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South Africa: The Importance Of “Telling Our Own Stories” #Vaw

Names from the top: Nangamso Bomvana, Vuyolwethu Ntunguntwana, Chizoba Mkhwanazi, Simnikiwe Sawula, Zihle Mciteka

Names from the top: Nangamso Bomvana, Vuyolwethu Ntunguntwana, Chizoba Mkhwanazi, Simnikiwe Sawula, Zihle Mciteka

Cape Town (Women’s Feature Service) – As the curtains go up and the bright lights dramatically illuminate the room, all the audience can see is a bare stage with three chairs. A stark setting indeed and, yet, it’s the perfect backdrop for a performance that combines music, dance, laughter and heart-rending stories – of feminine courage and spirited action in the face of persistent physical and emotional violence. As the cast of young university women, which includes Vuyolwethu Tunguntwana, 19, Chizoba Mkhwanazi, 18, Ayabonga Pasiya, 22, and others, brings the stage to life with their impassioned narrations, the viewers hang on to their every word and feeling.

Even though it’s been nine years since the feminist play, ‘Reclaiming the P… Word’, was first staged at the University of Western Cape in South Africa, its message as well as effect has remained constant. This self-scripted and performed drama, which fights against the cultures that enable sexual violence on campus as well as in South African society, never fails to enlighten and empower.

Mary Hames, Director of the University’s Gender Equity Unit (GEU) that has produced the play, talks about how the idea to write and direct ‘Reclaiming the P… Word’ took shape. “The GEU has conceptualised this play that specifically raises awareness about the objectification and sexualisation of black women‘s bodies. It was the outcome of several workshops and discussions held campus-wide in which the staff, students as well as women from the larger community were encouraged to speak about or write down their own experiences related to bodily integrity and dignity.”

This process took approximately four months and led to the penning of a “flexible script that had multiple elements: feminist education and teaching, the evocation of empathy with the experiences of the cast and characters, the raising of awareness, and shock about the statistics on violence”. According to Hames, “The play aimed to provide humour and laughter, to present audiences with the reality of life for black South African women in a truthful manner and to capture and hold the attention of the audience for approximately one hour.”

Three weeks before the play was due to open the scripts started to roll in; staffand students wrote their own pieces. Eventually eight monologues, one dialogue, one poem and one song were selected. “We had to come up with a title that was provocative and truthful, and I proposed ‘Reclaiming the P…Word. The ‘P’ stands for poes – the Afrikaans term for vagina. The term has a very specific context and connotation in South Africa, especially among Afrikaans-speaking communities, and is often used in a derogatory sense. The premise of the play (and the use of the term) was to examine such social ideas of embodiment and to provoke debate and raise consciousness about the female body,” she adds.

The first performance of ‘Reclaiming the P…Word’ was an overwhelming success and it was decided to stage another two performances as part of the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women Campaign that year. Indeed, the first two verses of the song, written by a cast member, truly epitomises the message of the play:

‘I’m a woman

My spirit is free

And the person that I love

The most in the world is me

I own by body

I love what I see

I love every body…

But most of all

I love me’ (Johanna Booysen, 2006)

Over the years, the fundamentals of ‘Reclaiming the P…Word’ haven’t changed. Ayabonga Pasiya, 22, who is in her final year of B.Sc Medical Bioscience, is the director at present. She shares, “Till today, each portion of the play is intimately connected with the other and sensitively traces the outcome of physical and emotional violence on women’s bodies. After the show, several women in the audience usually come forward and express how they could relate to each piece. The performance allows them to connect and, at the same time, challenges them to reflect.”

Significantly, the play includes stories of incest and domestic violence, and even comments on the violence women are subjected to in the public sphere. “In the process, it conveys the importance of reclaiming the self. Personal and local experiences are related in a language understood by both the educated and semi-educated in an unpretentious manner. In fact, non-South African women, too, can immediately relate to it as it has a universal message,” Pasiya elaborates.

Cheerful and enthusiastic Chizoba Mkhwanazi, who joined the group in February 2015, believes that their play is the perfect platform to tell personal stories in an artistic manner. “It is one of the best examples of activism through performance,” she mentions, adding, “I love the way we use the stage. Physically it’s bare but it transforms into a space of empowerment and freedom, where women are encouraged to find their voice.”

Dressed in black the girls’ performance is striking as they effortlessly convey how even though women are all the same – or rather come from the same source – they are still unique in their own right. As “finding the voice” is central to the production, it’s remarkable the way in which they talk about how they are “rewriting histories” and “voicing their present”.

Fast-paced and engaging, the narrative, made up of several monologues punctuated with dancing, singing and drama, easily comes together as one, forcing everyone to sit up and pay attention to the violence and injustice around them. After all, only when people are confronted can they no longer turn away and pretend that they do not hear or see the prejudice or unfairness meted out to girls and women in general.

Of course, the revelations are not confined to the audience alone. The girls associated with production have their own learning curves. Vuyolwethu Tunguntwana, 19, a cast member for two years, feels that she now knows the “importance of telling our own stories – because if you don’t do it, no one else will”. For her, “performing the play is like taking back what belongs to women. The real meaning of the word poes. I feel very liberated because I believe in what I’m saying”.

Simnikiwe Sawula, 21, a second year student, finds being part of the play a “learning and healing experience”. She says, “Like most black people, I have also felt the pain of segregation, isolation and silence. With this play, I get to create my very own safe space, where I am honest and do not feel intimidated or belittled. It allows me to share my story as a black woman with other black women and not worry about being censored.” Recalling her aha! moment Sawula says, “It came during a scene that deals with sexual and reproductive rights, specifically the issue of menstruation and sanitary napkins, how this is dealt differently by each culture and how the advertising of these products is handled. Before that time, I had never really engaged so closely with issues related to sexual and reproductive rights.”

Mkhwanazi is quick to point out that “there’s a whole range of subjects that we touch on”. “We speak on a number of things – about owning our blackness or being black, feminism and how it’s become taboo to be one and how we’re scrutinised and attacked for being one. We talk about rape in family and what it does to young women who have no idea how to tell their families that they have been violated by one of their own,” she explains. And, after every show the cast interacts with the audience and their reactions act as motivation and a valuable source of information.

Hames, who has seen successive batches of girls and women being empowered through their involvement with the play, concludes, “It’s been a journey of healing, growth, understanding themselves for the first time and hope.”

(This article is part of U.N. Women’s Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It! campaign in the lead-up to Beijing+20.)

(© Women’s Feature Service)
Author: Mahabal, Kamayani Bali
Date published: November 6, 2015
Language: English
PMID: 59130
Journal code: WNFS

Read more: http://www.readperiodicals.com/201511/3865771381.html#ixzz3sqikqbhH

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#India – Theatre Person and author arrested for writing a book #FOE #WTFnews

‘I Did Not Expect To Be Arrested For Writing A Book’

The Karnataka Police, bowing to pressure from right-wing Hindutva organisations, arrested theatre person, artist and writer Yogesh Master from his residence on 29 August for allegedly controversial remarks against Hindu diety Ganapati in his novel ‘Dhundi’. The police booked the writer under Section 295 A ( Deliberate intent to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code. Out on bail, during the discussion of his book on 5 September, Yogesh Master said that his book was a work of fiction and his remarks in the novel were not intended to hurt anybody’s religious feelings, but were based on research on the concept and origins of Ganesha as depicted in mythology.
Imran Khan
IMRAN KHAN
September 5, 2013 Print FriendlyPrint & EmailComment

Yogesh Master
Yogesh Master Photo: Imran Khan
How do you view the controversy surrounding your book?

I never anticipated such a controversy regarding my writing. I have been a writer since 1984, when my first book was published. I lead a very quiet life. My small theatre group (Rajamarga) is my world. However, Dhundhi somehow dragged me into chaos. Now I am learning to develop patience and presence of mind. I’m still absorbing all that is happening around Dhundhi and me.

