A drama explorer who recently came out with her maiden book Two Plays on Hunger, Manjima Chatterjee is the head of the arts programme at the Shiv Nadar school in Noida. She talks to Medha Dutta Yadav about her approach to theatre.
Take us through your journey.
I grew up surrounded by literary and academic works. It was while watching Badal Sircar’s Michhil (The Procession) that I truly experienced the power of drama. I grew up on Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard. Also, Peter Shaffer and Caryl Churchill have continued to be important figures in my life. I hugely admire the works of Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar.
More recently, I have enjoyed the work of Roland Schimmelpfennig, Simon Stephens, Ramu Ramanathan, Anupama Chandrasekhar and Swar Thounaojam. The foray into playwriting first happened with the British Council Inter-School plays at school. My first non-school play was Wave in 2005. In 2006, I quit my job at Oxford University Press and took to freelancing.
Finally, in March 2012, I joined Shiv Nadar School as a theatre anchor and primary educator. In the meantime, I wrote Limbo, which was shortlisted for the Sultan Padamsee Award, and The Baby Shower, which was shortlisted for the BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition. In 2013, Mountain of Bones won the Hindu Metro Playwright Award, and in 2015, Two Men on a Tree won the eNatyaSanhita Award.
You speak of being strongly influenced by Dorothy Heathcote’s approach to theatre.
Heathcote was a drama teacher and educationist who pioneered the use of ‘mantle of the expert’ and ‘teacher-in-role’ as learning processes. She worked with universal ideas and the concept of empathy to explore academic subjects in deeper, more meaningful ways to enrich the learning process. Her work majorly impacts and disrupts traditional learning methods.
Teaching young minds about theatre—how difficult is that?
I have always found that young people love drama. Children as young as 18 months old are able to grasp drama and focus their attention on it. Facilitators play a very important role in choosing what and how much to do with children at different stages. The challenge is to create a safe and democratic space that gives enough creative freedom to everyone to express themselves.
What are your views on the evolving theatre scene in India?
I think some of the experiments, particularly with performances in alternative venues, have been wonderful. I’m particularly excited about material theatre, which caters mostly to children, environmental theatre and site-specific works. However, part of the problem with some of these innovations is that they run the risk of alienating the audience, or limiting the audience to a certain kind of people. And of course, theatre always needs to reach out to all kinds of audiences.
One play that always moves you, and why?
I find a number of Shakespeare’s works very moving, particularly The Tempest, which is about several trapped souls seeking release. Also, I can never watch Sircar’s Michhil without tearing up at the end.
Your favourite character from a play.
Viola from Twelfth Night
A playwright you would like to have tea with: Shakespeare
One thing you hate while staging a play.
The lack of time
Which books would you take with you on a solo holiday?
River of Fire by Qurratulain Hyder, The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali, Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a couple of Agatha Christies and the complete works of Sukumar Ray in Bengali.