Lit­er­a­ture meets the­atre

James Joyce, Niko­lai Go­gol and Frank O’Con­nor come to life at the up­com­ing edi­tion of a lit fest that puts the life and works of the il­lus­tri­ous writ­ers on stage


IT’S mid-Novem­ber. And the ever-so-slight nip in the air is rea­son enough for Mum­baikars to go out and at­tend events that en­liven the city’s cul­tural and lit­er­ary scene dur­ing this time of the year. Back with its eighth edi­tion, Tata Lit­er­a­ture Live! com­mences to­mor­row with an ar­ray of panel dis­cus­sions, book re­leases and de­bates that form the main­stay of the four-day event. Reg­u­lars at the lit fest are also fa­mil­iar with the line-up of per­for­mances that cel­e­brate the writ­ten word on the stage.

This year, how­ever, in the words of Quasar Thakore Padamsee, the or­gan­is­ers were quite lucky. “The idea be­hind all the per­for­mance pieces is that the au­di­ences of Mumbai should get to see work they don’t or­di­nar­ily have the op­por­tu­nity to,” says the the­atre di­rec­tor, who has cu­rated the per­for­mances for the lit fest. “This time, we have plays from Ire­land and Lon­don based on the life and works of renowned writ­ers, a per­for­mance by a Swiss au­thor who prefers to call him­self a nar­ra­tor, and a story told through the lens of math­e­mat­ics by two schol­ars, which all bring the writ­ten word to life in unique ways. A spo­ken word per­for­mance is part of the line-up as well,” he adds.

A leaf out of Ire­land

Two of the works to fea­ture at the lit fest have been writ­ten by De­clan Gorman, who has been the the­atre di­rec­tor at Dublin’s City Arts Cen­tre and has fa­cil­i­tated a num­ber of large scale pub­lic art and drama projects in Ire­land. While The Dublin­ers Dilemma is based on a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries by James Joyce, The Big Fel­low is a re­flec­tion on Frank O’Con­nor’s bi­og­ra­phy of Irish free­dom fighter Michael Collins and the noted writer’s own growth.

“I had wanted for some time to cre­ate a play based on Joyce’s Dublin­ers... but it was not enough sim­ply to stage th­ese beau­ti­fully crafted sto­ries: why do that? They read per­fectly well off the page. Then, I tum­bled upon the strange fact that Grant Richards, a debonair Lon­don pub­lisher, had been among the first to re­ject Joyce’s man­u­script but had turned around sud­denly eight years later and re­quested to see it again. My cu­rios­ity was piqued,” says Gorman in an email in­ter­view.

When asked if pub­lish­ers to­day are as scep­ti­cal about of­fend­ing sen­si­bil­i­ties, he replies, “In to­day’s world, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that the sto­ries of Dublin­ers were once con­sid­ered scan­dalous, so sub­tle are their hints of li­cen­tious­ness and de­prav­ity. To­day, it is less about of­fend­ing sex­ual morals, and more about of­fend­ing power blocs on one hand or mi­nor­ity group­ings on an­other. The irony is that you can surf the In­ter­net now and read al­most any­thing. So you have this un-po­liced vir­tual sphere side by side with an in­creas­ingly re­pres­sive so­cial and pub­lish­ing world.”

One of the rea­sons The Big Fel­low is part of the line-up, says Thakore Padamsee, is be­cause it is the story of a free­dom strug­gle, some­thing In­di­ans can re­late to and yet, have some­thing new to take away from.

Men­tal health chron­i­cles

The Di­ary of a Mad­man, based on Niko­lai Go­gol’s short story that is of­ten con­sid­ered his best, comes to the lit fest stage through the pen of Wales-based Robert Bow­man, who has also pro­duced and per­formed the play. The play, which sticks to the di­ary-en­try for­mat of the orig­i­nal work, re­volves around a low-rank­ing civil ser­vant whose need for power and un­re­quited love lead to his de­scent into in­san­ity.

“The play is about the idea of men­tal health, what mad­ness is, and whether we have re­ally moved on in our treat­ment of the men­tally ill. Be­cause when it was writ­ten, there weren’t cat­e­gories of ill­ness. We wanted to fol­low the text and see what it sug­gested, rather than la­bel the pro­tag­o­nist,” says Bow­man over email.

The short story, it is said, is of­ten given the short shrift when com­pared to other forms of writ­ing. Does Bow­man agree? Short sto­ries lend them­selves to solo acts, where ac­tors have only the au­di­ence and the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the show to re­spond to, he an­swers. “What is nice for the au­di­ence, I think, is that they are still be­ing asked to use their imag­i­na­tions. It’s not all there on a plate for them like in a film. There is great scope for short sto­ries to work in this way and per­haps find a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence,” adds Bow­man.

Get­ting the act to­gether

Closer to the event, things get busier by the day, what with the lo­gis­tics of co­or­di­nat­ing with in­ter­na­tional guests among other things. But for Thakore-Padamsee, the frenzy has been on since April. “From visa-re­lated is­sues to pro­cesses to gen­uine health con­cerns of whether the pol­lu­tion is as bad in Mumbai as in Delhi, it’s been a roller­coaster,” he re­veals.

“With lit­er­ary grants al­most non-ex­is­tent in In­dia, play­wrights and per­form­ers from abroad sought lo­cal grants in their own coun­tries to make this visit and an ex­tended tour pos­si­ble,” he shares, adding that al­most all the plays will travel to other In­dian cities af­ter the lit fest. “When such ef­forts are pooled in, it be­comes one large fam­ily.”

Frank O’Con­nor is of­ten called an un­likely bi­og­ra­pher for his work, The Big Fel­low: Michael Collins and the Irish Rev­o­lu­tion


The pro­tag­o­nist of the Di­ary of a Mad­man makes in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­er­ies along the way.

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