What is your response to the allegations that you insulted the Hindu deity Ganapati in your novel?

I completely deny such allegations. Ganapati is a tribal hero in my novel. He represents Aranyakas (aboriginals or tribesmen) and the fight against the so-called civilised society which exploited them. Ganapati’s rebelliousness is an unexplored aspect of his personality. My book is a work of fiction based on research on mythological stories and the concept of Ganapati’s origin.

Did you expect that you would be arrested?

It was completely unexpected. Even the controversy surrounding the book was not expected. I just waited to see what would happen next.

Are you shocked that you were arrested under the Congress government led by Siddaramaiah?

I am not politically biased. But still, I cannot understand this move of the Congress government which is secular. Besides, Mr. Siddaramaiah, the Chief Minister, has a socialist background.

What is your novel Dhundhi about?

Dhundhi is the one of several names of Ganapati. In Kashi, there is a temple dedicated to Dhundhi. In India and many other parts of the world, people consider myths precious and avoid examining their roots. They fear that such scrutiny may shake their beliefs and spoil the sanctity of their religion or ethics. Myths are not merely stories: they contain sensitive truths and abstract thoughts. We need to examine myths in order to know the roots of our culture. In Dhundhi, I tried to throw light on the myths and facts about Ganapati. I attempted to find a connection between mythology and factual research. The emphasis of the book is not religious, but cultural and social. I was inspired by the writings of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya on Ganapati in his book Lokayata. From being a troublemaker, Ganapati became the custodian of goodwill and success. The story of this transformation is the saga of Dhundhi, a rebellious tribesman.

Did you expect Dhundhi to court controversy before its publication?

Never. I anticipated some intellectual debates though, but that too after some time – after people read the book.

What is the current status of your legal case?

I was summoned for a hearing on 28 September. Since it is my very first experience of this kind, I am dependent on my lawyer and other well-wishers.

Are you working on another novel?

Yes, I am working on Premanagara, a love story set in 1784 against the backdrop of Tipu Sultan’s reign. It will be published soon.

Are there plans to get Dhundhi translated to other languages?

Yes, Dhundhi is being translated into English. The translation is almost done. Other languages? No idea, let me see.

source- tehelka.com

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Tehran theatre peers behind prison walls to aid teens on death row

The Blue Feeling of Death

By NASSER KARIMI , AP

the blue feeling of death

In this undated photo, Iranian actress Sami Moslemi performs a scene from “The Blue Feeling of Death,’’ in Arasbaran Cultural Center in Tehran, Iran. The production, translated from Farsi as “The Blue Feeling of Death,” opened last month as a showcase of activist art against Iran‘s legal codes that allow death sentences for children — who then wait until their 18th birthday for possible execution. Opening night came even as Iranian officials tightened controls on the social media and other forms of political opposition before presidential elections, whose centrist winner, Hasan Rouhani, has brought hope of reversing some of the crackdowns. (AP Photo/Hadi Shabani)

 

TEHRAN, Iran — The curtain opens. Six nooses hang above a group of teenage inmates, who are making chairs in a prison workshop to be used as platforms in their own hangings. The audience gasps.

This is theater that’s raw, edgy and political – and it’s all been cleared by the Iranian authorities, even though they have tightened controls on speech.

The production, translated from Farsi as “The Blue Feeling of Death,” opened last month as a showcase of activist art against Iran’s legal codes that allow death sentences for juvenile offenders – who then wait until their 18th birthday for execution.

Opening night came even as Iranian officials tightened controls on social media and other forms of political opposition ahead of last month’s presidential elections, whose centrist winner, Hasan Rouhani, has brought hope of reversing some of the crackdowns.

The play tells the true stories of seven juvenile death row inmates and the families on all sides of their crimes. It also seeks to raise funds for defense lawyers and social workers trying to overturn death sentences on young people through Iran’s system that allows families of victims to spare the life of the prisoner.

“Through the stage, we can affect many people – even the families of victims,” said the play’s director, Amin Miri, following a recent performance. “We are trying to give greater courage.”

The play also shows the unpredictable enforcement of Iran’s cultural overseers.

Dozens of journalists, filmmakers and others have been arrested or fled the country in recent years over allegations of opposing Iran’s Islamic establishment or stirring political dissent. These red lines still exist, but officials can give their nod to works exploring social issues or other topics that don’t directly target the ruling clerics.

In 2008, a documentary filmmaker had permission to research Iran’s rising number of sex-change operations, which have been legal under a religious edict, or fatwa, issued shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The 2012 Oscar-winning film, “A Separation,” by Asghar Farhadi, was hailed by Iranian authorities even though its plot is a harsh commentary on Iranian society through the viewpoint of a collapsing marriage. In 2003, Farhadi directed “Shahr-e Ziba,” named after the neighborhood where the Tehran Correction Center is located, to portray the destinies of young convicts as well as the families of victims.

Still, last year Iranian officials ordered the closure of the House of Cinema, an independent film group that had operated for 20 years and counted Iran’s top filmmakers, including Farhadi, among its members. The site has remained closed because of hard-line pressure despite a ruling to allow its reopening.

“Blue Feeling” has been able to walk the line between criticizing the legal codes that allow death sentences for young people – a practice condemned by Amnesty International and other rights groups – and showing that there are options in Iran’s system for mercy.

Once a death sentence is imposed in a murder case, the victim’s family can withdraw the punishment in place of jail time – and often payments known in the Islamic world as “blood money.”

Eighteen death row inmates – some as young as 15 – were interviewed to build the play’s story line, director Miri said. He was inspired to explore the issue by a move by some judges to postpone carrying out the hangings of inmates once they reached 18 in hopes of persuading victims’ families to withdraw the punishment.

Among the stories in production is that of two young girls sentenced to death for killing their father when they were 12 and 15. Their fate – execution or imprisonment – is in the hands of an uncle, aunt and their grandmother.

“I felt as if I was communicating the message of the play when I heard and saw the reactions from the audience,” said Mina Karimi Jebeli, who plays one of the young murderers.

At a recent performance at the Arasbaran Cultural Center in north Tehran, some of the theatergoers sobbed.

“It was very emotional,” said 23-year-old Arezou Ziaei. “I cannot believe that such people are waiting for death.”

Executions in Iran are increasingly carried out in prison gallows – often with a chair or bench kicked out from under the inmate – but public hangings still occur, with the condemned prisoner hoisted up by a crane attached to a rope and noose.

In the past, the age of criminal responsibility in Iran was defined by “maturity,” – 9 for girls and 15 for boys. Iran’s parliament, however, amended laws in 2011 to block death sentences on anyone under 15 and give judges more leeway to impose substitute sentences on juveniles convicted of murder.

While the number of juveniles sentenced to death in Iran is relatively small, rights group say it violates international treaties on treatment of young suspects.

In January, a 21-year-old Iranian man was executed for his alleged role in a murder committed when he was 17, activist groups say. In 2012, at least one of the more than 300 people executed in Iran had been sentenced as a juvenile.

Two other countries, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, are known to have executed someone in recent years for a crime committed before they were 18, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Last September, Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on Iran, urged Iranian authorities to abolish capital punishment in juvenile cases.

A lawyer, Nemat Ahmadi, welcomed the performance as a chance to push lawmakers and authorities to contemplate further judicial reforms.

“Such a play,” he said, “is able to awaken public opinion.”

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Safdar Hashmi And The Theatre Scene #sundayreading

 

pic courtsey- Jan Natya Manch

By Vidyadhar Date

12 April, 2013
Countercurrents.org

April 12 marks the birth anniversary of Safdar Hashmi, the radical theatre actor, who was murdered by Congress supporting goons near Delhi in 1989 during a street theatre performance. The day is observed as the national street theatre day.

