A profile in two voices of India’s most thought-provoking playwright in English.
It’s a June day. A breezy gust ruffles the spray of magenta bougainvillea overhanging the intimate outdoor theatre at J P Nagar, Bangalore. A green bamboo gate creaks onto the dramatic space. Muffled footfalls lead up the curve of steps to a terracotta-bricked interior.
A study door opens. A fluorescent blue-green Macintosh squats atop a study table. An assortment of books lines a wall. Videos of Hindi film classics of the Fifties and Sixties are stacked tall in a niche. Ella Fitzgerald’s honey-brown voice is playing in the background. A full-length mirror lines the length of the door. A futon with a blockprinted spread hugs the wall adjacent to the window. The early evening sun rides a shaft in.
A youthful man enters, a quiet presence. Clad in a subdued orange khadi kurta, Kolhapuri chappals on his feet, his gaze is unambiguous, his voice muted. The crescendo and diminuendo of his laughter ripples through the room. His hands form mudras in the air, the gold bangle on his wrist flashes as he speaks, darting from past to present, from reality to flights of fancy.
Mahesh Dattani is just 43 and is, by all accounts, the country’s most lauded contemporary playwright in English. Labelled by theatre scholars as the definitive voice of modern urban India, he was honoured by the Sahitya Akademi with their distinguished award in 1998.
He draws naked truths out of long-shuttered closets, ferreting out themes beyond bedroom farces and historical romances.
Dattani is just back home from Mumbai where Lillete Dubey’s Prime Time production of his incest-based play, “30 Days In September,” premiered to a standing ovation on 30th of May. It was commissioned by the Delhi-based RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) and funded by the Ford Foundation.
I was 12 when my parents took me to watch a Gujarati play. Before the play began, the atmosphere at Bangalore’s Ravindra Kalakshetra was raucous. Everyone was yelling at each other: ‘Kantibai, kem cho’ and all that. Then, the bells rang, the lights dimmed, there was an announcement, then loud music. The curtain went up, and there was pin-drop silence. This surreal world unfolded, with make-up and costumes. There were peccadilloes going on, who’s sleeping with whom and so on. [Pausing for effect] At the end of Act One, a gun went off. And somebody fell—in the audience!
My God! It was a play within a play! It was like magic, suddenly breaking the boundaries of illusion and reality. I think that influenced my theatrical technique very strongly. Because I always break those spaces, going backwards and forwards between past and present, real time and dream time. That experience was a major high for me.
I never really thought that I could be a part of theatre. [Reflectively] Being part of a middle-class Gujarati family, it was just assumed that I’d join Papa’s business after graduating in history, economics and political science from St. Joseph’s College. Papa sold machinery for packaging and printing. He was a pioneer in his field. Later, I did a course in marketing and advertising because I wanted to be a copywriter. It was fashionable at that time. I tried it for six months, hated it, then joined Papa’s business.
By then, I was with the Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT), helping out with production. My first role was in Utpal Dutt’s Surya Shikar, done in English, directed by Simha. I was in the chorus, one of two scrawny guys. [Guffawing] Every time we came on stage, the audience would burst out laughing. We were just not co-ordinated!
It was the late Seventies. At that time, an old school buddy, Bimal Desai, came up with an idea: “Let’s do a play together. You direct and I’ll act.” After sifting through a pile of Neil Simon scripts, we chose Woody Allen’s God. It was so funny. We recruited all our college buddies to fill the cast of twenty. We were all so inexperienced! I must have been about 21. Yet, we managed to get six house-full shows because of the student community.
You know, I’ve directed more plays than I’ve written. This may sound trite but it’s true—as a director, I enjoy the power. As a playwright, I’ve absolutely no power. Of the plays I’ve directed, I’m most proud of the staging of my play, Bravely Fought The Queen, in Delhi. It won the Sahitya Kala Parishad award for best production in 1998.
[Passionately] I write because I’m a theatre person, not because I’m a writer. It’s quite by chance that I became a playwright. At one point, when I was directing European plays like In Camera, Sartre, Euripides and all that, I decided I wanted to do an Indian play. I read some translations. I loved Vijay Tendulkar’s Silence, The Court Is In Session, and Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq. I was impressed by Badal Sircar’s Baki Itihaas. But the English translations weren’t anywhere near the originals. Maybe the plays don’t lend themselves to translation.
So I thought: why not try my hand at writing? That was in 1984. Where There’s A Will was the result.
