Kamaluddin Nilu । Contemporary Theatre Directors’ approaches in South Asia

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History is not the past: it is a consciousness of the past used for present purposes

-Greg Dening

 In this presentation I will argue that theatre directors from South Asia belong to a tradition of political theatre. This also applies when Ibsen’s plays are staged. I will further illustrate why and how directors from South Asia always choose adaptation rather than translation for staging western texts. Being a theatre director, my personal opinion is that the adaptations are a result of a practical need to communicate with the local audience. Typically, communication within the South Asian theatre frame means to pass on a political message to the spectators. In other words, theatre becomes a vehicle for political purposes and therefore also creates debate in the public scene.

 It is important to note that theatre practice in South Asia started with a cross-cultural perspective and afterwards the cross-cultural approach became the common way of working – a tradition. After 200 years of colonial rule, pre-colonial theatre traditions, to the extent they ever had existed in South Asia, had ceased to exist as theatre practice. Thus, South Asian theatre never went back to pre-colonial traditions. On the contrary, colonial theatre practice – which was a hybrid form consisting of elements from western theatre, classical Sanskrit theatre and folk theatrical forms – became the major theatre tradition for the contemporary South Asian theatre practice after independence.

 The hybridity of South Asian theatre typically means a combination of Western play structure and Sanskrit aesthetics. Another aspect of the hybridity is that western plays are commonly staged as adapted versions. The notion is to make new plays on the basis of western plays, implying that the structure of the western plays is maintained but the content adapted or even transcreated. Mary Louise Pratt’s definition of transculturation created new cultural products and phenomena by selecting and inventing: “from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture”. Since early days, it has been a common practice in South Asia to adapt Shakespeare into their socio-political and cultural setting and within their own language. Over the years, adaptation of western plays became a tradition within theatre practice in South Asia.

 Initially, the adaptations were made to suit their own socio-religious conditions and cultural conceptions. Gradually, this hybrid form entered into a pure political theatre frame and became anti-British in content. In 1876, the socio-political significance of South Asian theatre had reached a level that caused a counter-move from the British colonial power, the introduction of the Dramatic Performance Control Act. However, the political purpose of South Asian theatre again gained strength over time. It is in this connection important to note that theatre practice in South Asia in general came to be known as the theatre movement. After independence, theatre continued in the hybrid form created during colonial times and also the political purpose was usually maintained. The focus moved from colonialism towards new forms of socio-political oppression.  Adaptations to suit contemporary socio-political realities were thus made on the basis of modern western plays written by playwrights as different as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lorca, Brecht, and Pirandello. The same tradition is still continuing.

Othello, Star Theatre, Calcutta 1919

 The attitude of the audience is an important reason behind the continuation of this tradition. The audience in South Asia likes to see something which reflects their own situation. Playwrights and theatre directors always follow this creation when they prepare to stage a play.

 Why is it that the theatre scenario in South Asia so different compared to that in the west? Why is the theatre notion in South Asia political?  The answers are found in the political map of South Asia. First, look towards India where poverty and capitalism are coexisting beside strong religious believes, communal uprisings and border disputes. In the West Bengal, politics was for decades controlled by the Marxist Communist Party which is highly autocratic and has politicized social life. In Pakistan, the country was ruled by army governments’ decade after decade. Afterwards, poverty, violations of human rights, the blasphemy law and frequent border disputes have been maintained at the same time as, Islamic fundamentalism or political Islam has increased its control over the state and the lives of ordinary men and women. In Nepal, a country is running without a constitution after the fall of monarchy, widespread poverty coexists with frequent conflicts between different political parties. In Bangladesh, politics is controlled by two parties that are based on Bengali nationalism (which is language-based) and Bangladeshi nationalism (which is religion-based), respectively. Both parties have a state feudal kind of attitude under the surface of democracy.

 What the countries of South Asia have in common are a traditionally highly stratified social structure, the prevalence of cultural and religious values that limit the freedom of the individual, gender inequalities, widespread violation of human rights, limited freedom of expression and politicization of all parts of society as well as wide-spread misuse of power and corruption. This explains why theatre practice is still political and is the major reasons why theatre directors are usually staging theatre within a political frame.

