There is a certain sense of heightened responsibility that comes with the awareness of power one has as a writer. It’s the pursuit of truth through the lens of art. Abhishek Majumdar embodies all this and more.
Be it his trilogy of plays on Kashmir or the scope of conflict in Pah-La, he is unafraid of starting a dialogue that might have repercussions. His narratives reflect the same intensity, through their beauty, the humanness and the underlying message. Break a Leg! got the wonderful chance to catch up with Majumdar as he gave us insights on the artist’s psyche, the chronology of questions, the spirit of consciousness and how does he #MakeAScene.
Rizwan, Gasha, Djinns of Eidgah
The trilogy uses emotions to convey the reality of Kashmir. What aspect of this reality provokes you the most? What is it that you wish to convey?
There is no one particular thing, I don’t think plays necessarily are about one thing. I am quite fond of plays that are about more than one thing. I feel Kashmir is definitely a very complex place with a very complex history. So, things one wants to explore are many. Some of it is to simply put out what is there, what one observes without any bias. And art certainly plays a major role in trying to do that.
While I don’t wish to talk about one particular thing, I think I tried to convey a sense of what
Kashmir is like- the plays are as much about a sibling relationship as they are about a revolution. For me plays are more about witnessing and questioning together than necessarily conveying things to an audience.
When did you first discover that you had a responsibility (of sorts) to ask tough questions through your plays? In this volatile political climate, where every question is deemed as an act of protest, how do you protect this right?
I think the tendency to ask questions is something I received from my house, particularly from my mother and sister. I grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged me to ask questions. I was born and brought up at the JNU campus, so the atmosphere alone seeped in. One of the first things I saw in my life was Habeeb Tanveer’s rehearsal that my father took me to, and from then on there were a series of things I saw and observed. I suppose that made a serious impact on me, it made me want to ask questions and more importantly got me interested in questions.
I am very, very fond of questions- good questions! Be it in mathematics or physics or economics, all of which I have studied. Or eventually more of the metaphysical or socio-political questions that led me to theatre.
Referring to the second part of your question, one must do what one has to do, art is a
compulsion for an artist. It is not a choice. One never writes a play for the same reasons as
the last play, they do different plays for different reasons.
Initially, Muktidham was my response to the crackdown that started in JNU but it couldn’t have been just that, it had to become a larger play. That’s when the research on the Pal dynasty, the Buddhist Hindu, Hinduism and the history of this country- all of it became interesting. In a way the most wonderful thing about art is that the more you try to suppress it, the more it thrives.
Whether its your inquiry into socio-political conflicts or philosophical quandaries of non-violence, you have often been on the receiving end of threats. Has this double-edged sword of power and flack of being a storyteller propelled you? If yes, then how?
I think I am most propelled by the act of making art itself. The creative act, research, the joy of writing a piece or directing it, devising it with a bunch of very talented people in a room- all of it propels me. The metaphysics of it is extremely interesting, compared to which the threats really paled.
They have definitely impacted our lives as a family. There have been times, I was summoned to the police station and there have been times I have been given police protection. This changes politically depending on who is in power.
Last year when we were performing Pah-La there was a horrible incident where I literally had a proper fight with a group of Chinese agents who wanted me to stop the play before it started. Its inexplicable why the Chinese, Asians, or even in our country the ones with power would be so concerned about a small play that not more than 3000 people are watching. While there are so many big movies, criticizing the Chinese, that millions of people are watching. They are not stopped! Its interesting right, how art may not reach a lot of people but (hopefully) its impact is long lasting and one doesn’t forget it by the next month.
The threats have not directly hindered me, but once in a while it worries my family. Yet continuing to create work despite the push backs is the only way. I think I belong to a theatre culture which is subversive and it can question political power that way. I am just doing what I have to do.
The topic of child trafficking and sexual abuse is an uncomfortable one. Apart from encouraging discourse or starting a dialogue, do you think you have the responsibility of ensuing any positive consequences considering the wide reach you have?
Definitely! Every work you make is a part of your life. Hopefully the work itself can propel some change as a consequence unto itself. Its not a step towards something, its whole on its own. I think this is a very important thing to recognize- a painting is not a step towards the betterment of the world, the painting is the betterment. This is an important paradigm when thinking about art.
We have reduced art making to extracurricular in our syllabi. Or we think of it as something one does to inform people, or in order to support some action on ground. But art is action on
For every problem, we have to develop a language, an imagery, we have to develop a narrative and then we act. And this is all a part of the action. On one hand I think its complete by itself on the other hand I believe there are many subjects I am deeply influenced by. I haven’t done much activism around child trafficking but there are various other instances in which my understanding of the world has helped in activism work outside of the theatre.
The play explores ideas about ethics and conflicts. Do you think at a subconscious level, this inclination towards philosophy or discovering meaning is inherent to all human beings? Is this why we try to contextualize this through stories, so we can give these abstract questions a framework?
Yes, absolutely. Little children are learning all the time, because they are trying to make sense of the world around them. There is this beautiful stage in a child’s life where they suddenly realize that the mother and them are two separate entities. Its a wonderful thing to see, they are so startled by this realization! So yes, I think asking questions and creating meaning is inherent. The quality differs (of course), it depends on each person and their beliefs their situation etc.
This is why I think religion is such a successful idea in this world. Isn’t it absurd, that no other species follows this phenomenon? But there is something common to all religions. It gives an origin theory- because it’s a question we all have- where did I come from? What do I do while am here? And religion always has an absurd answer about- where am I going?
The fact that we take narratives and authorize them by giving another figure infinite power is another way in which human beings make meaning and form a narrative to survive what can only be called an uncertain life. I am a complete atheist, but my life is filled with narratives that I give to myself so that I don’t wake up every morning crying over what will happen.
First Draft Theatre Lab
What are your views on the modern era of writing brought on by the digital wave? Indian Ensemble’s First Draft Theatre Lab has also decided to go online. What kind of impact are you anticipating?
There are two facets to this- what digital art has done to writing culture is that its made post modernism visible. This implies that we have multiple narratives, everything is a text, they are all formulated into one thing. This affects the way the new generation reads because most of the reading that they do is formalized, moving from screen to yet another screen.
Because this generation is reading differently, they are also writing differently. Technology undoubtedly affects narrative style, the change of mode and the style of writing is evident.
The other part is simply the reach. Going online is a great idea in the times of COVID-19 because it gives us the possibility to continue without having to shut down. Its strength is that we will have facilitators and people from various parts of the world. Of course the process of training people for a live medium without it being live is pretty ironic, but it’s a good trade off and many institutions worldwide are adopting this method.
Yet this cannot be called a technological revolution as its affecting only the top 5 percent of the population who have access to this kind of technology and internet. This is class consciousness and its a revolution within a very small class. It will make a real impact only when we take these possibilities and make it accessible to the people in remote areas. Only then can technology be a true game changer.