His theatrical voice is gender-sensitive, seeking out the lighter moments amidst unvoiced angst.
Whether as text or as tone, his words tear at the edge of consciousness, blurring social constructs. He draws naked truths out of long-shuttered closets, ferreting out themes beyond bedroom farces and historical romances. His dialogues have their roots in middle-class urban India, interspersed with Hindi and Gujarati, charged with unspoken socio-cultural subtexts. On the boards, invisible issues strut the stage, bringing the audience face-to-face with its own moral subversions. His theatrical voice is gender-sensitive, seeking out the lighter moments amidst unvoiced angst. He often fine-tunes his plays in rehearsals with his Bangalore-based theatre group, Playpen.
He describes ‘Where There’s a Will’ as an exorcism of the patriarchal code through intimate sequences in the life of the money-centric Mehta family. ‘Dance Like A Man’ (1989) explores the homegrown reality of the male classical dancer through the lens of social acceptance, stemming from the playwright’s own six-year-long Bharatanatyam stint under noted gurus Chandrabhaga Devi and U S Krishna Rao. As staged by Mumbai’s Prime Time, it did a record hundred shows in India, London, Dubai and Colombo. ‘Tara’ (1990) addresses the trauma that results from the separation of conjoined different-sex Siamese twins, engineered to favour the male child. Some view it as a lens on the gendered self, others as an alternate perspective on the feminine self in a male-centric world.
1991 saw the first staging of ‘Bravely Fought The Queen,’ dominated by hot-blooded, fully-fleshed characters struggling to breathe amidst the debris of urban double standards. The next year brought to life his first commissioned play, ‘Final Solutions’, an exploration of communal strife at the request of Mumbai’s theatre giant Alyque Padamsee.
‘Do The Needful’, his first radio play for BBC in 1997, delves into the social psyche of arranged marriages. Three others followed, including ‘Seven Steps Around The Fire,’ centred around the daily tribulations of the ‘hijra’ or eunuch community, as uncovered by a scholastic sleuth.
When Prime Time put ‘On A Muggy Night In Mumbai’ on the boards in 1998, it punched the mainstage audience between the eyes, as the first Indian play to focus openly on gay themes of love and partnership.
People keep saying to me: “Why do you write about such depressing subjects?” [Shakes with laughter] After Thirty Days In September, a gentleman protested, “We can read about incest and all that. But there’s no need to put it on stage.”
I’m not looking for something sensational, which audiences have never seen before. Some subjects, which are under-explored, deserve their space. [Contemplatively] After all, incest can happen in your family or mine, wherever there’s a child and an adult. It’s no use brushing these issues under the carpet.
I have to take inspiration from real life and make it my own. Unless theatre is about the human condition, it doesn’t always work. Even if it’s a commissioned script, like the one I did for a film on HIV, Ek Alag Mausam, that’s the only way I can write. I met over 25 people who were HIV-positive. I saw a person dying in an AIDS hospice. It was so overwhelming. I just wanted to get away. [Pausing] Finally, I thought: “What if I discover I’m HIV-positive tomorrow? What will that mean to me?” It will mean I’m in touch with my mortality.
His dialogues have their roots in middle-class urban India, interspersed with Hindi and Gujarati, charged with unspoken socio-cultural subtexts.
It may sound bizarre but, to me, gender never was an issue. I’m not conscious of masculine or feminine expression. I am who I am. At times it may be categorised as feminine, at times as masculine. It doesn’t bother me. But peculiarly, it’s a big deal to others. It took me a while to realise that my perception was different from that of others. It again became grist to the mill, a question of challenging people’s perceptions. That’s why I have titles like Dance Like A Man, or Bravely Fought The Queen! The latter is based on that Hindi poem about Jhansi ki Rani: Khoob lari mardani, woh to Jhansi wali rani thi! If she’s brave, then she’s like a man! She can’t be a woman and be brave. Isn’t that ridiculous?
What’s the big deal? OK, genetically you belong to one gender. [Casually] But beyond that, it’s all social construction.
In Dance Like A Man, the father doesn’t want his son to carry on being a dancer because he sees that as a woman’s profession. He makes a deal with his daughter-in-law that she can continue dancing if she’ll get her husband away from it. She asks why. He says, “A woman in a man’s world may be considered progressive, but a man in a woman’s world is pathetic.” There’s always laughter about that. In the next line, she says, “Perhaps we aren’t progressive enough.” There’s always silence after that one.