 Ibsen was a strong voice against social, political and religious hypocrisy as well as an advocate for freedom of expression. This is the major reason why Ibsen’s plays are so frequently staged in South Asia. Moreover, his texts are safe to handle under any kind of oppressed situation. I experienced that when I staged an adapted version of Gengangere, called Krishnabibar, in Bangladesh in 1996. I made the production during a period when Islamic fundamentalism was on rise in Bangladesh and the Islamic party Jamat-e-Islam had entered into mainstream power politics. Islamic fundamentalism is a major hindrance for individual freedom. Gengangere deals with physical, economic, social and psychological constraints on individual freedom, and it admits daylight into the dark corner of society. It was therefore the perfect play under the prevailing circumstances. Religious constraints on individual freedom make up the most burning issue in the past and present Islamic world, for women in particular. In this regard, I always remember Ibsen’s words after receiving heavy criticism about Gengangere: “My book contains the future”.

Krishnabibar (Ibsen’s Gengangere), Adapted by Ahmed Reza, Directed by Kamaluddin Nilu, Produced by CAT, Bangladesh


 Krishnabibar was extensively adapted, most important through an interpretation of Ibsen’s text by changing the religious aspect of the play from Christianity into Islam with the help of local images, metaphors and symbols. The play structure, story line and action line remained the same as in the original text. The changes were made in order to adjust with the prevailing socio-political conditions and cultural conceptions of the society. The production created a big debate among newspaper critics. Progressive newspaper critics considered Krishnabibar to deal with important social issues in Bangladesh in an efficient way and one editorial used Krishnabibar as an example on ” how a theatre play can be used to change society and socio-cultural values”.  In reply, a major fundamentalist newspaper in a sub-editorial demanded “the production to be banded because it is threatening to Islam and harmful for the society”. I think this is a good example of how powerful Ibsen is as a playwright and how theatre can be effective.

 When having a closer look at contemporary Ibsen productions in South Asia, it emerges that there is a substantial variation in the intercultural approaches applied. A major difference is between productions which are expressions of respectively simple and complex forms of cultural encountering. There are also differences in terms of cultural encountering also within these two major categories. Another observation is that there are experimental productions of a different kind that I will term performance collages. In common is that Ibsen’s plays are politically interpreted.

The Communicator by Jasminka Markovska, Translated by Raihan Akhtar,
Directed by Kamaluddin Nilu, Ptoduced by CAT, Bangladesh

 Simple forms of cultural encountering are translations of a western text into a local language, often with adjustment of names and localization, without changing the structure and action line of the original text or the characters. Metaphors and images are kept as in the original or there are limited changes. The plays are performed within the proscenium frame.

 Among Ibsen productions that I have studied, two good examples within this category are both produced by Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT) in Bangladesh. In Bunohans, a translation of Ibsen’s Wild Duck, changes are limited to the names of the characters. Metaphors and images and even the localization of the play are kept as in the original text. The production Brand stands out from Bunohans on one major point, notably that certain metaphors and images of the original are changed into local metaphors and images in order to communicate more easily with the local audience. For this reason, the Bangla text might be called a Bangla version rather than a translation

 Complex forms of cultural encountering within theatre imply that new artistic expressions are created by blending the content (ideas, texts) from one culture with entire forms (theatrical expressions) or merely elements and techniques from such artistic forms from another cultural tradition. There are three main categories of such complex forms of cultural encountering which are relevant in the study of Ibsen productions in the sub-continent:

  1. A western dramatic text (modern or classic) or epic can be blended with a specific traditional theatrical form of a non-western country,
  2. A western text can be blended with elements and techniques from one or more non-western traditional theatrical forms or other traditional living art forms like music, movement, dance, etc.

iii.        A western text can be blended with elements, materials and techniques etc. from a non-western art form as well as with elements and techniques of modern western art forms.

 What these categories have in common is that the original text is adapted or transcreated in order to adjust with local socio-political conditions and cultural conceptions. This implies that the location as well as metaphors, images and symbols of the original text are changed, often also the characters, action line and structure of the play. However, the essence of the original text is maintained. The degree of changes varies within each of the three main categories.

Adrishya Pap ( Adaptaion of Ibsen’s Ghosts), Directed by Golam Sarwar, Produced by BSA, Bangladesh

 An example of Ibsen’s text being blended with a specific traditional theatrical form (category i) is the Bangladeshi production Adrishya Pap, an adaptation of Ghosts, which is performed in the popular theatrical form called Kusan Gan. The play was directed by Golam Sarwar and the actors were traditional performers. Another example in this category is Balura Gudikara, a South Indian adaptation of The Master Builder, directed by B. Jayashree in which Ibsen’s text was blended with Veera Ghaase folk theatrical form. A third example is the West Indian production Mareechika, an adaptation of Lady from the Sea, directed by Ila Arun who made use of the traditional theatrical form Pabuji ka Phad. Common to these productions are that the original texts are heavily adapted and that the performance score is changed in order to suit the adapted texts as well as the theatrical forms used in the blending. A variety under this category is the Bangladeshi Matsya Kannyar Samundra Swapno, a transcreation based on The Lady from the Sea, directed by Sharmila Bandopadhya. This production is a dance drama based on Tagore’s dance drama structure.

