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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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.