That brings back some memories. Some time ago in Mumbai a police vehicle came along and asked a cobbler sitting on the footpath to get out as a so-called VIP motorcade was arriving. Surprisingly, the tone was not very rude but the order to him was undemocratic enough.

Obviously, all oppressive ruling classes are afraid of common people . In the very first scene in Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar, Flavius shouts at common people, calling them idle creatures. Imperial Ceasar is about to arrive in a triumphant procession.. Later, Flavius talks of driving away the poor from the streets, calling them vulgar.

A cobbler in the crowd is more than match for the arrogant Flavius. When confronted he describes himself as a surgeon of old shoes, a mender of bad soles. I can mend you, he says.

The system is trying to make the poor invisible, trying to drive them away in real life and in the media. In the numerous sickening television serials dominated completely by vulgar, selfish, consumerism-obsessed upper class, even the domestic worker is banished. As if this parasitical class does not depend on the toiling people.

The question is where can the lives of the poor be reflected in this set up ? They have to create their own spaces, their own plays, their own writers. The issue unfolded the same evening as the President’s motorcade when I attended the release of a book on street theatre written by Avinash Kadam and presided over by reputed film and stage director Dr Jabbar Patel at Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan at Prabhadevi.

Kadam has done remarkable service with his book giving a lot of information and some really satirical, comic and serious scripts. The book appropriately has on its cover a painting done by M.F. Husain on the killing of actor-director activist Safdar Hashmi .

The street theatre is truly a democratic theatre, it is performed free, in fact it invites the people to see the performance , it asserts its right to a public space and it gives voice to people’s problems generally in a highly entertaining way. Quite a few of these grow as part of people’s struggles and campaigns.

The Marathi theatre is the most vibrant theatre in the country but not every body is happy with the state of affairs.We have not created a single major playwright after Vijay Tendulkar, declared Premamand Gajwi, himself a radical dalit playwright, in Mumbai some time ago.

He said Tendulkar questioned the establishment and paid the price for his rebellion. There has been no real challenge to the establishment since Tendulkar, we have failed to tackle themes like the plight of Muslims and the attack on the World Trade Centre, Gajwi said.

Dr Shreeram Lagoo, eminent actor said in 1973 he was already a big name in theatre but when he approached producers with G.P. Deshpande’s significant play Udhwasta Dharmashala no producer was ready to take it because it did not have the commercial element.. Ultimately, Lagoo and others themselves did the play brilliantly at Chhabildas experimental theatre in 1974. I still remember the production showing the tragedy of a radical professor who is subjected to an inquiry by the university because of his radical views.

Mr G.P. Deshpande said that though Marathi drama had much a much bigger impact nationally than the Marathi novel, Marathi drama was not given enough importance in the literary discourse. Presidential addresses at Marathi sahitya sammelans sometimes did not even refer to Marathi drama.

Playwright Shafaat Khan said we are in such a situation that our grandmother’s fairy tales sound true today but real stories in theatre and television sound fake.

Last year I spent a lot of my own money to participate in a seminar on theatre spaces at the famed Ninasam, drama theatre complex, in a rural area in Shimoga district in Karnataka.

This seminar in Karnataka was different. It was held in very basic, simple surroundings. Most of the complex which includes drama theatres and training institute, does without fans and I heard that fans were specially installed in the campus for the first time in its history for our benefit of the seminar.

The participants including many Westerners and reputed Indian theatre personalities,who ate simple but tasty vegetarian meals served by a very courteous staff.

Ninasam is a very innovative, democratic venture. Set up by Kannada theatre personality Subanna half a century ago and nurtured by stalwalrts like Sivaram Karanth , it has brought serious international theatre and cinema to villagers. Villagers enjoy the best of Shakespeare and Satyajit Ray and De Sica, locally trained young students enact plays like Chekhov’s Seagull in Kannada with a lot of innovation. The barrier between the audience and spectators is broken. One day we saw an enactment of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard in which we shifted our chairs between scenes, we sat on the other side of the theatre and so it was clean, good enjoyment.

Ninasam is set amidst greenery near Sagar town in Karnataka in one of the nicest areas in the country. I had a lovely journey from Honavar in coastal Karnataka by bus to Sagara, past the famaous Jog falls.

The odd part of the seminar was that much of the deliberation was submerged in so much bombast and jargon that I came away in dismay after two days instead of the scheduled five days. I had to cancel my train reservation and spend more money in the process. Over the years, I have heard so much highfalutin nonsense at seminars that I am now losing my patience. But this is not something that bothers me at a personal level only. What should bother all of us is the tremendous national waste of resources that these seminars involve. So much needless expense, especially when the seminars are heavily sponsored with air travel, accommodation in luxury hotels, lavish meals and so on and often the quality of deliberations is quite mediocre. There are a few seminas organized at a low cost as the one organized by geography scholar Swapna Banerjee Guha at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences a few years ago. The discussions were held in class rooms, so no expenditure on air conditioning and every one paid for his or her own lunch in the food stalls in the complex. We desperately need to transform the whole seminar culture. I am against compulsion and censorship but there is really a serious need to ask some of the academics to just shut up for some time and start speaking in a language which people can understand. Leftists are not free from the sin of talking in a high flown language with jargon. I remember a short story by left wing writer Ranganayakamma in which a sympathetic court acquits some armed revolutionaries of the charge of violence but convicts them for another offence – speaking in a language which people cannot understand.

Veteran theatre critics Rustom Bharucha and Sadanand Menon expressed serious reservations over the languge of the presentations of the Ninasam seminar. It is true that some of the presenters were highly talented people but what is the use of all the intelligence if one cannot communicate with common people and when one is in the field of communication ?

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority.

 

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Invitation- #Mumbai- Theatre of the oppressed- ‘ Tapori” @2Feb

TAPORI

Theatre-Art Performance Open for Rahiwasi Interaction

      • The Theatre of Oppressed

Zindabad!

Umang theater group and YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action) are proud to present before you the first performance on stage of TAPORI which has been performing street theatre in various parts of the city.

TAPORI, an acronym for Theatre- Art Performance open for Rahiwasi (Residents) Interaction’ is a group of youth from Bandra who through theatre highlight the issues of their community and their daily struggles.

Munna Bhai Basti Chale’ is a satire on the lack of basic services such as water and sanitation in urban slums while ‘Kaam Karane ka Doosra Option’ is a humourous take on corruption.  Both these plays will be performed on the 2nd of February 2013 at 7:30pm.

 

Where: PL Deshpande Auditorium Maharashtra Kale

Academy, Near Siddhivinayak Temple, Sayani

Road, PrabhadeviMumbai – 400025

+(91)-(22)-24365990 | 24312956 | 24365997

Date: 02/02/2013 Time: 7:30 pm

We look forward to your presence at the performance.

In Solidarity

Contact : Aquila Khan 0929597546 Shabana Ansari 09594234789 Dinesh Mishra 09029956626

 

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An Artist’s Demons- #Sundayreading

By AKSHAY MANWANI | 1 November 2012, The Caravan
COURTESY PIYUSH MISHRA
Piyush Mishra in the title role of Hamlet. Directed by Fritz Bennewitz, the play marked Mishra’s acting debut at NSD in 1985.

ACTOR, MUSIC DIRECTOR, lyricist, singer and scriptwriter Piyush Mishra finds it difficult to explain his famously limitless talent. Depending on how he is disposed on a given day, the answer can range from a dismissive “Main ghanta struggle nahin karta (I don’t struggle at all)” to a spiritual “Pata nahin, shaayad koi karwa raha hai (I don’t know, perhaps there is a higher power at work)”. But the longer you persist, the more aware you become of anger as a driving force behind his art. “Jo bhi create hua, usi gussey ke wajah se hua aur jo kuch destroy hua, woh bhi usi gussey ke wajah se hua, (Whatever was created, it was due to that anger, and the same anger was responsible for all that was destroyed),” he said in the midst of one of our many conversations.

