The gripping magic of Majumdar
Impactful play depicts caste system, religious conversion, power play and political crisis in the society.
The twin theatre cities of Bombay and Bangalore have been abuzz with the premiere of a brand new offering, Muktidhaam. The play was easily the most anticipated production of the last few years, particularly for the theatre fraternity. The team assembled reads like the Theatre Avengers: Shubro Barat, Kumudh Mishra and M.D. Pallavi onstage, Anmol Vellani behind the lights, Mohit Takalkar as scenographer, and Vivek Madan as project manager. But the ring that bound this Fellowship was playwright Abhishek Majumdar’s impressive body of work, and the detail and rigour of his process.
I first came across Abhishek over a decade ago, when he screened a play for youth initiative Thespo. It was a hot day in Bangalore (a rare thing), and this bespectacled young man walked in and read us his play in Bengali (an even rarer thing). While the play was interesting, and his passion was noticeable, the play didn’t quite make it to the festival that year, primarily because it was in a too rudimentary stage of development.
Time taken in development is one of Abhishek’s hallmarks. In spite of his prolific output of a play a year, his research is painstaking, and each play takes years to develop. For example, a play he began researching in 2013, will actually only be ready in 2018. This enables him to delve deep into issues, engaging with them on a level that is not merely about “who said what”. He can therefore highlight aspects of stories that interest us because of their ‘exoticness’, before giving us their universal human insight and application. Watching his gasha is an evening I cherish dearly. It was an insight into the Kashmir conflict, and along with its companion piece, Djinns of Eidgah, it showed us aspects of the conflict that we wouldn’t have normally had access to. And yet, the play was about the characters, allowing us to identify with each trial and tribulation.
To say Abhishek’s work is political, pigeon holes it a little. Yes it does deal with political issues such as Kashmir, or in Muktidhaam’s case the Hindu caste system; but it is much more than that. The plays are often about individuals trapped in these systems of thought, and how that is often their downfall. His plays have long run times, dense content, and the unravelling of the plot is often slow. In fact, the Muktidhaam programme, gives us a glossary of terms because the language used is so archaic. The play is set in a Buddhist kingdom, a few decades after king Ashoka. The action takes place in a Hindu mutt and revolves around the succession of who among the grand priest’s two protégés will take over the mutt. It tackles difficult questions, and touches upon the political reasons for lower castes converting from Hinduism to Buddhism; something that remains a contentious issue in today’s times.
The production was not enjoyable in the conventional sense.
It was hard work getting into the world, but once in, the machinations of religion and human deviancy are addictive and insightful.
The performers are strong, the production design is impactful, the sound-scape is mesmerising, and the shadowy lighting was a great reflection of the murkiness of the happenings in the plot. The play does oscillate between the symbolic and the literal, which can sometimes get confusing. However, the play does leave an impact.
I find myself, so many days later, still in discussions with people about the play.
While arguing about staging merits and demerits we invariably end up talking about the caste system, religious conversion and power.
And, at the end of the day, isn’t that the real measure of a successful political play?
Quasar Thakore Padamsee Is a Bombay based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.
Stills from play Muktidhaam which premiered in Mumbai and Bengaluru.