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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Love, Loss and Longing: South Asian Canadian Plays

Mahesh Dattani (left), Dalbir Singh (centre) and Girish Karnad (right)
at FSALA-11 
Dalbir Singh is a playwright, and a PhD from the Centre of South Asian Studies, as well as a Graduate of Centre for Drama, University of Toronto. His publications have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Canadian Theatre Review, Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre, Red Light, and She Speaks. His plays have been performed at such venues as the Harbourfront Centre, Factory Theatre, and CBC Radio.

He has previously co-edited an anthology of critical essays entitled World Without Walls: Being Human, Being Tamil (Mawenzi House, 2011) and Post-Colonial Drama (Playwrights Canada Press, 2015). He is the editor of Love, Loss and Longing: South Asian Canadian Plays *Playwrights Canada Press 2016), a collection of six plays from acclaimed and award-winning South Asian Canadian playwrights that explore themes of family, love, trauma, race, and more.
Featuring introductions by directors, dramaturgs, and playwrights, each play is contextualized to explain its relevance and importance in the community. His research interests are centred on questions of hybridity, nostalgia, and memory in contemporary South Asian Canadian theatre.

The collection includes:
  • Bhopal by Rahul Varma, introduced by Guillermo Verdecchia
  • Bombay Black by Anosh Irani, introduced by Brian Quir
  • A Brimful of Asha by Ravi and Asha Jain, introduced by Nicolas Billon
  • Crash by Pamela Mala Sinha, introduced by Judith Thompson
  • Pyaasa by Anusree Roy, introduced by Andy McKim
  • Boys with Cars by Anita Majumdar, introduced by Yvette Nolan
I met Dalbir for the first time during the 2011 edition of the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts (it was then called the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts). He conducted an engaging tête-à-tête with Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani. A student then, Dalbir appeared at ease talking to two of India’s foremost playwrights. In a freewheeling email interview, he discusses his new book.

What is this collection all about?

It was a daunting task to edit the first-ever collection devoted exclusively to the topic of South Asian Canadian plays. How do I choose what to include and what not to include? This volume certainly doesn’t attempt to represent all of South Asia and doesn’t intend to.  This collection reflects a wide array of perspectives through a variety of genres. I believe that the plays in this anthology speak to each other in interesting and complex ways; each telling stories rooted in themes that are universal in scope yet are specific in detail and context. Introductions accompany each play and are written by prominent members of the Canadian theatre industry who have served and supported the development of the writer.

What is so significant about these six plays?

All of the plays are from the past decade.

Rahul Verma’s Bhopal was the first production I had seen in Toronto’s Theatre Centre (directed by Guillermo Verdecchia) that featured a mostly South Asian cast (unheard of for that time), written by an Indo-Canadian and focused on an issue that still has reverberations that are felt to this day.

Bhopal is a play that examines what is widely known as the world’s worst nuclear industrial disaster that resulted in over 16,000 deaths in Bhopal, India. The play depicts the tragedy from multiple viewpoints including families affected by the nerve gas (as a result of a gas leak from a Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide plant) doctors and government officials.

It serves as a reminder of corporate ineptitude and exploitation and how human suffering becomes quantified in terms of a loss of profits. This play was important in many ways which included helping pave the way for other Indo-Canadian artists to pursue and write their own stories.

Another play in this anthology is A Brimful of Asha. It is written by real-life mother and son, Ravi and Asha Jain. It’s a genuinely engaging tale about a mother who is desperate to get her aging son married off. Her painstaking efforts to arrange a marriage for him are beset by numerous obstacles – not least of which is Ravi’s hesitancy. A Brimful of Asha is very humorous but the fact that it’s based on real events, situations and conversations between the two gives it an authentic air of intergenerational conflict.

The other three plays, Pyaasa, Bombay Black and Crash have all won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play (one of the highest accolades given to Canadian playwrights).

Pyaasa by Anusree Roy is set in Kolkata, India, and is a monodrama featuring several characters all played by the playwright herself. Pyaasa instantly struck a chord with me the first time I had seen it. It dealt with a contentious issue in the South Asian community that many choose to ignore. By examining the caste system and its destructive hierarchy through a group of characters from different caste affiliations, it posits the notion that caste is inherently performative – something to be adorned in order to delineate one’s superiority over others.

Anosh Irani is a playwright but he also happens to be the sole novelist in the group of writers who have contributed to this anthology. His novels, like his plays, focus on the interplay between gender, politics and locale. Most of his work is set in India, like the aptly titled multi award-winning play, Bombay Black which is included in this anthology.

Bombay Black’s action takes place within such a brothel by primarily examining the relationship between a young female dancer and a patron who also happens to be blind. Like the many other works collected in this book, there have been many changes administered to these plays in these new revised editions. It is perhaps the most revised piece in this collection by showcasing a plot device that is completely from its original production and thus completely changing the trajectory of the play.

The first time that I had met Pamela Sinha, it was to discuss the inclusion of her brilliant one-woman show, Crash for this anthology. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet such a warm-spirited writer and artist and to engage in intellectually stimulating conversations regarding the state of Canadian theatre today. Crash is perhaps the most amenable play in regard to casting in this anthology. Sinha has expressed the notion that she’d be open to the idea of the next production of the piece employing a non-Indo Canadian actor; to have the character be portrayed by other ethnicities.

Anita Majumdar’s Boys with Cars is part of her “Fish Eyes” Trilogy that examines through three separate young woman, their relationships to dance, fellow dancers, life at a high school, and yes, boys. The play, previously titled The Misfit, centers on the story of Naz, who longs to leave her hometown of Port Moody, British Columbia in order to attend university. However, complications arise before her dream can be realized.

Majumdar’s plays are often characterized by its feminist-oriented political relevance, its breathtaking choreography and its balance between dramatic and comedic tensions. Her plays read as a pastiche of multiple genres, conventions, attitudes, ideas and physicalities and are acutely attuned to Indo-Canadian youth and their constant struggles of belonging and maintaining some sense of identity.

South Asian, and more specifically, Indo-Canadian talent seems to be coming of age

Several volumes of plays devoted to the subject would still come to represent only a small fraction of the many voices that inhabit South Asia and its diaspora. Besides the playwrights featured in this anthology, there are many other South Asian Canadian writers and artists who are creating intelligent, humorous and poignant work. I wish that I could publish all of their work in this collection; writers like Anand Rajaram, Sunil Kuruvilla, Nisha Ahuja, Sheila James, Tanya Pillay, Bilal Baig, Jiv Parasram, Rana Bose, Doris Rajan, Raoul Bhaneja, Radha Menon, Uma Paremswaran, Serena Parmar and many more. 

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