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Meet the absent young Indian playwrights

A decade has passed since prestigious city theatre initiatives like Writers Bloc were introduced. Having remained the sole torchbearer of the art form in India, Kanika Sharma goes backstage to understand why the young Indian playwright is missing out on the crucial curtain call

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”

In today’s world of playing parts, one wonders who dons the role of writing them, as we read out aloud this dialogue by William Shakespeare. After Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani, of how many young playwrights do you hear, nowadays? Is talent on the wane or the stage is failing to attract the scribe in the spotlight, anymore. Last calculated, we were 1.27 billion but how many do you hear introducing themselves as writing plays as their vocation?


A performance still from the play Disconnect at the Royal Court, London; penned by the Chennai-based playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar. Pic courtesy/Tristram Kenton

Scene 1
Rahul da Cunha, theatre director, begs to differ, “Other than Tom Stoppard, every playwright in the world has had to do something on the side. They hold day jobs, write for/make films, or teach to sustain themselves. Even Tendulkar was making movies throughout his career.” The challenge lies in writing for the “mobile phone audience” today that he feels has no identifiable point of contact to go and attend a play.


Rajit Kapur (right) and Ali Fazal in the play, Djinns of Eidgah

Theatre critic Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre opines, quoting Tendulkar (who also wrote for the Marathi newspaper, Loksatta) that, playwrights manage to touch the subject but find it difficult to grasp the complexity of real life. She stresses, “It is more difficult for today’s generation as city life has grown fourfold in complexity. There are few good plays that one can speak of. Writing about such experiences is not easy.”


A still from the performance of Djinns of Eidgah by Abhishek Majumdar that is rated 4 out of 5 stars in the British newspaper, The Guardian

See the difference
Young playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar loves precisely this, “India is a complex country with complex issues. We are underestimating our audience by not exploring those complexities.” The Chennai-based Chandrasekhar holds the distinction of having her play, Free Outgoing have 75 shows in the UK. Her mettle is further validated by the fact that she was a runner-up for the prestigious London Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright, and a finalist for the Whiting Award, UK and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, US — making her the first Indian to be nominated for any of these awards.


A still from Satellite City by Irawati Karnik

Yet, despite bagging several awards, Chandrasekhar’s play, Disconnect, hasn’t even been picked up by any of the Indian directors. She rues, “Lack of institutional support, writer grants, and since I live in Chennai, I’d also add lack of exposure to quality theatre, particularly international and non-Tamil Indian languages (are other grouses of being a playwright). Also the lack of corporate interest in theatre, leave alone in serious social plays” is problematic.

Write it right
Writers Bloc is one of the few writing programmes that invites talent from across the country. Rage Theatre conducts it in association with British Council, Royal Court Theatre, UK, and Jindal South West Foundation. Speaking of their own initiations into dramaturgic writing, Majumdar and Chandrashekhar discovered the joy of writing for the stage in the writing programme conducted by Mahesh Dattani. Mumbai-based Irawati Karnik, on the other hand, blossomed as a playwright as Chetan Dattar gave her the requisite push.


(Left to right) Rahul da Cunha, Shernaz Patel and Rajit Kapoor at Patel’s residence. PIC/SHADAB KHAN 

In a rare interview with mumbaitheatreguide.com, the iconic Satyadev Dubey discusses playwriting with Dattar, Satish Alekar, Ramu Ramanathan, Vijay Tendulkar, and Mahesh Elkunchwar, whose works he also honed. They speak of a time when Dubey had conducted a playwriting workshop in 1973. The current status of such initiatives is that now there is no playwriting course in the National School of Drama informs Majumdar. Karnik who finds repose in writing for Marathi experimental theatre in Pune laments that since Dattar’s demise there is a huge void in theatre that she has been grappling with.

Multiple roles
The irony remains that the playwright holds no validity as a character in the real world. Despite favourable reviews and training several of Writers Bloc, playwrights such as the mentioned three, adjust to the ground reality in their own ways. Majumdar is now a director and has gone on to establish Indian Ensemble that also has a repertory which will also be hosting a three-month playwriting programme in January. Hoping for change, he points out, “India has no cultural policy when it comes to the arts. Even Cuba and Chile — countries with lesser budgets, have more concrete funding of drama schools.”


Writers Bloc 3 churned out notable playwrights such as Abhishek Majumdar, Purva Naresh, Irawati Karnik, Annie Zaidi and a host of others that currently are not getting adequate applause.

Karnik shares that playwriting for her, has to be qualitative. She has never hoped to reap any income out of it.

Chandrashekar observes, “Yes, I have at several times in the past considered abandoning playwriting because of the lack of opportunities, money and recognition. In Chennai especially, theatre has long ceded primacy to music and dance. But I love theatre too much to give it up, completely.”

Karnik says, “Mumbai theatre has too much of proximity to cinema and thus most writers get pulled into either writing for the television or films,” a point that is seconded by da Cunha.

Expert speak
Resistance to commercial pressures can only happen if love for theatre is instilled in people since their childhood, drills Patel. A concerned da Cunha haplessly enquires, “Tell me, where is theatre in our lives now? People abroad only go to watch musicals and here, a recently-published article says that stand-up comedy is soon going to take over English theatre.”


Carl Miller with actors Kunal Roy Kapoor, Anand Tiwari and Shernaz Patel during Writers Bloc

She raises the question of how many plays are getting published or are inculcated in universities across India? Only two Indian awards ostensibly recognise the art of playwriting i.e. The Hindu-Metroplus Playwright Award and Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards. The resultant of this is that Penguin Books in association with The Hindu-MetroPlus published Majumdar’s work whereas most others get lost as soon as they go out of production. Patel informs, “Writers Bloc published plays with Hachette India too,” but other than that, recent plays have not become published works.

Coming to the point of Indian universities’ syllabus most remain unchanged, failing to get campus theatre to pick contemporary pieces of writing. With names like Paresh Mokashi, Sachin Kundalkar, and Vikram Kapadia stuck between screenplay and playwriting, it is time the young dramaturgist gets its due.

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