Journey on stage

Me and My Plays is typically Dattani. A straightforward preface maps the ‘Me’ — his life, times and evolution. 
 
It is followed by ‘My Plays’ — a couple of them packed with his trademark paradoxes. 

As expected, the autobiographical glimpses are simple, while the plays are complex, looped and surprising at every turn. 

To the reader familiar with the Indian English playwright, the book is attractive for its autobiographical as well as dramatic content, which are complementary. 
 
There is really nothing new or fresh about the plays that were written earlier. 

He throws a cliché to begin his preface: “Bangalore in the 1960s was considered a pensioner’s paradise”. 
 
So the well-known Sahitya Akademi winner is a bit of a let-down in the beginning, yet the fame makes you read on. 

While ambling through his life and times, and understanding the modernism and complexity that characterises his art and drama, you can chart the ‘60s and ‘70s theatre ambience, and the reminiscences of his birth in a Gujarati family, his childhood, friends, school, adolescence, dramatic viewership and journey as a classical dance-theatre lover and playwright. 

While all these events are well-known, what is interesting is that his evolution as an artiste and social commentator is reflected in the essay. 

The introduction can be taken at face value, but his plays beam intensity, wit and dramatic convolutions.
 
His final analysis and reflections sum up his understanding and perspectives: “I have learnt to embrace change as the only way to survive in the world… I may be dated in some ways…, but my gaze has moved away from my own little world, and I now look for new meanings and definitions in the kind of theatre we have in the cities today…” 

This conclusion is insightful, for the following plays do seem outdated, although they deal with modern themes and have been recently written. 

With plotlines and characterisation based on social as well as psychological issues, the drama becomes universal. 
 
Yet the framework and reference points are conventional. 

Of the two plays, the first one, with its somewhat raw tone and intensity, is better. 
 
Titled Where did I leave my purdah, it’s a harrowing shift through time and space, taking the reader to Pakistan — into a post-Partition as well as modern world. 
 
It begins with a grande theatre dame, Nazia, who has purportedly shifted from Pakistan during the anti-minorities rioting just after Independence. 

She appears to be a scheming, cunning immigrant in the beginning, but soon turns out to be a victim of horrific violence, and unfolds layer by layer, with a new twist to the plot in every scene. 

What starts to be sly and selfish is slowly revealed to be suffering and courageous. She finally comes across as a prey of circumstances, rather than the stereotypical drama queen or Shakuntala fan that the reader imagines her to be in the beginning. 
 
The play is an honest refraction rather than reflection. The secondary characters, who misinterpret and misunderstand her, begin to reveal their own flaws and errors too. 

The protagonist, Nagma, impinges on the consciousness of diverse personalities. 

The use of flashbacks, timescapes and crisscross of memories makes the play interesting, unique and touching.
 
The fascinating attraction of the play lies in not just the drama, but also in the man behind the message. 

The plays peel, strand by strand, from a man whose creative oeuvre unspools shades of human bondage. 
 
However, the second play, The Big, Fat City, strikes you as weak and rough-hewn. 

It is purported to belong to a Black Humour type of drama, yet the rhythm and symmetry do not match, and the control is lost when the comic genre moves into the tragic one.

The play starts with an interesting twist in an upper class party, with the characters standing out as greedy and self-seeking. The urban, sophisticated artistes are grouped around a number of sub-plots, which initially strike you as farcical. 
 
Some interesting scenes remind you of typically comic Indian plays, with its witty dialogues, while the rest of the plot teeters and falls soon into a murder. 
 
While the main themes of shared human emotions beneath the artificial personas are distinct and unique, the technical treatment is flawed. 

The reader thus does not feel either the risibility or the tragedy that is intended but awkwardly posited against one another.
 
The wit and tone of farce is naively skewered off near the end, so the reader’s response too is muddled, unsure and suddenly snaps out of the patchwork.
 
But ultimately, the collection does leave a mark on the reader. 

The book is not seminal but representative. Self-examining characters who are communal victims as well as perpetrators, scheming women, traumatised psycho babblers, social greed and family problems are tough to project in a language that may sound smooth and natural, yet is still foreign. 

Hence, to a Dattani or at least a theatre fan, the book is an interesting gift from a playwright who contributed his unique style in the fledgling English drama world of Bangalore.
 
Me and my plays
Mahesh Dattani
Penguin
2014, 
pp 276
Rs 299 

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