Interview with Nathan and Wendy
Duration: 00:22:25; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 40.438; Saturation: 0.188; Lightness: 0.359; Volume: 0.209; Cuts per Minute: 1.606; Words per Minute: 153.398
Interviewer: Right, Nathan. What have been your very early ideas in planning for the play that is happening now?
Nathan: Sudhanva and I had been corresponding earlier... as you know we've been talking about this show for some time. Initially, I was really thinking about what visual elements could be brought into the play because, as you know, I'm a visual artist, Wendy is a visual artist. And the work that Janam does is actually not so visual. I mean it's more — it's theatrical but its not...has a lower, less visual dimension.
So I was really thinking in the early stages about visual. And the kind of things I was thinking were things related to spectacle. Things related to circus. Something that had a narrative element but also had a very strong visual context. And an idea that I had had was of a circus — the show kind of being about a circus, where the clowns, some elements of the circus, um, kind of overthrew a tyrant ring master. And the reason I was thinking along those lines was not so much because circus is a, you know, the best form but it has very big visual elements. You could bring in elephants, bring in all kinds of things that puppets and masks would lend themselves to. So those are really the ideas that I had. Circus also is, you know — India has circuses.
Interviewer: But now the play has no elements of the circus in it.
Nathan: [Laughing] Not at all.
Interviewer: In fact, it's changed considerably. So what do you think the play is doing now. What do you think the possibilities in it right now; where it would lead us to?
Nathan: Um, from a narrative...?
Interviewer: Both. Visual as well as narrative.
Nathan: Well, visually, I think we've got... Basically, what we've done is we've come up with an entirely different story line, entirely different narrative — which is great. I mean, I am very happy, because, ultimately, I see myself here as supporting Janam's work, not coming really with my own agenda, but really supporting the work that is already going on.
So I think it's wonderful that we've out and out rejected the ideas that I had initially come with, because that's really what it's about. It's coming together with a collaboration: working from my strengths, Wendy's strengths, your strengths. Janam's strengths. So I think where it's going, or where I see it going right now is... is in the direction of really merging the story of a common man and his donkey and seeing how, the kinda the 'powers that be', you know — political powers, religious powers, social power— is impacting the life of an ordinary person.
And I think what we've done, off setting the king vis-a-vis the donkey is really to juxtapose these two figures as really ... as a way of satirising, as a way of poking fun. But more than poking fun, I mean I think we're doing something a lot more — what to say — not necessarily subversive, but we're doing something a lot more — there is a lot more potency than simply poking fun at the king and at the figure.
Interviewer: And do you find that the visual element has been underplayed or there is still a tremendous possibility of having this sort of skills and experiences that you have and Wendy has, you know, coming into the play?
Nathan: I think there is still a lot of scope for that.
Interviewer: Big puppets also?
Nathan: I'm ... Right now, I'm thinking, for various reasons, I'm thinking not to have big puppets, per say. Still have large visual elements: masks definitely, costumes, you know, elaborate set pieces that augment the characters. But there really, right now, there really isn't a place that I see, a really good place for a puppet. There is several reasons for that. Puppet really is visual and is largely kind of movement oriented. Puppets don't speak well. They look well, they move well, but they don't speak well.
And one of Janam's strengths is narrative, is verbal dialogue. It's the witty repartee that I've seen in Janam's plays that I think is one of Janam's real strengths. And puppets don't do that well. Puppets, you know, give you a context, give you a more of a, a setting and within which actors can act. So like the ... but we have a character called Raja. The Raja goes in procession with his big entourage. Now that's a perfect place to bring in large visual elements. And if we had more time, if the context of the play was such that you know, the puppet was demanded, the puppet in the Raja's procession would be a very appropriate place. But right now the way the play's looking and the other constraints of size and other things, I don't think we'll be making puppets, but we'll be making — still using large visuals.
Interviewer: You've been... You've seen the kind of place we've been performing. You went to Jhandapur the other day and apart from that, you've seen some of our performances. In those kind of places, what, where — I mean, how do you find the puppets, large puppets, find a place?
Nathan: Well see, puppets... puppets more than just being interesting to look at. I mean a hoarding is interesting to look at. But it's not active, it's not dynamic. So a puppet is really a large hoarding, it's a large billboard, it's a murel given life. And that's really what it is for me. It's a large visual expression that has life to it. So you don't want to just have a puppet standing there. The puppet needs to be doing something.
So something that I really think would be wonderful — a place given the elements of ... given the context, is having a procession before the show. I could really see — Puppets fill the space. And what happens when you see a puppet is everybody turns and looks. It really focuses an area. It really demarcates a performance area. And to have a puppet and a procession come into a space immediately establishes it as a performance space. And really what puppets do is they claim everyday space where people are, you know, buying and selling tea, as a performance context. Which is really what Nukurnatak does. It takes an everyday street intersection and turns it into a performance space. And a Jain puppets do the same, simply by being there. It is an out of the ordinary, visual element that claims, that claims a street corner as a performance context.
