Interview
 
Sudipto Chatterjee

Sudipto Chatterjee is a theatre scholar, playwright, performer and director from Kolkata. His book on nineteenth century Bengali theatre history, 'The Colonial Staged', was published in 2007. His academic work in theatre and performance studies has been published in several international anthologies as well as journals. His first anthology of Bengali plays, 'Abhiropan' (Graftings), was published in 2005.

Chatterjee has directed several plays. In 2005, he wrote and solo-performed MAN OF THE HEART: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF LALON PHOKIR, under the direction of the well-known theatre director, Suman Mukhopadhyay. Having travelled across three continents, MAN OF THE HEART continues to remain in performance after 10 years.

After several years in the USA, UK and in Germany, Chatterjee is currently Professor in Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in the Social Sciences (CSSSC) in Kolkata. He is also the Artistic Director of Spectactors, a theatre institution based in Kolkata. Recently, he translated the Iranian playwright Bahram Beyzai's DEATH OF YAZDGERD into Bengali as RAJAR MRITYU, which is currently being staged in India by Spectactors. He is also working on several new projects.

In this extensive interview with our website, Sudipto Chatterjee talks about his early interest in theatre, of Performance Studies as a discipline, his move back to India, his two productions -- RAJAR MRITYU and MAN OF THE HEART -- and of his hope of Kolkata re-inventing itself. The interview reflects Sudipto Chatterjee's equal passion for theatre and theatre academia and of how he has successfully managed both worlds without sacrificing one for the other.



 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): What motivated you towards theatre and how did you find yourself pursuing Theatre Studies?

Sudipto Chatterjee (SC): These are two impulses that I inherited from my parents. Both of them were teachers. My father taught at the university level and my mother taught at the school level. Both were interested in theatre but in different ways. My dad had an academic interest in the subject while my mother was interested in theatre as a performer. So, I ended up getting the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds! You can imagine what that combination can be.

RAJAR MRITYU; Photo Courtesy Debarshi Sarkar
RAJAR MRITYU; Photo Courtesy Debarshi Sarkar

DP: Did your mother act with one of the theatre companies in Kolkata?

SC: Not really. She was an amateur but she also had a children's theatre group, which is where I first got on stage, at the age of three, and my stage fright was taken care of. Later as I grew older, I picked up a bit of writing -- how to write dialogues, how to develop a plot. I learnt about dramatic structure and such other things from my mum. My dad was a Professor of English and that defined my interest in literature as well. Once I was of age, I wanted to do both theatre and literature. I could not give up one for the other. I kept studying literature till my B. A. and by the time I got to college, I started doing theatre extensively -- writing plays, acting, doing television. It also helped that I grew up bilingual. Till the age of seven, I didn't realise English and Bengali were two separate languages. Hindi seemed like a different language but Bengali and English seemed perfectly interchangeable.

DP: Your parents were both Bengalis?

SC: They were both Bengalis. My mother was from the east side and father was from the west. You know, this has been the thing of my life! I have always been sailing with my two feet on two different boats; two rocking boats!

DP: When did you stage your first play?

SC: I did my first professional play when I was eighteen. It was an adaptation of Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE. It was a far-out adaptation, hardly recognisable as a take on Arthur Miller. It was in Bangla and that too, in a remote dialect from western West Bengal, from the adivasi area. I kept going there, learning the language. That's how it all started, and it started my fancy for American drama, which wasn't the case with Kolkata at all. It still is an anti- American place in many ways. Particularly in the intellectual world, we are very critical of America and American foreign policy.

DP: You had leftist leanings?

SC: Yes, my father was a member of the undivided Communist party, pretty high up in the ranks. So, there was that tradition in the family as well. However, I thought that it would be unfair to toss out American art and literature with the foreign policy, because Arthur Miller was no capitalist. Most of his plays are scathing critiques of American governance, capitalism and the American way of life. THE CRUCIBLE of course is a pro-communist play. It was written in the wake of the McCarthy hearings in America, when Communists were being hunted down.

DP: Yes, like a witch-hunt.