In a sense, there’s a complicity when the audience agrees with the politics of a character, and are suddenly put into a spin when it’s turned on them. It’s the same in On A Muggy Night In Mumbai. There’s a dialogue between a gay man and a lesbian, who’re very good friends. She tells him: “If you were a woman, we would have been in love.” He turns round and says, ‘If you were a man, we would have been in love.” When she says that, there’s laughter. When he says his line, laughter. Then, she says, “If we were heterosexual, we would have been married.” [Dramatically] Both of them go “Aaaaaaaaaaa!” No laughter there.
I see all my plays as socio-political. [Passionately] That’s how I see Final Solutions, which deals with communal tension. I don’t delve into the machinations of the higher powers, how they manipulate events, although there are strong overtones that it’s all politically engineered. When Alyque approached me to write it— this happened before the Babri Masjid incident in 1992—I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing it.
I’ve based it on a riot I’d read about during the Tazia festival in Ahmedabad where, traditionally, the rath or temple chariot is taken out by Muslims and Hindus. That particular year, there was some communal tension, especially when the rath went into a Muslim area. In Final Solutions, the rath became a symbol for projecting ideas and images of self through gigantic idols.
“I’ve directed more plays than I’ve written. This may sound trite but it’s true—as a director, I enjoy the power. As a playwright, I’ve absolutely no power.”
I like to focus on people who aspire to freedom, but are somehow bound by society. [Pushing his hair back] That’s where my dramatic tensions arise. I realise how empowered I am as an urban, upper middle-class Indian. We can live our lives the way we want to, whether you’re single, unattached, without kids, or single with kids. No matter how disapproving society is, it allows you a life.
[Thoughtfully] What if I wasn’t so empowered? What would my issues, battles, struggles be, then? All my characters are women who are out there in some way. Either sexually expressive as in Bravely Fought The Queen. Or in some ways handicapped like Tara and Chandan in Tara. That’s what makes them come alive, the fact that they have battles to fight.
I don’t write about any subject until I see where the dramatic conflict lies. I usually choose the urban family unit because, in our times, that’s where I feel the conflict is. Perhaps it was the same in Tennessee Williams’ or Eugene O’Neill’s time. But if you look at modern American playwrights, they hardly ever write about the family because that’s not where the conflict lies.
Though I deal with grave subjects, my optimism seems to somehow come through. Despite the sense of loss, despite the characters’ turmoil, there’s always a funny side to it. Maybe it’s just the way I am. I haven’t figured that one out.
When I sent Lillete the script of Thirty Days, I said, “Look, it’s very grim. There’s not even one scene where there’s an iota of humour.” She had a couple of readings, then told me, “You’re such a goose, Mahesh. That scene is so funny!” I don’t know how, it just comes through.
[Bringing his fingertips together] Playwriting, of course, is really for posterity. In theatre, the only thing that stays is the written text. Everything else is so transient. That’s the magic of theatre. You create an illusion and it’s gone. It’ll never be the same again.
Not long ago he took Bangalore by storm in the recent BLT production of ‘Henry IV,’ the 1934 Nobel laureate Pirandello’s classic satire on the madness intrinsic to all mankind. In the title role, he alternates between sackcloth and satin, ranting and reasoning, unleashing spine-chilling mood swings that mirror our inner turbulence. At moments, he flashes with the fury of the misunderstood, at others he analyses the human condition with a rare histrionic finesse.
“I have to take inspiration from real life and make it my own. Unless theatre is about the human condition, it doesn’t always work.”
He’s inspired by the total theatre experience, whether as an actor, a director or a playwright. To him, all the world’s his stage. Whether it’s a Playpen production in Bangalore, Border Crossings in London, or Prime Time in New York. In a half-page review, New York Times writer Stephen Bruckner felt, “Dattani is a canny and facile writer, and there is nothing [in his writing] that is alien to American audiences.” At home, Alyque Padamsee thanked him for giving “sixty million English-speaking Indians an identity.”
He built Rangamane in Bangalore as a studio space for the performing arts in 1998. He’s held playwriting workshops in India, and teaches an inter-cultural course on theatre at Portland State University, Oregon, as a visiting professor since 1996.
Ultimately, all theatre is about the actors and the audience, you know. [Flinging out his arms] It’s the actor’s chemistry. Everything is geared towards that, whether you’re a playwright or a director or a set designer. That’s quite a power trip. I enjoy acting, directing, playwriting for different reasons.
