Chankya Vyas, artistic director of Bengaluru-based theatre company Indian Ensemble, is a chatty passenger when he is travelling by cabs. A couple of years of drawing life stories out of cab drivers, Vyas realised that he was staring at a potential play on a subject that was hidden in plain sight. “In the last two years, there has been an increase in the number of app-based services across India that has changed the way people move in a city. In the seamlessness of the system, several issues, such as workers’ rights, were being discussed in certain circles only, such as among academics. It was important that theatre also responded,” says Vyas. In his thirties, Vyas is an engineer who quit the corporate life to create theatre and teach at a school. The 90-minute play that he has written and directed on the lives of cabbies, titled Algorithms, will be staged in Mumbai on April 4. Excerpts from a conversation:
A shared mobility sector that is based on apps has benefitted customers, but how does it impact the socioeconomic situations of cab drivers?
Once, I was travelling by a cab in Bengaluru and the driver’s Google Map stopped working. He said, ‘Sir, do you know the place you are going to? Can you guide me?’ It turned out that the driver was not from the city and had come there only two days ago. It is interesting that technology has enabled people like him. I could see him getting tensed when Google Map failed. After I directed him to my destination and got off, he said, ‘What if my next customer does not know the location, and I don’t know how to get to him or her? I don’t know how I am going to do it because I don’t know anything in Bengaluru.’ When I talked to cab drivers, I found many stories like this. Many drivers told me they had taken up the job because they felt they could switch off the app when they wanted and there wasn’t a boss to report to. But, if you want to make money in the city, you need to drive a lot throughout the day and can’t switch off the app after five hours. As you go deeper, you realise that there are layers of control in this industry that is driven by algorithm, software and all forms of tech.
What was your research methodology?
I started reading about work conditions of this industry, and suits in the US or the UK. I was looking at the works of Aditi Surie of the Indian Institute of Human Settlements on this economy. What I have understood from the oral history workshops I have attended, is that life history plays an important role in understanding people’s choices in a larger context. My team and I visited the Bengaluru airport, where drivers have a two to three hour waiting period before they get a ride back. We met a couple of drivers and it was fascinating to see how many of them came to the city with some other job promise, which may not have worked out. I found many drivers were not Bengaluru-based, and would come in, stay in the car itself and drive for four or five nights, catch up on some sleep in small pockets, and then go back to their hometowns that were may be 50-100 kms away. There were some very weird work conditions.
How did you unite these narratives in your play?
There are three stories with different characters and journeys that overlap and interloop. These are structured in a way that it is not seen as a linear progression of a single cause-effect, but multiple elements of this economy and the impact on their lives. In terms of stagecraft, something I wanted to try was multimedia in interesting ways. In keeping with this tech-driven world, one of the elements have used are live projections that are mapped on different surfaces, from the set to the props to the screen at the backdrop. We have used set design that is suggestive, minimal and have the logic of a world that is consumed by phones and maps. We treated the design in an abstract way because the majority of the stories are very realistic.
On April 1, you completed one year as artistic director of Indian Ensemble, a group that has made powerful productions, won awards and influenced other performers across the country. How has it been?
At the outset, I have to say it has been exciting and challenging. The company had a good body of work and it was very important for Vivek Madan, who is executive director, and me to articulate what the company has done so far. What I am keen to take ahead are new performances, training and education and outreach programmes, such as monthly reading and discussion sessions, among others. A theatre company is only known for making plays, which is the right thing, but my vision is also to engage with ideas. How are we engaging with ideas when we are not making plays? We invite different people, from theatre makers to scholars, take a text as an anchor and look at a larger theme that we discuss. We have been doing this for 20 months.
The play will be staged at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on April 4, 7 pm, and April 5, 7 pm and 9.30 pm.