Directing Raag Darbari: How to think in Dark
Discourse on Theatre-Direction has been a least-explored field in our country, sparsely articulated by practicing directors, furthermore conspicuously absent from writing and theorising. There is no consensus on what direction is, how to define it, what is extraneous to it or what is not. A director is expected to know (preferably to have mastered) acting, space design, dramaturgy, editing, management, resource allocation, property building, and lighting. A director is required to have the skill set of a leader: be gregarious, extraverted, (ideally) older, interested in community-building, and persuasive. A director must be able to bring people together, work with them, and make them work together. Success of a theatre group is often attributed to the enduring leadership of the director who founded it/runs it, its failure often internalized by him/her. In circumstances that solicit it, the director must also display political convictions. She/He may express loyalty to an ideology, a social cause, a ‘direction’ that he wishes to charge the social field with. Being a theatre director is then to be a composite figure, to be constituted by expertise of craft and of fidelity to a cohesive thesis. What a director is not imagined to be today, is a philosopher. We do not expect directors to be thinkers of our times anymore. Directors are not invited to talk about how they think, express why they directed a play with a peculiar palpable thrust, or discuss the undeclared convictions that lead them to build a body of work that they end up with. Success and failure of a director is dictated by audience-reception of plays, box-office records, and worse, by producers/funders. Direction is no longer a lens through which we are encouraged to think about contemporary society. The mind-numbing eruption of television and film industry has incontrovertibly reduced the stature of the Director to a dispensable cipher; anybody can direct, so long as they follow the established prompt. While training schools for learning acting, design, stage craft, and other technical aspects of making theatre have proliferated, not one course for theatre direction has made its mark. Ask any young pursuer of theatre direction how hopeless the search for finding an institute that teaches direction inevitably becomes.
If we do not teach the field, nor write about it, circulate it, nor historicise it, if we deny it the space it needs for discussion, debate, and development, if we do not dedicate social and pedagogical infrastructure in its service, worse, if we have no consensus on what it actually is, can it be said that Direction legitimately exists? As a field, as an area of study, as a profession, as a life long endeavour, is Theatre Direction a genuine cause? Is the director dead or is s/he relevant anymore? Direction, as a field, is in crisis. If the figure of the director is a social and political trope for a citizen seeking a kind of society not yet manifest, this profile is not in attendance of our times anymore.
Invitation to write this essay has urged me to respond to these anxieties, to begin to search for a direction, for a need to direct. What follows now is an assemblage of notes, musings, and observations gleaned from a personal process of directing a play.
In a decade long practice devoted principally to direction, I have often found myself practising an elusive kind of thinking. This kind of thinking is extraordinary in the sense that it is inextricably linked to an event; to observing, to inquiring, to experimenting, to making meaning. Thinking here dovetails the event; as the anatomy of the event changes – such is its ephemeral nature – so does the thinking around it. As a director I find myself practising thinking, often in the dark – I encounter the text in the luminous confines of a study lamp (often first, usually alone). I sit in the dark during rehearsals watching actors act under stage lights. I sit in the shadows of the back-rows, watching audiences in my show, anonymously. I scribble notes excessively as the sets are taken down, the show over, till long after everybody leaves. In its historical gloom of document-scarcity, and in its tenebrous corner sans camaraderie amongst generations of directors, darkness becomes all pervasive. I have come to believe that we become directors in the dark of night, reading, observing, working, soliciting, mostly alone. To be a director is to think in the dark, alone.
From its inception till the last day of directing a play, the idea of what it means to be a director mutates. But I find myself returning to the formative drive, that brought me to the idea of that particular play several times during the process of working. I think I work by hemming in, revisiting the incipient impulse, and cultivating hesitation about its meaning as I dig deeper. Every play I direct becomes a search for how to direct it. Here I take the example of my recent play based on the iconic Hindi novel Raag Darbari.
From Novel to Stage
In 2018, Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari completed 50 years since publication. While commemorative events are being held across the year to celebrate the epic stature of the novel – Ravish Kumar’s hour-long ode to the novel on NDTV, Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s editorial on the relevance of the novel in The Indian Express, Urdu Ghar’s biannual event exclusively reserved for talks around the novel, and several more – the complete absence of the novel from the stage is striking. The novel continues to remain a profound exercise in unpacking the rurality of Hindi-speaking regions in north India. The modern promise of democracy, egality, and nation-building, jostles with incapacitating casteism, factionalism, and venality. The Indian village – always idealised, exoticised, commodified – is shown here as a dystopia, afflicted by a malaise characteristic of a society in paralysis. This society appears intoxicated on a heady concoction of bhang (local weed), rhetoric, repression, and insincerity that produces not only a crisis of language, but a desensitising boredom (with itself?). I wanted to explore how this novel can be brought to stage. I wanted to open questions about how literature can be embodied and performed, and how the novel’s experience transforms, from a solitary act of reading to one of a collective encounter through theatre.
Language as Noise
For me, reading and re-reading the text is essential. Every subsequent visit to the text is like an act of excavation. Every reading, after the first one, dredges up more artifacts, fossils, and dirt. This is especially true when texts are old, which Raag Darbari is. Each word, each sentence needs to be examined. Frames of reference need to be developed to study the language of and in a text, one that is penned half a century ago. Take the relationship between sincerity and language for example –
From the very start the speakers would set out with the belief that the audience was a bunch of idiots, and the audience would sit firm in its opinion that the speakers were fools. From the villagers point of view these were the perfect conditions for a dialogue. Still, there were so many speeches that, despite their interest, the locals could get indigestion. A speech is really enjoyable only when both sides know that the speaker is talking absolute nonsense. But some speakers took their work so seriously that the audience occasionally felt that they actually believed what the were saying. As soon as this suspicion grew, the speech would begin to seem turgid and insipid, and have a very bad effect on the digestion of the audience.*
What Shukla plays on here, is the epistemic panic that is unleashed at the thought that the sincerity of others is what make them unbearable. How do we ascribe meaning if we cannot attribute sincerity? How does a director approach language in a novel, whose very function is to obscure, deflect, and resist meaning-making? Here, the politics of language has to be seen for what it is: a play with its own protocols, not the site of sincere intention. This then might be the primary work of the director, to keep producing a perpetual crisis of meaning in staging the words of the novel.
Can scenes appear to be telling the truth, or a truth? The problem of directing here is less about how to direct actors that appear to be truthful, but how to gage when an actor in playing the role of his character has been sufficiently so. As a director, I needed to decide when an actor had played a scene true enough to be affective, but not faithfully so. Actors needed to infuse doubt about their characters, about the insincerity of their words, about the wavering meaning of their gestures. What should be the true diligence of an actor playing a character in a text like Raag Darbari?
To direct Raag Darbari is to learn about its scandals. The 336 pages novel has a paper-thin plot, and this plot is a rumour. The rumour begins when someone’s house in the village gets burgled. In the dark of the night, someone is heard screaming “Thief, thief!!!”, by which the village gets woken up. Chaos ensues, people begin hurtling at each other, and minutes later, a burglary is reported. Nothing is found to be stolen, no one ever gets caught, but a scandal breaks loose. Everybody pitches in to speculate with whodunit theories. If you read closely, you’d realise that the author never lets slip so much as a clue about whether there was any robbery to begin with, that occurred that night. The entire novel now pivots around this rumour. Everything that the characters speak with apparent innocence, and what they do by indirect allusion, is now suspicious. The novel is an excellent site to study how gossip and scandal characterise community life in north India. The characters maintain their tight bonds of kinship through scandal-mongering, and indulge in a culturally controlled game with important social functions. Scandalising becomes the principal means by which actors need to express the discreteness of their characters. At the same instant, they also need to deploy it as general practice for internal struggles between kinship (real or emergent) to be fought. Ethnography is to novelistic strategy that actors are to characterology. I decided to combine the functions of scandalising as an approach to acting, manufacturing a mode of hostility within which the moral universe of the characters remains nested and united. Gossip in Raag Darbari has history, legend, and filial loyalty. Gossip belongs to every character, yet never fully to anybody. Gossip-making is participatory, in the sense that every member in the gossip-relay feels entitled to make what is heard a tad more scandalous to be worthy of being passed on. Gossip eviscerates verisimilitude of its truth. Societies with high instances of gossip like the ones in Raag Darbari are closely knit ones, but ironically with a lower factor of Truth (singular, consensual) that binds it together. Evidently, gossip-production proves to be a useful acting methodology for this play.
To direct the Raag Darbari stage production was to transform the role of gossip into a method for building scenes. Multiple spaces had to be provided for characters to indulge in gossip. By their proximity to different sections of the audience (audience sat scattered as part of the set-design) one audience-segment became privy to secrets that the others were denied. It is serendipitous to listen to Shukla talk about the genesis of the novel taking place as a string of loose anecdotes narrated as staple diet over Sunday lunches by him to colleagues in the Indian Administration Services. Anecdotes exist as oratures, when sufficiently anonymised in written form, turn into invaluable literature. In our case, orature in ‘non-literate’ societies constitutes embodied, performed, enacted literature, and in this way performance with all its sonic, gestural and spectacular possibilities can be understood as existing both beside and within textual narrative. For this novel, the oratory field – of the author, of characters in his anecdotes – is the site of the ‘first performed’, while literature in the form of the novel inhabits the space as ‘twice performed’. As I directed, I realised that the novel had to be returned to its origin, that of acting the scandalising. Scenes of the novel were given to the actors to build on gossip, to make the scandal uglier. Often, I marked the beginnings and ends of scenes only, leaving the middle loose for actors to improvise the telling-of-rumour in new ways, ways that audience on that particular day responded to.
