A collection of Odia writer JP Das’ plays, translated into English, offers unique insights into the human condition
Theatre buffs have reason to celebrate as Odia writer JP Das’ collection of plays, translated into English, is to be released by actor-MP Jaya Bachchan at the India International Centre this Saturday. Though written in Odia, Das’ plays are better known for their adaptations in other languages. All his plays were staged outside Odisha as translations before they were performed in Odia.
His most famous plays include Sundardas (1993) — on the early politics of conversion, which won him the Nandikar Award in 2001; Before the Sunset, the translation of Suryasta Puravaru (1971), for which Om Puri played the lead when it was presented in Delhi by former National School of Drama (NSD) director Ram Gopal Bajaj in 1976 and; others like The Underdog, on caste, and Absurd Play, on drama itself.
Except a few radio plays written in the ’60s, which weren’t preserved, the rest — six in all — have been published. The translators excel in their fields. These include Ravi Baswani, of Jaane Bhi do Yaaron fame, who passed away in 2010. There are also notes in the book, by directors and eminent theatre personalities, filled with nostalgia and practical information on technique.
A student activist in the 1950s and a civil servant during the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s, JP’s realism manifests itself magnificently in all his works. With small casts, his plays were hits during the glorious seventies, as the book’s editor Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee puts it. Das, who lives in Delhi, says “Though problems and situations shift and change, basic human relationship is an eternal factor. Some social problems also would seem to be perennial. A good piece of art will, therefore, never date.”
His insights come from his experience in the All India Students Federation during his days at Ravenshaw College in Cuttack, where he co-edited the journal Agami, and his experiences as an administrator, particularly in Kalahandi. “When I was writing about the famine conditions in 19th Century Orissa in my novel (Desha Kala Patra), I was surely conscious about my first hand experience in Kalahandi,” he says.
After resigning from the Indian Administrative Service in 1984, JP took to writing full time and went on to become the Vice Chairman of NSD. He remained in Delhi for its vibrant theatre scene and the culture that exists around the NSD. His more recent works are poems for children. He now lives in New Delhi’s Green Park with his wife.
On current popular theatre here, he says, “I am of the view that a play should be a literary piece of writing which should be as much fun reading as seeing it performed on stage. Unfortunately many ‘plays’ produced these days are more like ‘revues’ with short satirical sketches dealing with contemporary social and political issues.” (Revues are multi-act popular theatre shows that combine music, dance and short comedy)
The move to publish these translations, reveals Das, now 76, comes at a time when his writing has slowed down. “The plays in this volume were translated at different times and published in the past in theatre journal Enact and also in book form. These are now brought together in a single volume. I have no plans for translation into other languages... Unfortunately, there are not many translators in other Indian languages who know Odia. The translations from Odia have therefore to be done from an English or Hindi translation, which is not such a good idea.”
However he admits that Indian English theatre is “a very different kettle of fish.” He explains, “The English theatre scene is very different from the regional language theatres; the former is mostly corporate sponsored with high ticket rates and patronised by a different set of viewers.”