On the first day of rehearsals of his play Muktidham, Bangalore-based director Abhishek Majumdar looked around the room and saw a snapshot of his 10 years in theatre. Most of his favourite musicians and actors were collaborating on the play that is in the best tradition of Majumdar’s Indian Ensemble theatre group, deeply researched, finely executed and of contemporary relevance. Muktidham is the story of a Hindu matha, whose head is dying and must select a successor from two young men — both with opposite ideologies that have similarities to present-day politics. The play will be staged at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa on December 16, and tour Bareilly, Lucknow, Allahabad, Gorakhpur, Muzzafarnagar and Delhi in January. Excerpts from an interview:
What made you explore the history of Hinduism in a play?
The hypothesis of the right wing Hindu is that Hinduism is under threat and various minorities are being given undue advantages, so Hinduism must come together as a masculine thing to reinforce its traditional and conservative values. This is pretty much what the line was with Nazism and Jews and right wing Islamic groups, whether in Afghanistan or the Arab world or Pakistan. I was looking for a time in the history of our country where the hypothesis of the Hindutva groups would actually be true. Lo and behold, it is really true in the Pala empire, which was present in Bengal but had also spread to Bihar and parts of UP. Generally, my plays come out of whatever I am studying at that time and I was studying this for two years.
In Muktidham, the conflict is between Hinduism and Buddhism.
The premise of the play is that the majority of the people may still be Hindu in the Pala empire but the rulers are Buddhist and Hindu mathas are a minority. If you look at the history of the Pala dynasty, there were a large number of people converting to Buddhism. This is because Buddhism allows people to get out of caste. The Pala empire was the last big empire of the Buddhists.
After the research, what is the fictional story that you have created in Muktidham?
The dilemma of the protagonist, Nath Nanda, is that he has been the head of the matha for a very long time. He knows he is going to die and has to find a successor. His problem is that he has to choose between two students of the new generation and they are not like him. For them, religion is a matter of action, at the moment. One of them is saying, ‘Let’s open the gates of the matha. Let’s get the lower castes in who are converting to Buddhism as that’s the only way we can save ourselves from becoming obsolete’. To which, Nath says, ‘This is not the right scriptural, theological or philosophical reason to open the gates. You are being opportunistic’. The other student says, ‘What we need to do is raise arms because there is no reason our brand of Hinduism should be non-violent. Even the uddhists are not non-violent. The Hindu religion is replete with mythology of war, why are we stopping ourselves’? This, again, is a problem for the Nath because he is old enough to know what happens if Hinduism goes down that road.
You’ve said your play is about the problem of believers in the era of right-wing politics.
I was always interested in a play which was about believers. In my view, the greatest sufferers of Hindutva is the Hindu believer. His problem is that, if he does not believe any more, then he is a ‘Commie’ or something else. If he believes, then he automatically is branded right wing and Hindutva and all that. But, we all know that there are hundreds of thousands and lakhs of people, who are believers, but don’t want to go and kill other people. They don’t have a problem if somebody else eats beef. That person, I believe, is the one who will be hurt in the long run because everybody else will have picked their sides.
What is your presentation style of Muktidham?
Muktidham is in the tradition of the classical Sanskrit play, though Sanskrit play is a myth as upper caste men spoke to each other in Sanskrit and others, such as women spoke in Prakrit, and the lower caste spoke to each other in local language. In Muktidham, there are many kinds of Hindi. I had to study various texts of that period as well as the Ramcharitmanas and writing from around that time to see how language changed depending on caste. There is the Hindi of the upper caste in Muktidham, the Hindi in which the lower castes speak among themselves and the language in which the upper caste speak to the lower caste.