Manjula Padmanabhan’s collected works for the stage appear in two volumes, the heftier one ( Blood and Laughter ) subtitled ‘Plays’ and its slimmer companion ( Laughter and Blood ), ‘Performance Pieces’. Some of these are being published for the first time, others have had wide exposure on stages across the country and abroad. The plays and pieces appear to be distinguished from each other primarily by length but also, perhaps, by the complexity of the production they would require to be fully realised.
Blood and Laughter: Plays contains Harvest , a no-holds-barred exploration of the international trade in human organs. Set in a dystopic future which now seems all too close, it won the Onassis award in 1997 and catapulted Padmanabhan to international fame. But Plays also contains her first dramatic work, Lights Out , which remains my favourite. The tightly placed and paced work is based on a real-life incident in which an unknown woman is gangraped night after night on a construction site next to an upmarket apartment building. The residents of the building are deeply disturbed by this, but not in ways one might most immediately imagine. Padmanabhan captures bourgeois conceits, fears and apathy with startling veracity, turning a mirror to her audience such that they might recognise themselves.
But let not the obvious persuasions of these better known and fuller works distract you from the shorter pieces in Laughter and Blood , which contains monologues as well as multi-character pieces. These works are more overtly political in that they locate themselves inside the issues of our times — hierarchies of caste and class, gender relations, discrimination, displacement and migration, among others.
One of the joys of encountering Padmanabhan’s work is that she wears her heart on her sleeve, responding constantly to both an outer and an inner world, to the social forces of oppression and injustice as well as to personal emotions such as anger and frustration. This might make her work ‘difficult’ for some, as she seeks to disturb rather than to comfort, to confront rather than to appease.
In whatever location or form or medium (and she works in many), Padmanabhan is essentially a storyteller. Sometimes, she speaks in pictures, at other times in newspaper columns and reports, and at still other times, she speaks in plays. The two volumes at hand amplify the latter voice, allowing us not only to appreciate her particular talents but also to remember the many ways in which stories can be told for the stage.
Padmanabhan writes drama with assured confidence, whether she intends to fill the stage with as complex and challenging a
production as Harvest or whether she’s writing quieter monologues in which the sole actor must use all the resources at their disposal to inhabit the character. And it was in this regard that I was struck by Padmanabhan’s comment in one of her short essays that accompany the play texts. She says she has a comfort with dialogue because of her years as a cartoonist — it is where she learnt the skill of making things happen, of creating action, through people’s conversations with each other or with themselves.
One of the nicest things about these volumes is that they have allowed Padmanabhan to write short introductions to individual and grouped works. These short essays function as the playwright’s commentaries on her own work, most written long after the plays themselves. It’s always a treat to have a creative person speak about their own work, especially when they are as candid as Padmanabhan. She speaks of the plays that came easily and the ones that took years to find their voice, she talks of their successes and failures, their performance journeys, the parts that please her and the parts that remain less than satisfactory.
There is as much inspiration for a young playwright or actor in these essays and dramatic works as there is an articulation of the particular pleasures of the stage that can be shared by more experienced theatre makers.
Blood and Laughter & Laughter and Blood; Manjula Padmanabhan, Hachette India, ₹499, ₹399
The reviewer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent.