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Writers’ Bloc: A residency for Indian playwrights puts writers centre stage

Playwrights seldom get their due, in theatre or in literature.

Actor-director Rajit Kapur had just spent seven hours in a car on his way from Chandigarh to Delhi, but his face betrayed no exhaustion. Instead, he stood rooted to a spot near the entrance of the auditorium of the British Council, watching OK, Tata, Bye Bye – a play on caste-based prostitution.

Kapur was neither an actor or director for the play, nor was he simply a member of the audience. He was one of the mentors for playwright Purva Naresh at Writers’ Bloc, a workshop-cum-residency for writers which was started in 2002 by Rage Productions along with The Royal Court London and The British Council. Kapur, along with Shernaz Patel and Rahul Da Cunha, is a founder of Rage. To mark the 15th year of Writers’ Bloc, the organisers were taking 14 plays, including Mahua (which Kapur watched in Chandigarh) and OK, Tata, Bye Bye across nine cities till March 11.

“They [the co-founders Kapur, Patel and Da Cunha] were attentive to participants’ needs throughout the workshop,” said Naresh, over a carrot cake that Patel insisted she try at The British Council cafeteria. “They took care of us. Our only job was to write.”

It is seldom that young playwrights receive any kind of training in India – even the National School of Drama, for instance, does not offer a course in writing plays. At Writers’ Bloc, they get guidance from experts through the entire process – from nurturing an idea, crafting it into a script and then taking their work on stage.

“Many of these writers don’t have friends in theatre,” said Patel. “They just want to write.” Writers’ Bloc helps playwrights find directors, actors, a crew and makes sure that their plays see the arc lights.

There have been four editions of Writers’ Bloc thus far. “We do them when we have the funding,” Patel explained. Already, 50 playwrights, including Irawati Karnik, Abhishek Majumdar, Sagar Deshmukh, Anupama Chandrasekhar and Annie Zaidi, have been through the programme. These writers have contributed some blockbuster plays over the years. For example, Deshmukh, who wrote Shillak about a middle-class family that depends on one sole breadwinner during his residency with Writer’s Bloc, went on to write the wildly successful Piya Behrupiya for Atul Kumar’s Company Theatre.

Of course, it is hard to apportion credit to Writers’ Bloc for the work its playwrights are doing now. But several of the participants from workshops have made a name for themselves in subsequent years, winning awards, grants and fellowships.

Soon after his residency with Writer’s Bloc, Abhishek Majumdar received the Charles Wallace Fellowship and went on to win at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards as well as the first Shankar Nag Rangakarmi Award, given by Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru. The India Foundation for the Arts gave him a grant in 2014 to produce his latest play, Muktidham, which opened in Bengaluru on January 27.

“Some of what the guides from the Royal Court tell you about writing and structuring a play makes sense later on in your career,” Majumdar said, over the phone from Bengaluru. “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the experience affects your writing, but you can feel that it is there.”

There are three things which Majumdar said stood out during his time at Writers’ Bloc: the help he got from Kapur, who paid for his trip to Kashmir, so Majumdar could research the second play in his Kashmir trilogy, Djinns of Eidgah; meeting theatre people with whom he works closely now and the length of time for which the mentors made themselves available to writers.

Majumdar wrote Djinns of Eidgah during Writers’ Bloc 3 – it is part of the showcase of 14 plays and will be staged in Kolkata on February 10 and next in Bengaluru on March 3.

“Theatre is not an organised sector,” Majumdar said, explaining why the connections that he made during his residency are so important. Writers’ Bloc is where Majumdar first spent considerable time with people like Irawati Karnik and Mohit Takalkar. Since then, Karnik has written plays like Gasha for Majumdar’s theatre company Indian Ensemble, and Takalkar has worked with him as scenographer for the play Muktidham.

Writers’ Bloc is organised in three stints of 12-15 days each, usually spread over one-two years. During this time, the playwrights mine their thoughts for potential ideas, research the play, write their first draft, rewrite it if necessary and then work with actors and directors to realise it on stage. They also read and discuss each other’s writing and offer suggestions and help.

“It’s rare for theatre people to spend so much time together,” said Majumdar. “Of course, we know each other – we meet at festivals and seminars.” At Writers’ Bloc though, there is time to get invested in someone’s work, to exchange ideas and give (and seek) feedback. “In our batch, we were very enthusiastic to meet the other guys and not be writing by ourselves.”

Though the participants came together for only two weeks at a time, the programme itself extended to over a year. Through this time, the writers had access to the mentors at Rage, to bounce ideas off them or discuss any difficulties they might be facing.

“Rajit, Shernaz and Rahul, all of them created a sense of informality,” Majumdar said. “The residency was like going to someone’s house. There was no sense of distance, because the Rage co-founders were already big names in theatre.”

Another Writer’s Bloc Fellow, Akash Mohimen, wrote Mahua in English and then received all the help he needed to translate the play into Hindi, because Kapur thought it would work better in that language. The idea that someone of Kapur or Patel’s calibre was reading and appreciating their work was tremendously encouraging for the playwrights.

“I was inspired by a story in P Sainath’s Everybody Loves a Good Drought,” said Mohimen. After refining the idea at the first of three stints at Writers’ Bloc, Mohimen went to live in a village in Odisha – Mahua is a play about land and tribal rights. On Kapur’s suggestion, Mohimen followed through with an idea to make local songs the centerpiece of his play. Patel finally asked Kapur to direct Mahua himself. “Sometimes a play needs to be handled with sensitivity and maturity,” Patel explained. “You can’t have a director who will chop lines or change words without consulting the writer.”

The centrality of the playwright through Writers’ Bloc is also an important feature for Naresh, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. “They make you feel like the most important person in the play,” she said. “More than the director, even.”

This is unusual – playwrights seldom get their due, in theatre or in literature. Patel hopes to have all 41 plays published some day. But so far, she has managed to convince just one publisher, Hachette India, to print an anthology of three plays. Called Sightlines, the book contains DaCunha’s Pune Highway, Crab by Ram Ganesh Kamatham and Farhad Sorabjee’s Hard Places. “We want to make them available in print; if we can only find willing publishers,” she added.

Kapur asked how many playwrights one had seen at the various editions of Jaipur Literature Festival over the years. Indeed, there were just four at the recently concluded festival, in 2017. “I don’t know why that is,” said Kapur. “Out of the 12 writers in each batch, two-three begin to soar… Playwrights are bolder now. There is some lovely writing today in plays like Outer Dilli, a coming of age story about a boy from Uttar Pradesh who moves to the outskirts of Delhi with his family, written during the latest edition of Writers’ Bloc.”

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

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‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

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