Our first conversation—agreed to after some persuasion on my part because Piyush feels there isn’t anything more to add to what has already been said or written about him— was at his house in Mumbai’s Goregaon East on a Saturday evening in August.

His three-bedroom apartment is located in a typical middle-class Mumbai housing society, bereft of any grandeur, the kind of place where most residents are supposed to have bought homes with a lifetime’s earnings. Overlooking the verdant Aarey Milk Colony on one side and close to the sprawling Oberoi International School on the other, the apartment complex stands for the constant conflict between Mumbai’s shrinking greenery and the rapidly expanding concrete landscape of the recent decades.

We were seated in his study, with his writing desk at the far corner of the room and a bookshelf, with a glass façade, in the corner facing the entrance. Between those pieces of wooden furniture was a single bed, indicative that the room was occasionally used for hosting guests as well. Piyush lay on the floor in front of the bed on his side, with his right arm cradling his head. Portraits of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando lined the wall behind him. At first, he was particular about wearing a newsboy cap for our photo shoot and interview. A few minutes into the conversation, though, he tossed the cap aside and spoke candidly, his distinctively coarse and raspy voice betraying years of smoking. His comments are frequently interspersed with the choicest expletives in Hindi, invoking relatives long gone. It is part of his charm, his no-holds-barred style.

PIYUSH MISHRA IS WELL KNOWN TODAY for the seemingly effortless fusion of range and depth in his art, from the stinging music he composed for Gulaal, to his portrayal of the sombre, self-persecuting Nasir in the two-part Gangs Of Wasseypur, and his rendering of the haunting song ‘Husna’, also composed by him, for MTV’s Coke Studio Season 2. He is happy that his talent is finally acknowledged, even if it is late in his career. Coming from what he calls an “unremarkable childhood”, he still remembers a time he doubted he would get very far.

Piyush Mishra was born in 1962 in Gwalior as Priyakant Sharma. He grew up as the adopted child of his bua Taradevi Mishra, his father’s eldest sibling and a fierce woman with no children, who had brought Priyakant’s father, a young Pratap Kumar Sharma, along with her to her marital house to help reduce their family’s financial burden.

After her husband’s death, Taradevi Mishra established her absolute, authoritarian rule on the household. “She was against everything. Everyone was afraid of her and nobody really knew what would upset her,” said Piyush. “She would just have to utter a word and everyone would cower in fear.”

According to him, it was a “very boring house”. His parents admitted him to a “wrong school” called Carmel Convent with the notion that, “A child is like raw material. If you put him in a convent, he will come out ready for IPS, IAS or Medical.” Priyakant, though, had no interest in academics. It was the extracurricular activities at school that appealed to him, such as singing, acting and painting. “It [art] had been bestowed on me in a strange way,” he said. “I was compelled towards it and whatever I did, I found success in it.” He remembers making an oil painting to help his friend, who had boasted to a girl he liked that his friend was a very good painter. “I had never done it before, but I did a landscape and it came out really well,” Piyush said. He remembers taking to the harmonium and the mouth organ, and even sculpting in those years. The anger he felt at Taradevi’s oppressive behavior shaped his earliest approach towards art—his first sculpture, made as an eighth standard student, was a large fist emerging from a stone.

However, because Priyakant fared miserably at academics, his family members thought of him as a complete failure. “My father could see my artistic talent,” said Piyush, “but he didn’t want me to take it up as a career option.” Ajit Lhane, Piyush’s friend from his college years, explained that this was the usual mentality of the middle-class in a small town like Gwalior, “In every house the thinking was that if the child did not turn out to be an engineer or a doctor, then the child was useless.”

“I was terribly confused, like a torpedo without a target,” said Piyush of his childhood. “I would leave things without seeing them through to completion.” Gradually Priyakant also began to question his parents’ unwillingness to stand up to Taradevi. Piyush recalled the matriarch yelling abuses at his mother if there was even the slightest hiccup while preparing food for the house. “Why did they tolerate her?” he asked tersely as he recounted the time. His frustration with their subservience is clear in the very first poem he wrote, again in the eighth standard:

Zinda ho haan tum koi shak nahin, saans lete hue dekha maine bhi hain

Haath aur pairon aur jism ko harqatey khoob dete huey dekha maine bhi hain

Ab bhale hi yeh kartey huey honth tum dard sehtey huey sakht see lete ho

Ab hain bhi kya kum tumhaarey liye, khoob apni samajh mein toh jee lete ho

Yes you are alive; of this there is no doubt. I, too, have seen you breathe

I, too, have seen you move your hands and legs and body perfectly

Although while doing this, you sew your lips shut and suffer the pain

It is no minor achievement for you, after all, to feel so very alive in your own perception

Piyush remarked that when he was slightly older, “I had no regard for my parents. I didn’t speak to them for the longest time.” The resentment was particularly directed towards his father. “I would address my father as ‘sir’, a habit I continued with until about a few years before his death. I felt that he should have said something [to Taradevi] when he could see his son had an artistic streak in him.” After suffering his aunt’s whims for a few years, Priyakant began rebelling openly. “I started going against her and my father as well.”

To start with, he changed his name. “Main tenth mein gaya, maine kaha, behnchodh, bahut ho gaya yeh saala Priyakant, Priyakant. Kya hai yeh saala Priyakant Sharma, chutiya naam hai. (When I entered class 10, I realised I was fed up of being called Priyakant Sharma. It was a stupidname.) People even started calling me Priya, Priya.” Sometime after class 10, Priyakant Sharma filed an affidavit in the district court to change his name to Piyush Mishra. “When my marks sheet came home with my new name, my parents asked me whose marks sheet is this? I showed them the affidavit, ki yeh lo behnchod, aaj ke baad, I will be known as Piyush Mishra.”

“In a sense, Priyakant Sharma was like the life I had put behind me,” said Piyush.

AROUND THIS TIME, Piyush began to be drawn to theatre—it was at places like Kala Mandir and Rangshri Little Ballet Troupe in Gwalior that his talent for the medium was first identified. While Kala Mandir was a small cultural institute located on Nayee Sadak, meant specifically for theatre, the latter was an offshoot of Mumbai’s prestigious Little Ballet Troupe, and had a space on the outskirts of Gwalior. It was founded by eminent dance personality Shanti Bardhan, and patronised by the royal family of Gwalior.

Piyush’s first significant role in theatre was of Hakloo, a character who stammered, in a Kala Mandir production based on the uprising of 1857 called Dilli Teri Baat Niraali, which was directed by the then National School of Drama director, BM Shah, a regular figure on the Gwalior theatre circuit. Shah, who had earlier cast Piyush in the Sanskrit play Bhagavadajjukam while he was at Gwalior’s JC Mills school, where he had moved for high school after Carmel Convent, had been impressed enough to seek him out. “It was a small role, but it made a huge impact. It was BM Shah’s favourite character,” said Piyush, the pride discernible in his voice. From Kala Mandir, Piyush went on to Rangshri Little Ballet Troupe, where he was cast as the lead in Arre! Shareef Log!, a social satire written by the late Marathi playwright Jaywant Dalvi and directed by local Gwalior theatre personality DK Jain. “It was a huge hit,” recalled Piyush.

