In this conversation with Asijit Datta, scholar and playwright Ashutosh Potdar discusses Marathi theatre, the process of writing a natak; the relevance of folk music and dance; and the possibilities of performance in the times of COVID-19. He also talks about his renowned plays: ‘Anandbhog Mall’, ‘Flat Number F One One Zero Five’ and ‘Sadasarvada Purvapaar’.
Dr. Asijit Datta (AD): This evening, we have Dr. Ashutosh Potdar with us, to share his thoughts on the topic, “Mind of a Playwright: Unfolding Myth and Making”. Dr. Ashutosh Potdar has one-act and full-length plays, poems, short fiction, and scholarly essays in Marathi and English to his credit. Two collections of his four plays are published by Watermark Publication. His plays have been performed through festivals like Bharat Rang Mahotsav, NSD, New Delhi, Prithvi Theatre, International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and different other venues in India. He is the recipient of several awards such as the Maharashtra Foundation Award, Aswaghosh Award given by Bodhi Natya Parishad, Best Play-writing award given by Natya Parishad, and Ram Ganesh Gadkari Award by the Government of Maharashtra. He has also translated plays and essays from English to Marathi. Dr. Potdar has been teaching English and Indian Literature, Drama and Theatre Studies, Creative Writing at the graduate and post-graduate levels for the last twenty years. He has published his research work on drama and literature in English and Marathi in various journals and presented papers in national and international conferences. He travels extensively to deliver lectures on literature, theatre, and cultural practices. His collaborative research with Prof Sharmistha Saha of IIT Bombay on theatre-making and archive has culminated in a co-edited book on “Performance Making and the Archive” to be published in the coming days by Routledge India. Dr. Potdar has been working on a book of a collection of his poems to be published soon. Also, he has been editing an anthology of English translations of a selection of the best Marathi short stories to be published by Aleph Books. Dr. Potdar is the founder and co-editor of हाकारा।hākārā (www.hakara.in), a peer-reviewed bilingual journal of creative expression publishing online in Marathi and English. He is an associate professor at FLAME University, Pune. I welcome you to this session, hoping that it will be an interesting and intriguing one.
My first question to you, Ashutosh Potdar, would be, can you elaborate on the idea of natak? Is it different from Khel, or early theatrical performances in India? And how different is it from the recent conception of stagecraft?
Dr. Ashutosh Potdar (AP): I would like to respond to this question through my personal practice. The idea of natak, khel, and theatre has evolved in Maharashtra in different ways since the 19th century, even before that, if you look at theatre in Marathi, which goes back to the time of Serfoji Raje Bhonsle of Thanjavur. Time and again, we keep saying that theatre in India or Maharashtra had evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries, but my point has always been that we cannot identify just one way of looking at theatre, we need to go back into history, especially Maratha history where theatre had emerged.
In India, it is primarily khel (in Marathi, khel is a kind of play), in Kannada it is known as aata, which is a big space where you play a game. The whole idea of theatre as we see today is not only about the proscenium space. Until the 19th century, the concept of theatre or natak was about something being performed in the form of khel. This can help us imagine that it took place in large, open spaces, courtyards, in front of a temple, or in a locality full of people. Though we call it natak, historically speaking, it is not very different from philosophical discourse. As I was saying, today we look at natak as a topic for philosophical discourse, as a part of our day-to-day life, but before the 18th and 19th centuries, natak was a part of our routine and mundane world. I find it very exciting to see how natak emerged in the 19th century. Only with the emergence of the new middle-class did we see how people responded to going out and paying for a ticket to see performances on a proscenium stage. This is when for the first time, Indian theatre was responding to an urge to buy a ticket and seeing something that was being exhibited on the stage.
AD: I have read so much about the influence of Bhajans in your life? Could you say something about it?
