The book 3, Sakina Manzil and Other Plays is a collection of eight Indian plays in English, written by the playwright Ramu Ramanathan, which attempts to investigate emotional and political life in the country. Nearly 25 years after he first began writing for the stage, some of Ramanathan’s work has now been compiled and published by Orient Blackswan, in collaboration with the English and Foreign Languages University, Andhra Pradesh. In a telephone interview, Ramanathan spoke about his corpus of work, represented by the new collection.
What drove you to publish these plays? And how did you pick the title?
The book is the brainchild of Lakshmi Chandra, an editor at Orient Blackswan and a professor at EFL [University]. She’d been taking a course on Indian English theatre and had watched several of my plays, both live and on video. She took an interest in a possible collection and picked the plays that had been performed in English and plays she was familiar with. We contemplated calling it just “A Collection of Plays”, but agreed it sounded a bit pompous – 3, Sakina Manzil is perhaps the nicest, tightest piece of theatre in the collection. I’m fond of it, and it’s also an easy play for a young group to pick up for a production.
What do you make of your writing over the years?
It reflects a sort of clear timeline, and themes – things I’ve been interested in. Plays like Shanti, Shanti, It’s a War and Kashmir Kashmir are clearly political. Jazz was musical and historical. Mahadevbhai was also deeply historical.
If you had to remount one of your plays from this book, which one would it be?
Definitely, Collaborators. I would even give it another rewrite. When it was initially directed, it was quite chaotic. It’s a tough play. It even seems like a ramble sometimes. I suppose I’d like to redirect it again, and strip it of its stylised, more “avant-garde” sort of quality and make it more accessible to audiences.
Your more recent writings, like Comrade Kumbhakarna, have been called “childish” and “polemical”.How do you respond to such criticism?
I try not to make much of praise or criticism as a rule – both often hold you back. Comrade Kumbhakarna is an overtly political play. I’ve taken a certain position while writing the play, and the ideology driving the play is clear. The play was also written for a specific reason: a few activist friends of mine were treated harshly by the State. I suppose not everyone is expected to like the play, and there are also many people who agree with the way things are done in the country. There is a lot of support against dissent. Comrade Kumbhakarna was my account of a withering country.
Are publishers open to the idea of publishing contemporary Indian plays in English?
It is tough for a playwright in English to be published. There are a couple of committed publishers in Maharashtra who publish Marathi plays, and some of that culture has permeated into the English publishing world, and that is encouraging. But the question often asked by publishers is if a play – especially a work-inprogress – constitutes literature, if playwriting in its modern contemporary form qualifies as literature.
Of the contemporary Indian plays in English that you’ve been reading, is there anything that younger playwrights can benefit from?
Of what I’ve read of young playwrights, I’m quite taken in by most of their work. Firstly, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, the writing acts and behaves like a play. It is most definitely inwardlooking, which is important. There has always been a tradition of mentorship in Indian theatre, with people like Satish Alekar or Satyadev Dubey. Not to forget, a play is an ongoing thing. It’s always a good idea for playwrights to have their plays read. The play breathes, and it lets them react to it in its most natural state.
Are you still writing as much as you did earlier?
I wrote a play for Aasakta, a Pune-based theatre group, called Kashmir Kashmir, a couple of years back. Last year, I wrote Comrade Kumbhakarna for them as well. It was performed by the National School of Drama repertory and directed by Aasakta’s Mohit Takalkar. I’m currently writing a piece for Zafar Karachiwala and Ahlam Khan.
Ramu Ramanathan's 3, Sakina Manzil and Other Plays, Orient Blackswan, R375
By Deepika Arwind on April 13 2012 9.26am