He was getting hooked to theatre. In his own words, “I could dictate terms to the audience. If I told them to cry, they would cry. If I told them laugh, they would laugh.” Theatre was also a medium through which Piyush could calm the restlessness that was constantly simmering within him. “Perhaps, it was because of the fame. I came from an ordinary family where nobody really bothered about us. Theatre gave me a sense of importance, something which painting etcetera did not give me. When I performed, the whole world was tuned in, with me as their sole point of focus.” There was also, he admitted, a false sense of intellectuality associated with being recognised as a theatre artist, an aspect he enjoyed in those years. “It was shallow, but I found myself indulging in it readily. I would tell people how much I had to immerse myself in the character. Ek inch, do inch ya paanch inchYeh sab baatein main uss waqt karta thaa. (One inch, two inches or five inches—that is what I talked about in those days). But I enjoyed it. It gave me the opportunity to feel like an intellectual,” he said.

Despite the sustained appreciation in the small theatre circle of his hometown, he recalled being forced by his family members to stop doing theatre. “I was asked to concentrate on my studies, with the message that theatre was not for me.” It was a message Ajit Lhane recalls resonating throughout Gwalior because, “People thought Piyush had strayed. Gwalior was a small town where people were totally alien to the idea that a career could be made out of theatre.” By this point, in 1981-82, Piyush had enrolled himself in the Government Science College for his graduation, but he had no intention of sticking around. Unable to bear the pressure, he even slashed his wrists with a blade before his second year examinations, not with the intention of committing suicide, as he insists, but as a way of registering his protest. “I just wanted to tell my family members that I WILL NOT STUDY. I didn’t know what I would do, but I just didn’t want to study,” said Piyush as he showed me the fading scars on both his arms.

Finally, he decided to leave Gwalior. He took the entrance test to the National School of Drama, Delhi in 1983, but not with any particular desire to study there. “I wanted to get out of Gwalior. By then, I was tired of my loneliness as well,” he said.

He landed at NSD at a turbulent time, with a students’ strike shaking the institution to its core. “There was a lot of vandalism which took place because of the strike. It cost BM Shah his position as director of the institute. I hadn’t come to NSD for this,” he said. Piyush also found the big city culture intimidating. “Ladki kandhey pe haath rakh de toh pareshaani hoti hain (If a girl placed her hand on my shoulder, I would feel awkward),” he said, recounting the kind of pressures he faced in his first year in Delhi.

But towards the end of the first year, when the strike at NSD had ended, things gradually fell into place. It started with Piyush composing music for a Parsi play called Mashreeki Hoor. “It happened by accident. The music teacher, Mr Mohan Upreti, was unavailable. The students were getting impatient, so I took on the job.” It was the first time Piyush had composed music; his only previous experience had been fiddling with a harmonium left behind at home by his aunt from Bhilwara. “Bajaaya maine usko, bajaaya toh woh baj gaya behnchodh! (When I tried, I realised I could play it and how!)” he said, vehemently dismissing questions about formal training. Piyush continued to use that harmonium until very recently, when he had to replace it with a newer one. “The harmonium was of German make from the 1930s. I often say that Hitler must have touched it, because the only music that has emanated from it has been rather explosive in nature,” he said.

Although Piyush mentions Mashreeki Hoor in passing, his knack for music didn’t go unnoticed at the school. Anuradha Kapur, current director of NSD, who taught Major Movements of World Drama at that time, recalled, “He would work a lot on student projects which involved music, [such as] projects in the Parsi theatre which involved students to sing individually or in chorus. He was very good at that. His ability with music and lyrics was quite apparent.”

His acting breakthrough at NSD had to wait until the start of his second year, when he played the title role in Hamlet, directed by Fritz Bennewitz, a German-born theatre personality known for his productions of Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare. Bennewitz had been associated with the NSD since the 1970s and his involvement with Indian theatre, across the country, continued into the late 1980s. Bennewitz cast Piyush in the title role based on the inputs of teachers and his own observations during reading sessions of Hamlet.

To Bennewitz, then, goes part of the credit of turning Piyush’s fortunes; Piyush called him the “cork opener”, the one who introduced him to technique. “Initially, I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t know that acting could be done with technique as well.” But Bennewitz pushed Piyush to deliver, often by being condescending to him. “He would tell me I didn’t deserve to be an actor, that I should go back to Gwalior and join bank service. Finally, when we had the last rehearsal, on Christmas day of 1984, he told me ‘Whatever you have performed today, is like a Christmas gift for me.’” Piyush said that he had no idea what Bennewitz meant until the play opened.

Piyush now refers to Hamlet, which opened on January 1, 1985, as his “first tryst with stardom”. “That turned the tide and ignited my passion for acting,” he said. Mohan Maharishi, then NSD director, said, “It was one of the finest Hamlets we had seen on stage in India.  Fritz challenged him as an actor.” Piyush agrees: “I thought acting happened just by getting into the mood. He taught me how to get into the mood. He taught me how to interpret each and every sentence in a play.” To this day, a black and white photograph of Bennewitz stands on Piyush’s study. (Ironically, Bennewitz and Piyush’s father, two men with vastly different influences on Piyush’s life, died on the same day—September 13, 1995.)

His next big role came through veteran theatre director and scriptwriter Ranjit Kapoor, who directed Piyush in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nekrassov. Kapoor had been impressed by Piyush’s intensity in Hamlet. He wanted an actor who could display a similar energy with Nekrassov, which was a farce. Piyush managed to exceed Kapoor’s expectations. “He had charisma. The moment he would start speaking, he had the audience by their throat.” Piyush also started to be recognised for his creative range.  “His ability with music and with acting was very clearly etched. It wasn’t so usual to get students whose various facets are apparent when they are students,” said Anuradha Kapur.

Yet, despite the high praise he received, Piyush remained oblivious of the effect he had on people. “I couldn’t get a sense of my achievements. I just wanted to get away,” he said. Ranjit Kapoor admitted to having noticed this troubled side to Piyush’s personality, “Sometimes, he came across as very disturbed and irritable. There was a lot of anger within him. Nobody knew towards what his anger was directed, but it was there.”

It was perhaps this internal strife that led Piyush to ignore producer Raj Kumar Barjatya’s movie offer in his final year at NSD. According to the story that has hounded Piyush Mishra through his life, Barjatya—a name to reckon with in Bollywood—visited NSD in 1986 to find an actor to star in his son Sooraj Barjatya’s directorial debut, Maine Pyar Kiya. Mohan Maharishi recommended Piyush, who was about to graduate from NSD, to the filmmaker, but Piyush didn’t show up in Mumbai despite Barjatya giving him a written invitation. “I don’t know why I didn’t go,” said Piyush. “Even when I got to know later which film it was, it didn’t matter to me.”

When he finally got to Mumbai in 1989, realising that there were few opportunities in Delhi besides repeating his college performances at NSD’s repertory company and unsubstantial roles in theatre and TV, he returned within a year. His only noteworthy stints in Mumbai from this time were an appearance in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj and a role alongside Naseeruddin Shah in an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Piyush blames these unsatisfying years on his muddled state of mind.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, filmmaker and 1989 NSD graduate, offers a more plausible explanation. Having known Piyush well while he was at NSD, Tigmanshu recalls his senior being constantly surrounded by people at the institute or at Mandi House, which was the nerve centre of Delhi’s theatre community. “You don’t get that kind of attention in Mumbai because everybody is so busy. Probably, he felt alienated when he came [to Mumbai] initially.” Sudhanva Deshpande of the Delhi theatre group Jan Natya Manch, who has known Piyush for two decades, sees his discomfort with Mumbai as the consequence of the decline of Hindi cinema. “It wasn’t a very creative industry. The high of the ’70s was gone. I remember there was this feeling when Piyush came back to Delhi from Mumbai that, look at our film industry, what a useless industry it is, it has no place for a man like Piyush Mishra.”

