As Abhishek Majumdar's Djinns of Eidgah is staged at Edinburgh Fringe, a conversation with the playwright-director
Playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar speaks with critic Trisha Gupta about theatrical form and content, the politics of language in India, and his many interests beyond the stage. The first in a two-part interview.
At 38, Abhishek Majumdar is one of India's most exciting playwright-directors.
Majumdar's production of Djinns of Eidgah by the Bread Theatre and Film Company of Cambridge is currently being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe until 18 August
Majumdar spoke with critic Trisha Gupta about theatrical form and content, the politics of language in India, and his many interests beyond the stage
Editor's note: This is the first in culture critic Trisha Gupta's two-part interview with playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar.
At 38, Abhishek Majumdar is one of India's most exciting playwright-directors. An alumnus of the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA), Majumdar grew up in a Bengali family in Delhi. For the last decade he has been based out of Bengaluru. The Indian Ensemble, which he co-founded in 2009 and ran until 2018 with his friend and colleague Sandeep Shikhar, has produced some of the most interesting Indian plays of recent years: the Kashmir trilogy of Rizwan, Djinns of Eidgah and Gasha, the 10th century philosophical-political drama Muktidham, and the Allahabad-set Kaumudi, which is both a tribute to Mohan Rakesh and a complex engagement with the epic heroes Ekalavya and Abhimanyu. His plays have been published by Oberon Press, UK, and translated into multiple languages from Marathi to Czech. His play Djinns of Eidgah was staged by Jaipur's Jawahar Kala Kendra this January and at Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre earlier in August. Another production of Djinns by the Bread Theatre and Film Company of Cambridge is currently being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe until 18 August. In this interview, he speaks about theatrical form and content, the politics of language in India, and his many interests beyond the stage.
The first time I heard of your work wasn't a play; it was at Lekhana, in Bengaluru in 2013/14, where you read a Hindi short story. Do you still write short stories, or things other than plays?
I do, but I don't share them with the world. They're not necessarily about personal subjects, but the act of writing a short story is for me very personal. I like to keep it for my friends and family. I have consciously never published my stories. I compose music sometimes, for other people, for other plays, sometimes for professional musicians. I also paint a little bit. That helps me in scenography, but mainly I paint for myself.
Coming back to the short stories, there is a series called Lakdi ke Makaan, which I have been working on, about women who live in the villages of Shimla (my aunt lives in Shimla). Someday it might become a monologue by an actor. But right now only about 10 people in this world know that I write stories.
Your short stories are in Hindi, but would it be true to say that you wrote plays in English earlier, and now write plays in Hindi?
I write in three languages: Bangla, Hindi and English. My first play, an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel Pratidwandi, was in Bangla. Later I wrote Dweepa in Bangla, but it has only been performed in Kannada.
I'm currently writing an adaptation of Shakuntalam, that's in Hindi. I recently wrote a satire about Communist history, which hasn't been produced as yet, called Dialectical Materialism Aur Anya Vilupt Jaanwar. That's in Hindi, although it starts in Calcutta at the time of collapse of the Berlin Wall, and then goes back to Karl Marx and Adam Smith at the Garden of Eden. I'm still working on that play, but strangely it's been translated into Czech and won an award in Prague. [laughs]
Translations of my plays are happening/have happened into Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, French. Rizvan got translated from Urdu to Bangla, because there is a show in Bangladesh.
All my work internationally is in English. I write those plays in English whose natural language would not be Hindi or Bangla. So for example, Pah-la, which was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London last year, is set in Tibet; that I wrote in English. I have another recent play, Batin, set in Medina on the two nights between the Prophet's death and his burial. It's about what happens when the word of God is not understood by everyone in the same way. The natural language of Batin would be Arabic. So that's in English. An early play of mine, Harlesden High Street, was in English. But now I don't produce any work in India in English.
So there has been a move towards Hindi?
Directorially, yes. Five years ago our company did make work in English. I consciously stopped. For two reasons. One, English is the only language in India where knowing the language is enough. In any other language, you also have to know how to act. Frankly, I find far fewer options for actors in English than in Hindi or Bangla or Kannada.
Secondly, an Indian audience watches Hindi or Bangla theatre differently than English.
Their bodies change. Because theatre is fundamentally a community thing, you watch it with people. And when you get the third layer of the language — the language that you may have not gone to school in, but the language in which you make fun of people — that is the right language for that stage.
For example, if you read Karnad in Hindi, that works much better than reading it in English (though some of the English translations are fantastic).
In India, my rehearsal room is also much more alive when I'm rehearsing in an Indian language. I am directing a play in New York in English, but there my actors' natural language is English. The contract of language is three-way: between the maker, the actor who is performing and the audience. [The play] has to be in the most suitable language for all three, not just for one.
Have you directed a play in a language you don't understand?
Yes, Kannada, which I follow, but don't speak. And I've done a play in London 10 years ago, which was seven vignettes: one in Hebrew, one in Cantonese, one in Arabic...
And that wasn't a problem?
No. Direction-wise, then it was less of a problem. Perhaps now it would be more of a problem. I was a drama school student then, more interested in form. Now I've gotten more interested in meaning.
Tell me more about your interest in form.
Essentially, a play is composing form over time. It's a bit like the work of an architect. One is always thinking about structure. And I've been an avid mathematics student, interested in pattern, shape, geometry, topography. Every play is a problem with multiple solutions.
Give me an example?
I'll give you two examples. For Muktidham, the problem was how do you write a play which from inside is European, but from outside is in the Indian epic format. Structurally, it's not a Greek play with three acts and five plot points; it is cyclical, there is a sense of elaboration. But the scene-work inside the play is not in the epic format: nothing is sung, for instance.
What is very Kathakali about it is that from the interval to the next scene, there is a big jump. We believe that time lapse for two reasons. One, because we believe there is a wall — the wall behind which the Buddhist king is standing. We never see it, but we believe it, and so we assume a certain urgency to everything else. Which is a very Kathakali thing to do. You know — “Duryodhana is coming”, but the scene only has Draupadi and the brothers. The other thing is that although you move forward in time, but the eclipse is stuck. It's nothing, really, it's one profab light on a disc! But it allows us, I think, to continuously imagine suffocation.
In Kaumudi, the challenge I set myself was linguistic: to write a play which used both the language of Aashaadh Ka Ek Din and Adhe Adhure [two classic Mohan Rakesh plays, one set in the time of Kalidasa, one in the 20th century]. So there is the play, and there is the play within the play. And there's a third language the characters use when they are playful, which is similar to Pandavani.
So each of your plays is a research project. Literary, anthropological, historical.
Yes. But art is about memory. It's about how you remember your research. That's the difference between researching and writing a paper, and researching and writing a play. A play has to go through oneself. It can't be just your thesis — it's got to be your observation of life, your sense of taste, your politics, what you want to say.
But for me, if something doesn't have a hard problem to solve, it doesn't interest me. I can watch plays which are not very complex, I can watch anything live. But to work on an idea for two years of my life, it has to be intellectually complex.
Read more of Trisha Gupta's writing on her blog.
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