And so, you know, the street area right in front of the, at the gates of Er Ambedkar park park in Jumnapur, anywhere on the streets of Delhi, any part; immediately you see a puppet, you're drawn to it, what's going on. The same way the Nukurnatak, you hear the drums and you're drawn to it. So puppets for me really have the similar kind of demarcation, creation, claiming, you know, everyday space as performance space.
Interviewer: You've been interacting in the creation of the play in the past couple of weeks or so. When you— the input that you give, or your comments, your suggestions — are you separating the narrative and trying to link your experience skill with giant puppets, the visual element of it. Are you doing that consciously or is it something that — How does it work itself when you are actually contributing something?
Nathan: It pretty much happens unconsciously. It really does. I mean, I'm, as I am working with Sudhanva and the cast, I don't necessarily say, Ha, this is the place where this has to be a puppet, but as I am working, I'm kinda seeing ... You know, for instance, just to use an example of the ladder. The ladder is there, I'm not even sure why the ladder is there but the ladder is there. And it's not that I thought, okay the ladder will be really good but immediately, you know, as I am working, I'm thinking, ah, this is going to be the perfect place to put this large visual element. Because a ladder is already kind of a large visual prop. It's interesting to look at. So I don't have preset ideas.
But as the play is getting worked out, things occur to me, elements ... The donkey, for instance. It was clear from the beginning that the donkey had to be a mask and costume. I mean, that was clear. Other elements aren't so clear. You know, the character of the fortune teller. The fortune teller could be a puppet, but right now, she's not so much a ... right now, in the play, she's only present in kind of one scene. Do we want to take a lot of effort to make a puppet of a character who just appears once? You know, those are the kinds of things I think about. If the Banjaran turns into, in the next few weeks, turns into a major character, then it might be appropriate to have a puppet for her. So, it really, it's just kind of in process that the visual and the narrative come together for me as I am working.
Interviewer: Where do you think the play is going now? I mean, at this point of time. Where do you think, what kind of direction is the play taking? In concrete terms.
Nathan: In concrete terms.. Well, I mean, I think yesterday.... What's wonderful for me is just to see the way things unfold. I mean Janam uses a process of building plays that I am quite unfamiliar with, and I find very refreshing and also very risky. Because you have no idea where you're going. And so what that does is that just lays open any number of possibilities. And some are utter failures and others are utter successes. So rather than having a script, somebody sitting down and coming up with good ideas and the actors working with those ideas, the actors are given free reign.
So just yesterday, I feel we introduced a really strong character. A really strong element which is kind of this RSS, behind the scenes that the RSS chief behind the scenes manipulating things. We really hadn't thought of that. But it was really — I mean, we had the idea notionally, that that is something we wanted, but the way it got represented visually was just terrific.
Interviewer: Would you like to talk about it?
Nathan: Yeah. Basically that happened in the course of a free improvisation where we... Sudhanva and I were kind of saying, well these are the elements we want. We want — we don't want to represent the king. The king has to stay hidden but we want his other elements, his other ministers or whatever kind of reporting about what happened in the course of the play; I mean, in the course of the procession when the donkey got stopped.
So just as a matter of free improvisation and somebody latched onto this idea that the king can't be seen. It was already a part of the narrative, of the play that the king is not to be seen because he is such a fool. But none of us — it hadn't really occurred to us that there is some other element that can't be seen. And Rohit just stuck his ... stood behind the curtain and stuck his hands out and started talking. And immediately, I was like wow, that's a really good idea. It had a very sinister quality. Now the kind is not sinister but who is sinister? Then we started thinking about the chief. Well, who is the chief? Because of the nature of what we're trying to do with the play, which is really address Indian politics, the BJP... But the BJP is the king, who's behind the king? Who's behind the BJP?
So looking at those elements in Indian society, in Indian politics, in Indian history, where who's controlling — who's really in control? And who is really driving these forces, these social tendencies increasing, you know, just militarisation with these nuclear tests. All of these elements in Indian society, these very sinister trends that have been built up over the years. You know, who's really driving that? Well there is this force of, you know, fascism, the conservatism, the reactionary, the xenophobia — well, it's not really xenophobia, but the forces that are creating a climate of fear and then being exploited politically and socially by the RRS, by the kind of the Hindutva forces. So the play really has taken on a kind of new — just even from yesterday, it turned a corner and I think it's giving the whole element, the whole play .... The narrative has turned the corner and I think it's giving the shape to the whole play in a new and very interesting way.
Nathan: So as I was saying, I think the play always... I don't know where it is going to go. I'm really excited by where it is now. The directions I see it going are basically towards bringing — I think, ultimately what we need to do is not blatantly show this is play about Hindutva and BJP because that's really what it's not about. We're really addressing something, kind of the forces that work in society, whether in India or anywhere else. I mean, the same kinds of things are at work in the United States. These underlying social currents that have a face. And what we're trying to do through the play is show that face. Because it's only by showing that face can we get behind to look at those other forces in society that driving us towards increasing intolerance, etc.