PIYUSH’S RETURN TO DELHI, then read as defeat, would go on to have a definitive influence on his artistic style. While in Delhi, he had been good friends with NK Sharma, a well known theatre director. NK, as he was known, had first met Piyush at a performance of Nekrassov. “We used to hang out together. We had a shared interest in theatre, we used to talk about the plays we had seen together,” said NK of his bonding with Piyush between 1986 and 1988. When Piyush came back from Mumbai, NK asked him to join his new theatre company, Act One. The early 1990s were notable years for a pronounced churning in Delhi’s political and social theatre, predominantly a response to market liberalisation, and the communal environment marked by the Babri demolition and Bombay blasts. The theatre groups significant for their engagement with the national discourse were NSD’s Repertory Company, Ebrahim Alkazi’s Little Theatre Group, Barry John’s Theatre Action Group (TAG) and Sakshi Theatre Group. NSD faculty members Robin Das and Devendra Raj Ankur were running their own companies, while Jan Natya Manch had continued performing street theatre after the murder of founder Safdar Hashmi. Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre Company was a regular presence with its productions like Ponga Pandit and Dekh Rahey Hain Nain adding to the vigour that characterised the theatre scene in Delhi at the time.

Act One was trying to find its niche in this charged environment. “Those were very dynamic days. The country was in the midst of communal tension. A few very dynamic, conscious people joined the group and we did some great work,” said NK. This marked the beginning of a productive, rewarding phase in Piyush’s career, one which he terms his second stage of stardom. Working alongside peers like Manoj Bajpai, Gajraj Rao and Ashish Vidyarthi, Piyush acted in, wrote and composed the music for a number of Act One’s productions, all directed by NK. After Mashreeki Hoor at NSD, it was at Act One that he had the opportunity to put his writing and composing skills to extensive use. The very first Act One production that he wrote and composed for was a montage of street songs called Hamaarey Daur Mein, through which Act One highlighted the communal tension sweeping through the country. He had mixed his own songs with the reworked compositions of renowned songwriters like the Urdu poets Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi and the Punjabi poet Pash. “I would adjust the words in their poems to fit my compositions,” said Piyush. “I didn’t want to request or plead with anyone to maintain harmony. My only message was chutiyon, sudhar jao,” he said, the anger in his voice palpable.

The other Act One productions he worked on were similar—entertaining, with a social message. Holi, adapted from Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play of the same name, to which Piyush added songs, dealt with the malaise in the education system and campus politics. Jab Sheher Hamaara Sota Hai, the first play Piyush independently wrote for Act One, was a musical love story on the theme of communal harmony. Maha Kund Ka Maha Daan and Woh Ab Bhi Pukaarta Hai touched upon casteism in the Indian rural hinterland, while Aaney Bhi Do Yaaron was a lighthearted satire on the increasing commercialisation and materialism gripping urban India.

Piyush talks about drawing inspiration from the environment at that time, an ability he has preserved through the years. “Just keep your eyes open and pay attention to what all is happening around you,” he said about the sources that influence his lyrics. The other noticeable feature that started to define his work was his use of chaste, colloquial Hindi in songs like ‘Ri meri sanskriti’, ‘Dharam naam ka chidiya balla’, ‘Baje badariya’ and ‘O Mrignayni’ that he wrote for theatre. Piyush says this grew out of his voracious hunger for Hindi literature as a student in Gwalior. “I learnt the language from there. I would read up everything, matlab pathya-pustakon ki maa ki (school textbooks be damned), I would go beyond what was prescribed by the teachers,” he said triumphantly.

Act One’s productions were receiving increasing attention—Sudhanva Deshpande remembers the group bursting onto the early ’90s theatre milieu with fresh energy. “The way in which their plays were done was new. There was a huge amount of collaborative energy that went in. Their plays were scripted very well. Piyush’s songs were superb,” he said. Other observers emphasise the collaboration between NK and Piyush. Shoojit Sircar, an active member of Act One at the time, and now known as the director of movies like Yahaan and Vicky Donor, said, “Their combination was very good. NK was a brilliant director. There was a lot of socialism and Marx in our plays. The kind of writing that [Piyush] did, especially his songs, even we would get stimulated by it.”

When Piyush recounts this period, it is with uninhibited fondness. “It was a great phase, my first taste of family. There were a lot of bright people—Manoj, Shoojit, Gajraj—around me. I got avenues [for my creativity]. I was composing, writing songs, writing original plays. I opened up.” Anuradha Kapoor said of his increasing command over his talent, “He had different ways of delivering dialogue. He would work on his speech, turn it around to make it different for each character. It wasn’t always one person speaking. There was great detail in his work—in his posture, in his actions. It helped him to crystallise every role.”

Among Piyush’s growing list of admirers during his Act One days was Anurag Kashyap, then a student at Delhi’s Hansraj College and an avid theatre follower. Kashyap’s earliest memory of Piyush is watching Jab Sheher Hamaara Sota Hai, which Piyush had written the songs for, a few of which the filmmaker later used in Gulaal, such as the title song Jab Sheher Hamaara Sota Hai’, ‘O Raat Ke Musafir’ and ‘Yaara Maula’. “For me, Piyush bhai was something else. When he would talk to people, I would just watch, listen, hang around,” said Kashyap. Piyush confirms Kashyap admitting to him much later, “Aap se baat karne mein badi dum nikla karti thee (We were petrified of speaking to you).”

But it was during these heady times that Piyush began his descent into alcoholism. He had begun drinking when he joined Act One in 1990. What started as a way to celebrate Act One’s success (“Wine, women and work is how we used to describe it.”) turned into a drinking problem by the time he quit Act One in 1995. “People started idolising him. He had to drink to be himself,” explained Kashyap. Kashyap also suggested that alcohol enhanced his creativity, that when he drank, “he just wrote magically”. Piyush did, in fact, write some of his most celebrated songs like ‘Husna’ and ‘Ik bagal mein chaand hoga’ from Gangs Of Wasseypur in the early to mid-’90s, when he was deep in the grip of alcohol.

Despite the adulation he received, Piyush left Act One in June 1995. He said it was because of the persistent restlessness within him: “I wanted to leave everything and go away. I wanted to leave my parents, my friends, my philosophers and guides, institutes, Act One—my only tendency was to run away.” Those around him noticed he was drifting aimlessly. “Piyush bhai was very restless, bitter, like a raging bull, constantly huffing and puffing,” said Dhulia. Piyush’s exit from the only place that gave him a sense of belonging could also have been a result of ideological disillusionment. When he joined Act One, he had been won over by NK’s committed leftist ideology. “It gave me a purpose,” he said, and that purpose was reflected in the kind of writing he did for the group. However, as he evolved his own identity, he realised that he wasn’t a leftist. He found that the political class that represented the left was no different from right wing or conservative establishments. “All of them were the same. They all wanted to go to America and buy expensive shoes,” he said scathingly.

The leftist themes in his writings continue to be pronounced, however, something he was quick to explain. “If standing up for what is right makes one a leftist, then I am one.” He went on to add animatedly, “Even my mother, who was a housewife and was a villager, said people should not fight. Does that make her a leftist? The only difference between her and me was that I was able to articulate what I felt.” He admitted that his exit from Act One strained his relationship with NK, but the latter insisted he bore no grudge against Piyush. “In fact, he was the guy who stayed in Act One for the longest time. People have to move on,” NK said.

