A New Life: Reflecting on Nationalism and Theatre with Abhishek Majumdar

Abhishek Majumdar

Central to PlayCo’s mission is our International Residency and Studio program, where we invite playwrights from around the globe to develop their work with us. This past November, we hosted Abhishek Majumdar, internationally-acclaimed playwright and director and founding member of the Indian Ensemble, to work on his 2012 playAfterlife of Birds. Afterlife of Birds is set during the Sri Lankan Civil War, a period of political and military insurgency at the end of the 20th century that may have garnered limited attention in the popular American attention, but has significantly impacted the shape of South Asian relations.

Spearheading this rebellion was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers or LTTE. The LTTE wanted to establish an independent state in the northeast of Sri Lanka for Tamil people and waged war against the Sri Lankan government for over twenty years until finally conceding defeat in 2009. The conflict took a severe toll on families across the nation for multiple generations and innovated the use of women and children in guerilla warfare. After his residency, we asked Abhishek to reflect on the immediacy of his work, his relationship with The Play Company, and where he feels art belongs on the global stage.

How did you first become connected to The Play Company?

In 2014, PEN World Voices in CUNY had arranged for a rehearsed reading of my play The Djinns of Eidgah. The Play Company had produced the reading, and thus was our first association with each other.

What initially inspired you to write Afterlife of Birds?

I was interested in how nationalism manifests itself by creating new enemies every so often. In some sense, we are united by our enemies, and hence every nation state goes out of its way to create these enemies. I am also interested in the story of suicide bombers and their families.

During this process, I discovered the story of the women’s cadre of the LTTE who were supposedly the world’s first suicide bombers, and how at one stage they were asked to get pregnant so that they could get through security more easily. So essentially, children were conceived as bombs.

The other story I was close to was this shootout in Delhi where a few boys were killed by the police in a Muslim neighborhood for their rumored connections with a militant organization. This connection wasn’t true, but one of the boys was connected to a different terrorist cell.

So this connection between two bombers, a man and a woman, both around 22 at the time of tAlso, I have to say that I was working with an incredible ensemble at that time, the Indian Ensemble. So the roles became richer due to these fantastic performers, and obviously they added enormously to the text as well.

The world has changed pretty radically in the past few years. In revisiting the text, has anything shifted for you at all?

If anything, I think the world has reminded me what the play was for in the first place. I think I lost focus of that along the way. Now I know why I wrote it.

Also, I have to say that I don’t think the world has changed at its core.  It has just become more cool to be uncouth about our collective evil. Earlier, I think we had to at least pretend to be left-liberal, and be ashamed of being misogynist or genocidal. Now, we are at a time when we are confused between being open and being obnoxious.

The rise of the right-wing is essentially, in my view, a sign of how our language has changed.

However, I don’t think this will be tenable. There will be troughs and crests of right-wing nationalism. But our connectivity to each other has made right-wing nationalism more untenable today than in the time of the World Wars. I think this will be the shortest cycle of such a phase. So in its immediate sense I think the play has become more relevant, but I am hoping in the long run it will only be relevant to remind us of our potential for enemies; the world will have moved on.

What would you say was most valuable about your week-long residency with us? What’s next for you?

The week-long residency was helpful for me enormously, in more ways than one. Firstly, I have had a complicated relationship with the play because, often, other people have liked it more than I have. PlayCo was generous enough to let me have a week at it again after many years to find out if I am still interested, and if so in what way.

I had an incredible room of actors (some of the best I have worked with anywhere), a terrific stage manager, and back-end support. I have never been this comfortable and creative in New York. So I am deeply grateful to PlayCo for that. In a sense it allows me to think of whether I want to make this play, or something else with PlayCo.  Honestly, I am not yet sure. However, I understand how generous it is of the company to let me have this luxury.

Next, I tour in India with our company, Indian Ensemble. We will open a new play about contemporary Tibet at the Royal Court in London, and then start work on a new play I am writing for the National Theatre in London about Quranic exegesis. I am also directing a new dance theatre piece for a collaborative project between our company in India, Market Theatre in South Africa, and Arts For Action in England about indentured labour and the body.

It is my last year at Indian Ensemble so I have a lot of handing over to do. I am also directing a couple of interesting projects in Hindi and Urdu, and finally, writing a site-specific piece for a festival in Buenos Aires. So it’s going to be really busy till mid-2019, it seems.

I will also be coming back to PlayCo to work on the new piece, whatever that is.

In your view, what is theatre’s role in today’s global climate?

I think all art is about three questions: where did we come from, how should we live here, and what next?  As long as our conscious mind exists, the theatre and all other arts will have to play the role of trying to deliberate on these three questions. Ultimately in my view, that is all there is to it and hence, it is eternal.

Interview by Annie Wang