Clarity is something I work on constantly. Some ideas may seem very obvious to me. But the actors may say: “What is this?” I’d say: “Don’t you see it?” And they’d say, “No, where is it?” That’s when I realise it’s in my head. I need to bring it out, perhaps through the action.
[Toying with a pen in his hand] I like to keep a lot in the sub-text. I hate it when actors expect me to spell out things, which means they don’t trust their acting ability. With amateurs, it’s disturbing when they try to paraphrase.
Sometimes, actors don’t trust audiences. I don’t know why. The actors are not more intelligent than the audience. I hate those presumptions. The audience has the advantage of sitting back and taking it all in. You’ve got to take feedback from the audience, whether it’s silence or laughter or applause.
Do I have influences? [Meditatively] Tennessee Williams was my favourite playwright for long. I realize Tara has shades of Glass Menagerie. But that was involuntary. I admire Tendulkar very much. I find his plays very progressive. He doesn’t write from a predominantly male perspective, either. His characters are so grounded, regardless of their gender. I’d love to direct Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, but I can see how it doesn’t work in English. I wonder if English theatre audiences in India have even heard of Vijay Tendulkar or Mahesh Elkunchwar. I’d say they’re both the creators of modern Indian drama.
[Fiercely] I feel writing in English, as we do in India, is our strength. When Prime Time did Dance Like A Man and Muggy Night In Mumbai in New York, they didn’t tone it down. Now, in Muggy Night, there’s a whole scene written in Hindi. Nor did we change words like ashtapadi or Gita Govinda, in Dance Like A Man. The audiences loved it; they got the context. It was very empowering as Indians to say: “This is who we are, and this is how we speak our language.”
I hate the term ‘post-colonial’. I resent the way it is used to classify south Asian writing. Isn’t American writing, Australian writing, also post-colonial? [Throwing up his hands] It’s one way of negating our 5,000 years of culture. In a sense, we’re the ones who’ve colonised them. It’s like what they’re doing with Chicken Tikka Masala and Balti cuisine. We’ve done taken their language and made it our own!
“To me, gender never was an issue. I’m not conscious of masculine or feminine expression. I am who I am. At times it may be categorised as feminine, at times as masculine. It doesn’t bother me.”
Surrounded by theatre buffs at the old-world Koshy’s restaurant in Bangalore, he talks and breathes theatre, recites from old plays and new, casting around for fresh talent. He listens to all-comers, making eye contact a personality trait. Over endless cups of coffee, he recalls prized productions and projects into the future.
Attending a recent documentary film festival on the burning issues of our time, he reflects on the plight of the Kuruba tribe at the Nagarhole sanctuary, then rises to defend the alternate perspective of a film-maker. Mulling over provocative themes, engaging intellectually with tourism-related paedophilia or the shadow of the beauty myth on urban India, he interacts spiritedly with potent ideas.
His dreams for the future envision a shared space for Kannada and English theatre. Perhaps a theatre village named Natyagram, along the lines of Protima Gauri’s Nrityagram, outside Bangalore.
I was absolutely floored when I got the Sahitya Akademi award. It was the happiest moment of my life. It’s quite a trip for me to be mentioned in the same breath as Shashi Deshpande and A K Ramanujam, names I revere. [Laughing long and strong] I thought they’d never give it to me because I write in English and about horrible subjects. Besides, it’s an award for literature, not for drama.
Initially, my family was concerned about me. But it was a big moment for my late father when I received the Sahitya Akademi award. He felt very proud when Alyque did Final Solutions in Mumbai, and when Bravely Fought The Queen was done in London.
I joked with him then. I said: “I’ve done Mumbai, I’ve done London. Next stop: New York.” But New York happened in July; I lost him in March. When I was reading the half-page New York Times rave review of Dance Like A Man, the first thought that struck me was: “I wish my father was here!”
[Silence for a few moments] It was actually a sad moment for me because he wasn’t there to share it.
My parents adapted to my life well because I achieved a modicum of success. If I was a failure or unrecognised, I don’t know how they would have felt. They’d probably say: “Why do you want to do all this?” The important thing is that I can earn a living out of what I’m doing. I’ve received a fair amount of recognition. I guess I’ve been a good boy. That’s what parents want from their children, don’t they?
This article was first published in the July 2001 issue
Image courtesy: Meenal Agarwal