The day the great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez died, Mallika Sarabhai was performing Unearthed in Mumbai, based on his short story that I had adapted for the stage. This coincidence made me think about the hows and whys of converting literature into performance.
If original writing is about sharing your world view, I think adaptation can be seen as repossession. But it is also something more. When I sought Tamil writer Indira Parthasarathi’s permission to adapt his novel Land of the Free for the stage, he said, “I had fun writing my novel. You have fun writing your play.”
His novel is a sprawling political satire where an impoverished college graduate from Tamil Nadu, employed as a cook in the Delhi home of a Bihari MP, ends up as a minister in Madhya Pradesh! On this journey he encounters politicians and industrialists from many different states. My play was able to do something the Tamil novel could not — which was to make each character speak in his/her mother tongue. The medley of English, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Punjabi and Marathi was not only totally understandable, bringing to life a multilingual context, but also made characters distinct and convincing in live performance. Suddenly, I realised that there was really no linguistic mélange in my play. Politics uses only one language — the language of opportunism, greed and hypocrisy.
Again, when I converted an old Tamil short story into a tongue-in-cheek comedy, I used nationalist songs from many languages to invoke the fervour of the freedom struggle.
In such transpositions you need to retain the essence of the original, and also infuse something of your own. And for that you need passion, not just craft. It was my passion for Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar’s striking imagery and stark verse that made me adapt one of his finest poems Sarpa Satra (Snake Sacrifice) for the stage.
Kolatkar’s modern poem is in itself a retelling in English, through multiple narrators, a horrific tale of environmental depredation and ethnic cleansing, from the ancient Mahabharata. For my stage adaptation, I decided to juxtapose both Vyasa and Kolatkar, Sanskrit and English, old and new. What we then got was not only contrast, but complexity and ambiguity, elements indispensable to drama. Mainstream myth and history are accounts by, of and for the victor — mostly the privileged class. But Kolatkar’s tale is told by the victim, and what a contrasting perspective!
When we read fiction or poetry, the writer’s words unfold the scene on the mental screen. So the question is — how do you make drama out of those words? How do you give external form to what happens in the mind? The playwright’s task is not only to write dialogues, but to find audio-visual images to make the stage enactment allusive, echoic, resonant. To connect and reconnect in multiple ways.
I ask myself: what emerged as the key insight for me as writer and director of the stage performances I have adapted from literary texts?
If telling is important, retelling is even more important. When we retell, we add new layers, discover nuances, spot ambiguities. We find new ways to share what we think and feel, to understand why we do what we do. Each retelling is a shift in contrasts, and we find our own story in the gap between what happens and what does not happen.
Without language, without stories, without enactment of tales, without telling and retelling, there is no hope of survival for humanity, or for the earth, nor the ability to imagine a world free of injustice and atrocity.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature