The Two Hats of Partha Chatterjee: An Interview
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Sudipto: The question that comes to my mind as a person from Calcutta, someone involved with the theatre, and at the same time as someone who is in the United States in the world of academics, is how do you reconcile your two images, being both a preeminent scholar and at the same time being very involved in the theatre as a playwright and a theatre worker?
Partha: Its very hard to answer this question. I think these are two very different hats that I wear. When I am doing theatre, and as you know this theatre is very much Calcutta theatre, which, although influenced over the last 150 years by Western theatre, it is still very much something that is localized, it has very very local resonances. On the other hand, academic work in India is necessarily carried out in the English language, and, in spite of all its specific India- centric nuances, it is still very much a part of an international academic life, which theatre is not. Therefore, it is not just the difference in language which is important — that most of my professional academic work is carried out in English but theatre is not, theatre is in Bengali. Both in terms of the audience or readership, and therefore even in terms of the relevant institutions in which one is located, doing these two kinds of work are very different. Of course, in some ways I do try to reconcile these two different kinds of activities in the same person, but I do think that they are different. And people involved in the theatre in Calcutta have very little idea or even interest in what I do at other times and certainly people in the academic world know very little about Calcutta theatre.
Sudipto: That precisely is the purpose of this interview well, maybe, one of the purposes to present both aspects of your personality and writing.
Partha: One of the things I would definitely emphasize is the fact of bilingualism. The way in which we in India have to live it out necessarily means adopting all sorts of means, even in one’s personal life, in trying to work with two different languages and therefore work with two very different worlds which come together in the same lives, but they still have very different relevances and points of reference. And I am not saying that everybody does it in quite the same way. One of the ways in which I try and do it is to use theatre as one side which is completely centered around that part of my life which is lived out in the Bengali language. Drama is really the field in which I have tried it out. It’s not something I would ever attempt to do in the English language because, as I said, in my professional life as an academic clearly there are certain limitations, I am constantly aware of certain things which I am unable to do in terms of my own thinking and living, various modes of self-expression which it is impossible for me to work out in my professional academic life, given one’s very ambiguous relationship with the English language. So, I suppose, drama is the field where I have a sense of freedom, a sense of far greater control over the materials and language and the kinds of things I can do with a sense of proprietorship which I certainly don’t enjoy in the English language.
Sudipto: So, in other words, you are saying that maybe they work as supplements for each other.
Partha: I suppose so. If I were to think of it in that way, although I have not done this very consciously, many of the themes and questions and problems which arise in terms of the kinds of work that one does as a historian or a social theorist are also relevant in terms of the kinds of things that one does as a playwright. Although, as I said, I have never thought of it very consciously. But, if you were to ask what kinds of things I would think of doing as someone working in the theatre in Calcutta which I would not be able to do as an academic writer, I would say it’s very largely explained by the fact of bilingualism, which forces me to live two very different lives in two very different worlds.
Sudipto: Now that you have agreed that the two aspects of your work have a supplement-complement relationship I was wondering if there is any theoretical interface between the two. In other words, the subjects that you deal with in your academic work and the subjects that you deal with in your theatrical work — are they related in any other tangible terms, other than coming from the same person, which is an obvious bio-physical truth, is there any theoretical, ideological connection? A bridge of ideas between the two, perhaps.
Partha: Well, I suppose that is certainly true. Of course, I must say that I’ve never actually approached a subject which one could, let us say, write up as a play with the conscious recognition that it is theoretically important, which is something I know from my academic work. I’ve never approached it quite that way. I would certainly say that in terms of the kinds of subjects and themes and approaches which I would find interesting or relevant as someone working in Bengali theatre, I would think of those kinds of questions entirely from within the given tradition of Bengali theatre itself. For instance, even if I was thinking of new approaches, or new problems, or new subjects, I would think of it as somebody who was completely brought up within the tradition of Bengali theatre itself. Perhaps one could say that even if one did not have that other side of my work which is that of a professional academic, I could still do the kind of work that I have been doing in the theatre. But I must say that there are ideological, political preferences. I would not be interested in, for instance, the very conventional bourgeois drawing-room theatre tradition, which is also very much part of the Bengali tradition. The kind of work that I would be interested in as Bengali theatre would be something which I could justify and defend and argue and explain entirely as somebody who is part of Bengali theatre. So that I would not have to appeal to other kinds of work that I have done in order to explain and justify that work. However, I suppose, if you look at the kinds of plays that I’ve worked on so far, both their political content and the issues they have brought up, my interest in history, for instance, certain kinds of historical subjects which have also to do with the whole colonial experience, the contemporary political, ideological debates in India, the way those debates will affect let us say the progressive, supposedly articulate, conscious middle-class circles... those would be precisely the kinds of things I’d be interested in. And I suppose they are also relevant in terms of the academic work that I have done. So, I suppose, in that sense, there are common themes.
Sudipto: For example, one instance that’s coming to my mind is the last play that your group Kushilav produced in Calcutta, called Aakraman. Of course, you did not write the script per se but you reworked it for the production and knowing the subject of that play, the subject matter in itself seems quite directly related to some of your scholarly work.
