When Marx wrote Das Kapital, he theorized about the social relationships involved in the act of production of commodities under capitalism. But what happens when the commodities being produced are strictly speaking not of a material nature—for instance, what happens when stories are produced? Walter Benjamin addressed this question in one of his most brilliant essays, ‘Author as Producer’. Years later, Roland Barthes did the opposite—he pronounced the author dead in his essay ‘Death of the Author’. Barthes was arguing that the reader, in the act of ‘reading’, makes whatever ‘meaning’ there may be in the text, independent of what may or may not have been intended by the author. In that sense, then, the reader, not the author, is the ‘producer’ of the text. This led the satirist Malcolm Bradbury to quip that when Barthes pronounced the author dead, the happiest was his publisher, because he figured that in that case he need not pay Barthes any royalties.
In a way he could not have anticipated, Barthes’ shadow looms large over the field of Indian theatre, since here too, the playwright is very nearly dead. This may seem strange or paradoxical, but for proof visit the National School of Drama’s theatre festival, which takes place every year in winter in the capital. In the festival schedule, the NSD does not provide the playwright’s name. At the end of each play, the director is called on stage and gifted a memento, while the playwright, even if present in the auditorium, is not even mentioned. While the NSD is particularly callous in this respect, it is also true that many plays these days do not have a playwright at all. Indeed, many plays are not even plays in the commonly understood sense of the term; they are what can be called ‘performance pieces’, most often evolved, not written, by the performer and director (if the two are separate). One of the recent directors of the NSD has made a career of performing literary texts on stage, short stories and even entire novels, with absolutely no authorial or directorial intervention in the text itself—the entire text of the literary piece is memorized by actors and acted out. This sort of spurious theatre has been given a lofty name—kahani ka rangmanch (the story as theatre)—as if it arose out of a well-considered theoretical impulse. Nothing of the kind. The practice of performing stories on stage resulted from the acute drought of playwrights on the Hindi stage.
More recently, this drought has spread to many other languages as well. Perhaps the only language where the playwright is not extinct is Marathi where, especially in Pune, there is an entire crop of young (under 40) serious, talented and innovative playwrights. In Vijay Tendulkar’s recent death India has lost its single most important post-Independence playwright, but one of the few things that Tendulkar himself felt optimistic about in his last years was the state of the craft of writing plays in Marathi, which continues to flourish— somewhat illogically, since writing plays is hardly a lucrative career. To an extent, the only other language to escape this decimation is English, where a relatively large number of playwrights continue to put out new work. But then, as in fiction, writing plays in English is a somewhat different ball game, with more visibility and marginally better financial returns, once you make a name for yourself. The two languages, however, where the death of the playwright has been most shocking are Kannada and Bangla. In Kannada, which has produced playwrights of the stature of Girish Karnad and Chandrasekhar Kambar, one is hard-pressed to name even two or three really good young playwrights; and in Bangla, the language of Utpal Dutt and Badal Sircar, the situation is just as grim.
It is in this context that the present volume of three plays by playwright-actor-director Manoj Mitra comes to us. The plays are Tale of Hekim-shaheb (Galpo Hekimshaheb; 1994), Honey From a Broken Hive (Chak Bhanga Modhu; written in 1969, revised in 1971 and first performed the following year) and The Palace of Shadows (Chhayar Prashad; 1997).
The first of these is set in nineteenth-century Bengal, as the feudal order withered and the British imposed the Permanent Settlement, which encouraged zamindars and talukdars to rapaciously exploit peasants. The protagonist of the play is the hekim, the traditional medicine man, caught in the crossfire between a Hindu and a Muslim zamindar, is also witness to the coming of modern allopathic medicine. The hekim is a kind of folk hero, caring for the poor irrespective of religious persuasion, and even going out of his way to treat those who have harmed him directly. The dialectic of healing and disease runs through the play, as does that of compassion and violence. The red rose, essential to prepare the cure for leprosy, becomes a symbol at once tender (because of its healing powers), sensuous and erotic (associated with the courtesan Mohorbai), as well as oppressive and violent (controlled by the zamindar who denies the hekim access to it). The gentle rhythm of the play underscores the tragic end, as the courtesan and the zamindar are both afflicted by leprosy and the hekim himself dies, unable to recall the recipe that will produce the medicine to counter the terrible disease.
Honey From a Broken Hive is the most stunning play in this volume and a product of the Naxal period. Yet, unlike many others, Mitra approaches his times almost tangentially, focusing not on the political developments, but on the structures of violence and exploitation that afflict a poor rural community. The translator quotes Utpal Dutt: ‘It has all the elements that go in the making of the People’s Theatre—extreme exploitation, poverty, starvation, the killing of the moneylender with a machete at the very end and the celebration of the villagers. . . . But a lot of plays stop right there, as though being exploited by moneylenders defined the limits of one’s experience. . . . In the course of the theatre workshops, the men and women in Manoj Mitra’s theatre have delved much deeper into the violence of their times, the mores and superstitions, the hidden corridors of desire and envy. The ways and mores of many centuries leave their traces upon us. In sudden flashes we see the dark caves and the webs of black magic within’. Incidentally, Satyajit Ray, who cast Manoj Mitra in many of his films, once considered making a film on this play. This information comes to us from a superb interview with Mitra conducted by Samik Bandyopadhyay, which forms the appendix to the book.
The last play is Mitra’s response to the rise of the Hindu Right in Indian politics, and is set in Mauryan times. Mitra strips the Emperor Ashoka of his supposedly Aryan and Greek lineage, and instead postulates him to have been born of a low-caste woman following her rape. While Ashoka is one important character in the play, the imaginary character of Dwaipayan (played superbly by Mitra himself in the original production) is in some ways its ethical core—a person ‘both male and female,’ s/he is a transvestite, an outsider on the margins, a brahman of the cremation grounds who is therefore considered untouchable, low, and fallen. The third important character of the play is Chanakya, whom Mitra portrays as a sort of revolutionary, a critic of brahmanism who attempts to enshrine the legal rights of untouchables and slaves. Mitra’s use of language is extraordinarily alive to the glories of the rhythms of local cadence, and is therefore extremely hard to translate. His is a theatre deeply rooted in the traditions of rural Bengal. This may explain in some measure why Manoj Mitra is not known as well outside Bengal as he deserves to be (the only play of his that has been widely performed outside Bengal is Banchharamer Bagan [Banchharam’s Orchard; 1977]). What one misses in the Introduction, therefore, is any discussion that places Mitra in the larger tradition of Indian—or even Bangla, playwriting come to think of it. The translator is right in arguing that Mitra’s theatre, rather than being directly political, concerns itself with a larger realm of ethics. It is a theatre that has profound empathy for the poor, the marginalized, the disempowered. But how is his playwriting similar to, or different from, that of, say, Arun Mukherjee-Mitra’s contemporary, author of Jagannath and Marichh Sangbad, who too deserves to be known much better outside Bengal? A comparison with someone like Habib Tanvir, whose theatre draws as much from the rural traditions of Chhattisgarh as from modern European theatre, may also have yielded interesting insights. In the event, the Introduction, competent in itself, suffers from the larger malaise of Bangla theatre itself—it sees little connection with the rest of the country.
But one is being perhaps too harsh. At a time when the species called playwright itself is on the endangered list, Manoj Mitra reminds us of the delights of a theatre that believes in telling stories simply and directly, using the conventional tools of plot, dramatic situations, and character.
Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, Delhi, and works as editor with Left Word Books.