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This Mumbai initiative is putting a spotlight on English plays by Indian playwrights

Updated on: 27 August,2021 08:31 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Nascimento Pinto |

City-based duo Nikhil Katara and Himali Kothari started Project 87, after a nudge by theatrewallah Ramu Ramanathan, to focus on the richness of English language plays originating from India in the last 20 years. They hope to use the power of social media to revive interest in these plays, which are often overshadowed by their Western counterparts

This Mumbai initiative is putting a spotlight on English plays by Indian playwrights

While plays are being written in all languages, some of the best writing in the subcontinent is happening in the English language space, believe Project 87's founders. Representational photo/istock

There are a plethora of Indian language plays India can be proud of but very often the country’s English language plays tend to get lost in the shadows, either because of preconceived notions or from being compared to Western plays. In an attempt to revive interest in Indian English language plays, city-based playwright and director Ramu Ramanathan decided to sow the seeds to educate the public about artists who have written immersive plays that deserve to be read. 

Ramanathan casually shared the thought with city-based duo Nikhil Katara and Himali Kothari, who had started the 'Readings in the Shed' initiative in 2018 to focus on the written text through readings. Katara and Kothari, who were both mesmerised by the idea, immediately got to work with a team of people looking through over 250 plays, written in the last two decades and chose 87 from them. While they have traditionally conducted readings, Katara and Kothari have approached this endeavour differently. Since launching on August 9, they have used artistic lettering to depict the name of the plays on the dedicated social media account – project87_theatre. The duo hope to encourage people to not only read the plays but also learn about the playwrights. They provide short intriguing snippets about the plays or talk about their accolades and pique interest about the playwright’s writing process. 

Mid-day spoke to co-founders Katara and Kothari to understand why they created Project 87. They talk about a common misconception about Indian plays, discovering gems in the process of bringing together this project and how the pandemic has changed the way people perceive and consume the arts. 

Here are edited excerpts from the interview: 

What is Project87_theatre and how did it come about?

Himali Kothari - Project87_theatre started with a simple thought from Ramu Ramanathan -- We know of playwrights from the West End and Broadway but we don’t really know many from Karol Bagh, Koramangala or Kolkata. So then what can we do about it? We felt that one thing we could do is bring these plays and playwrights to the forefront and hopefully generate some dialogue about their work. Perhaps, a play by a playwright from Kochi may catch the eye of a theatre company in Kanpur. At the moment, the goal is to use social media to spread the word about this project across the theatre community. Every day we will spotlight one play through our social media networks. The posts will be composed of a crisp two-line summary and mention of any awards or recognition it may have got. Each post will also be accompanied by artwork designed by Anjali Shetty who specialises in artistic lettering (Instagram handle: We would love for theatrewallahs to spread the good word and lend their voice to this effort.    

 Nikhil Katara, Himali Kothari and their team went through more than 250 plays and finally selected 87 of them to be a part of Project 87. Photo: Himali Kothari 

Why did you decide on only 87 plays?  
HK - The number was not fixed beforehand, the parameters were established and since 87 plays fell within these set parameters, we stopped at 87.  

Do you think the medium through which people consume plays is going to change because of the Covid-19 pandemic? 

HK - Yes, the medium has changed but isn’t that true of the consumption of all art forms? Maybe, all the pandemic did was pre-empt the inevitable. More than change, I think what this time has done is added one more medium for consumption of theatre. A change in consumption may cause indigestion initially, but then the palate adapts.

For more than a decade, we have been meeting up and reading plays and other texts together and discussing them. The chit-chat creates dialogue on craft, socio-political context, themes, etc. Many other theatre groups across the country undertake similar activities. For instance, playwright Swetanshu Bora’s group in Bangalore reads plays which are works-in-progress and share their thoughts with the writer. This is a brilliant support system for playwrights. Bangalore-based Bhasha Centre for Performing Arts has launched a project called The Drama Library to make scripts available to readers in digital form.

Where do you see English plays written in India in the theatre landscape in the country, compared to other language plays? Do you think more needs to be done to promote them? 

