“I don’t think I’m as wedded to the written word as I am to theatre. My interest has always been in theatre, starting off first as an actor, then director and then a playwright,” says the Sahitya Akademi award winner, Mahesh Dattani. Citing that his love affair with theatre started when he saw a Gujarati play called ‘Kumarniya Aagasi’ in Bombay, he continues, “It literally means Kumar’s terrace. It was a story of a traditional upper middle class family where there is sexual relationship between the older sister-in-law and brother-in-law, which in traditional Gujarati society is almost regarded as a mother-and-son relationship. I found this very shocking and sensational and I was very impressed by that. I think that is when I thought I would like to write.”
Mahesh’s book ‘Final Solutions and Other Plays’, which won him the 1998 Sahitya Akademi Award, isn’t his only brilliant compilation of works. ‘30 Days in September’, ‘Bravely Fought the Queen’, ‘Tara’, and ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai’ are also widely acclaimed texts that investigate the attitudes in contemporary India towards communal differences, consumerism and gender.
“I think for me what the character does is important – how they respond to the situations they are in and the outcome of that response,” he shares of his thought process. For one familiar with Dattani, you’ll notice his choice of subjects form a pattern – child sexual abuse, sexuality, etc. He explains, “ I think good theatre does exactly that. It puts a spotlight on areas that society wants keep in the dark. That’s when I think theatre is at its most effective. You are putting things out there which are private and unspoken as well. It is the art of expanding private truths.”
Talking about how he found his identity, the playwright says, “I initially started with Western plays and then moved towards Indian plays. I feel that we are limited by education. Only true education can liberate you. It is not what we are taught that is limiting but the way we are taught. The important thing is to embrace who we are. India has the advantage where most of the traditions, languages are still alive.”
Of course, writing plays is not the only talent the 56-year old has; he is a trained Bharatnatyam and ballet dancer. However, he waves a dismissive hand saying he was a bad dancer. “For me it was a tussle between dance and theatre. I think what made me favour theatre was that I was a bad dancer.”
Recalling the scenario for male classical dancers during the 80’s, Mahesh reminisces, “When I was learning dance, there was a stigma towards male dancers because it was considered feminine and I have seen the way male dancers were looked at that time. However, that is changing slowly.” As he points out that it was dance that introduced him to Carnatic music, one is reminded of his appreciation for the classical that comes through in his film Morning Raga, starring Shabana Azmi as a Carnatic singer.
From being universal in terms of his appeal as a thespian who cut across linguistic barriers, Dattani has now come out with his book ‘Me and My Plays’ which delves into his personal life and includes two of his plays – ‘My Big Fat City’ and ‘Where Did I Leave My Purdah’. “I see the book as a new phase in my writing,” he simply explains of the shift, before closing the curtain on the conversation.