From stage to page: Recent excursions in Indian theatre publishing provide vital insight into the form, and its future
Theatre publishing will go a long way towards preserving latter-day texts currently missing from the public archive, while allowing theatre-makers to access contemporary writings that provide a greater understanding of the zeitgeist, and take them to audiences hungry for new interpretations and perspectives.
In December last year, one of Bengaluru’s oldest theatre groups, the Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT) brought out three volumes of its extended repertoire of original plays in English. A book series edited by one of its founder-trustees, Vijay Padaki, the volumes have been published as part of an outreach initiative that marks 60 years of BLT’s existence.
Starting off with a staging of Molière’s farce The Prodigious Snob in 1960, its performance roll has grown to include as many as two hundred productions, including a wealth of plays specially commissioned and developed as part of an in-house play development programme. More volumes from this wellspring are expected by the end of the year. This extensive undertaking was carried out in association with the New Delhi-based independent publishing house, Vitasta, and is part of a welcome trend in which theatre companies themselves are spearheading the publication of plays — an otherwise languishing publishing genre urgently in need of just such a fillip.
In Mumbai, the Being Association theatre group have been regularly publishing the winning entries of its Sanhita Manch Hindi playwriting contest in yearly volumes; and under-25 theatre movement Thespo, which has revealed itself as a significant microcosm of the active ferment of youth theatre in India, recently brought out a multilingual edition of its most outstanding plays selected from over two tumultuous decades of festival programming. Also in Bengaluru, the experimental theatre outfit, Indian Ensemble, has been running the First Draft Ideas Lab, a writing programme for playwrights that has embarked on its second edition last month, after the first yielded a rich haul of four new plays last year.
The BLT offerings include a book of classic plays, another of children’s plays while a third is dedicated to ‘The History of Ideas’, a programme of new plays that the group has been running for more than a decade. In a note that accompanies each edition, theatre director Anmol Vellani sums up the effort thus, “There is a hunger for strong dramatic texts in India, where theatre production has grown far more rapidly than playwriting. In that context, these volumes will be seen as yet another precious gift that BLT has given to the theatre community.” These texts include literary adaptations like Monsters in the Dark, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning The Emperor of All Maladies; biographical excursions like Finding Ananda, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary year of Swami Vivekananda; dialectic theatre like The Prophet and the Poet, in which Gandhi and Tagore are pitted opposite each other; and translations such as those of the Sanskrit classic Mricchakatika, and the Tamil classic Silappadikaram.
The selections are well-researched, engaging and layered narratives, bearing all the hallmarks that lend themselves to a finesse of presentation in terms of articulated themes, even if seeped in conventional modes of theatre-making. Many of these plays have become legacy productions for BLT, some with a provenance that goes back decades. Peculiarly, some are dedicated rather than credited to the writers who came up with the initial manuscripts. This acknowledges the role played by workshopping teams of actors, technicians and directors in shaping the material into stage-ready productions. In a way, the BLT volumes are collections of plays in which the playwright, a figure traditionally influential in theatre, is but a cog in a wheel.
This system of attribution by omission is likely a slippery slope, in which authorship is regarded as subsumed by the creative labour of the collective, with none of the ‘many owners’ listed as coauthors.
In contrast, rather than in-house plays, the Sanhita Manch invites nationwide entries of unpublished manuscripts (usually in Hindi, but expanded to include English and Marathi submissions this year), with the mandate of showcasing the best scripts as workable productions helmed by experienced directors in an annual festival, apart from publishing each year’s selections. “Our experience with an outside publisher for the first edition wasn’t great in terms of distribution and publicity, so we decided to bring out future editions ourselves,” says co-founder Rasika Agashe. Rangkalam - Sanhita Manch Ke Chuninda Natak, brought out in 2017 by StoryMirror, a self-publishing service, included Ashish Pathak’s acclaimed Agarbatti, a stirring reimagining of the real-life destinies of the widows of the Behmai massacre, and Rajesh Kumar’s Sat Bhashe Raidas, in which Ravidas, the 15th-century Bhakti mystic, is canonised as a resurrected Dalit icon.
“With our own volumes, we were able to target readership better even if we operate on a break-even basis and bring out only around 200 copies,” explains Agashe, who has directed plays from each Sanhita Manch edition. This year’s winners, adjudged by an esteemed panel in June, include two Hindi plays — Abhimanyu Acharya’s Bhes (currently in circulation as an engaging podcast by Studio Tamaasha) and Abhishek Majumdar’s Des — and Radha S Menon’s Rukmini’s Gold, in English. Agashe hopes to release the volume featuring these plays when they are performed at the annual Sanhita Manch festival, to be organised in the not foreseeable future post-lockdown. When it comes to its stated purpose of reviving the ‘lost art’ of Hindi playwriting, that has for long been battling losing stakes and diminishing returns, the Sanhita Manch has certainly been a shot in the arm for contemporary Hindi playwrights, in a space that traditional publishers have all but abandoned.
