about, heard and witnessed through time. Nearly every play explores one particular issue at its core, the works becoming a lens to view sexual violence, organ harvesting, sci-fi, dowry and the extra-terrestrial unfolding as dystopian dramas.
One of the reason Padmanabhan says she wanted to get all her plays under one umbrella was to “release them from imprisonment”.
For even as some of her works continue to be staged, performed and read, others have been “waiting in the wings” for as many as 20 years. Additionally, she explains that doctorate students often reach out to her, sending her queries about her plays, but when they ask for scripts, she inevitably has to refuse, “because it's not a great idea to send a script off on the internet, by email”.
The two volumes, Blood and Laughter (which comprises all her plays) and Laughter and Blood (which houses performance pieces) were then born out of the idea of getting all her works published and solving both these conundrums.
Padmanabhan’s career as a writer and illustrator began with the cartoon strip Suki which was followed by a steady stream of books including Kleptomania and The Island of Lost Girls as well as numerous children’s stories which she has illustrated herself.
The writer, who won the Onassis Prize for Theatre in Greece for her 1996 play, Harvest had never given any thought to writing plays. Her journey began, as she mentions in the introduction to her collections, when her friend narrated an incident to the writer that left a deep impact on her. It led to her first play, Lights Out, which describes a conversation between a group of friends and family in a middle-class apartment in suburban Mumbai who hear loud, disturbing screams coming from an under construction building next door.
Each one of her principle characters knows that what they are bearing ‘auditory’ witness to is in fact a horrifying crime, a gangrape, and her surreal dialogue points to the deafening silence of the witnesses, their hesitance to report the crime and the apathy with which they regard the incident, almost as if it were an episode plucked from a TV serial.
After Lights Out, it took Padmanabhan ages to find a stage for her subsequent works but she remained undeterred. The reason, she notes is that “like all other authors and artists, I have tremendous faith in my ability. It's nice to be acclaimed and valued. But many of us are not. When that's the case, our innate resilience ensures that we'll just keep going.”
And she has. Over dozens of plays, Padmanabhan’s writing sets a tone that is at once shocking and matter-of-fact. It poignantly depicts our social psyche, our collective willingness to sweep oddities and immoralities under the rug for the sake of propriety and a generally alarming lack of self-worth in the face of deprivation and convention.
Harvest is one such play. The prize-winning drama follows the story of a family who enters into a ‘Faustian deal’ with a rich businessman. The terms of the deal: one member of the family agrees to sell any and all organs of his body in exchange for wealth.
What would hit a reader and performer most about her works is that two decades into the 21st century, the socio-cultural issues she has tackled have remained relevant. This is perhaps why her plays continue to resonate with audiences, and have sustained over the passage of time as sadly, the issues haven’t changed much at all.
“Wouldn't it be great to say, 'I wrote a play about gender abuse but oh dear! it's no longer relevant!'? Hasn't happened yet,” Padmanabhan remarks.
Thus, when asked if she made any striking changes to her scripts over time, she says the main difference between the printed version and the first draft is that “I've adjusted some of the language to reflect newly awakened sensitivities”. These are primarily about gender and inclusion.
However, one of her plays which has undergone multiple revisions is The Mating Game Show. Dowry death, the steep price of a daughter’s marriage, and the emphasis on the groom’s side to find not only the purest, most virtuous girl but also one with means forms the subject matter of this drama — a reality show in which prospective brides and grooms compete to find their ideal partner.
The play hits its mark when wrong, undesirable answers lead to punishment for the girls which include being tied up, beaten, burnt and the ultimate, walking into an incinerator of sorts.
“In the earlier versions of the Game Show the audience were shown a bride being burnt alive onstage. In the current version, by contrast, well … I won't give away the ending. Let's just say: it's different,” she says.
A thoroughly jarring dystopian narrative, the play brings forth the cruelty and insensitivity with which the marriage industry operates, like a well-oiled machine, laying waste to fruitful lives. It emerges as one of Padmanabhan’s more powerful works filling the reader with despair at the prevailing mindset of society around marriage.
Of the dystopian setting and futuristic technology found in many of her plays, she notes, “I'm sometimes asked why I produce such disturbing literature when I appear to be so 'normal' (I really have been asked this!). I find it a surprising question. Surely it's extremely obvious that the world is a terrible mess? I write about what I can see (or hear about) around me.”
Ironically, now, due to the lockdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the whole world is going through a “surreal and dystopian” phase, she notes. However, while some might experience anxiety and depression after living in isolation during this time, Padmanabhan, who is in the habit of spending long hours alone, finds herself to be “extremely even-tempered”.
In her mind, the solitary hours are perhaps a gateway to situations and characters, and imagination going beyond what is deemed conventional or real.
During the lockdown, the playwright who enjoys the concept of short performance pieces “wrote a five-minute piece that was performed on video by an extremely talented actor (Pablo Manuel Silveira) and – ta-daaa! – it was on the internet within a week!”
Today, her works, moored in Indianness and socio-political conventions associated with India are interestingly performed to a large extent across the globe so much so that Harvest has had multiple takers overseas, maybe more than the audience at home. The play has been performed in Greek and Italian, and Hidden Fires was recently set up in Brazil and performed in Portuguese. This kind of universality found in her narratives symbolises the sameness of certain social struggles that transcend national boundaries to become global issues.
For her part, Padmanabhan, who grew up in several countries in Europe and Asia has recently begun describing herself as ‘culture-fluid’. She maintains, “As a result of being culture-fluid, many of my pieces can be performed, with very minor adjustments, outside the cultural context of India.”
And of course, human suffering, which forms a large part of her works, is universal. “When we're manipulated by politicians or external circumstances, we're capable of terrible savagery,” Padmanabhan says, before conceding that when conditions are ideal, “we're all equally capable of great generosity and creativity”.
So, at a time when the world is filled with suffering, disparity and subordination, and the future appears to be a darker shade of intolerance, she says, “Maybe the next virus that comes along will wipe us out. Or maybe we'll be forced to cooperate with one another. It's our choice.”
Manjula Padmanabhan's Blood and Laughter and Laughter and Blood have been published by Hachette India.
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