Interviewer: In the play, there is a clearly a confrontation that has been planned, certainly in the earlier improvisations, between the donkey and the king. Do you see that taking place, face to face?
Nathan: The —
Interviewer: Or the role of the fortune teller?
Nathan: I mean really what we need to do, I feel like, for the structure of the play. Basically we have the king and we have the man and his donkey. And we really need to bring them together in a real way and not in a contrived way. And I think each of their's concern, I mean their kind of preoccupation with what's — It's a preoccupation that we all have, an insecurity, what's going to happen to us? And I think having them go to the character of the fortune teller, really is a way of looking at how each of them responds to the fortune teller.
Because ultimately we all know what our fortune is. On one level, we all know what our fortune is. Our fortune is all the same. But how does each of us respond to that fortune? The donkey accepts his fortune. Whereas the king, who is this, who is obsessed with control, does not want to accept his fortune. And I think we need to juxtapose, but I think further than juxtaposing, I think we really need to see how the king to responds to the donkey. Because ultimately what we're going to be seeing is that the donkey — is that we wanna be able to identify — I mean the donkey is ultimately the stronger character whose more in control of himself and his world than the king who is obsessed with control. The king is obssesed with control and yet has no control.
Interviewer: You mean the donkey, or the king? Or his old man?
Interviewer: You really mean the old man.
Nathan: Yeah, I really mean the old man. Exactly, yeah. I don't mean the donkey. I really mean the old man. And we're seeing that through the donkey. But really it's the character of the old man.
Interviewer: Wendy, what have been the kind of work that you've been doing before you came to India and what is your area of specialisation?
Wendy: Well recently, in the last three years, I have been working with community art festivals, parades. Before that I was a scientific illustrator. And so now this is very new to me. And what the community art festival stresses is visuals and movement and music and so that's what I've been doing. Mostly papier mache, giant puppets and things like that.
Interviewer: Why did you come to India, or why did you want to come to India?
Wendy: I wanted to come to India to experience a different culture. And also, especially India, because I come from Trinidad and half population in Trinidad are from India. And so I thought that I would like to understand who those people are in some way and also to experience something different. I mean I've always done festivals, but I've never — which stress, usually, celebration of life — but I've never done anything that really had a very strong social statements. And so that's why I wanted to experience something different and to work with...
Interviewer: Did you have any ideas about the play that was being planned? Had you any ideas what sort of a play it should be or was going to like.
Wendy: [Laughing] No.
Interviewer: No, not at all.
Wendy: No, I knew what the purpose of the play was. But I did not know how you were going to...
Interviewer: Could you tell us something, what you thought was the purpose?
Wendy: I thought it was the purpose to — what I understood was a memorial to Safdar who was killed ten years ago. And I had no idea how you were going to express that and what you were going to say. You know, how much of it was a memorial, how much of it was going to talk about present issues, incorporation of his life.
Interviewer: You've been here barely what two days. What have been your initial feelings, responses, working with the group?
Wendy: Initially, my exposure to the group was from Sudhanva. And I was just really struck by how warm he was to me. He didn't know me and he was so welcoming to me. And that made my — I mean, I was very nervous about coming. That erased all of that. And then, since I've met the group, they've also been very warm and welcoming. I do not speak the language. Everything is very new to me. But I am very struck by the energy of the people, how they improvise so quickly. And just, you know, the collaboration that goes on.
Interviewer: Have you been working with plays earlier?
Wendy: No. Never worked with plays.
Interviewer: So there was really by way of processions and cultural festivals. What do you think the play is saying now, from whatever you've understood?
Wendy: Um, well it's talking about — it's trying to incorporate everything that is going on right now that concerns people who are being oppressed. And um, what I really like about it, is that it addresses, um, people who really, to me, don't really have a voice, so you are really, um, identifying with them and giving them a voice in a very different way.
Interviewer: And where do your skills and your experiences play a role in the preparation of the play?
Wendy: Well, I have noticed that from your plays that you don't use very strong visual elements. I mean, it's usually just people and one or two props like a flag or maybe a very simple mask. So what we're doing is very, very different. We incorporate some more stronger visuals and so I'm just trying to use my skills in, with that in hand.
Interviewer: You went to Jhandapur the other day. Would you like to talk about that? What you saw, what you thought of, what you felt?
Wendy: I saw a community that was very working class, very — I don't know if the word is 'simple', but um...
Interviewer: I mean visually what did you experience? Let's start from there. Was it any different from ... different or same or what were the points of contact between whatever else you've been experiencing in India?
Wendy: [laughing, shaking her head]
Nathan: Or, how does it compare to the lives of Indians in Trinidad. I mean, would you have seen something like Jhandapur in Trinidad, in port of Spain or...
Wendy: Probably if I went to villages, but I've never done that. I've never been exposed to that part of society. So I was struck mostly by these people who are trying to survive daily, selling produce, going to work, in a very rural setting.