April 25, 2014

Q&A with Pen World Voices Playwright Abhishek Majumdar

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Abhishek Majumdar On April 30 The Play Company and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center will present a public reading of The Djinns of Eidgah by Indian Playwright/Director Abhishek Majumdar, as part of the World Voices:  International Playwrights Festival in the Pen World Voices Festival.  The reading will take place at 7:30 at The Segal Center, 365 Fifth Avenue and is free and open to the public on a first come first serve basis.

Ashrafi and Bilal are orphaned siblings caught up by the trouble in Kashmir. Bilal is part of a teenage football team set for great heights, but pushed to the limits by the violence around them. His sister is caught in the past, and Bilal is torn between escaping the myths of war and the cycles of resistance. Interweaving true stories and testimonials with Islamic storytelling, the play paints a magical portrait of a generation of radicalized kids, and a beautiful landscape lost to conflict.  Mr. Majumdar recently talked to us about his work and the inspiration behind his play.

PlayCo:  Tell us a little bit about your work?  How did you start writing plays?
My work in the theatre comprises of both direction and writing. By and large I write in English, Hindustani ( Hindi and Urdu) and Bangla.  The language and form of the play are completely decided by the content.

I started writing with short stories. In 2004, my teacher gave me a scholarship in his class to write a play out of one of my short stories called “Palace of Potholes”.  After that I started writing plays.

PlayCo:  You’re the Artistic Director of the Indian Ensemble in Bangalore.  Tell us about your company.  What kind of work do you produce?
Indian Ensemble is based out of Bangalore in the south of India, but works with artistes from all over India, and now, also from other countries.  We have so far by and large produced new writing but we have plans of producing classics in the future. Our company has collaborated with some of the finest actors, musicians and designers in India.  The sense of collaboration is key to working at Indian Ensemble. A lot of our work has been about contemporary India and has mostly been research based.

We also have a social wing which has outreach programs and a theatre education program. Indian Ensemble, has a policy in Bangalore by which no one is returned due to lack of funds. We are delighted this year to have been able to make all our shows affordable to anyone who cannot pay for the ticket.

PlayCo:  What inspired you to write The Djinns of Eidgah?  What sort of things were on your mind?
The Djinns of Eidgah is the second play in The Kashmir Trilogy series. The others are Rizwaan ( Urdu/ English, based on the poetry of Aga Shahid Ali), and Gasha ( Urdu, Kashmiri, Hindi, written by Irawati Karnik and devised at Indian Ensemble).  During the making of Rizwaan, I felt myself wanting to get closer to the story. Hence I travelled to Kashmir, mostly to familiarize myself and also to find out why, in spite of every country claiming to want peace foremost, places like Kashmir continue to be hot spots of uprisings and military occupation. I started traveling within Kashmir and got interested in the young boys and girls who were coming out on the streets and throwing stones at armored vehicles with machine guns.

Eventually I also got really close to the stories of the children who visit the government psychiatry hospital in Srinagar, which is the only hospital of its kind in the Kashmir Valley, with 5 doctors and as many as 40,000 walk in patients in 2008 alone. All the stories I heard there were very much in my mind as I wrote the play. They are not something a person forgets easily. And truth is always stranger, more gruesome than fiction. We can only try to interpret/translate and to give voice to it.

PlayCo:  In Djinns you employ elements of traditional storytelling and myth, can you talk about how that functions in the play?
I have used elements of a storytelling tradition called ‘ Dastaan Goi’. The Dastaan tradition is on the same lines as Arabian nights. They are stories of the Prophet’s general Army, Amir Hamza fighting the evil forces in a magical war where there are illusions after illusions that need to be broken.

Growing up in various parts of India, one listens to similar stories early on ( and i imagine in other parts of the world too). On Radio Kashmir for example, the ‘Dastan”s were played in Kashmiri at one time.

I used this in the play to bring forth the world of the children, the sense of the illusion and the luminous in wars, especially those that last this long. And of course to also bring forth the Quranic elements of faith. I strongly feel, post the work on this play, that the thing we fail to understand as countries which are supposedly fighting Islamic Rebels  ( Not paid mercenaries) is that people are actually fighting for their myths, legends and stories. People are not fighting because they are opposed to a more advanced way of liberal life but perhaps and often so, because they are being denied their stories and history.

PlayCo:  Where else has the play been produced?  How has it been received in India?  Has the play been presented in the Kashmir region?
The play has been produced in India by Rage Theatre in Mumbai and has traveled within India. In London, it has been produced at the  Royal Court Theatre.  It has not yet been presented in the Kashmir Region due to various reasons but several Kashmiri academics, journalists and of course common audiences have seen it either in India or in London. Thankfully in most cases it has been received really well other than the odd right winger who hates the fact that the characters in the play openly oppose Indian Military occupation in Kashmir and call it that quite plainly.  But i do not think that it is important for this play to be received well  by everyone. It is important for me that it questions our basic ideas of today’s Muslim man or woman and most people’s basic assumptions about Islamic Terrorism.

PlayCo:  What do you want an audience to take away from this play?
This play to some extent explores the conflict from the point of view of the people of  Kashmir, which is often not what is displayed in the common mainstream media. It also explores the human cost of conflict in any war torn region. I would like the audience to build a certain level of mistrust of the common mainstream media, to not take it at face value per say. In my experience there are high chances that such coverage is shadowed by vested interests and by that I mean either corporate houses or government agencies.  And frankly its just common sense by now to stop believing that somehow there is something wrong with Islam as a religion. Not to mention that Islamic countries in spite of their glorious and rich past , are in such strife at the moment. I hope the play lets us step into different worlds as viewers and makes us come to our own conclusions but allows us to do so in a thinking manner and not in a manner of political and corporate  propaganda.


Listen to more more about what Abhishek has to say about The Djinns of Eidgah.

Author: buzzadmin
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