SC: Arthur Miller himself was subjected to this 'hunt'. The play was his response. To take that play and contextualise it in Bengal was different then. I don't think I would have dared to do it now. Back then I was a young kid, and wasn't scared of anything and didn't have anything to lose, so I just did it.

Also luckily for me, I had a great teacher at that time -- Ajitesh Banerjee. He was a great director, actor and playwright -- one of the legends of the Bengali stage. He died very young, so I didn't get to spend a long time with him. But while he lived he had sort of adopted me. My father had died and Ajitesh-kaku didn't have a child. My mom had sparked my interest in theatre, but from Ajitesh-kaku I picked up that it was a serious business, and it was not something you had only fun with.

DP: So he was your mentor?

SC: Yes, a mentor, friend, philosopher and guide. That is how it started and then in my early twenties, I had graduated from St. Xavier's and had started my M.A. at Jadavpur University. I was beginning to get a bit restless because while I enjoyed literature, in my heart I wanted to do only theatre. I couldn't take the compromise any more. That time in Kolkata, there was no real place where you could go for theatre training. Only the Rabindra Bharati University had a drama department, but all my peers advised me against it. Ajitesh-kaku had passed away and I was lost. I felt I had become an orphan again. It was a very traumatic time. So, I was doing theatre and learning by doing. There is a saying in Chinese, 'you hear, you forget, you see, you remember, you do, you understand'.

DP: True.

SC: So, I was beginning to understand that I wanted to do more. Also I wanted to do academic work in theatre and there was absolutely no room for that.

RAJAR MRITYU; Photo Courtesy Debarshi Sarkar
RAJAR MRITYU; Photo Courtesy Debarshi Sarkar

DP: It is not often that you find a nice balance between scholarship and practice.

SC: While doing literature, I enjoyed reading non-fiction; I enjoyed literary and critical analysis. I loved T. S. Eliot's prose more than his poetry. That said, it may be a nice balance, but it is very difficult.

DP: I understand. But if you can manage that balance, then one feeds into the other.

SC: This is the important distinction that got me all restless. Drama was just one of the four papers that we were examined on and I realised it was too little. It was one-fourth of my entire literature learning. Drama as literature was one thing and theatre as artistic practice was quite another. They were joined but were two different entities.

DP: There's never been a very companionable relationship between theatre academia and theatre practice.

SC: It is laziness on the part of the theatre people.

DP: I think both parties are to be blamed. It is because they are caught up in their own little spheres. But you seem to be able to bring these two channels together rather nicely.

SC: Thank you. See, this is a decision I took very early on in my life, that I like doing both and I will keep on doing both for as long as I can.

DP: When did you go to America?

SC: I had done an adaptation of Tennessee Williams and had turned on to do Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. At that time I was 23. The cultural wing of the American Consulate in Kolkata selected me for an international young playwright's conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticutt. It was an eye-opening and a fantastic experience. I met Arthur Miller and confessed to him that we had produced his play without applying for copyright, since we could not afford it. I met August Wilson, Lanford Wilson, Morris Carnovsky, Robert Redford, Ernie Scheer, Dennis Scott and other important people in American theatre.

While I was there I met this man, Oleg Kerenski, who taught at NYU (New York University). Kerenski was the grandson of Boris Kerenski, who was a leader of opposition against Lenin. He would teach us a master class on theatre criticism. His whole assignment was that, "you are all playwrights, but you need to write about plays as well." So, we would see a production, write about it and submit it to him and he would critique it with complete, brutal honesty. He liked my work and he said, "You are graduate material and you should really go into higher studies". I had no GRE or TOEFL but Kerenski said that "you are here and you just need to go and see them and they will know you don't need any of that."

In NYU (New York University), around that time, there was this new development from the 80s called Performance Studies. I knew Richard Schechner. He was sort of the founding father of Performance Studies. This was the same man who was in Kolkata for a workshop which I had attended a couple years earlier. Schechner told me of a scholarship and said that the other faculty members need to interview me. After a daylong interview, I got accepted as a student. I dropped my M.A at Jadavpur University. Initially, it was excruciatingly difficult. I started a new M.A in Performance Studies at NYU, and then for the first time I met this giant of a beast called Postmodernism. It was a very steep learning curve.