Nikhil Katara - While plays are being written in all languages, and there are some phenomenal playwrights everywhere, some of the best writing in the subcontinent is happening in the English language space and they are brilliant. Writers like Swetanshu Bora, Faezeh Jalali, Yuki Elias and many other emerging writers are creating a treasure trove that needs reflection and consideration. Plays like Ramu Ramanathan's 3, Sakina Manzil and Mahesh Dattani's Dance Like A Man were revolutionary in their own right and had a great impact on people discussing complex themes in history and gender. A lot needs to be done to promote the plays, so that their impact doesn't fade from public memory.

Each post will be composed of a crisp two-line summary which will be accompanied by artwork designed by Anjali Shetty. Photo: Himali Kothari 

How did you go about looking for these plays spanning over a period of two decades? Do you have a personal favourite?  

HK - First, we foraged. The bulk of this work was done by Mary George and Vipraa Vijayakar, both students of BVoc Theatre and Stagecraft at Wilson College. Based on the framework that we had created under Ramu’s guidance, they drew up a list of 250-plus plays. This needed a taskforce. We called for help and it was answered. Toral Shah and Quasar Thakore-Padamsee of QTP, Ayesha Sayani aka Pooh of Sultan Padamsee Awards, Shernaz Patel of Rage Productions, Lata Ganpathy and Mukund Padmanabhan of the Hindu. We consulted digital resources compiled by Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards and publishers like Sahitya Akademi, Dhauli Books, Orion. Abhijeet Sengupta’s playwriting encyclopaedia proved to be an excellent resource, and so many others whom we reached out to helped us in the process. 

Next, this list was further whetted and tightened. It includes plays that have won awards and accolades. It also has plays that have wooed audiences plus work that has attempted to set playwriting standards. 

One personal favourite? Definitely not. In fact, I rue the fact that I have not seen so much of this brilliant work. Manjima Chatterjee, V Balakrishnan and so many others who I have come to know of, thanks to this project. So, you see I have an ulterior motive here.     

Are any of the plays which are a part of Project87_theatre written by Mumbaikars or have Mumbai at the centre of the plot? 

HK - Plots shift and move. The details may be specific to the setting but the theme can be absorbed anywhere. For instance, Harlesden High Street by Abhishek Majumdar is set in a street in London but the frustration of migrant labour would be just as relevant in Mumbai or any other city. Vikram Kapadia’s Black with Equal is set in Jagruti Co-operative Housing Society. For me, it could be the society I live in, in Mumbai. For a theatregoer in Bangalore, he could see it as his place of residence.  

Are there common misconceptions about English plays in India? How do you think more people can be encouraged to watch or listen to plays?

NK - English language plays are often conceived to be extremely complex, an intellectual rumination of sorts but many plays in this space have emerged which are not only meaningful but also extremely entertaining. Colleges and universities emphasised on humanities through the medium of theatre, a successful project of the 20th century and this project must be rebooted. Theatre can speak to people because it is alive, breathing and needs everyone present to invest themselves for the stories to work. The last two years have made people realise the necessity of being in a space with others and what better space than that of a theatre? Do people need to be encouraged? I guess not, they must just know that there is a play happening and I guess they'll come. There should be more people in the space of letting others know.

Are you working on something apart from Project 87? Will the audience be seeing it in a different medium?

NK - These last 18 months taught us that we needed to adapt our storytelling medium and method. In 2018 and 2019, 'Readings in the Shed' averaged one show per month but in 2021 we could do only one live show - Letters of Love at the NCPA. It was recorded live and thus was able to travel to the Borderlight Festival in Cleveland and made accessible to a global audience. Limited by closure of performance spaces, we published an anthology of short stories titled ‘Readings in the Shed’ so that our stories would reach audiences. 

Two new plays by 'Readings in the Shed' have been included in a collective of 50 plays across the world. These plays are commissioned by Climate Change Theatre Action and will be made available to performers globally to channel theatre to create awareness on climate change. We also joined hands with Wilson College Mumbai to start a UGC-approved BVoc in theatre and stagecraft.

Currently, we are in the process of putting the finishing touches on a short film on climate change which has been the result of a collaboration with our friends in the UK 'Director's Cut Theatre Company'. This project was facilitated by a grant from the Asia Europe Foundation. The film is shot partly in India and partly in the United Kingdom and merged together through e-capabilities.

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