AP: I primarily write in Marathi, but when I write, I am also responding to my situation and surroundings, and that is what I prefer calling bhavtaal, which means ‘surroundings.’ It is not just social or political context, but something rather dynamic, which is a creative, social, political, and cultural space. So, usually, when I write, or think of my writings as literature, I believe in the broader context of bhavtaal, which is an extension of my own life. It is a human as well as a non-human space. I grew up in a space where I kept listening to bhajans throughout my childhood. My family had a special, designated place where these bhajans would play, my grandfather being a part of this tradition in Maharashtra. We had a bhajan group for several years that was coordinated by him, his friends, and people from my gaon (village). So, one reason that the concept of bhajan keeps appearing in my whole process is that I have attended those bhajans. Now, there is a fascinating thing about bhajans – when I listened to them, they were not separate from my life; they were a part of its mundaneness. Bhajan singers would come over and have some sort of activity like going to the farm and working with my grandfather, and post-dinner, everyone would gather around in the bhajan space and sing till dawn. That is how I came across the dynamic of bhajan in my childhood days. What excites me is how the bhajankaris create a sense of peace around them. It was not a profession per se, rather a part of their lives. They would sing bhajans all day and explore its different forms at night, say of Tukaram, Nareshwar, Namdev. Bhajan was not just a performance for me but also an exploration of my language, my roots, my own land, and people. It helped me extend my own boundaries. The whole concept of “I am” did not just consist of ‘I’, but extended to my bhavtaal. Bhajan is not just about you singing something, but also extending your boundaries and considering the other people as part of your own world.; that is how you build your own bhavtaal or space. It gave me an opportunity to conjure my creative space. When I wrote plays like Aanandbhog Mall and Pulakhalacha Bombalya Maruti, the whole idea of bhajan gave me a sense of community, my bhavtaal. In that entire community, there is caste, caste irony, dynamics of relationships with upper and lower castes and Harijans, and of course, my relationship with the animal world, which I have expressed in Pulakhalacha Bombalya Maruti. In this play, I have tried to extend the whole idea of the community space and respond to concerns. For example, one of the questions raised in the play is- is a buffalo that walks down your streets a part of your community or not? Bhajan as a performer is one thing, but using it as a sense of community is what came to be in my play.
AD: What is the value of the repository of mythology for your plays, and how should young playwrights use mythology while writing their plays?
AP: When myths come, they don’t come as some sort of an external technical tool. Myths evolve, and you evolve with them. And the myth-making process in the play also evolves with you organically. So I am not sure whether great people like Girish Karnad and Chandrashekhara Kambara recreated their plays only through myths. They did not create their plays with the sole intention of applying the concept of a certain myth to it. In Pulakhalacha Bombalya Maruti, I wanted to explore the idea of bhavtaal, as I had mentioned earlier. On the one hand there are extreme forms of globalization being explored nowadays, but on the other hand, there is also tradition, or a connection to your roots. You are always stretched between tradition and modernity, a concept that has been explored by people before me as well. I wanted to explore this space through the idea of a makada (monkey). In my play, some sort of dakaiti (robbery) takes place at a gaon (village), and all the dacoits are collecting their sona chandi (gold and silver) in front of a Hanuman temple. As they plan their escape, this hanuman gets up and starts shouting, making them run away. In that sense, the hanuman acted as a saviour for all the villagers, and saviours live in monkeys in that village, a myth I wanted to explore in terms of my relationship with monkeys and animals that I have lived with in my childhood. That is how I came up with songs in my play, and there were some scenes in the play which were in response to the form that I had experienced through the course of my life in the village. Myth is not something that you plainly appropriate all the time. You are also questioning and de-orienting yourself through a myth and revisit your ways. In another play of mine, called Sindhu Sudhakar Rum Ani Itar, I attempted to understand a modern myth that was there in a Marathi play called Ekach Pyala. This play was written in 1917 and has fascinated and excited generations in Maharashtra. This well-known play is written by Ram Ganesh Gadkari, and it was acted by one of the greatest actors in India, Bal Gandharva. He played the role of Sindhu in the play, and that is how I wanted to understand the myth. With this play, I wanted to respond to the colonial time and my connection with the colonial period. When you are building a myth or are looking at a myth for your Writing, you don’t just accept it as it is. You don’t just apply your form to your myth and vice versa. The idea of taking a myth is instigating your own creative impulse and coming up with new ideas, ultimately helping you develop a new form altogether.
