Grant Period: over four months
Abhishek Majumdar is a playwright, teacher, actor and the Artistic Director of the theatre group Indian Ensemble in Bangalore. Abhishek is a graduate from LISPA (London International School of Performing Arts) and has trained at Yatrik, Mahesh Dattani’s Studio and the Adishakti Theatre Lab. He has received various fellowships and grants including the Charles Wallace and the Inlaks scholarships. He is a member of the Young Vic Director’s Network, London and the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab 2011, New York. He is the recipient of the first Shankar Nag Rangakarmi Award given by Ranga Shankara, Bangalore for his contribution to theatre. His notable plays include An arrangement of shoes, The Djinns of Idgah, Afterlife of Birds, Rizwan, Kaumudi and Dweepa to name a few. Last year IFA had supported a series of workshops for his group Indian Ensemble to explore and create a methodology for physical alphabets for theatre. He approached IFA for support for his new play Muktidham.
The Hindi play written by him is set in 8th century in the fictional town of Beerpur. This is the period in India’s history when Pala kings are ruling over large parts of northern India and are followers of Buddhism. Buddhism is gaining popularity and people especially from the lower castes are converting to embrace it. Buddhism is at its peak while Hindu institutions in the kingdom are feeling threatened. The fictional town of Beerpur is surrounded by Buddhists and the surviving Hindu matha is subject to a crucial internal and external struggle. Nath Nand, the head of the matha, has decided to retire to Muktidham to die in peace and must choose his successor. He has always separated politics from religion and now has to choose between two of his disciples and scholars of the matha – Yuyutsu and Agnivesh. Yuyutsu is in favour of opening the doors of the temple to the lower caste to stop them from converting to Buddhism. Agnivesh believes in an armed resistance against the Buddhists. There are also questions of caste-identity, power and patriarchy in their personal lives that each character must deal with. The play is based on detailed research of the period and often takes clues from historical events. Abhishek has submitted a detailed bibliography of materials that he has consulted for research towards this play.
Abhishek wrote the play over the last two years as a response to the current political scenario in India with the rise of right wing Hindutva. The election of the current Government came as a shock to him like many. He tried to make sense of the insecurities and aspirations of people in the country that pushed them to make their choice. For him, “...this play is about believers. It is not an argument between believers and non-believers since that has been done to death. The question is what the various positions within belief are and how a believer needs to have a certain responsibility and wisdom to know when something is cosmic and when it’s just power play. To write Muktidham as a believer has been my greatest challenge and I am not sure if I am achieving that.” The play aims to examine the roots of Hindu philosophy and how the communal right wing that originated from intellectual thought, turned increasingly dogmatic and anti-intellectual. It also raises complex questions about caste, patriarchy and personal faith that are often intertwined in a complex web.
Both the external evaluators have recommended making this grant and think it is an extremely relevant play in these times. They have suggested that Abhishek pay more attention to the production process and audience engagement. They think it is ambitious, complex and courageous. Working with Abhishek earlier, one knows that he starts his process not knowing all the answers but engages in deep enquiries as his work progresses. Given his reputation in the field as one of India’s most promising theatre directors one also trusts his ability to create a play that would raise questions that engage the common audience while earning critical acclaim.
There are obvious challenges of supporting this work. In the recent years many works of art have been subjected to censorship, vandalised and banned by the extreme right wing forces. Abhishek himself has received threats for his last play Dweepa and been questioned by authorities for his public opinions on social media. Many of the funders who promised to support this work have backed out after reading drafts of the play. This play is obviously raising uncomfortable questions about religion, politics, caste and patriarchy. Given IFA’s core value of supporting works that raise critical enquiries these are risks worth taking. While the results of the workshops that IFA supported earlier for Indian Ensemble will manifest over a long period of time in their work, some of it will find its way in this play.
The play is slated to open at Ranga Shankara in January 2017 and will tour some of the renowned theatre festivals in the country in the next few months. Various drafts of the script, research material, draft designs, photographs and audio-video recording of the shows will be deposited as deliverables at the end of the grant period.