Director Purva Naresh
Director Purva Naresh

Purva Naresh’s 2017 play Bandish 20-20000Hz is part of this year’s Aadyam’s Digital Edition. The highlight of the play, apart from the terrific performances by the ensemble cast, is the glorious music direction by legendary Hindustani classical singer, Shubha Mudgal.

The word ‘bandish’ is a homonym: it is a term used for a Hindustani classical music composition, and it also means ‘being bound’. While 20-20000 Hz is the hearing range of human beings. The play is a story of two ageing stars of yesteryears — one a nautanki singer and the other a baithak (classical) singer — who come face-to-face in the green room of an Independence Day function. As they take an anecdotal journey back to their glory days, what unfolds is a tale of various kinds of restrictions or ‘bandishes’ placed on art and artists down the ages — be it political bans or social exclusions, threats from the people in power, to now the social media trolls.

At a time when there are talks of imposing censorship on OTT content, a stand-up comedian is languishing in jail for two weeks now for jokes that he didn’t even crack, the makers and the cast of a web series being slapped an array of FIRs across states, and each day social media is abuzz with the call of a ban on some artistes or the other, this play — a satire on the sham that ‘artistic freedom’ is in this country — is more relevant than ever.

The play is written and directed by Purva, the multi-hyphenate founder of one of the leading theatre groups of the country, Aarambh that has given us plays like Okay Tata Bye Bye, Ladies Sangeet, Umrao. We spoke to her about the play and the new normal in theatre. Excerpts:

What was the starting point of the play and what was the research process like?

The starting point was my grandmother, Beni and Munnu who I knew in real life, and a conversation with Atul Tewari about freedom of expression and such stories. I was about to go to London for a play and had very little time to write and research so I asked him if he would write for me. We just chatted about what the play could be. He then took off for Dubai and I went to London. When I returned I had only two months to prepare the text. The research venue was Shubhaji’s [Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal] house in Delhi, the impetus was Shubhaji’s warm hospitality and hot Parathas from her sister’s kitchen. Shubhaji and I sat and talked and she pulled out some references. After that I went to my father’s house in Lucknow and talked with him [her father who is the eminent Hindi poet, Naresh Saxena]. He directed me to Priyamvad — a very senior writer [Anwar, the film is based on his story]. So, I went to Kanpur and met him. I also met up with a few Nautanki performers in Kanpur since Kanpur is the centre of nautanki; it is Gulab Bai’s [Gulab Bai was arguably the first female natuanki artiste] city! After taking in all this information from these wonderful resources I sat down to read and re-read, and wrote the draft of Bandish.

How was it to stage a play for video production?

It was a mixed bag! We tried not to change the process and what you see is a live show more or less. We ran the show a couple of times and recorded it through multiple cameras so as to not break the ‘live feel’ for the performers or the viewers. It is not a cut-to-cut shot-to-shot shoot. We never broke the real momentum of the performers. What goes on stage is what gets recorded. But we did run the full chunks multiple times to get a variety of angles.

We did not touch the play or its design for this medium because the grammar of digital plays — that is plays created for the digital space, where the language makes space for lensing as a craft — is yet to be found.

The process was different because for the performers there was no audience and in a play, the audience is as important as the actors. The audience and the actors walk an emotional bridge together to arrive at multiple common points. It is the audience participation that often changes the performance of an actor.

However once the performance was shot completely, what we had was 'footage'. And from then onwards it became cinema. We took all the liberties of the cinematic medium since the theatricality of the performance was not compromised with. So, it was a compartmentalised process in a way. We did the show first and then edited it like a film.

You have adapted Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book Pink Sari Revolution into a play for Leicester’s Curve Theatre and written a play for the Australian theatre company bAKEHOUSE that was directed by Suzanne Millar. How is it writing for others and would you like to switch sides?

Writing something I won’t direct is an added pressure but liberating for a writer. I loved it. About switching sides, I am open to directing a play written by someone else, only if the text works for me!

And how different is it to collaborate on international projects?

You are catering to an audience that does not share your cultural contexts or emotional graphs or references. Also Hindi is the language I think in and respond emotionally in. So, yes, it was an immense pressure to create powerful emotional and intellectual experience in my second language. It was then important to find the broad ideas of emotion and thought and work with that and use language and cultural context a bit less. In more simple terms, I worked with the thought and idea of the material than language or shared history.

Do you think there is a dearth of good playwrights in the city?

I don’t think we have fewer playwrights. We have very few takers for original writing amongst producers. Everyone wants a remake to lessen their risk. Everyone is scared of the unknown!

That theatre as we know it, as well as live performances in general, might not survive in the post-pandemic world? Is there a parallel to the play there?

Plays and theatre would survive for sure. They have. Don’t forget Shakespeare wrote through the plague, which was devouring lives like we just recently saw and medical sciences were not even that advanced then. Neither was technology. More than the pandemic it is the insensitivity of human beings that might kill theatre. Theatre is about inclusivity; the collective experience; about changing the perspective on things and reimagining. As we move towards rigidity and non-inclusivity we let go of the basic ideas on which theatre stands. And theatre artists have always worked with less, even less audiences. TV, films and now live events eat into the audiences for theatre. But theatre continues to survive because drama exists in us and the need for drama is intrinsic to us.

Cast: Anubha Fatehpuria, Danish Hussain, Harsh Khurana, Hitesh Bhojraj, Ipshita Singh Chakraborty and Nivedita Bhargava. Music by: Shubha Mudgal

You can catch a show of the play today online. Tickets available at Insider.in

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