AD: How are folk traditions surviving in these urban times, or especially during the Covid situation? What I am trying to ask is whether there is enough audience to keep the tradition alive?
AP: As far as my knowledge goes and the way I look at tamashas and kirtans being performed in villages and cities in Maharashtra, I can see that they are surviving in different forms and for the audience. Folk theatre traditions are changing over time. The bhajans that I have seen are very different with respect to the ones that my grandfather has seen. Folk traditions are not rigid or “pure”; they keep changing their form and content. Looking at folk traditions, or even modern forms of theatre, in Maharashtra during the COVID-19 times, not just folk theatre but also theatre artists have been suffering the consequences of the pandemic. Of course, some of us are extending our support to backstage artists and others who survive only through theatre or films. We collected some financial support for them over the past three or four months.
AD: Regarding Sadasarvada Purvapaar and your other plays as well, how important are the functions of memory, subjective truth, and the archive?
AP: Going back to my previous point, memory and archive aren’t stagnated. Archives are always flowing; they are not stable. For me, archival memory has been about the past embedded in different forms (like bhajan, kirtan, tamasha, etc.). You don’t just abandon the archives, but constantly look back at them for the purpose of your creative journey. Memory and archive came together for me in Sadasarvada Purvapar, that was directed by Sharmishtha Saha. She is a scholar who works on 19th century colonial Bengali theatre. She directed this play of mine which I had written for the students of Lalit Kala Kendra (Pune University). Sharmishtha and I have been working on the archive for two years now on how the concept of archives can be used in theatre. Both of us work in a field where we think that there is a close connection between archives and performance. We did a colloquium, namely ‘Performance Making in the Archive’, and the pertinent papers will be co-edited and published into a book by Routledge. This is when we came up with the possibility of writing a play. While writing this play, my response was to understand how the archive can be a part of my creative process. I tried accessing the archival material (for example, posters, advertisements of colonial days like Jalsa, plays by Gadkari, pictures of Bal Gandharva etc.), and also non-academic material like stories told by these people. Shriram Ranade, who is a musician and was also part of the theatre academy, has interesting archival material on Ram Ganesh Gadkari, and his daughter who happens to be a friend has documented a set of plays that he had come across. I was very excited by the way Mr. Ranade would talk about historical facts of Marathi rangbhoomi. This is the kind of excitement I wanted to explore while writing my play. We also brought some material from Bengali theatre history and started developing space around archival material. We also did exercises with Lalit Kala Kendra students on, for instance, how a poster from a play can be a part of their real process. The discussion that ensued was not just an academic one, but also on how actors can prepare themselves with the help of archival material. Interestingly, whenever I write a play, I am also excited by the form that is there in the memory and archival material. The whole play is about characters who are also actors, conducting their research on archival material on the play that is being ‘hidden’ intentionally by some people or through mysterious circumstances. What do you do with a play that has disappeared out of the blue? While travelling, I visit second-hand bookshops, where I connect with the booksellers who contact me and inform me about new and interesting books that have been added to their collection. The old and yellow pages bring out the essence of these books, adding to my excitement and intrigue. I come across signatures scrawled across certain pages of these books that date as early as the 1920s, with personal anecdotes scribbled as well. I also find interesting slips of receipts and paper stuffed inside the pages of these books. These little things are what inspire me to write my plays. Memory or the past cannot be seen, but it is definitely something that can be accessed through relevant materials. The point for Sharmishtha and myself throughout this play was to bring in this material and truly understand what it meant to us. On the one hand, as a theatre artist, you get to see the material because you are working within a space. At the same time, it is not just physical property; it is an idea that is being accessed in your theatre process.
AD: Since you mentioned the material of an idea, how materials sustain memory, should human beings be seen as materials because they too carry forward memory?