Mareechika, an adaptation of Lady from the Sea, directed by Ila Arun;
Produced by Theatre Production Company ”Surni”, Mumbai, India

 This is a new Moving to the second category, where Ibsen’s text is blended with elements and techniques from one or more non-western traditional theatrical forms or other traditional living art forms like music, movement, dance, etc., it emerges that the bulk of the productions studied fall within this category. One variety consists of productions retelling the story line with the characters of the original text combined with meta-narrative musical refrains along with creation of a new performance space to break the realistic mode of the original text. Two productions of A Doll’s House can serve as examples: the Nepalese production

Putaliko Ghar directed by Sunil Pokhrel and the Bangladeshi production Putuler Itikatha which was directed by me. A similar example is a Punjabi adaptation of Little Eyolf directed by Neelam Manshing.

Ibsen’s Little Eyolf directed by Neelam Manshing; Produced by The Company, Chandigarh, Punjab, India

 Another variety within the second category is characterized by creation of a new score and breaking the structure of the original play with removal of scenes which are not adjustable with the local situation. The adapted text is blended with folk elements and devices that are typical for the South Asian single narrative style, including multi-use of single props. The productions have a high energy level with inclusion of dance, movement and music. Good examples are three Peer Gynt productions, Gappu Goppe Gupanggam from India and directed by Bansi Kaul and NativePeer and Peer Chan from India and Bangladesh both were directed by me.

NativePeer (A Transcultural Adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt) by Kamaluddin Nilu;
Produced by National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi, India

 Under the third category of complex cultural encountering, in which Ibsen’s text is blended with elements, materials and techniques etc. from non-western art forms as well as with elements and techniques of modern western art forms, the production Ashibaghee Eshei is a unique example. The production is an adaptation of When We Dead Awaken from Manipur in North-East India and directed by Ratan Thiyam.  Thiyam does not make use of a particular traditional theatrical or ritual convention but picks elements, materials and techniques from his own culture and places them within a proscenium theatre frame along with Ibsen’s text and western visual elements.

Ashibaghee Eshei (adaptation of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken); directed by Ratan Thiyam;
Produced by Chorus Repertory Theatre, Manipur, India

 A recent artistic expression in the Indian sub-continent is performance collages. One variety is highly political collages taking departure from Ibsen’s thoughts and ideas regarding society and connecting them to local or global contemporary political realities. This kind of production is a highly experimental and hybrid production with various living and visual art forms from the West and the East and extensive use of technology. Both high and low cultural expressions are reflected and accompanied by minimalistic visuals. There is “double coating” of the past and the present. However, there is no particular time concept, neither any geographical border. The productions are fragmentary – it is a collage, with several complete and independent units. The productions are therefore quite abstract and open.

 This variety includes the Indian production Metropolis directed by Amal Alana and two productions I directed with Centre for Asian Theatre, Resurrection and The Communicator.

Metropolis (Based on Ibsen’s literary corpuses) directed by Amal Alana,
Produced by The Dramatic Arts and Design Academy (DADA), Delhi, India

 A prerequisite for the success of such productions is that the cultural parameters of the original text are decontextualized and subsequently reinterpreted in ways which were meaningful in the local context. Erika Fischer-Lichte underlines the necessity of this kind of transformation:

 “The use of foreign elements, or the adaptation of them in a production, is thus always to be understood as a process of cultural transformation in which the components extracted from the other culture are embedded in the own culture so that their special potential can unfold in the here and now.”

Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, Translated by Khairul Alam Shabuj,
Directed by Un-Margritt Nordseth (Norway), Produced by CAT, Bangladesh

Concluding, South Asian theatre practices that emerged through long-term processes of cultural encountering during colonial times have become tradition. Paradoxically, this hybridization was a response by local playwrights and theatre directors in their search for an anti-colonial and subsequently a national identity, closely related to a broader political movement especially from the early 1940s onwards. The content of the plays was from an early period political, and this political approach has continued to characterize South Asian theatre. This also applies when plays written by Ibsen and various other western playwrights are staged.

 Equally clear is that when Ibsen’s texts are crossing the borders of the sub-continent with the help of artistic vehicles, the texts get another layer which is political. This is even the case with Peer Gynt which is generally considered as a nationalistic play expressing aspects of the Norwegian cultural heritage and the world view of Norwegians. In India, where Peer Gynt now is frequently staged, the play is interpreted from two major angles, post-colonial and anti-Hindu nationalism.

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