RAJAR MRITYU; photo courtesy Debarshi Sarkar
RAJAR MRITYU; photo courtesy Debarshi Sarkar

DP: Tell us about Performance Studies from your perspective. Its academic writing can sometimes be trying and difficult to access.

SC: Performance Studies situates itself interstitially between disciplines. It is essentially not a discipline but a disciplinary field that thrives and feeds off interdisciplinarity. Therefore, if theatre is a subset, there are several other subsets -- anthropology, philosophy, political science, cultural studies, feminism, queer theory, history, economics -- and they all kind of overlap into each other. The moment you enter Performance Studies, you are entering a world that is at least as big as the world itself, in the sense that you are suddenly faced with what Schechner interestingly calls "horizontal depth". You wouldn't connect horizontality with verticality, would you? But that is the remit of Performance Studies. You are spreading yourself out, but not spreading yourself out thin. So, as an example, when you dig into Anthropology, you make sure that you are getting into the thick of it. When we were into Performance Studies, we were studying Anthropology seriously.

I, for one, wanted to look at theatre, anthropology and history and literature. Those were the battles that I picked; while others chose different combinations. And I crossed those bridges. Someone in my class, for example, wanted to work on queer theory and feminism, and she did that. There is room for all of it. Let us elaborate on the set theory part a bit. When you have circles side by side that are also overlapping, they form a penumbra region. If you imagine the Olympic circles -- parts overlap one another and an eye-shaped is formed with the overlap, like the penumbra during the lunar or solar eclipse.

People situate themselves in the penumbra, and become 'liminal'. If we go to Victor Turner, the great British anthropologist, we could locate the sources of this term. Liminal draws itself from Ritual. Why do some societies have rituals? Rituals are rites of passage. Performance is one of those liminal stages as well. When you are acting on stage, you are not completely yourself; you are not completely the character either. The two are shaking hands somewhere in between. They meet in the liminal.

So, with Performance Studies, there is no limit. You look at all kinds of critical modes and modes of critical query.

DP: What was your Ph.D thesis about?

SC: My thesis was on 19th Century Bengali Theatre, its genesis, its hybridised eastern-western style, how it emerged and how it interfaced with the colonial experience. It is also a kind of auto-ethnography, as a Bengali scholar who also does Bengali Theatre. In doing that work, I experienced a very critical hind-sight on something that you are also a partaker of. It was a deeply illuminating experience for me.

MAN OF THE HEART; photo courtesy Kevin Ryan
MAN OF THE HEART; photo courtesy Kevin Ryan

DP: You taught at the University of California in Berkeley....

SC: Yes, Berkeley was my second job, after my first job at Tufts University, Boston. Then George W. Bush came into the scene, and the USA became politically a very different place. I had a serious political and ethical problem with Bush's election. Every month, when I looked at my income slip, I saw that pretty much 40% of my earnings were going to the Bush regime as tax. That is the reason I couldn't stick it there any longer, although my best friends were there and I had a very comfortable life. It had been 17 years since I had settled in America, made a career for myself, and my son was born there. I had every reason to stay on. I had a Green Card. I was familiar with the teaching system, and was doing well in my profession, moving from one good institution to another, but I couldn't handle it. I couldn't sleep! It was a moral crisis. My mother had just passed away, and that upset me; I had a heart attack; I went through a divorce -- it all precipitated into this one desire to get out of the country. I decided to shift to England, which would bring me a step closer to India. After teaching there for a few years, I got a chance to go to Berlin. While I was in Berlin, the job at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata opened up, and I decided to apply.

DP: How do you feel about working at the CSSSC in Kolkata?

SC: I love it! The teaching load is not so heavy that I would be left completely beaten up. The emphasis instead is on research and supervision of postgraduate students. So, that means I have more time to work on my theatre group, 'Spectactors' - where 'spectators' and 'actors' come together -- and we are working on the parallel worlds of practice and theory, in a concerted effort to bring them closer.

DP: After returning to India, you staged an adaptation of an Iranian play. Tell us about it.