Perhaps, one of the only publishing houses to have acquitted itself exceptionally well when it comes to literary material associated with the performing arts — with books on critical theory, play scripts, stage memoirs and biographies — is the Kolkata-based Seagull Books. Not surprisingly, it was founded in 1982 by a theatre practitioner, Naveen Kishore. Their flagship series, New Indian Playwrights, took off with English translations of plays by regional Indian playwrights. Over the years, the series has amassed a roster of almost fifty titles featuring works by the illustrious likes of Habib Tanvir, GP Deshpande, Badal Sircar and many others. It is a prolific stretch of curation that significantly seems to have ebbed in the past decade especially when it comes to the limited breed of Indian playwrights coming of age in the new millennium. In its stead, have arrived international 21st-century performance texts as part of the exquisitely hand-crafted In Performance book series, edited by scholar Carol Martin, which continues the imprint’s commitment to “document drama and art movements [that are] off the beaten track”, as Kishore explained of Seagull’s raison d’être in a January interview.
Among Seagull’s publications under In Performance, are Citizens of Tokyo, the first collection in English of plays by one of Japan’s most important contemporary playwrights, Oriza Hirata; Stories under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine, which deal with the “physical and psychological realities of the [Israeli] occupation, combining activism and critical self-inquiry”; Tahrir Tales, Plays from the Egyptian Revolution which “offer unprecedented grassroots perspectives on the jubilation, terror, hope, and heartbreak of mass uprising as seen during (…) the Tahrir Square demonstrations”; and The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, a remarkable anthology which “represent the preoccupations of present-day New Zealanders with the people and politics of the past.”
That contemporary Indian playwrights are conspicuous no-shows in the Seagull catalogue or in the rosters of other publishers, could be attributed to many speculative factors — exacting standards of publishing, a dwindling readership in terms of both quality and quantity, the paucity of cutting-edge Indian works in an international idiom, or recent works not yet acquiring cultural stature in a theatre ethos that privileges ‘the tried and tested’ over new material (which might explain why so many playwrights of the current generation have taken to directing their own plays). Indeed, it could also be due to a paradigm shift in theatre, from the playwright-centric or auteur-driven universe of the extant past to the new collaborative and exploratory processes — devised theatre, a participatory documentary theatre that commandeer ‘found texts’ and verbatim material, interactive and improvised performances sans a script, audience-responsive works — perennially poised to become the new normal.
Another case in point is illustrated by the profusion of short story anthologies recently published in quick succession by actor-playwright Manav Kaul. None of his well-regarded plays, scripts of which he makes freely available on an online blog, appear to have been picked up for publication. A dozen-odd plays beginning with 2004’s Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane right through to this year’s Giving Up on Godot (whose planned premiere in March was indefinitely pushed by the lockdown), it’s a literary output that is evocative of a peculiarly prescient world-view in its own right, that could easily make for a few hot-selling volumes. This is also true of Marathi playwright Dharmakirti Sumant, whose many plays with Pune-based collective Natak Company have demonstrated staying power on the professional stage, but have not yet been made available in a tome. More than anything, these are missed opportunities.
Indian Ensemble’s artistic director Chanakya Vyas, under whose stewardship the First Draft mentoring programme runs, is understandably circumspect about publishing plays that have emerged out of a workshop process. “They are likely to find a stronger footing only after rigorous on-the-floors trial and error,” he says. Indeed, this is evident from the programme’s title, a reference to a manuscript’s incipient origins, rather than it being a finished product. For instance, Acharya’s Bhes, originally written in Gujarati, was a First Draft offering exploring caste identity in the context of Bhavai theatre, the popular folk form of western India, and has evolved considerably since emerging from the programme. Even its modalities of engagement are distinctive, First Draft follows in the footsteps of Rage Theatre’s now historic Writers’ Bloc, a playwrights’ programme run in association with London’s Royal Court Theatre, that worked towards “cultivating writers – undiscovered, emerging and established.”
Since 2002, the initiative has seen four editions and umpteen (41 in all) plays in multiple languages. Three plays from its first edition were compiled into Sightlines, a volume brought out by Hachette India. To coincide with its British premiere, Majumdar’s Kashmir-set The Djinns of Eidgah (showcased at Writers’ Bloc but developed under the Royal Court’s International Playwrights’ Programme) was published by the London-based Oberon Books. Titles by Writers’ Bloc alumnus Anupama Chandrasekhar have been printed by Nick Hern Books, a North American “independent trade publisher of dramatic literature.” Imprints like these, dedicated to new writing in theatre, simply do not exist in India. That a mere tenth of Writers’ Bloc plays, many of which have enjoyed impressive theatrical runs, have been published is a stark indicator of how difficult it is for writers of this generation to gain a foothold on the posterity ensured by the written record.
Perhaps it is all too well that the Sanhita Manch has been quick to strike while the iron is hot, and Agashe considers the previously unperformed winning plays in her competition to be fully realised works that already stand on their own. “Different directors are bound to interpret these texts differently, and there will be many versions on stage, but we wanted to preserve the writers’ original vision,” she explains. Exploring another avenue, Vyas has been toying with the idea of making Indian Ensemble’s in-house plays, including his Algorithms, a sombre documentary-style take on Uber drivers ‘tethered to the system’ in Bengaluru, and many titles by the prolific Majumdar, available as digital volumes. “This might be more cost-effective and could expand into becoming a publishing service specially catering to theatre groups,” he says, of an idea whose time has perhaps come. It might conceivably open the floodgates for a new kind of publishing that will go a long way into preserving latter-day texts currently missing from the public archive, while allowing theatre-makers to access contemporary writings that provide a greater understanding of the zeitgeist, and take them to audiences hungry for new interpretations and perspectives.
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