Up-close and personal with the winner of the first Shankar Nag theatre award, instituted by Ranga Shankara in 2014.
When I reach Abhishek Majumdar’s rehearsal space in Bengaluru, two actors, Sandeep Shikhar and Avneesh Mishra, are improvising the scenes of their new play, #Supernova, as assistant director Karen D’Mello looks on. Shikhar, who I have seen play an innocent boy in Gasha (2013) and a formidable, middle-aged priest in Muktidham (2017), offers me dark chocolate from the fridge. I ask D’Mello what the play is about, and she says, “Even we don’t know. It’s best if you ask Abhishek.” A month later #Supernova opened at Max Mueller Bhavan in Bengaluru, and The Hindu reviewed it as, “#Supernova is a gut-wrenching play on child trafficking and sexual abuse… It is hard to put in words the depth of Sandeep’s performance.”
The plays by Indian Ensemble, the theatre company founded by Majumdar and Shikhar in 2009, are works-in-progress till the opening night. By doing intense workshops, the actors improvise and rehearse till the cows come home. The duo, thus, keep the “text still as their backbone, but enrich their practice by experimenting with physicality.” Of Majumdar, Mohit Takalkar, who directed the tearjerker Mein Huun Yusuf Aur Ye Hai Mera Bhai in 2015, and who has done the scenography on Muktidham, says, “I haven’t met [anyone] who is so methodical. Till the last day [of rehearsal of Muktidham], Abhishek would bring new props to the actors; he would challenge them in some other way. I don’t have his rigour. If I had his rigour, I think I would have been a very good director by now.” (So says the man who won ‘best director’ at META last year.)
What sets Majumdar, 37, apart from most theatre directors is the months and years he spends researching his plays. “The reason I’m in theatre is because I realised that if I go to a university, I’ll have to pick one subject,” he tells me. “In theatre, I can keep changing the subject.” For a play he’s currently working on, set in contemporary Tibet, Majumdar has not only visited contemporary Tibet but also spent an hour discussing the play with the Dalai Lama. Three of his plays have been set in Kashmir, research for which has taken him to police stations, CRPF bunkers, and dens of militants. “I have seen stone-throwing from both sides. I have stood in the CRPF bunker, and seen stones being thrown at us. And, with the boys who are throwing the stones, I’ve watched the CRPF guys [attacked] from the other side. That experience of being on two sides completely changes you.”
Majumdar’s Kashmir trilogy includes Rizvaan (2010), in which the loved ones of a boy are killed either by the insurgents or by the military; The Djinns of Eidgah (2013), about two Muslim siblings in Srinagar who lose their father and seek different means of escape (The Guardian gave it four stars, and called it “politically enlightening and theatrically hypnotic”); and Gasha, about two childhood friends, a Muslim and a Hindu, from Kashmir, who are separated when the Pandits are made to flee their homes, which earned three METAs in 2013. “I can do another ten plays on Kashmir, which are not about Kashmir’s independence, [but] about the everyday life in Kashmir,” says Majumdar. “When I came back from Kashmir to Bengaluru, I was walking in the evening, and the street lights came on. I felt so relieved that there was this light. This was the first time I realised after leaving Kashmir, ki, ‘My god, where was I?’”
Majumdar has theorised his approach to theatre as such: he picks up a story only “when I have a personal, a sociopolitical, and a metaphysical question, all of which are aligned, then I’m ready to work on the play. [For instance], in Gasha, the personal question was about the nature of childhood friendship. The sociopolitical question was why did the Pandits leave? The metaphysical question was about returning home — can you ever go back home?” Similarly in another play, The Afterlife of Birds (2013), which has two anti-heroes as its heroes — an ageing female LTTE agent and the father of a suicide bomber — Majumdar says the personal question was, “Is a father and son’s relationship unconditional? The sociopolitical question was about suicide bombers and where do they come from. Metaphysically, I was interested in what happens in the afterlife. These three questions formed the meat of the play.”
Majumdar’s heightened sense of right and wrong can be traced to his childhood. His parents held administrative roles in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and as such, he grew up surrounded by intellectual rock stars. “My first memory [of theatre] is my father taking me to see Habib Tanvir’s rehearsals in JNU,” he says. “I grew up watching Chhattisgarhi and Garhwali plays, Ramleelas, Bangla plays. Our father would take us on his bicycle to concerts. We’ve heard Mallikarjun Mansur live, sitting in the field.” It was in college (he studied physics and mathematics at Delhi University), when he saw Roysten Abel’s path-breaking production, Othello: A Play in Black and White, that he started contemplating a life in theatre. “When I watched that play, I thought I don’t think I could ever make this. But, I would like to know how to do this. So I became interested in theatre.”
Majumdar moved to Bengaluru when he was 23, and worked in Sonata Software by day and did “a lot of theatre” by evening. “I had a theatre company called Mayavan. We were a group that came out of Mahesh Dattani’s workshop. We were a good group, but we were all in different stages of trying to understand how much we wanted to commit to theatre.” Finally, in his mid-twenties, he enrolled in the London International School of Performing Arts. “It was a school of physical theatre, which helped me enormously. When I came back [from London], my own conception of the drawing-room drama completely changed. I could see what was common to Greek tragedy and koodiyattam theatre that Veenapani [Chawla] was doing; what was common between the satire of Italian theatre and Badal Sircar. [The school] gave me the approach of problem-solving in theatre.”
After coming back from London in 2009, Majumdar entered into two partnerships — he married his sweetheart (with whom he has a daughter), and he set up Indian Ensemble with Shikhar. “When we started Indian Ensemble, none of us had any work,” he says. “We were bumming around. We didn’t have a rehearsal room. We just put it together because we wanted to work, and one thing led to another. These are the things that make me think of what is luck. This is simply good luck. I have not worked hard to have a companion like Sandeep on this journey, but I know I could do none of this without him. Indian Ensemble’s rehearsals are not easy — we are known for that. And, he has been in every single show, working as hard as anybody else.”
Shikhar and Majumdar have collaborated on more than ten plays since, including their two latest — Kaumudi (2014), in which an estranged father and son, both stage actors, spar over their theatre company’s legacy; and Muktidham, a play set in the 8th-century when the priests are Hindus and the kings are Buddhists, and their ideologies are set on a collision course (theatre critic Shanta Gokhale reviewed it as, “Muktidham is a play of classical stature, deserving of the standing ovation we gave it”). “Muktidham is my question posed towards the Hindutva brigade — how can you be Hindu and not be casteist? If I say I am a Hindu, I have believed in the caste system already,” says Majumdar. “In the history of theatre, I can’t find any self-respecting theatre that is not about questioning something. A good Ramleela questions many decisions of Rama. Good Kathakali questions many attributes of Pandavas and Krishna. Good Islamic storytelling questions what Allah said. It is my job to do the critique.
“The whole purpose of making [new] art is to keep examining mythology,” he continues. “The director of the Royal Shakespeare Company used to say, ‘Direct a new play as if it’s a classic, and a classic as if it’s a new play. Majumdar clearly followed this advice on Muktidham. “For Muktidham, I was very clearly interested in writing an epic structure, which had the overall shape of a Natyashastra play, but the scenes inside it had the Greek structure. Which is what [Girish] Karnad writes in. So I thought, “If I act like I am Karnad for a bit, what will I end up writing?’”