A Catholic community in Mumbai takes on the shopping mall developers threatening its homes. A psychiatric doctor in war-torn Kashmir is haunted by djinns. A young woman is initiated into the ways of caste-based prostitution, a tradition kept alive by lonely truck drivers.
Modern India is a many-headed beast. It is this very beast that will be examined, if not tamed, during a week-long theatre festival at the Royal Court in London. New Plays from India presents work developed in Royal Court workshops in Mumbai run by British playwrights Carl Miller and April de Angelis and Elyse Dodgson, head of the Court’s international department, in collaboration with Mumbai’s Rage Productions. Plays by 12 writers from all over India were staged in their original languages (variously Marathi, Hindi and English) at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre in January. Five were chosen to receive rehearsed readings in London.
Widely regarded as the foremost theatre for new British writing, the Court also has a rich history of presenting non-British plays. In its early years, it produced new works by Samuel Beckett, Max Frisch, Arthur Miller and Wole Soyinka – in keeping with first artistic director George Devine’s vision of a “truly international theatre”. This commitment to overseas writers lies behind such recent Court successes as Chennai-based playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Disconnect, set in an Indian call-centre.
The theatre’s international residencies aim to “stimulate new writing in places where there is a lot of energy but not such a culture of new writing”, Dodgson tells me over a cup of tea in the Court’s bar. The contemporary theatre scene in India is still small, dwarfed by Bollywood. Nor do theatre-makers have the luxury of intensive rehearsal periods, as are the norm in Britain; instead, actors might be involved in multiple stage productions, as well as film and television work, simultaneously.
Still, Marathi theatre in particular has a long tradition, and writers such as the late Vijay Tendulkar are major influences. And there are important companies, especially in Mumbai, producing cutting-edge plays in English and Indian languages, “very much like the kind of work [the Court] would do”. But, says Dodgson, “I don’t think anywhere has a new writing culture like we do here. If we can support [that culture elsewhere], it makes us all better. We have hungry audiences who want to see this work; they have a much more international perspective than 10 years ago.”
The programme has an impressive reach, with projects in 70 countries since it began in 1997. But is there a sense that the theatre is trying to foist its – or Britain’s – values on to other cultures? “If people are critical about us, they say, ‘They just go around the world and try to make Royal Court plays’ – but what is a Royal Court play? What we are asking [the writers] to do is write a play that is very strongly about their world.”
It is in the portrayal of these “worlds” that theatre goes beyond other art forms, argues playwright Abhishek Majumdar. “There are certain stories which will go untold because they can’t live up to the commerce of the Bombay film industry or the Indian-English novel,” he explains on the phone from Bangalore. “That’s not the India that the world wants to know – and that’s not the India that India wants to show the world. But the theatre is a place where all stories can have an equal footing.”
Majumdar’s play The Djinns of Eidgah is set in Indian-occupied Kashmir on the eve of talks in which Indian officials will, as one character, a freedom fighter, puts it, “sit down […] with tea and coffee and biscuits, and […] make plans on paper about how we should live”. The play is concerned with third-generation Kashmiris living through unrest since the British left in 1947 – children who, Majumdar tells me, can no longer distinguish between natural and man-made disasters. “When I went to Kashmir, I thought, ‘That is really the huge cost of a war’: there is death and loss, but the inability even to grasp reality is the most severe price I can think of.”
He says the media “never tell the personal stories” from Kashmir. “For me it was about trying to find out how people individually coped.” One character in the play, Ashrafi, is 14 but with a mental age of nine – the age at which she travelled with her father’s body on her lap after he was shot dead on a bus. She lives in a fantasy world of djinns, the spirits of Islamic mythology. “In the subcontinent there is a living tradition of mythology,” Majumdar says. “Throughout a lot of the Islamic world, djinns are a real thing because a djinn stands for pure passion, so it is like a person or a soul.” Through Ashrafi and her psychiatrist Dr Baig – a man battling his own demons – Majumdar’s play exposes the clash of myth and modern warfare.
This festival certainly won’t portray “the India that India wants to show the world”. In Purva Naresh’s OK Tata, Bye Bye, a coarse truck driver warns a documentary film-maker trying to capture the lives of the village prostitutes who work the highway: “You must not show these dirty slimy things of our country to outsiders.”
Naresh first came across the Bachara caste – in whose families the eldest daughter traditionally enters prostitution – when working on a documentary called Highway Courtesans. The Bachara are descended from a nomadic tribe who were given farmland after Indian independence to give them a more stable income. The “disaster”, Naresh says, is that the land was next to a major highway, giving the old practice of prostitution a new, reliable customer – the trucker.
“It’s impossible to make assumptions about contemporary India,” Dodgson warns. That is true of Naresh’s play, too. Two film-makers go to a village to shoot a documentary similar to that Naresh herself worked on. What she found surprised her: these girls, believing they were born into “the business”, were, for the most part, happy in it. In a matriarchal society, they were the breadwinners. As one of the play’s prostitutes says, “NGO madam keeps discouraging us from this business. When I asked her why does she frown upon it, she said something about self-respect. I said I have no problem respecting myself. It’s the others who have a problem respecting me.”
As the feisty girls throw beauty products and porn DVDs around jokingly, the film-makers look on, stunned. “The world’s shrinking,” says one – echoing a feeling that I had more than once, reading these diverse, accomplished plays.
‘New Plays from India’, Royal Court Theatre, London, November 12-17