In our current moment of political anxiety, fake news, and the post-truth condition, it is not surprising that we turn to dystopic fiction to deal with our fears. Raag Darbari presents the post-post-independence village as a nightmare, a dystopia. Both its classic opening “The edges of city, where the vast ocean of rural India begins,” and it’s prophetic end, that the only solution to the problems of rural India seems to be to escape it2, can be read that way. Dystopia is trending in literature today. Dystopian novels written decades ago, novels that seem to forecast the threats and fragility of our present times, are being consumed voraciously today. Case in point being George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), recently televised for Netflix Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and several others. If we are any less than who we imagine ourselves to be, we would blame these authors for what we are experiencing, and suggest that these works of fiction had the performative force to make their narrative come true all these years after they were written. But is it possible, that readers and audiences intuit, even believe, that by placing themselves in these fictional scenarios, they are rehearsing the ways in which they’ll respond if the worst of our fears are realised? As directors, when we bring dystopic novels to stage, this is what the act of rehearsal means.
I conceived of rehearsing Raag Darbari to indulge in an emergency drill of sorts, a dramaturgical exercise to practice for the time when dystopia arrives fully. I understand rehearsals to be a provisional effort in establishing plausibility. Raag Darbari is a rehearsal for when the nation-society implodes. It is plausible yet undecidable fiction, keeping us awake in strange and enchanting ways. It is in this way that literature can be brought to the thoughts of theatre. The work of audience in watching this show is, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, ‘to have someone arrive at a concert hall and be immediately handed a violin and told to go up on stage’. My direction of Raag Darbari needed to retain the intention of its author – one who leaves plots incomplete, speaks unreliably, and prefers essayistic tones over dramatic ones. Raag Darbari on stage, privileges performativity when it takes narratorial permission to mingle fact with fiction. In rehearsals, we can use fact to make fiction irrefutable, but simultaneously, we could deploy fiction to alienate fact, to make it more hostile, to set the audience against it. In this way, rehearsals begin to emerge as para-fiction, a kind of world-making in which fiction is briefly construed as truth, lived as though it was real. The experience of deception and doubt that we are put through by para-fictional experiments prepare us to be better, more critical as participants, and therefore as citizens.
As the director, to create this play with an ensemble of actors was no less an opportunity to explore the democratic impulse in rehearsal. If theatre is to be seen as an eventual-site for self-determination in our fraught times today, this play, by all means was a call to the people to participate, both in its production and in its showing. When,I as a director read the novel alone, and rehearsed it for stage with others, I encountered the text twice. Each amplified the experience of the other.
Waste Grab Space
This amplification is in a state of immediacy as a spatial dimension first. A hollowed-out village was erected for the play, one that is captured, in its moment of devastation, as an explosion. A technique of ‘improvised-building’ was used to create the space of Shivpalganj. The construction material was sought from refuse, waste, and scraps of previous plays – Wooden frames, planks, beams, decks, chairs, and tables lying in carpentry’s storage, sheds and in the open formed the liveable spaces of Shivpalganj. This design strategy enframed the idea of jugaad, both in its creation and also as a comment on its inhabitants. Progress in India does not clearly mark periods of time in a neatly arranged chronology. Mobile phones adorn Khatias, SUV cars are parked outside semi-pukka housing, and internet invades villages still waiting for electricity. Different social and historic periods appear to collide in our towns and cities, distinct eras co-habit with ease. It is this confounding yet so familiar a reality that needed to be reflected in this play’s design. The entire auditorium was turned into an akhada (wrestling pit) flecked with audience, up-close but scattered. Sometimes, the audience was compelled, suddenly, to take on roles in the play and become complicit; hold hockey sticks to aid sabotage village elections in one instance. These moments inquire into what the audience might acquiesce to, and what they might not. I wanted to bring their political subjectivity to inform their viewing of the play.
On Political Subjectivity
On reading the novel for the first time, it was abundantly clear to me that ideological rhetoric in Raag Darbari seemed to obscure more than it revealed, what was at stake in the contest for power. In his insightful critique of Raag Darbari, Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that,
Shukla’s great genius was to move away from the idea of the rural agent as a political simpleton: They might be powerless, but everyone knows exactly what is going on. Even moments of abject deference do not have a whiff of delusion about them. All political agents can uncover the motives and interests behind ideas faster than any Marxist theorist can cut through veils of false consciousness. Fifty years on, the paradox of Indian democracy is how this acute hyper consciousness about power ends up in the crisis of meaning and sheer narcissism.
Personally for me, directing this novel became a way to comprehend the state of Indian democracy, and the inescapable emergency it has produced. Despite our frameworks of caste, class, power, rationality, interest, the novel leaves you with a sense that something else is happening in politics that is shaped by these categories, but also exceeds them. The aims of characters in the game of political power in the novel are often clear. But the political subjectivity that lies behind them is hard to capture and represent. Directing this play was at its heart, an inquiry into the nature of this enchantment, this lure by which generations of political actors – from rural political brokers to urban politicians – spin an intoxicating brew of identity politics, personalities, oratory styles, negotiation skills, entrepreneurship, manipulative capacities, persuasion, and passion into an effective drive for power. It is an impossible task, of representing the State of India, but Raag Darbari does an excellent job of it. In the novel, the nation exists in the dark, in so far as it is always sabotaged.
And I return to darkness again, to thinking about darkness, to think in the dark, and to bring this darkness, under the blinding lumens of theatre lights, to stage.
Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla, trans. Gillian Wright, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1992.
Image courtesy: Amitesh Grover