Phalguni Vittal Rao
TDL@UsPaar Day 7: Writing rebellion
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, dissections 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’s not complex. It’s complicated.”
The writer in me hopes never to hear this statement in response to their work. We are stories telling stories. Our ambition is to write plays that explore greyness, the complexity of different intersections, expose the multitudinous layers our characters contain and what not. But how do we do this? How do we write compelling characters? How do we convey the complexity of situations and themes?
In response to Nikhita’s play Of Mother and Their Daughters, Deepa Ganesh spoke extensively about how we can write female characters with complexity to create a feminist piece of work. How we write about women reveals how we view other women in our life, our politics, our relationship to other women, our relationship to ourselves and more.
Deepa believes that a woman’s life is halfway between submission and resistance. “Just like bodily desire, one of our primordial instincts is to create, which is why the kitchen, the front yard and the backyard become creative spaces for women,” she says.
Feminist author Bell Hooks, in her 1994 book, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” So for women, the spaces Deepa mentioned become sites of resistance where their expression of creativity turns into acts of rebellion against patriarchy.
During the session, Vaibhav Abnave mentioned that the true task of feminism is love, meaning men and women are not adversaries in its project. But, if women become agents of patriarchy time and time again, how do we speak for them?
Deepa gives examples from Indian literature of how women have been represented and readings a writer must do before they write women into their work: Shashi Deshpande’s novel Roots and Shadows, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Atmakatha, and Vaidehi’s short stories are some that I was able to note down.. She promised to share a more comprehensive reading list soon! I’ll share them here when she does.
But back to what makes a feminist play…Deepa says it is in giving its women a life of their own. “What is a woman’s inner and outer world? How does a woman navigate sin-ness? How far can she go? What is faith for her? What is chastity?” Feminism need not be about women, and women need not uphold feminism, she adds, but they need to have a… humanity.
As writers, how do we find humanity in identities that are disjointed and fragmented? We are not just looking to depict complex characters but also complex themes for the times we live in. Gurleen Judge’s play Modern Art is an attempt at exploring life under fascism through the lives of different characters. Rajeev, Deepa and Vaibhav agreed that while these fragments were trying to create a collage of vignettes, what that final picture looked like was unclear.
For Gurleen, the greatest crisis of our times is “who are we?”. So how do we communicate this sense of disjointed-ness through our form and content, without being too clever or crafty? “Form says many things about what you actually want to say,” says Deepa, “and a fantastic example of that is T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land.”
The more abstract we want something to be, the more we have to give the audience something to hold on to, feels Sunil. "There has to be an intent to communicate," he says. But even that sometimes falls short. Finally, one wants to be moved. Deepa shares an anecdote about watching Rajiv Krishnan’s play Ms. Meena (written by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan) which was a devastating play in terms of its story. “It is about the murder of a woman but the craftiness of it prevented me from being stirred or moved by it,” she recalls.
So, the big question: As writers, how do we move people through the stories we tell?
“What moves us,” explains Vaibhav, “is when we encounter something unfamiliar in the familiar.” There are received ideas and images about fascism, he says. Fascism today is not the same as what it was in the 1930s. There is a destiny-like notion attached to it where it doesn’t appear as an enemy but it becomes more about how we create space for ourselves within it. There are no positive unities any longer – anti-fascist is anti-fascist, but it never stands for anything else. “Fascism is not on the rise today,” he says, “but it is re-emerging. It is the absence of a larger idea. We tend to see ourselves as victims of fascism, and not its opponents.”
How do we then create a form which makes us experience this? Two good examples are Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. What moves us in these plays is the jostling between form and content. “You need militant non-violence, not militant violence,” Vaibhav adds. “Revolution is ‘re-evolution’, a rupture, a new beginning which happens without a blueprint of the future. Beginnings are not origins.”
It is easy to talk about this but difficult to go back and write your next draft based on all this. As Rajeev jokes, “Vaibhav is a scholar first, and then a human being.” Nevertheless, we are stories telling stories so how can we combine rebellion with love instead of with rage. ? I don’t know. The search can outlast us. But I do know it begins with asking the question, and living the answer.