AP: The thing about a play is that, yes, you are looking through the materials, but writing a play is also a part of a performative piece engaging with space, in a space. I write fiction and poems as well. The point for me while writing a play is the need to see something visible because it is being shown to somebody. I have to understand and adapt to the ideas that come to me with regard to the stage. Half of my focus is dedicated to the performative sequence as well. While working on Sadasarvada Purvapar, I had to keep in mind that my purpose is to present all that I have researched through archives and memory in a manner that appeals to the norms of theatre. Sharmishtha has always reminded me of the same while I wrote the material as it is on the stage, in the play itself; you have to dramatize the material. So, if you look at humans as material, you are not just showing human relationships as they are but also dramatizing them. When I write, I do not look at these things as instruments only to solve the riddles in my mind. Tritiya Ratna Natak was written by Mahatma Jotirao Phule in the second half of the 19th century (1855), but was published almost 70 to 80 years later. No one knows where this play had gone. It was published after 125 years. Sadly, our theatre history didn’t recognize its value. Several historical discourses that are available in Marathi or any other language do not look into spectacles like these. Writing history has definitely been a biased business. As an academician, I do want to discuss these aspects in my classrooms, and as a playwright, I want to convert them into a dramatic form. That is where you create a space where constant questioning of theatre could be undertaken. That is also an attempt that I have made in my plays as to how the theatre stage should be relooked at because history needs to be revisited, even with the material that is available.
AD: I also found in one of your interviews that as an artist, you refer to two kinds of clocks, one outside and one inside. Do you think this isolation has merged these two times? How are you, as an artist, negotiating with this new time?
AP: See, one is constantly looking at the form while writing. When you write a poem or a play or any piece of fiction, there is an inner clock that is always ticking, where you try to understand what is happening within you. As a person, you find yourself to be very complex on the inside, but there are also a lot of things going on in the world outside. There is always a connection between what happens inside and what happens outside. There is a form or urge within you, but the urge or form is also a part of the material that we are accessing. You are looking at the materials that have been provided throughout the years, but there is also a sort of personal inner need to respond to your creative urge. This urge is what unites the inner and outer clocks; you try to merge those multiple spaces through your writings.
AD: Also, you see yourself as a writer, who is constantly in touch with his political and social environment, who is more concerned about the process. How are you grappling with this segregation from the rest of the world?
AP: I do not believe that we as writers are segregated from the rest of the world. Being a writer does not indicate that you are isolating yourself from the rest of the world. So when this entire situation and the lockdown began, there were numerous and helpless migrant labourers who were forced to walk back to their homes on foot. I was also working with some of these labour organizations in Maharashtra to create a database enlisting each labourer’s desired destination. My job was to talk to the mazdoors (labourers) and their families in order to collect the necessary data with regard to their food, lodging, transport, etc. My point is, you don’t have to write a play every time to respond to the situation. You don’t necessarily have to be an activist to get down on the roads; you can always extend your support in some way or the other and stay united with society. Whatever happens outside can be responded to by you, inside you, by you through your creative process. It certainly does not mean that every situation will trigger the need for you to write a play on it immediately. It is an organic process that does not always require an immediate reaction. The creative process provides you with an impulse that might take years to truly execute. It depends on how you choose to look at the particular event going on around you. Your own inner clock is organically connected with the world outside.
AD: I know you are a writer who would put equal emphasis on performance as a culmination of the writing process. However, what about reimagining performance, space, shows etc.? Are we arriving at a stage where we read a play and not imagine performance?
AP: As a playwright, if you ask me, it is not like I participate in rehearsals on a daily basis, so this process could be different for a director. I write something and then share it with the director. This COVID-19 situation has disturbed me a lot, bringing out feelings of frustration in myself and the world outside, making it difficult to focus your energy on creative work. The other side to this has also allowed us to reflect on ourselves. When you are not doing anything, there is a space that will enable you to reassess your own process. Thirdly, I do not feel that I should have the constant urge and need to write. There are a lot of aspects in life that need to be explored and appreciated. I do not want to be creative for the mere sake of it.
