Collected Works

A theatre database maps the history of Indian plays in English.

Written by Nandini Nair | New Delhi | Published: January 30, 2011 1:07 pm

A theatre database maps the history of Indian plays in English.

Arthur miller believed he was a “forceful writer” and Graham Greene felt his work was “remarkable”. But Asif Currimbhoy,born in 1928 and one of the pioneering Indian playwrights who wrote in English,is not a name that is familiar to most Indians. This Bombayite’s plays were seen in Boston and New York,before they were unveiled in India. He started writing in the ’50s but he had to wait many years before the University of Michigan staged his play Goa in 1965. Natesan Sharda Iyer in Musings on Indian Writings in English writes,“He (Currimbhoy) chose to write dramas because he felt this was the art form which allowed him most to show the complexity of society. He took unusual themes from contemporary Indian society and wove them into plays of artistic excellence.”

Much of this artistic excellence risks being lost for want of systematic documentation. Theatre in India is one of the lonelier arts. Cinema has its fanatics,classical music and dance have their rasikas,art has its connoisseurs,whereas theatre has only its practitioners and occasional fans. One such practitioner Abhijit Sengupta,a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service and a theatre director in Bangalore,has set about archiving Indian English plays including works of “trailblazers” like Currimbhoy. The “list which can never be total” will cover playwrights from 1947 to 2010,with a short synopsis of plays,where possible. Working on his own,he hopes to complete it by the middle of this year. Sengupta hasn’t tallied his work as yet to the last detail,but he says he has collected the work of around 160 playwrights so far. The Sangeet Natak Akademi is supporting his current study.

The database stretches from the 1948 play The Goddess Speaks (one of the earliest plays in terms of publication) by Kannada and English scholar VK Gokak to contemporary and experimental plays like Mouse by Neel Chaudhuri from Delhi. Gokak’s short play tells the encounters of an “artist-patriot”,who stands before an image of Bharat Mata. He meets an Englishman who is greatly relieved to be going home but who promises,“The Englishman is quitting. But a ghost will rise from the grave of his power and do ghastly deeds!” This brief play tells the story of a nation churning,when people looked to the future with hope but also trepidation.

Sengupta says,“There are many plays,which are not performed because of lack of funding,of audience support,of performance spaces. Some are performed perhaps just once. Playwrights in English have found it difficult to have their work published,because publishers rarely find it worthwhile to go beyond ‘commercially viable’ books. But there is a large body of texts that needs to be documented.”

Ironically,it is the richness of our oral traditions,Sengupta says,that has impinged on our efforts at documentation. This combined with our literacy rates and our “level of enquiry in cultural matters”,has lead to plays living and dying on stage and seldom making it to books.

With no existing foundation to build on,Sengupta had to sleuth his way through “obscure references,where an odd reference leads to a discovery,” to compile this list of playwrights. The most well-known existing archive,he feels,is of Professor S Krishna Bhatta’s Indian English Drama: A Critical Study (1987). Since Independence,English theatre has had a bumpy trajectory in the arts. Sengupta feels that while the quality of many of the plays is uneven,there was perhaps “a certain awkwardness in the past”. The plays of the ’60s often had large casts,veered on the verbose,and would find neither director nor audience today. The spread of the language has “resulted in a certain fluency,a removal of self- consciousness,a modernism in Indian plays in English”. This ease with the language,however,has not necessarily translated into quality,with playwrights often opting for language and content that entertains but doesn’t challenge the audience.

India still produces insufficient original English work ,yet Sengupta feels that Indian English plays can capture India,as much as any performance can. “The Indianness of new playwrights in the use of language,like in the work of Mahesh Dattani,is noteworthy,” he says. Sengupta feels there have been other playwrights who have successfully forced audiences out of their comfort zone.

Cyrus Mistry,Pratap Sharma,Manjula Padmanabhan and younger playwrights like Abhishek Majumdar and Anushka Ravishankar are a few examples. While conceding that here is still a trend to flock to see a foreign troupe,which may not do a great production,“the days of doing Neil Simon and such playwrights is mercifully over,” he says.

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