Partha: Sure. It is and, I suppose, in terms of the reworking, I was interested in trying to present the whole problem of communalism, not from the usually approved formulaic treatments which would be conventional in left, progressive, secularist circles. For instance, this particular play does not end on a very positive note. It ends on a very ambiguous sort of note where, I think, one was seriously trying to not present the audience with a comfortable situation, but in fact make the audience very uncomfortable. And this was not necessarily approved of by other people who have also done work in recent times...
Sudipto: ...on the same subject...
Partha: ...that led to a very lively debate, and I was quite interested in finding out later that a lot of people would actually see the point of not necessarily having...
Sudipto: ...a happy reconciliation
Partha: ...yes, a comfortable positive ending, because they realized that, in some ways, on the whole question of communalism you are face to face with certain problems to which you really don’t have honest answers.
Sudipto: You have a baggage of history which you have to address on its own terms. Well, talking about theatre and history, your latest play that is about to be produced in Calcutta is an adaptation, or should I say, a take on a very famous Bengali text called Ha-ja- ba- ra-la written by Sukumar Ray, who is probably the most important nonsense- humorist we have had in the history of Bengali literature and undoubtedly world-class in that. I just happened to read the play for the first time last night and was quite astounded by the interjections, the interventions you make in this almost historically canonized text of Ha-ja-ba- ra- la, and yet it is quite seamless. The play starts like a Sukumar Ray play and continues in that vein but gradually, very gradually, almost imperceptibly (I didn’t even realize it in the first reading) it totally changes character and at the end we are left stumped when this child leaves like Alice in Wonderland asking us, “Well, I don’t know whether this was a dream or a real thing, but don’t tell Mom! Here I find, more definitely, the mind of the thinker kind of coming and shaking hands with its creative part and taking full responsibility of history, not just as a history of Bengali literature where you are answering to Sukumar Ray or measuring up to his talents... nothing of that sort, but just taking it on and perpetuating it in a way.
Partha: With Sukumar Ray, I have always felt I’ve read Sukumar Ray I don’t know how many times, but every time I have felt him to be a man of incredibly powerful intellect. I would emphasize that word. And even in what is very often regarded, even now, canonically as children’s literature, you can actually see a very refined, mature, incisive adult mind, working through all of those often very fragmented and scattered texts.
Sudipto: Only superficially for children.
Partha: Its only superficially for children! And even in the original Ha-ja-ba-ra-la, which is actually... it’s not even written as drama, but if you did dramatize it, I suppose it would last 15 or 20 minutes, probably. But the way in which things like the colonial court, colonial law, things like the whole auction business
Sudipto: You’ve also brought in neo-colonialism through the Beauty Contest scene that you wrote in.
Partha: No, no, those are additional things. But I would like to think that if, for instance, the original Ha-ja-ba-ra- la... which was written in 1914 (or thereabouts) were written some 70 or 80 years later, given all of the other things that we now find most worth talking about in our contemporary political and social situation, if Sukumar Ray were alive today he would write scenes about, for instance, what’s going on in the stock market today, what’s going on, let us say, with communal riots and with Miss Universe Contests, and so on. I really do believe he would have found it extremely attractive to write about those sorts of things in an apparently absurd or nonsensical way. But, clearly, that is a mode of humor which can engage and in some ways shake up fundamental beliefs about things which people take for granted as commonsensical. It is such obvious parts of reality that that mode of questioning can actually shake up. And I think that’s one of the things which Ha-ja-ba- ra-la does. Why does it continue to be so attractive to adult people and not just children? I think people at very different ages can respond to it at different levels. Thats the enormous richness of that text. I’ve simply tried to exploit some of that potential.
Sudipto: Talking about Bengali theatre — specifically theatre in Calcutta as opposed to Bangladeshi theatre (which is also Bengali theatre) — since you are looking at Calcutta from your academic point of view and at the same time you are very deeply involved in the theatre scene over there, what’s the pulse of the situation, what do you feel?
Partha: We joined the theatre in our younger days in the late sixties and early seventies. The sixties obviously was the high point of what was known in Calcutta, is still known, as group theatre, which is basically non-professional but made up of people who are practically devoted full-time to this kind of enterprise. But the groups don’t run as professional companies. The sixties and early seventies was the high point for that kind of theatre. There was so much experimental work that I think in a certain way international theatre was introduced to Calcutta through all of the translations and adaptations of the great modern twentieth-century European and American classics. It created its own audience. But I often felt in the days of the crisis of the group theatre in the eighties that it was almost like the film society movement, where you had a group of extremely cultivated cine- enthusiasts who would watch all the latest French and German avant-garde films but absolutely with no connection at all with what was happening in mainstream cinema and with mainstream audiences. In the eighties it really was a major crisis for the group theatre because there was no audience at the time. In some ways the political charge had gone out of the theatre because of the surrounding political circumstances. The great leaders of the group theatre movement of the fifties and sixties were largely spent forces. It was a major period of crisis. What’s happened in the nineties, I think, is because of that pressure it is the so-called group theatre, the experimental theatre of 20 years ago, which has now occupied the middle ground of established family theatre, theatre for middle- class family audiences which, of course, has given group theatre now a new lease of life because it now has an audience. It is possible to produce plays which will run for you know two or three years.
