There is no acting. There is no need for a stage or a story. The audience is encouraged to disagree. For theatre activist Parnab Mukherjee, plays are lived experiences
He's performed Shakespeare in a rickshaw and Tagore in an abandoned printing press, 50 feet below the ground. He's put his audience on the stage, and acted on the seats for 400 nights. His plays opened the prestigious Amnesty International Festival on the 60th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He's never changed a costume before a play. Parnab Mukherjee is also able to assure us, “Your grandmother's recipe will do for a performance. “
Independent media activist Parnab is the artistic director of Best of Kolkata Campus, a non-profit, non-registered collective of campus theatre activists that works with non-proscenium spaces. “We waste time, lovingly, finding spaces — and usually work it backwards from there.” Like Tagore's Red Oleanders, which required the audience to walk through a tunnel to the airless, lightless underground press, ankle-deep in water. “They experienced claustrophobia, they understood freedom.” Which is what the play was about. “Because nobody ever really physically feels a play! The smell-sound-touch experience, which is a given in auditorium, then changes.”
Parnab's plays are visual ammunition, rapid, ruthless — whether it's Tagore, Harold Pinter, Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, Manto, Beckett or Ambai. In “Unbound”, his retelling of Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, a character bound in plastic is thrown to the ground and sat upon, while in the background plays a video of a man immolating himself; sometimes flesh-coloured cloth blooms with red on the floor, dotted by the mangled limbs of dolls.
“But we play ourselves, most of the time. There is no ‘acting'. Professional actors are supremely uncomfortable with it,” he laughs. Why not act? “When plays are political, as ours are, the audience must be allowed to disagree. I am not saying this is the story. Choose your own play. In fact,” he considers, “if there are at least ten people seriously disagreeing with your play, having a problem with your very existence, then your plays have reached a destination,” he laughs.
Parnab is a person who has returned, repeatedly, to conflict, and sometimes alone. Solos, as a brand of theatre, are sometimes considered the hardest to perform. “Monologues are potent, more so when they are with oneself. My props become my co-actors. A chair is not a chair — it can be a jail, a person, or the earth.”
Having derived from the work of artists and sculptors more than conventional theatre, his work is synesthestic, requiring the senses and not mere intellect to embrace. “Every prop is a lived prop. I can't slip in and out of a costume before the play, changing hurriedly in the bathroom. We get into it for public consumption. So whatever I happen to be wearing, with that day's sweat, grime, rips and wrinkles, becomes the costume.”
He understands its importance, having worked with sexually abused children, severely trafficked women, and displaced communities, using theatre as therapy. “To these people, lived-in is very important. It may take seven months for an abused child to touch my hand. The strength of the play lies there. That invisible play, that private theatre.”
But with it also comes conflict, questions. “Sometimes, particularly when my subjects may never see the plays themselves, I wonder if I'm selling or representing them. The semi-urban patronising view of the oppressed. I admit it, publicly.”
“Our understanding of the body in theatre is still very limited — till we face someone who has been violated. That sense of displacement with one's own body, and to live with it as a site of attack. The body is not a form of representation — it can be so much more.”
Parnab's plays hold the distinction for being invited to non-theatre spaces; such as documentary festivals and the Singapore International photography exhibition. He is the only theatre-person who went to the Bring Your Own Film Festival of Puri with his plays. Sparse theatre, stark, needing nothing. “That ‘need nothing' can make you stronger. The 21st-century newspapers' dilemmas are 21st century theatre's dilemmas. Surrounded by an explosion of images and ideas, we're forgetting the implosions.”
From the foothills of the Jadugoda and Turamdihi to protest uranium projects, to the violation human rights in the Northeast and Gujarat and for de-notified tribes, Parnab has refused to rest. “There is a damning urban silence in art right now. A phobia about how loud your art can, should be. I'm at a time when I cannot be silent anymore. We've all outlived our expiry dates on subtlety.”