Even after he left Act One, Piyush remained fiercely driven to do theatre, a motivation that led him to acclaimed Hindu writer Nirmal Verma’s novel Doosri Duniya.  He had already performed a version ofDoosri Duniya, a touching story of a man’s relationship with a small girl, as a solo performance under NK’s direction at Act One. Now that he was on his own, he realised this would be the easiest performance to revive. In the absence of resources, Piyush put on shows at friends’ houses, either in their bedrooms or on their terraces, for the princely fee of R11. “Bada mazaa aaya, (I had great fun)”, he said of the experience. Soon after, in early 1996, Piyush did another solo performance, as a woman in Betty Lemon Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hain? which was directed by Roysten Abel for the British Council. Betty Lemon was based on British dramatist Arnold Wesker’s play Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon? where a handicapped woman rants against socialism and communism. “In a way, I was airing my own grudges against communism through the character of Betty Lemon,” said Piyush. His third solo act was Duvidha, presented at NSD’s festival of solo performances in March 1996. Duvidha, which he adapted for stage himself, was based on Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha’s story of the same name, and explored the dilemma faced by a newlywed bride who is forced to make a choice between the material and the spiritual.

The three solo acts became the three-hour An Evening With Piyush Mishra when Piyush joined Arvind Gaur’s Asmita Theatre Group. As per his arrangement with them, Asmita would organise the venue, take care of publicity, and keep the entire ticket proceeds. “I only needed a space to perform,” Piyush said. An Evening With Piyush Mishra went on to become Piyush’s third tryst with stardom.

Manu Rishi Chadha, who starred in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as Bangali, Lucky’s endearing sidekick, and who was a part of Asmita when Piyush joined the theatre company, recalled, “People would leave in silence after watching Piyush. They were not able to express their admiration in words, but their speechlessness said everything,” Piyush, too, doesn’t hold himself back on the subject: “It was a roaring success. They [the audience] would wonder how could one man enact three distinct characters non-stop for three hours?”

BUT, IN 1998, just as he was settling in at Asmita, having written the script, played the protagonist and composed the songs for Operation Three Star, an adaptation of Italian playwright Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Piyush left the group. Today, he isn’t very sentimental about the time he spent with Asmita. “NK yaar hai. Arvind se kabhi main jud nahin paaya (NK was a friend. I could never bond with Arvind Gaur).”

His exit pushed him into desolation. “I was tired of doing solo performances,” he said, but added that he also did not know what he wanted to do next. As Piyush struggled to find his next platform, his addiction to alcohol peaked. “I didn’t know where my career was headed. I felt I couldn’t do without liquor. Initially, it was whisky, then rum.  And then I started drinking alone. I needed more than half a bottle every night.” Piyush remembers this time as one of accidents and fights. By his own admission, he developed an image at Mandi House of a respected artist who got drunk and spoke to himself.

It didn’t help that most of his comrades from Mandi House had moved on. By 1998, Manoj Bajpai, Ashish Vidyarthi and Vishal Bhardwaj, his closest friends from his Act One days, had already established themselves in Mumbai. Vidyarthi was noticed for his performance in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahinand offered a number of character roles in films. Bhardwaj’s music for Gulzar’s Maachis had won him considerable acclaim. And Manoj Bajpai was a star after playing Bhiku Mhatre in Satya, Ram Gopal Varma’s hard-hitting Mumbai underworld film from 1998. Piyush also made his film debut around the same time, with Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was writing dialogue for Dil Se, getting him the CBI officer’s role in the film. But Dil Se tanked at the box-office and Piyush’s film career didn’t quite take off. Piyush said the disappointment pushed him towards alcohol, “I did it in anger. I did it because of lack of recognition. My friends had already made it big.”

His fear of Mumbai hadn’t yet abated. (Piyush had shot for Dil Se in Delhi). Mumbai’s emphasis on profit over content, which drove the kind of cinema that was produced in Bollywood troubled him, used as he was to the economically unviable but challenging work that defined Delhi theatre. “Mumbai can sometimes be insensitive to a creative person. Piyush knew a lot more than many other mediocre people who were around Mumbai. It could have frustrated him, to leave theatre and come to Mumbai and do mediocre work,” explained Shoojit Sircar.

At NSD’s convocation program in 1999, Piyush Mishra performed Hamlet Kabhi Bombay Nahin Gaya, an unscripted musical solo performance with 20 songs, with the intention of finding out “for how long could I improvise on stage, without any script dictating the flow of the performance”. But the play was equally significant for how it reflected the dilemma that was tearing him apart. The main plot ofHamlet Kabhi Bombay Nahin Gaya involved Hamlet, a young man from Gwalior, confronting Shakespeare about his confused state, with Bhagwan, the chaiwala of Mandi House witnessing the argument. Hamlet’s main contention in the play was that Shakespeare should have left him either ‘To be’ or ‘To not be’ instead of leaving him eternally confused. Piyush agrees today that Hamlet Kabhi…, in many ways, was an allegory for his life.

BETWEEN 1999 AND 2001, Piyush Mishra made a couple of more failed attempts to reenter cinema, but the projects, one of them Ram Gopal Varma’s, didn’t come through. Friends like Manoj Bajpai and Vishal Bhardwaj kept asking him to shift to Mumbai, but he didn’t. Instead, he immersed himself in campus theatre in Delhi, directing college productions at institutes like Lady Shri Ram College for Women and the School of Planning and Architecture. When he did go to Mumbai in 2001, it was on director Rajkumar Santoshi’s invitation to write the script for The Legend Of Bhagat Singh; but the filmmaker’s reluctance to acknowledge in the credits the inspiration from Gagan Damama Bajiyo, Piyush’s Act One production on Bhagat Singh, made him walk out of the film and return to Delhi.

Piyush found himself at a low yet again. By this time, he had a wife (Priya Narayan, whom he met in 1992 while directing a play at the School of Planning and Architecture and married in 1995) and a son, who was born in 1998, to provide for. He recalls going to Mandi House and drinking and crying as he thought, “I have not given anything to my wife, my mother and my son.” The conflict in his mind between Mumbai and Delhi had reached a tipping point. Unlike earlier, Delhi had no new challenges to offer him, while Mumbai, with its cinema at the beginning of a new turn, was brimming with possibilities. When his wife urged him to make another attempt, Piyush gave in. “There was no other option,” he said of the decision. That’s when, he added, “the marriage with Anurag Kashyap happened”.

Piyush had first spoken with Kashyap following the release of Shool in 1999. Impressed by Kashyap’s dialogues, he had decided to compliment him. “This is Piyush Mishra. I am calling you from Delhi. I saw Shool and I really liked your work. Mubarak ho!” Kashyap recalled Piyush telling him. It was a surreal moment for Kashyap, who had idolised Piyush since his student days in Delhi.

Arriving in Mumbai in September of 2002, Piyush got in touch with Kashyap, who was looking for a music director for Gulaal, after having tried a number of people and being disappointed by their work. Piyush, who was at Kashyap’s office on what was another frustrating day for the latter, grabbed a harmonium and started playing. “It was magical,” said Kashyap, who then asked Piyush to compose music for Gulaal, an ambitious film about student politics and an imagined secessionist movement.

Gulaal’s release was stalled till 2009, but Piyush continued on to other work. In Kashyap’s, Black Friday, he shot for the role of Thapa, the customs officer who facilitated the consignment into India of the RDX used in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. The director dropped the character after it was decided thatBlack Friday would be made into a movie instead of a television series. Nevertheless, Piyush contributed lyrics to the movie’s songs, like ‘Arrey ruk ja re bandey’ and ‘Bharam bhaanp ke’, composed and recorded by the band Indian Ocean.

Gradually, Piyush explains, he started getting more work, first through old friends and later through word of mouth. “I did Maqbool. Manoj Bajpai got me 1971 [screenplay], while Shoojit offered meYahaan [screenplay and dialogues]. Then, when Yash Raj Films were looking for someone to write an opera song for the climax of Aaja Nachle, I happened to impress them.” Piyush went on to work in a number of films in different capacities—he made a cameo appearance in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, wrote lyrics for Tashan, dialogues for Ghajini.

