The grip­ping magic of Majumdar

Im­pact­ful play de­picts caste sys­tem, re­li­gious con­ver­sion, power play and po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in the so­ci­ety.

The Asian Age - - Theatre+ - Quasar Thakore Padamsee

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.

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