Phalguni Vittal Rao
TDL@UsPaar Day 3: Of representations and trusting your gut
Updated: Feb 11
Note: 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.
It takes time to sift through ideas after feedback. There are so many things to reconsider that you almost give in to the urge to abandon the play you’ve written because it is too messy to grapple with. Sometimes, you discover you had to go all around – through multiple drafts - to find yourself returning to the original idea you had.
As tiring as it is, these rounds of reconsideration help a writer arrive at the most authentic version of the story they are attempting to tell. With Chanakya and Debi’s plays, the group discussed the question of how we represent something which is not the writer’s lived experience. “What is the balance between representing things as they are and what they could be? This is present in all sorts of contexts,” said Aditya Nigam. Hindi writer Premchand’s stories were heavily criticised for this: that his Dalit characters never rebelled and remained a product of their circumstances.
What emerged from the discussion around Chanakya’s play The Age of Offence is that one of the supporting characters Vara, who is an actor and caretaker of a theatre space, should have the play built around her. What is it like to be a politically aware woman in a performing space when you work as a female technician – a world that is primarily inhabited by men?
This always happens. You receive a whole lot of feedback, which has turned your play inside out and for many moments you wonder, “Oh God, have I written a shitty play again?” But that’s the thing. Feedback comes from outside. “When you internalise and sit with it, out of that will come the next draft and the next draft and the next,” says Shanta. As writers, we’re also trying to respond to the current times and its hostile political climate, where there is a lack of freedom of speech. How do we write then? “Subterfuge,” says Shanta. You say what you want but through allegories. It is what’s worked historically. As a playwright, you need to be specific with your choices. You need to know why you wrote in something the way you wrote it in, even if the audience doesn’t.
Writing comes from an impulse. Writers can be astute observers. I often look for drama in my daily life. How do different people talk to each other? How do they change the energy of a room? What are their triggers? Sometimes, these conversations are so good in terms of the drama they create, and listening to it, I wish I had a photographic memory or hope I remember enough that when I get home, I can write down their dialogues as it is. We also write about the people in our lives, and create characters based on them. When it is someone we are close to, there is an urge to do right by them. We fear misrepresenting them.
“I struggle with the right versus wrong – the right way to tell a story, the right way to be an activist,” Debi shares. “With all the feedback I’ve received, there is a fear that when I go back to writing it again, I’ll get it all wrong.” It is something I struggle with too. I can be a master procrastinator to do the simplest of things because I fear I will get it wrong and I’ll end up associating my self-worth to that act of getting it wrong. How do I deal with it? Honestly, it is an endless struggle. Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus rolling my boulder of self-worth up to the top of the mountain, only to watch it roll down again with free abandon. Urgh. Why couldn’t Sisyphus roll it across a plain or a plateau?
Anyway, the point is that playwrights need to learn to relax around their plays. Debi feels the urge and pressure to represent her trans friend’s fullness in her play Locked in Mumbai. Shanta interjects, “You have to give up the sense of responsibility that you feel you owe to the trans community.”
“Trust your politics and forget about it,” Sameera Iyengar adds, “Trust that you’ll know when it is uncomfortable.”
Trust my politics and forget about it. Hopefully, saying it over and over again will help me get there quicker!