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TDL@UsPaar Day 1: Responding to the writer’s impulse

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

In February 2023, Tamaasha Studio Foundation announced a Residential Workshop for Playwrights. Four playwrights – Debi K, Nikhita Singh, Gurleen Judge and Chanakya Vyas – were selected to share drafts of full length plays they are looking to work on.

Over the course of 9 days at Us Paar, the Arts Residency space run by Tamaasha, the 4 playwrights will receive mentorship and guidance from Shanta Gokhale (writer, critic, historian, translator and columnist), Aditya Nigam (professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Sameera Iyengar (creative producer and theatre person), Deepa Ganesh (writer, translator, journalist), Rajeev Naik (scholar, critic, playwright, poet), and Vaibhav Abnave (independent researcher and filmmaker).

The four scripts will also be briefly workshopped by Quasar Thakore Padamsee (theatre director, co-founder of QTP India) and Neel Chaudhuri (playwright and director) with actors Dheer Hira, Chakori Dwivedi and Rishabh Kanti. The program has been designed by poet, playwright and director Sapan Saran and co-founder of Tamaasha Theatre Sunil Shanbag.

The Drama Library was asked if we would like to document this process and share daily updates of the discussions, disections and decisions. And of course we jumped at it.

So here we are, at Us Paar, inviting you to observe and participate in this journey through actor and writer Phalguni Vittal Rao’s daily diary entries.

Dear Diary,

The air in Kashid, Maharashtra was humming with quiet anticipation. A ferry ride to Alibaugh, some nariyal paani, and a cab ride later, we ­– Sameera Iyengar, Debi K, Gurleen Judge, Nikhita Singh, Chanakya Vyas, actor Chakori Dwivedi, Quasar Thakore Padamsee and I ­– arrived around noon at Us Paar, a residential space created by Tamaasha Studio Foundation.

It was a hot afternoon. As I entered the Us Paar gate, loud laughter erupted from the dining area. The thing I’ve noticed is that theatrewallahs love to talk. They love to argue. They love to engage. They love to express their opinions (and they have many of those). They love to make everyone watch a random Gujarati rap music video from the 1990s and make fun of it. They love to make fun of their families. They love to debate about who make for terrible tourists – the Gujaratis, Bengalis or Punjabis? They love naming animals – the resident alligator at Us Paar is known by several monikers such as Aloo the alligator, Dub-Dub, Lacoste, and at one point, Quasar suggested we name it ‘Dubey’ after the late theatre director Satyadev Dubey. If someone misbehaved at Us Paar, you could feed him to 'Dubey'. He even tried to name a kingfisher sitting on a tree branch as ‘Vijay’, and Sunil Shanbag asked, “Why Vijay?” I jumped in, “Mallya,” to which Sunil immediately and vehemently responded, “No, never.”

The point is that theatrewallahs love to talk. If you’re at a silent table full of theatre people, its either because they’re all dead or one of them is going to be.

In between all this hubbub, a few minutes before the lunch bell rang (which was a gift from Atul Pethe), Sapan Saran surprised the playwrights and said that in their first session today they’d have to read out their entire play themselves. For the most part, playwrights have no idea of what’s going to happen over the next few days. Debi K, one of the playwrights from Goa, was taken aback and said, “So, I have exactly 2.5 hours to panic.”

For someone like Debi, who is a fairly new practitioner, it is a strange, uncomfortable feeling to have to read out loud your writing in your own voice for the first time for an audience. Anxiety grips you like Dharmendra’s hand in Sholay. What if in the reading of it you discover how bad it is? And as you utter each syllable of your play, you become consumed with self-criticism, and you realise a better fate would be to crawl into a hole or be Dubey’s dinner for the day. Worse still, what if the world discovers how bad your writing is?

Nevertheless, Debi and Chanakya read out their plays Locked in Mumbai and The Age of Offence and we listened. It is fascinating to watch how playwrights read out their characters. They sound different when they read them out loud than when I heard them in my head while reading them alone.

Debi, a queer, US-based communications consultant who moved to India after turning 40, shared that theatre has been like a first love she has been running away from until now. For her, her activism is a part of her work and her identity. She is drawn to plays like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Thornton Wilder’s By The Skin of Our Teeth. She wonders how one can weave politics into one’s theatre and storytelling without being didactic.

As a writer, how do you reach the people you want to reach through your play? Is that even something to consider while you are writing? After their readings, Sameera Iyengar asked Debi and Chanakya, “When you write, do you imagine and assume who you are speaking to?”

There was a long silence from both, and for Shanta Gokhale, that was their answer. “I don’t think you ever think of who you are writing to,” she said.

“As a writer, I have questions. Sometimes they come out in short fiction, sometimes in a play. And I owe it to myself to let it take its form. A writer cannot go beyond the writing. We are self-critical and at the end of the day, we say to ourselves, ‘Done.’,” Shanta explains.

We are not always able to choose our audiences and neither should we limit ourselves to one, feels Sunil. People in Delhi and Bareilly responded to a play such as Cotton 56 Polyester 84 by Ramu Ramanathan, which was about the life of Bombay mill workers and their displacement. Why, one wonders. It was so specific in its context that it became universal, says Quasar. “If a piece of writing is more human, it becomes more universal. When we say something with integrity and honesty, it becomes universal,” he reiterates.

Writing is an impulse. “If I’m not troubled by my play, I don’t think I’ll write,” believes Chanakya. Whether we realise it or not, politics pervades every aspect of our life. For a piece of writing to be good, it doesn’t mean the playwright has to take sides. You can take a stand without something being propagandist. Shanta recalled what GP Deshpande once said about taking a stand: If the core of your play is conflict, and if you really want the conflict to live, then both sides have to be equally strong.

As a writer and maker, there is an urge to explore the in-betweens, the grey spaces between the black and white but how does one go about? Chakori Dwivedi shared what Neel Chaudhuri told her when she was trying to write a play that focused on the greyness of characters: “There is a difference between a blurry picture and a clear picture of the fog.”

Sigh. Wherefore art thou, clear picture?

Photographs by Phalguni Vittal Rao

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