AD: You are a staunch advocate of equality and just society. We face a new resurgence of casteism, racism, jingoism, partisan politics, criminalizing of dissent. What do you feel about the role of the artist now?
AP: The artist community has always been divided by this whole question. There is no doubt about the fact that the situation is very painful and frustrating. At the same time, I do not consider myself to be a commentator for such situations all the time. Sometimes you respond in a blunt manner, and sometimes you do not. Of course, you are constantly bothered by unwanted and violent incidents happening around you, be it the Black Lives Matter movement in America, or the constant mandir-masjid dispute or the current migrant labour crisis in India; it is indeed harrowing. I believe each and every artist has his/her own way of responding to each situation, and that too must be respected by all means. Just because you choose not to react vocally to a particular situation does not mean that you are not sensitive enough. Your silence can also count as a sensitive response to the scenario at hand. We are all responding to the changing forms of exploitation within globalization and capitalism in our own ways.
AD: You also keep referring to the space problems in urban cities? Do you think a non-realistic stylization is being used to cover the class and caste biases of the people residing in these gated communities?
AP: I believe that we are the ones who are turning a blind eye to all that happens in urban spaces. These spaces are emerging as extremely hierarchical arenas. When I wrote Aanandbhog
Mall, people started complaining about the discussion of caste and class in urban areas. What I believe is that the dynamic of caste and class hierarchy has been changing. This hierarchy is deeply rooted and still exists within us. We tend to inadequately believe in the conversation due to our urban lifestyles, which I believe should not be the case.
AD: Let us talk about the language problem in your plays. I mean, are they purely Marathi plays? Is it possible for Indian playwrights to not suffer from linguistic intrusions anymore? For example, your play F1/105 has various regional languages like Gujarati, Hindi overlapping with the native Marathi speeches.
AP: I believe the real question lies in understanding what ‘pure’ means here. I write my plays in Marathi. Even great writers like Gadkari, Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Vijay Tendulkar have had their own ways in writing Marathi ways because of how diverse the dialectic is. Choosing to use a bit of English in my Marathi play does not make it impure. You keep exploring the possibilities of different languages within a play. If you take Sakharam Binder by Vijay Tendulkar, the way Sakharam speaks is very different from the other two women characters in the play. In order to build your characterization, you also build through the possibilities of bringing variety in the same language. What happened with F-1/105 is that the entire play is located in a cosmopolitan locality like Bangalore or Bombay. Those were the spaces I wanted to explore while writing the play. It was the need for my writing at the time. I wanted to explore a character having multiple languages. Even today, when I write, I find myself shifting between different languages simultaneously.
AD: My last question is in two parts: one is about the survival of native and folk elements. How do you write urban people’s plays when what is desired is rather a movement away from indigenous cultural practices? The second is how do you plan to reach out to these people, the people in the villages who are still holding on to these songs and dances? Can they afford what is conventionally called the proscenium theatre? Do you think the government should arrange platforms for free theatre? As Utpal Dutta said, they might not be able to read or write, but they can always watch a play.
AP: We will keep the second part of the question for another conversation. When I refer to the term ‘indigenous,’ it does not necessarily mean indigenous vs. urban. We have to reorient ourselves to look at indigeneity in an urban context. For me, it is not village vs. city or rural vs. urban. So when I write about the urban lifestyle, it does not mean that I refrain from interacting with the rural audience. If you look at Marathi readership, it is spread across different cities and villages. If you look at a library in a small village, you will find books written by me in it. Whatever is read by the people in the cities is also made available in rural areas for their knowledge and understanding and vice versa. Dialects could be different, language in the form of fictional words that are being explored by someone who is sitting in a village and writing could be different from mine, but that definitely does not mean that we are looking at it in an isolated manner. Let us look at it within a broad canvas of Marathi or Indian writing in general. A sort of sensibility is prevalent across the readers in the cities, towns, villages, different languages, and of course, people. There is something that connects all of us through literary forms, languages that we explore through poetry, drama, and even our academic work.