FirstAct: In 'Salt', a woman and her daughters walk the hard line between hunger and dignity

'Salt' revolves around a family of three women — a mother and two daughters — who are coping with the pandemic and its resulting shortcomings by telling each other stories and faking the food on their plate.

MD Pallavi September 17, 2020 12:32:28 IST
FirstAct: In 'Salt', a woman and her daughters walk the hard line between hunger and dignity

(From left to right) MD Pallavi, Abhishek Majumdar and Maithreyi Karnoor. Images via Facebook

Editor's note: With FirstAct, Firstpost is collaborating with theatre and improv artists from all over India, who'll perform short pieces or readings over a Zoom video-conference call.

After FirstAct's debut show with Improv Comedy Bangalore, followed by Drama Queen's For Tomorrow, Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani's Haiku in a Bun, OGLAM's Abey Yaar!, and Chanakya Vyas' Leftovers we are all set to present our next — Salt. It will be broadcast on our Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages (IGTV) at 7.00 pm IST on 18 September, 2020.

Following is an edited excerpt of a conversation among the creators of Salt— actor and director MD Pallavi, writer Abhishek Majumdar and translator Maithreyi Karnoor.


The themes —

ABHISHEK: In March 2020, the Government of India announced the largest lockdown in the world, in response to COVID-19. Overnight, several lakhs of people were found walking from one part of the country to another because they would simply starve to death if they didn't receive their daily wages due to lack of employment.

Salt is a story of a family living in a slum in Bengaluru. It is about how nationalism has been used to hide the complete incompetence of the government and the price the poor and hungry pay for it. It is about the way poor families tried to cope with the lack of dignity they were subjected to in order to get minimum supplies of food

I wrote it as part of the 'Urgent Drama' programme of Folkteatern Goteborg, Sweden. Since then it has been translated to Hindi, Gujarati and is about to have a radio play version in English. This will be its first production in Kannada.

Translating Salt

MAITHREYI: When Pallavi asked me if I could translate the play into Kannada, I was a little unsure at first. I’m much more comfortable translating from Kannada to English than the other way round. The only English to Kannada translation I have done so far is of poetry – poems that touch me deeply and I feel the need to enhance my experience of them by hearing them in my language. But that is more a hobby than a professional endeavour.

I was happy, however, to discover that the characters in Salt were required to speak the North Karnataka Kannada – a dialect I can speak in my sleep (as I am told I often do). But more importantly, I was struck by the beauty of the writing. Brevity and understatement are two qualities I admire most in poetry. They enhance punchlines and make subliminal messaging more effective. I sensed this in Salt which read like poetry to me. The plot is deceptively simple and so profound in what it says.

We are all grappling with the man-made amplification of a natural calamity and I have been curious to see how theatre responded to it. Salt is not an objective observation. I could see it’s a product of passionate engagement and is gripping – without resorting to sentimentality – in its short narrative.

As a translator, I had to be mindful of recreating these aspects. Generally, there are instances where, owing to the cultural shift, the length of the translated sentence may not match the original: it may take more words to convey something that is said in a pithier way originally. Sometimes, there are no idiomatic equivalents and they need to be invented. But owing to the nature of the play, such manoeuvring was not advisable here as simplicity of speech was paramount. Also, it was almost entirely monologue-based with the mise en scène as little more than consensus of imagination; it had to sound natural and realistic. Fortunately, the language used in the original was simple and I worked by imagining real people uttering those words: I said the translated dialogues aloud to smooth out any awkwardness.

Translating for a digital platform didn’t feel any different from translating for a more conventional one as any tweaking necessary happens during the playwriting process and I ultimately work with a written text.

I have admired Abhishek Majumdar’s work for a long time, and I am grateful to have been involved in this project in a small way.

FirstAct In Salt a woman and her daughters walk the hard line between hunger and dignity

Poster of MD Pallavi's FirstAct presentation Salt. Poster design by MD Pallavi

Working on a digital platform —

PALLAVI: When Firstpost asked me to collaborate with them on their next Zoom theatre presentation, I thought of this text that Abhishek Majumdar had recently written as a response to the lockdown and its implications on millions of people across the country. It is a brilliantly written play. We were lucky that Maithreyi came on board to translate it to Kannada.

Working with all the restrictions of the lockdown, with limited resources has given this Zoom-play its own shape and form. Using the Zoom platform allowed the characters, in this case, all played by me, to be able to respond to each other. Each monologue became a Zoom session, with each character having the opportunity to respond to the previous and then proceed to do her monologue. The most challenging part was to do it in isolation, without a team to rehearse with or an audience to perform to.

Read on Firstpost: Playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar on theatre as confluence, its future in India, and directing a film


Meet the creators —

ABHISHEK MAJUMDAR is a playwright, theatre director, and scenographer. He is the ex artistic director and founder of two theatre companies, Indian Ensemble and Bhasha Centre for Performing Arts, both based out of Bengaluru. He is extensively involved in work around climate change and is part of several ongoing theatre initiatives around the same. Currently, he is creating new work for Royal Court Theatre, London; PlayCo, New York; Bangalore Theatre Company; New York University, Abu Dhabi and Folkteatern Goteborg, Sweden. He is also working on a book of essays on Theatre making as part of the ' Theatre makers' series of Bloomsbury.

MAITHREYI KARNOOR is a poet and a translator. She has been shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize twice. She has been shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, and has won the Kuvempu Bhasha Prize for translation.  Her debut novel, Sylvia will be published in 2021. Her works, including poetry, translations, literary and theatre reviews have appeared in The Hindu, The Wire, Indian Express, Daily O, Muse India, Indian Literature etc. She lives in Goa.

MD PALLAVI is a singer, composer, actor, editor, sound designer and filmmaker. She has acted in many award-winning films such as Stumble (English), Gulabi Talkies (Kannada), Raju, edege bidda akshara (Kannada) and numerous plays including Translations, Hamlet, Chidambara Rahasya, Sankranti, Avasthe, Maanishaadha, Fire and Rain, The Boy with a Suitcase, C sharp C Blunt, Muktidhaam and recently Taayavva. She has also scored music for a number of theatre productions such as Tughlaq, Moodha Idu Nambike, Miss Sevanthi, Lady of Burma, Boy with a Suitcase (along with Konarak Reddy and Coordt Linke), Muktidham (along with Abhijeet Tambe) among others.

Watch MD Pallavi, Abhishek Majumdar and Maithreyi Karnoor's Salt here.


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