The war is over. Let peace be enforced. Emperor Ashoka, in the play Avyahat, chooses to do this by making Buddhism the state religion. In a monastery, meanwhile, a monk called Upali is reeling from the violence of the Kalinga war and feels compelled to revisit the Buddha by writing his biography. War prisoner Bhima, who belongs to a forest-dwelling community, finds himself on the outskirts of society and the political discourse. When the compulsions of these three protagonists collide, the shadow of war threatens to grows longer.
Avyahat, written by Kaustubh Naik, was judged the Best Marathi Play at the 58th Maharashtra State Amateur Marathi Theatre Competition on March 11, a first for a group from Goa in 30 years. Sitting in a cafe near Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, where he is completing an MPhil course in Theatre Performance Studies, Kaustubh says, “I get asked all the time if there is Marathi theatre in Goa. This win will, hopefully, convince people that there has been a long tradition of performing Marathi plays through the length and breadth of Goa since the 18th century. In Goa, a play like Avyahat would happen during annual festivals or rituals.”
An adaptation of a novel, A Spoke in the Wheel by Amita Kanekar, Avyahat features “a lot of what I wanted to say about insurgency, power, nation, caste and the rights of forest dwellers”. “The difficulty is that it is around 600 pages. How do you put it into a two-hour play?” he adds.
Kaustubh came into playwriting accidentally, though he always wanted to write plays. His company, Hauns Sangeet Natya Mandal, founded in 1950 in Ponda, Goa, by his grandfather, Vishwanath Naik, was famous for its original scripts. Ever since Kaustubh remembers, his father and uncle would pen stories for the actors, drawing from the epics, Indian or foreign folklore or modern literature. “My father passed away in 2017, so I translated Kaumudi by Abhishek Majumdar to Marathi. This year, I decided to adapt A Spoke in the Wheel,” he says. The play has been directed by his cousin Rohan Naik, who won the first prize for direction at the same competition. Kaustubh ’s sensibilities in theatre were developed as he grew up surrounded by music and theatre. His grandfather had four sons and all of them were on stage. His maternal grandfather creates plays and was often paid by villagers in rice and farm produce. Kaustubh and his cousins were watching plays even before they realised it and spending school holidays at theatre workshops. The company made one major production every year to participate at the Kala Akademi Theatre Competition. “I did a lot of children’s theatre, and acted in my first big play in Class VI. But, I never thought I would take up theatre full time. Obviously, there was no making money. Ponda is a very small town,” he says.
He graduated in computer science in Goa and came to Pune for his post-graduation. This is when, at the Purushottam Karande festival, he sat in a pit giving cues for the music when the audience began to cheer and applause the play, Wall Chya Palikade (Beyond the Wall) he was directing. “I thought, ‘this is something I really like’. I was really charged by it and that changed something in me,” he says.
Kaustubh joined Ambedkar University in Delhi for performance studies, where he worked with director Deepan Sivaraman on performances such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. “It was a culture shock at first but I thought, ‘This the kind of theatre I can do in Goa’. The kind of theatre we would do back in Goa had heavy dialogues. In Delhi, I began to realise that, in this time and age, long speeches puts people off. I learnt to write minimally. I was influenced by how Mahesh Elkunchwar would write dialogues — very short and precise,” he says.
In Avyahat, the opening scene reveals the aftermath of the Kalinga war entirely through visuals. “I am pushing myself to think in terms of using visuals, rather than dialogues to convey an idea,” he says. At the same time, JNU, which he joined in 2017 soon after Kanhaiya Kumar called for Azaadi from caste oppression, pushed Kaustubh to reading about caste and Naxalism.“I don’t think I will ever write a play that will be devoid of any political statement and I identify with certain Ambedkerite ideas,” says Kaustubh, who is a part of a small thinktank that writes on Goa. A significant narrative that emerges in Avyahat is a ban on animal and meat eating Ashoka has announced. Bhima says, “This is what we have been doing. What is this kind of civility that is being imposed that we do not identify with?”
At present, he is working on a script drawn from the writings of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. In the pipeline are also events to celebrate 70 years of the Hauns Sangeet Natya Mandal.