Interview Parnab Mukherjee has made the works of Shakespeare lend itself to an indigenous milieu through theatre
As Parnab Mukherjee's “Hamletmachine - Images of Shakespeare-in-us” played out at Prakriti's Hamara Shakespeare festival three years ago, the audience was pitch forked into the troubled state of Manipur. Parnab's is an art that disturbs. It is theatre with a cutting edge that constantly makes us uncomfortable as it asks questions, portraying the injustice and inequalities in a skewed world order. But it does so by using the arsenal of the theatre — language, props and scenography — with skill. The director who specialises in theatre-for-conflict-resolution was in Chennai recently to participate in Kalachuvadu's release of seven books in Tamil translation. He presented a dramatised rendering of Cheran's poems on the tragedy in Sri Lanka.
The alternative theatre director, journalist, art curator and performance consultant divides his time between Kolkata and the North-East. He has directed more than 150 full length/workshop productions that include full length plays, workshop performances, theatre interventions, non-verbal texts, promenade theatre and installation-based theatre. Among his plays are “Trilogy of Unrest”, “River Series”, “Shakespeare Shorts”, “Only Curfew” and “Necropolis”.
A student of Badal Sircar who learnt from the legend even while at school, Parnab was also inspired by Sircar's admiration for Shakespeare. “Sircar was a theatrescientist. One might not agree with his stance but in this non-agreement he democratised the theatre space.” Parnab brings a deep sense of the cerebral and the political to his approach to theatre. He has written four books of performance texts. “I've always made Shakespeare interact with the local text,” he says.
He believes the poetry of Shakespeare can lend itself and talk to another indigenous text than stand alone.
“My play on Caliban from ‘The Tempest' has Shakespearean lines interspersed with Eelam poetry. I have looked at Othello from the folklore of Adivasi and Santhal uprisings. In my production on Julius Caesar, the loneliness of Caesar prior to the assassination runs parallel to that of Gandhi before his.” The characters of the “benevolent autocrats” Mugabe and Castro intersect with that of Richard II when he deals with the Shakespearean play.
It is not Shakespeare alone among the classicists who wields a fascination for the director. Kalidasa is also contemporised.
“I have examined Sakuntala as the phenomenon of loss of memory as we all indulge in selective amnesia,” he says.
Quite a few of his works are staged in “Found places” — non conventional theatre spaces that lend themselves to performance. “My plays have been performed in a disused well in Purulia; in an underground, abandoned, printing press in Kolkata complete with doctors and nurses if any member of the audience experienced difficulties in breathing, and in a railway station in Liverpool, the oldest in the world that has been turned into a theatre space.”
Parnab has a special passion for campus theatre. “Physical participation in education apart from sports is not much in our country,” says the director. And so he turns canteen and classroom into theatre. He is the artistic director of Best of Kolkata Campus — a performance collective that has dealt with human rights issues. It comprises students and a few teachers. Parnab uses poems extensively in his productions. Sometimes he takes up a single poem and sometimes longer narratives or a series of poems such as poems on love, longing and war by A.K. Ramanujam.
“Another close to the heart poem is Rabindranath Tagore's ‘Africa', perhaps the only continent Tagore had not visited.” Recurring icons in his work are Gandhi, Tagore and Ambedkar.
The director whose works have been performed widely in India and abroad feels Kolkata and Pune have sensitive theatre audiences — and Imphal as well.
“In Chennai Carnatic music occupies the space that theatre would in Pune,” he observes. “Theatre is more alive in off-towns such as Mysore, Shimoga and Madurai than Bangalore or Chennai — globalisation tends to make theatre in cities appear standardised.”