Sudipto: Maybe more.
Partha: It’s possible to make a lot of money and it can create its own stars because people from this theatre would then go into films.
Sudipto: And we have many more professional actors in Calcutta than we did before.
Partha: Absolutely. In some ways, I think this is a good thing, because it is now no longer necessary to think of shoe- string budgets and those problems which were so constricting in the eighties. On the other hand, the entire critical edge has gone out from the theatre because of the fact that one has to play very safe. One has to... one is afraid of...
Sudipto: ...taking risks...
Partha: ...taking risks. One is afraid of going beyond conventional sorts of things. There is always the question of — is the audience prepared for it, will the audience accept it? This is the big danger. I suppose there is always a way of trying to work at the boundaries, at the limits, try a little bit, take a few risks but not be entirely outrageous. But these are more tactical sorts of things. I think at the moment it is probably quite possible that in fact you’ll have a kind of breakaway, a more experimental, more avant-garde stream breaking away out of the present group theatre movement. It’ll leave behind one stream which will be very conventional. But there will be a breakaway movement out of this in the near future that’s probably what will happen. But at the moment people feel comfortable and smug in a certain way because the group theatre is doing well.
Sudipto: But the question is, is it still the group theatre?
Partha: That’s right. It’s not. In many ways it is not. It is just the fact that it is able to do what the commercial theatre was meant to do, it’s able to do it at a much lower cost, which is why it is so successful.
Sudipto: A happy compromise.
Partha: That’s right.
Sudipto: Talking about intervention in the earlier question, before we started talking about the group theatre, you have also done adaptations of Western plays. You adapted the Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie. Now, in Bengali theatre we hear a lot of talk about adaptations, how bad it is, how it makes us dependent on foreign literature, etc.... But at the same time... and nobody really comes from this perspective... this kind of intervention is also an inversion of power relations and the question of enfranchisement.
Partha: There are two things. Particularly if you compare this with what happens in film — all filmmakers everywhere in the world, including filmmakers in India, would accept as canonical the great masters of world cinema. Now, one major difference between film and theatre is, of course, that it is possible to live in Calcutta and still have watched all of the major films, right? It is not possible for a Calcutta audience to actually watch what Peter Brook or anybody else has been doing anywhere else in the world. And certainly, given the economics, the foreign troupes that play in Calcutta, are really not even second string, they’re third, fourth string kind of productions. So, the theatre audiences are not directly exposed to the classics of world theatre except in the form of adaptations. I think this has always been a major source of enrichment of Bengali theatre, even historically from the time when Shakespeare was adapted, right through the Victorian period.
Sudipto: In fact, probably the very first play written in Bengali, even before Ramnarayan Tarkaratnas Kulinkulasarvasva, in the nineteenth century, was written somewhat in the shadows of Shakespeare.
Partha: Exactly. And, of course, historically we are aware of the kinds of experiments that would have gone on, because an adaptation is not a simple translation. It produces something new, you can call it a hybrid, but what it means is that, in that process of translation, what it takes into account are the very real differences in terms of a different tradition, a different set of performative conventions, a different audience with very different kinds of social background — all that needs to be taken into account and yet there is a sense in which it is still Shakespeare. Rather than looking at it as some kind of corruption and as second best, I would tend to think of it as a source of a great deal of innovation. It is a new production. There is a great deal of creativity which goes into the business of adaptation. There are different ways of adaptation. Some which try very hard to remain true to the original, but there are others which take a great deal of liberty. I think a variety of strategies are available and will continue to be. And I personally do think that adaptations are extremely important, necessary and enriching for Bengali theatre.
Sudipto: Would you ever look at adaptation as a way of revenge writing, getting back?
Partha: Well, I am sure that is one element that necessarily goes into it. I tried doing it in particular when I did an adaptation — it probably ended up being a very different play altogether — of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I do think that was very much revenge writing. But, of course, the interesting thing is that it’s not something which is ever going to be shown in the West. So, who are you taking revenge against? There’s never going to be a re-translation of that to be read by Westerners.
Sudipto Chatterjee is a playwright, poet, scholar and theatre-worker from Calcutta. He is a part of the Editorial Collective of SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection) , for which this interview, from February 19, 1995, was conducted. He is also a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.
Partha Chatterjee is Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He is the Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the International Social Sciences at the International Institute for Winter, 1995, and has also held visiting appointmens at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford; The Australian National University, Canberra; New School for Social Sciences, New York; and the University of Leiden. He is the author of Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986) and The Nation and its Fragments (1994). He has also been involved with the Calcutta Group Theatre and Kushilav. He has written Ramnidhi (on music in early colonial Calcutta), Kacher Putul (an adaptation of Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie), and Swapnalabdha (based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream). He has participated in over a dozen productions as an actor and music composer, including Brecht’s The Trial of St. Joan , Piscator’s War and Peace , and Alexei Arbuzov’s Once Upon a Time , all in Bengali adaptations.