In society, the role of the artist is unambiguous: to assert the individual imagination, be curious and forge new questions — the singular power that states fear.
“Artists are fundamentally anti-power, their job is to question. Art is humanising, whether it is poetry or plays; it challenges every narrow agenda of a power structure. There’s always been fear of art … Federico Garcia Lorca was shot, Safdar Hashmi was killed,” says Abhishek Majumdar, the playwright and theatre director who has been harassed and threatened for some of his plays due to their political message.
“But a writer can’t be afraid, or bow down to pressure,” he adds, showing quiet courage.
“Some of us will manage to humanise the minds of our audience, some will lose lives in the way. But we do what we have to do.”
Last year, Majumdar’s ‘Pah-la’, a depiction of Tibet at a time of violent unrest in 2008, was shelved by London’s Royal Court, apparently due to pressure from Chinese authorities. It’s hardly as if the Court is alone when it comes to being lily-livered. In February, he found himself the target of right-wing ire in India while staging ‘The Djinns of Eidgah’, where Majumdar tackled the human cost of the conflict in Kashmir.
“The bizarre thing was the right-wing group in Jaipur wanted to file a sedition case against me. The play was called anti-national and halted,” says the 38-year-old playwright.
The continuing story of censorship in India, where national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression, worries him. “I am concerned about the return of religious bigotry in India. But actually it’s opportunism and hooliganism,” he says, while admitting having been “shocked” when ‘Pah-la’ was shelved by the Court. “Can you imagine a writer of a two-act play earning the displeasure of the Chinese authorities?”
This April, after a year, ‘Pah-la’ was finally staged at the Royal Court, and it seemed weirdly momentous.
“It was five years in the making, and was challenging right from the research to Chinese intervention. But I’m happy that finally it was played, and loved by the audience,” says Majumdar, who trekked across the Himalayas, to Tibet and China, to understand the lives of those exiled. He had to do this surreptitiously. Night after night, sitting in cafes, discussing Buddhist theology with the monks, meeting the Dalai Lama, made his “life richer”, he adds.
The idea for the play came to him soon after finishing his Kashmir trilogy — ‘The Djinns of Eidgah’, ‘Rizwan’ and ‘Gasha’. “I was interested to examine the future of non-violence. In the last century, there were several non-violent movements, from Gandhi’s and Martin Luther’s to Mandela’s. To me it seemed counterintuitive that in this century there is almost no non-violent revolution, and Tibetan movement being the last big bastion of the non-violent struggle was the obvious choice.”
“I have many Tibetan friends in Delhi, and they also helped in many ways to shape some kind of thought around that,” he adds.
Raising the bar
Majumdar seems genuinely abashed at the suggestion that his perceptive plays, which are a result of deep and rigorous research depicting definite perspectives, sets him apart. “Theatre’s job is to raise the bar of human life. I truly believe human being is capable of deep entertainment, shallow entertainment is thrust on them,” he says. “While great comedies and tragedies are being made, we see Bollywood doling out trash, belittling its audience.”
Majumdar’s first production was the adaptation of Bengali novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay’s ‘Pratidwandi’. It was the best possible calling card for a first-time writer, he says. “Beginner’s luck gives a kind of approval that can make you foolhardy as you learn your craft. I have written many plays after ‘Pratidwandi’, but I haven’t been able to match its execution.”
The truth is that Majumdar has packed more into the last 10 years than most playwrights accomplish in a lifetime — he’s written 11 plays, and directed 16. His list of credits is eclectic. He examined the raison d’etre of the theatre, its relation with society (‘Kaumudi’), looked at the tussle of city life amidst the chaos of everyday (‘Treadmill’), and explored the aspirations and frustrations of the working class (‘Harlesden High Street’).
To Majumdar, the sole purpose of theatre is to illustrate different aspects of human life. “Personal, political and philosophical questions are important. It could be a simple story, but the breadth and depth of the content is important. The story is just an excuse to examine ideas.”
Like so much of Majumdar’s work, his trilogy on the Kashmir crisis is layered and intense. “I wish those stories become irrelevant, but they simply don’t seem to be. In 2012 when I wrote ‘The Djinns of Eidgah’, which is about the pressure on a young Kashmiri who doesn’t want to pelt stones but is compelled to, some people asked me, ‘Isn’t the subject a bit too serious?’ Four years later, Burhan Wani [a popular rebel commander] was killed, and protests erupted and there were more stone pelting. The situation is getting worse everyday, made fragile by the jingoism.”
As he explores contemporary issues, his plays cut close to the bone. Written as a reaction to the events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi in 2016, ‘Muktidham’ draws parallels between the 8th century and the modern India’s rising tide of right-wing nationalism. “My parents worked at JNU, I grew up there and suddenly everyone I knew were called anti-nationals. I felt like I grew up in a terrorist cell! Obviously, I was very angry, and had to respond.”
“I started thinking about Hindutva, what makes the right wing movement anti-intellectual, and its bogus claim that Hinduism is under threat,” adds Majumdar. “Through research, I found an interesting period in Bengal when the Buddhist Pala dynasty was ruling, and there was a fear of imminent decline of Hinduism. ‘Muktidham’ explores the relationships between religion, power and politics.”
Most impressively of all, Majumdar says: “We took the play about Hindutva right to its heart, at Gorakhpur to Yogi Adityanath’s home. Performing there was some kind of poetic justice.” A Hindutva mascot, Adityanath is the hard-line chief minister of northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Immersed in culture
Listening to Majumdar describe his career, you’d think everything happened en route to somewhere else. He had a comfortable, unruffled childhood, spent in the intellectual, socio-cultural atmosphere of JNU.
“My mother and sister were into music and literature. Growing up in a Bengali-middle class family in an atmosphere of theatre and music at JNU shaped my choices. My parents never told me what I should do, and that helped.”
His major influence, he says, was a band called Indian Ocean. “When I was in college in Delhi, I started going to their practice sessions, and Sushmit [the guitarist] influenced me quite strongly to take up some kind of art.”
While studying different subjects, physics and maths, rural development and management, he did theatre as well, he says. Then he wanted to study environmental economics on a scholarship at Cambridge, but accepted a theatre scholarship at London International School of Performing Arts instead. “To me it felt sort of natural,” says Majumdar, who stepped down as the artistic director of Indian Ensemble he cofounded with Sandeep Shikhar a year ago after eight years in the post.
An artistic director may lead a company but they never own it — not even if they founded it, he says. “I never wanted to create a company that stays with me until I’m 80.” Every theatre that is genuinely interested in serving artists and audiences must undergo constant reinvention, and that include the need for new blood, he adds. “Now, Indian Ensemble is artistically compelling, going in direction that I could have never taken it.”
Currently, he is working in a play called ‘Baatin’, which is commissioned by the National Theatre in London and tackles intricacies of the Quran. “It’s a story of two nights between Prophet’s [PBUH] death and his burial,” he says. Side by side, he’s co-writing a Bengali children’s play, with his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “After tackling China, Kashmir and Quran, it was important for me to write a children’s play,” he says, with a laugh.
Is it wonderful being an artist, to be able to do things his way? “It is one of the fascinating things one can do. You sit alone, think of something, and in one year time you have 40 people working on it. It is indulgent.”
— Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.