Abhishek Majumdar is busy rehearsing his play Pah-la at the Royal Court Theatre in London. An examination of life in present-day Tibet under Chinese rule and the 2008 unrest, Pah-la was scheduled to premiere at the same theatre last year, but was dropped under pressure from Beijing. A chorus of ensuing outrage forced its return this year.
It has been just around a fortnight since Majumdar and his theatre group Indian Ensemble had a narrow escape from a Right-wing attack on his play Eidgah ke Jinnat (The Djiins of Eidgah) on the tragedy of insurgency in Kashmir. The play, which was to be staged in Jaipur as part of Navras festival, was cancelled after members of a group called Jan Samasya Nivaran Manch stormed the venue. But neither the rage of the Right-wing nor the displeasure of the Chinese authorities can alter Majumdar’s idea of relevant theatre.
“Right-wing protests are all about event management,” said Majumdar over the phone from London. “There is no spontaneity, no real anger there, not that that would have made it better. The moral imperative then is on us artistes to carry on. Today you can’t do a play on Kashmir because of Pulwama, tomorrow Ayodhya may mean clamping down on all mentions of Shri Ram in theatre. What next?”
At 37, Majumdar has behind him a remarkable body of work. His plays sweep a wide arc – they have dealt with generational angst, the dark goings-on at a monastery in 8th century, the trauma of wasted childhood, the politics of food, and the heart of extremist violence. But at their core, they always talk of humanism and its fight against tyranny and greed.
Born to parents who worked at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Majumdar was inspired by the scholars and activists who were integral to the campus life. Majumdar started out his professional career as a software engineer, but with the many strong cultural influences in his life, he drifted towards theatre, setting up Indian Ensemble in 2009 along with Sandeep Shikhar. Harlesden High Street, which looked at the lives of three Pakistani immigrants, was among his first scripts to draw critical acclaim. This was followed by Thook, which dealt with the politics of food, and was hooked to the food riots in West Bengal at end of 2007. In Afterlife of Birds too, the story was about what lies at the heart of conflict.
Even when Majumdar scripted up a lyrical play like Kaumudi, which dived into the backstage world of actors, ageing and angst, he didn’t let go of his concerns about caste and patriarchy. “Every play has to face either a political, a philosophical or a personal question,” he said. “That has to be my job as a playwright.”
Actor Arundhati Nag, who acted in Harlesden, among Majumdar’s earlier works, recalls watching his evolution from a newly-minted theatre enthusiast. “Abhishek is a rare find in the Indian theatre space,” she said. “Harlesden, for example, was in blank verse, a very sensitive take on first generation migrants in London. He has since gone on to an amazing journey, showing a fine, remarkable growth.”
The most striking thing about Majumdar’s scripts, says Nag, is their visual quality. “It is almost cinematic, beyond linear narration,” she said. “I saw the stills of the first show of Eidgah at Jaipur, the one before the attack, and was stunned at their visual quality.”
Age of outrage
Majumdar has good reasons to believe that the furore over Eidgah is manufactured – the play was written in 2012, first in English, and presented at the Writers’ Bloc festival, a workshop-residency for writers, the same year. It was also presented at the Royal Court to rave reviews in 2013. Since then, it has been staged over 100 times by various troupes across the world and over 40 times in India. On none of these occasions was it accused of being a “negative portrait” of the Indian Army or “insulting” to the Hindu god Hanuman.
The Jaipur attack on Eidgah, five days after the deadly Pulwama assault on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy, was allegedly driven by unflattering references to the army in the play. But a reading or viewing of the play makes it clear that it holds compassion for everyone caught in the horrific circle of violence. There are teens who have to juggle football sessions between the army curfew during the day and the Hurriyat clampdown at dusk, parents who can never stop grieving for children lost to militancy, soldiers caught between orders and their sense of humanity and pacifists. Everyone is wounded here, even those who hurt.
It is unlikely, says Majumdar, that those who led the assault had ever watched the play (it had only played to a limited press audience the day before the assault). At the end of the press viewing, four audience members had walked out. “Then the authorities stepped in and say ‘Mahaul bigad sakta hai’ (there could be trouble),” he recalled.
There is an even bigger irony to the fuss – Eidgah, which intersperses the art of telling a mythic dastan with reality, is a part of the University Grant Commission Master’s online course in English literature, and carries a censorship certificate from the Maharashtra government. “Eidgah is approved for teaching and showing by government institutions,” said Majumdar. “The carful of goons looking for us to record a public apology don’t know and don’t care either about that. How do they get to say they represent the will of the people?”
Eidgah is not even his first play set in Kashmir but ends his trilogy on the human tragedies unfurling in the valley. The other two – Rizwan, based on Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry collection The Country Without a Post Office, and Gasha, which is about two children, one a Pandit and the other a Muslim – were both award-winning, humane stories.
“These were three ways of looking at Kashmir,” said Majumdar. “But I can keep returning there forever because there are so many stories waiting to be told, not just about conflict, but about its thriving culture, its incredible heritage of philosophy, its arts.”
Besides Kashmir and politics, there is another thread that runs through his plays. Majumdar says he wants to explore the future of non-violence. The last century was a tribute to non-violent resistance to tyranny – Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were the venerated figures of those decades, he points out. In this century, on the other hand, humanity has swung the other extreme, and every uprising has been violent.
Attacks such as the one in Jaipur, says Majumdar, jeopardise the life of a play, which means that it has to lurch from one production to the other with fingers crossed. When Eidgah was staged at the Artist Unite festival in Delhi recently by another drama troupe, it was watched peaceably by the crowds. “Since the Jaipur incident, it has been staged thrice peacefully,” said Majumdar. “The first show of the play, the day before the attack, ended to a standing ovation.”
Ironically, Majumdar’s last big play Muktidham didn’t come to the attention of the offence-taking brigade, though its protagonist was an aggressive ascetic head of a North Indian math, and there were references to “a sangh” that held intellectuals and liberals in contempt. The play ended on a menacing note, with mayhem all around and mobs setting out for the hunt. It travelled deep through Uttar Pradesh in 2018, including Chief Minister Adityanath’s Gorakhpur turf, which came dangerously close to the setting of the play. Possibly, the classical setting of the play and its references didn’t quite make for simplistic sloganeering. But funders did back out of financing a play that could have spelt trouble, says Majumdar.
“I am not in theatre to make friends, my job is to tell untold stories, raise questions,” he said. “Any play that does not do this is agitprop, it is incomplete. Even personal stories have political contexts to them.”