& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mahesh Dattani festival in Toronto

Mahesh Dattani (l) and Girish Karnad (r),
interviewed by Dalbir Singh (c) at 2011 edition of
Toronto Festival of South Asian Literature & the Arts

Koi Pun Ek Phool Nu Naam Bolo, is a Gujarati play by Madhu Rye (better known to non-Gujarati audience as the writer of Aushtosh Gowarikar’s 2009 film What’s Your Rashee where Priyanka Chopra enacted 12 roles). 

A young Mahesh Dattani accompanied his parents to see the play in Bangalore as a child, and was awestruck. 

“Anything that can shut up a thousand Gujaratis has to be impressive,” the playwright recalled at talk he gave at Toronto’s Munk Centre last week.

The talk – Me & My Plays – was based on his forthcoming memoir (to be published by Penguin, which has also published Mahesh’s collected works in two volumes). Chelva Kanaganayakam, the former head of Centre for South Asian Studies, who chaired the session, introduced Mahesh.

A seminar on his plays Staging Identity Across Nation, Family and Sexuality in the Work of Mahesh Dattani preceded the talk. Speakers included Anindo Hazra, Margaret Herrick, Rahul Sapra, and Naisargi Dave. The Centre for South Asian Studies and the Asian Institute organized the Munk Centre program.

Mahesh’s talk was deeply personal and yet very objective. He spoke of his passion for dance, his gurus and the discipline they inspired in him, the role of his mentor Alyque Padamsee and Lillete Dubey in his success, his zeal to give voice to a voiceless people.

I’ll not report on the talk here. We’d rather wait for his memoir due early next year.

Towards the conclusion of his hour-long talk, Mahesh said he feels most connected to three of his creations – Dancing Like a Man (1989), Morning Raga (2004), and Where did I leave my Purdah (2013) - these creations encompass his love for dance, music and theatre.
“They form my triptych,” he said.
With the playwright

Overcoming my general reticence, I said the plays that really form his triptych, plays that he will really be remembered for are Final Solutions (1993), On a Muggy Night in Mumbai (1998), Seven Steps Round The Fire (1998) all of which evocatively deal with the issue of minorities (religion, sexual orientation, gender).

Mahesh admitted he hadn’t really thought of them as such, but agreed that they do form a unit.

Last week turned out to be an embarrassment of riches for the Dattani fans. Thursday the Sawitri Theatre Group staged Seven Steps Round the Fire, originally a radio play.
Bhanji &Sawant
Directed by Christina Collins, the play, which brings to life the in between world of India's  transgender hijra community, was enlivened by bravura performances by Jasmine Sawant (Champa) and other members of the cast that included Farah Bhanji (Uma Rao), Siddhant Sawant (Munswamy), Amit Mohan (Anarkali), Aryan Ahuja (Suresh Rao), Naimesh Nanavaty (Mr. Sharma, construction worker, and beggar), Shafik Kamani (Salim, prisoner, hijra at intersection), Andrew Ravindran (Subbu, prisoner, hijra at Champa's), Ivana Bittnerova (Kamla, hijra at Champa's and sweeper), Nicole Balsam (bride).

Sawitri's actors lived the characters. The performances were uniformly superior, a major feat for the group considering nearly all the actors have a day job, and do theatre because they love the art form. The play was originally meant for the radio, and so didn't need any major props. What makes the production memorable is the nuanced understanding of each character and the motivation that each of them have to do what they do, leading to a tragic climax. 

The minimalist stage design, depending more on the lighting, enabled the audience to directly connect with the characters on the stage, and moreover, enabled for a smoother flow of the narrative. 

The technical credits include: Nitin Sawant, Producer; Joe Pagnon, Set and Lighting design; Shruti Shah, Costume; Brooklyn Doran, Stage Manager; Keyoor Shah, Technical Manager.  Dancers at Wedding: David Primeau, courtesy Shiamak Davar Dance Company - He also plays 'other hijra rehearsing at Champa's. Sachel Metoo of Samsara Dance Company and Namita Dandekar.

Sawitri Theatre Group’s repertoire of staging Dattani plays also includes Where There is a Will (1988) which was staged last December.

Then, Friday evening, University of Toronto’s the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, in collaboration with the Centre for South Asian Studies and the Centre for Comparative Literature organized a staged reading of Mahesh The Big Fat City (2013).

The play is about a couple who are facing imminent eviction from their flat in Mumbai for missing multiple mortgage payments, and involves a banker friend, a television actor whose career is on the decline, a paying guest, her lover and in an unexpected climax the paying guest’s brother.

It examines the crass superficiality of the middle class social climbers in a housing society in Mumbai.

Mahesh directed the staged reading, Dalbir Singh was the sutradhar. The performers included: Rebecca Biason, Christine Mazumdar, Jaleel Siddiqui, Shak Haksa, Brian de la Franier, Mirabella Sundar Singh, Aaditya Aggarwal, and Sally Jones.

Mahesh Dattani was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for his Final Solutions (1992-93). 

For an academic study of Mahesh's work, see Bipin Parmar's thesis here:

Images: FSALA-2011, Sawitri Theatre Group & Dalbir Singh

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