The Mahesh Dattani Seminar at Pune

The Mahesh Dattani seminar held at St. Mira’s College for Girls, Pune on 9th February 2013 was an important as well as gratifying experience. The fact that Dattani was not only present but present in all his spirits made the seminar all the more memorable. Less official hassles and substantive thought content made the event what it was originally meant to be. Many times events turn out to be totally different from what we plan them to be. But I’m sure this seminar must have come up to the expectations of the organizers.

Angelie Multani of IIT, Delhi did a fine job of presenting the key-note address. The decades that led to Dattani are important to understand what difference this playwright has made to the scene. He is the first one to write naturally, easily and unassumingly in English. Earlier, there always existed a line between Indian theatre and English theatre in India as though English theatre was not Indian enough.  ‘Write in your own language’ syndrome has been broken by Dattani because he says that he is writing in his own language i. e. English. English is at once everyone’s and yet no one’s language in India. But there is very much a section of society which naturally expresses itself in English and Dattani became their voice. 

‘We are what we most often do’, said Aristotle. Therefore excellence is a matter of habit. Dattani has been the first one to produce a substantive body of work, bringing theatre out of bookish study. He could do it because of his live connection with the stage. As a dancer-aspirant of some time, as an actor, and as a director, he has been able to ‘live’ drama. And that’s important. Dattani broke the law ‘No one speaks like characters of a play’ because his characters do speak like common people do. Dattani’s plays bring appropriateness, an acceptance from spectators.  Dattani brought focus on family space, domestic relationships, and gender roles. Drama in India was  no longer an elite, exclusive, Western, marginalized activity depicting unreal characters. The scene is definitely urban Indian but it’s real. One can feel it. Useless sons, old wives, power struggle within the familial space filled the stage. The plays are argumentative in a comic way. Not didactic, they are gently mocking. And there always comes a high point in these plays- the point of revelation, the shock when some sex secret, some grotesqueness, some guilt reveals itself in the play. Destroying chronology, we write our own history just to be able to breathe comfortably. We often find the conflict of ‘blood ties’ versus ‘bonds’. Unhappiness is part of life but we choose our own unhappiness. The playwright perpetually revolves around ‘difference’ – difference of blood, religion, social and sexual orientation.

Urban India has established itself in Dattani. There’s always been this worry that urban India is not real India. Real India is there somewhere in the backyard. It’s no longer so. The poise of urban India is here. Urban India has a voice and a presence. The best thing is unembarrassed use of English language.

What I liked most about Dattani’s own speech was that he said that he’s hungry to move on. ‘A new playwright is being born within me’. The reason why I liked this comment the most is that as an academician, I’m worried about ‘solidification’ of boundaries regarding the marginalized and the mainstream. No group can forever claim to be marginalized. When I asked Dattani about this ‘floating’ marginality idea of mine, his response was rational and satisfying. He said that it’s a matter of where one places oneself. Moreover, every situation is marginalized when you zoom in, when it’s focused. His mental building blocks are quite in place. He does possess the sensibility and sensitivity not to exclude any group, be it the so called mainstream. One of the participants from Nowrojee Wdia College, Pune further carried the point when she asked about stereotyping the marginalized. Dattani’s response was balanced when he stressed the necessity to reinvent concepts.

Meeting a writer is different from reading him. One gets to know a lot more. He always wanted to be an actor. Then he wanted to be a director. He finally became a playwright. Theatre is all about performance and audience. Being true to characters and to the conflict is the only secret to writing genuine plays. Let directors and actors interpret plays in their own manner. Different interpretations bring out the strength of the story. He talked about the interplay of craft and creativity.  The biggest impetus of writing a play is that there is a performance waiting to happen. A play should bring out multiple perspectives. It’s no longer a hero-villain situation. It’s all about the shades of grey. When someone bluntly asked him as to why he was always attracted by the abnormal, Dattani happily replied, ‘I’m not by the abnormal; it’s the normal you don’t see. I’m trying to shift the spotlight.’

He talked about the role universities can play in bridging the gap in isolated writing of plays and actual breathing of plays. Educational institutions can organize workshops for playwrights where they can create such laboratories. Writing-production-performance  -   this chain should be established.  

Of course, I cannot sum up the whole lot intellectual stuff  that happened in the two powerful parallel sessions of the seminar. Fractured relationships, identity crisis, social reform, death, resurrection, queer writing, gender stereotyping, suppression of hidden self, child sexual abuse, fascism of thought processes, the theme of resistance, the idea of the sacred, and desire and dilemma- these and various other aspects of the living legend’s works were explored. But who knew that the best part was yet to come…

Come evening and the stage transformed itself into a magic field with Lillette Dubey directed play ‘Where did I Leave my Purdah?’ The play starring Lillette dubey, Soni Razdan, Neha Dubey, Sid Makker, and Priyanka Karunakaran turned out to be a powerful experience for the audience. The has resonance to the life of Zora Sahgal. It outlines the professional and personal life of a stage actress across eighty years set against the backdrop of partition. It skillfully draws parallels between the archetypal ‘Abhigyan Shakuntalam’  and a contemporary life. The performance of Lillette Dubey in the role of Nazia was breath taking. She carries the audience with herself. The fun, the mockery, the in between laughter were all enchanting.

Well, one always learns. A one day seminar can pack up so much within itself was a rewarding, learning experience. The role of good seminars is crucial in an academic’s life. One should always be attending these flickers of intellectual delight.

More By  :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Comments on this Blog

Comment good attempt indian lit studies is to be strealined in the present context especially in indian drama ,fiction and poetry hence the seminar is a worthwhile attempt on the part of the organizers-- dr a k paliwal prof of english govt hamidia pg college bhopal mp m-09406982790

dr a k paliwal
18-Feb-2013 06:53 AM

Comment Madam, I also attended the thought-provoking seminar. Your presence also made it special.

13-Feb-2013 11:55 AM

Comment The above article, written by Dr. Shubha Tiwari is excellent. It shows her thorough study on the dramatist. This presentation presents the picture of the whole scenario before our eyes. Really super.

Shailbala Misra.
13-Feb-2013 00:07 AM

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