SC: I call the play RAJAR MRITYU, which means 'Death of the King', but the actual title of the play is MARG-E-YAZDGERD, which means 'Death of Yazdgerd'. He was the last Zoroastrian king of Iran before the land was invaded by the Arabs and the Islamic conversion happened. They gradually wiped out Zoroastrianism effectively. That is the time, shortly after which, the Parsees left Iran and came to India. So, it was a period of huge transition and transformation for Iran. The play is a sort of a historical-political thriller, revolving around the mysterious assassination of Yazdgerd III, who is found dead in a decrepit mill in the far-flung eastern region of the crumbling Persian Empire.

Bahram Beyzai, the playwright, is also a theatre director and a film-maker. In fact, he is one of the greatest in Iran, who is not as well known as he should be, outside his country. That is because he never had his eyes on the western market. He never made films for international film festivals. He quietly did his own work and was always in a politically resistant position. He continued to work in Iran as long as he possibly could, fighting the system.

DP: You mentioned that you have not adapted the play, but translated it. What were you thinking of when you decided to stage it in Bengali?

SC: Many people have asked me this - what is the relevance of the play in India? There is a change of regime in Bengal, and many people have embraced the change in the hope of something better. Just like in Iran, the change came with a message of equality. But of course it has turned out to be worse. At the national level, the BJP is in power, but we don't know where Modi is taking us. It is a strange cocktail of welcoming foreign investments and making The Bhagavad Gita the national text. On the whole, we can see that India is also poised on the brink of a number of changes. Fundamental changes that will alter us permanently. Basically, the play is about regime change and it's about querying the relationship between the state and its citizen.

Where is the individual in the political? A line from the play says, 'ekta rashtro ke mara jaena, mara jae sudhu tar raja ke, kintu rajar mrityu hole, mrityu hoy rashtrer-o', (You cannot kill the nation, you can kill the king, but when the king dies the nation dies too). It's a paradox, a riddle.

DP: Your other play MAN OF THE HEART has been in performance for 10 years now. It is rooted in the Baul tradition. Tell us about it.

MAN OF THE HEART; photo courtesy Kevin Ryan
MAN OF THE HEART; photo courtesy Kevin Ryan

SC: MAN OF THE HEART is in its 10th year of performance but the research predates the production. It originated from my interest in Lalon Shah and it evolved with my growing interest in the Bauls and Phokirs of Bengal. They are a subaltern community from the lowest order of society. They at times reverse the social structure that we generally adhere to. They believe that the Godhead resides in the human body, specifically the female body. They believe that this life that we are living is 'death' and we have to go beyond that and come 'alive'. You live a conjugal life and yet it is not one of lust, it is the path of 'love'. They believe the menstrual blood to be holy blood. Every time a woman reaches an orgasm, they think it is divine. Their mode of passing on of knowledge is a hermeneutic practice; the Baul-Phokirs pass it through songs, which work at different levels, depending on who is listening. If you are not an 'educated' listener, you get something short of the true meaning of the song, while someone within the fold of the practice or the 'tarika' gets a lot more.

We do not follow any conventional dramaturgy in the production. There is no narrative, plot or character as such. We don't have a set, only a door frame and a cloth which at times is a path, at times a river, at times a just a long cloth that to wrap the body with. The cloth is both my set and my prop. We don't have any fixed structure either. If I have a co-actor, it is the audience. There are subtitles and projections, which are sometimes projected on the body. And then there is music, a lot of it, with choreographic movement and video.

DP: What has been your experience in Kolkata since you returned?

SC: People have asked me why I came back to a place where the pay is much less and I have to compromise -- especially my decision of coming to Kolkata which is no more a metropolis but more like a necropolis. But I believe it still has the possibility of rising out of the ashes, of being a phoenix. The situation now in Kolkata is kind of an invitation for a maha-pralaya kind of thing.

As the Americans say, if you can't fix it, feature it. I am trying this in my own way with my job and with 'Spectactors'. I am teaching Performance Studies at the CSSSC, which is sort of a unique opportunity, since this subject has not been absorbed into the teaching machine of Kolkata. It is not syllabus driven; it is curriculum driven, course by course. I have just finished teaching "Theorising Performance" there. And then, of course, there is Spectactors, where I am putting performance theory into practice.... That's the idea.

Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.







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