Yet, it wasn’t until Gulaal released in 2009 that Bollywood noticed Piyush. “Gulaal is Piyush Mishra’s voice. People valued his work,” said Kashyap on Piyush’s contribution as actor, composer, singer and lyricist to the film’s critical acclaim. “Piyush’s poetry made it so much easier for me to tell the story.” Piyush said about his work in Gulaal, “Anurag’s story dealt only with separatism, but my choice of poetry and my idea for those lines [“sale hai, sale hai”] helped him to expand the scope of Gulaal.”

Rahul Ram, bass guitarist of Indian Ocean describes Piyush’s compositions in Gulaal as “theatrical”. Referring to lyrics like “Jaise door des ke tower mein ghus jaaye re aeroplane” (Like in a distant country, a plane crashes into a tower), from the song ‘Ranaji’, Ram said, “The political look that he gives does not exist in Hindi cinema.” Kashyap said the rage had its genesis in Piyush’s youth, which continues to be the source for a lot of his writing. “I liken him to [Henry Charles] Bukowski, who experiences things and pours it out,” he said. “He himself does not know where it comes from, it comes from deep within.”

AS HE WAS COMING TO TERMS with his creative anxiety, Piyush decided to confront his dependence on alcohol, realising it was harming him “physically, mentally, emotionally, ethically”. With support from his wife, and professional assistance, Piyush largely gave up drinking over the past five years. His struggles with the addiction even inspired him to write a couplet to warn people of the consequences of alcoholism:

Aadat jisko samjhey ho woh marz kabhi bann jaayega

Phir marz ki aadat pad jaayegi, arz na kuch kar paaogey

Aur tabdili ki gunjaayish ne saath diya toh theek sahi

Par usney bhi gar chodd diya, toh yaar bade pachtaogey

What you think is routine, will soon turn into addiction

Then you will be bound by habit, incapable of delivering anything

And if you wish to change, it will be a good thing

But if it gets too late, you will regret a great deal

As with all things in his life, Piyush likes to get philosophical about his alcoholism. He believes that, like his bua Taradevi Mishra, liquor came into his life for a reason. Without the lows, he could have never seen the highs. “The moment he got recognition, he automatically left liquor,” noted Manu Rishi Chadha.

Today, Piyush no longer has to look for work—he is swamped with it. “When I was looking, I struggled,” he said. He proudly mentioned featuring on an episode of The Dewarists, the music travelogue show on Star World, where he collaborated with English rapper Akala. He also spoke with great satisfaction of one of his forthcoming projects, The Playback Singer, an independent film written and directed by Suju Vijayan. Vijayan, who had been referred to Piyush by a common friend, said she was “blown away” by his online audition. “It was clear he understood the character inside and out. I had never felt that way about an actor I had auditioned,” she said.

At 50, Piyush Mishra might have found his niche in Bollywood, but Kashyap wonders if a man of his depth can ever get the recognition he deserves in the Hindi film industry. “His versatility and his talent has a lot of gravity,” he said. “Our film industry does not like gravity. They don’t know what he can contribute to them. He is a man capable of creating incredibly great cinema. They just like everything on the surface, which is why he has not been explored, exploited.”

Piyush responded to his fear by telling  a story about a man who refused to drink the water from the village well because he knew it had been poisoned. He warned the villagers repeatedly, but they paid no heed—the water was sweet and they continued to drink it. The poisoned water caused the people in the village to lose their minds. Since the man was the one who now appeared to behave differently, the entire village started calling him mad. But the man stuck to his decision to avoid the water. “I am like that man,” Piyush said, “I will only do what I believe in.”

Akshay Manwani is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. His book on the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi will be published by HarperCollins in 2013.

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Turban Legend- Shivaji underground in Bhimnagar- Shanta Gokhale #Sunday Reading

Turban legend

SEPARATING THE BEST FROM THE BANAL ON MUMBAI’S CULTURESCAPE

Mumbai Mirror

The play is in Marathi, the title is in English. Marathi theatre loves this combo. But the title is not your innocuous All the Best or Lovebirds. It is
Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla. Sounds potentially explosive. In times when we dare not touch Shivaji, not in plays, novels, short stories, reminiscences or history, particularly not in history, this play puts him upfront in the title itself. I look over my shoulder to see who else has noticed and is rolling up his sleeves for action.
Anyway, why is Shivaji underground? Isn’t he always on a magnificent Arab steed, raised sword in hand? Or sitting majestically on an opulent throne? More than why, where has he gone underground? In Bhimnagar of all places? What’s he doing hobnobbing with Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s followers?
The whole thing is a mystery. But if the title isn’t intriguing enough to take you to the nearest theatre where the play is showing, the three names attached to it should do the trick. The first is Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat’s. He is the radical balladeer whose rousing call to the exploited of this country to wake up and recognise the faces of their enemies, ‘Inko dhyaan se dekho re bhai/ Inki soorat ko pehchano re bhai,’ has become an all-time hit. The concept of the present play, its music and its songs are his. The second name is Nandu Madhav’s. He’s the actor who gave flesh, blood, passion and madness to the character of Dadasaheb Phalke in Paresh Mokashi’s multi-award winning film, Harishchandrachi Factory. He directs this play. The third name is Rajkumar Tangde’s. We first heard of him when Nandu Madhav brought him and his group of farmer actors down from Jalna to perform their play Aakda in Mumbai. It was about stealing power, and was staged in near-darkness to give the audience an immediate taste of what life in the actors’ villages was like without power. Tangde wrote that play, and has written this.
So there I am in Shivaji Mandir, a-tingle with expectation without quite knowing what to expect. This much I know. With these three names attached to it, the play cannot be a wishy-washy regurgitation of a formula. It has to be something new and energising. And it is.
The curtain goes up on a large ensemble of actors placed geometrically on different levels, dressed in costumes suggesting the era of Shivaji. Two performers of gondhal (a ritual performance that marks celebrations) begin singing a traditional mythological tale. A woman interrupts them saying, we are fed up with mythology. Come into the present and sing about today.
This introduction gives us an idea of which way the play is headed. Through song, humour and discussion, it pits mythology against history with a hilarious running gag that often brings the house down. Yama (Pravin Dalimbkar) has being sent to earth to fetch Shivaji up, along with his ideas. Shivaji forgets his ideas and returns to earth to get them. He leaves his turban behind as surety, but doesn’t return. Yama (now Yamaji) runs around looking for a head on which the turban will fit. The turban thus becomes a symbol of Shivaji’s ideas; and the political party headed by the opportunistic Akka (Ashwini Bhalekar), which is all set to celebrate Shiv Jayanti, proves that it is the least likely candidate for the turban.
The central idea of the play is that Shivaji has been mythologised by the very people whose ancestors had opposed his coronation because he wasn’t a Kshatriya, but who now claim him as their idol for political mileage. The argument culminates in a brilliant jugalbandi between Dharma Shahir (Sambhaji Tangde), a minion of the myth-makers and Milind Kamble (Kailas Waghmare), who sees Shivaji’s greatness not only in his wars but in his policies regarding women, caste, religion, agriculture and revenue which made him such a just and compassionate king.
Unlike the typical urban middleclass play that confines itself to drawing rooms and kitchens, folk forms offer theatre the freedom to address the big issues of the day. This play comes close in form to the old Ambedkari jalsas, mixing music, humour, even slapstick, with pure didacticism.
Nandu Madhav rehearsed the cast for 100 days, mostly in the fields of Jalna. His hard work shows in the easy precision with which the actors speak and move. Finally, you are so grateful to see Shivaji taken away from myth-making chauvinists and given his true greatness by those who know and respect history.

SHANTA GOKHALE

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Comrade Kumbhkarna play review- Sonalee Hardikar

If you like to go to the theatre so that you can take plays home in your head; if you want to go in search of images that will move you, even if you do not immediately ‘understand’ them, and if you are a seeker of restlessness, then Ramu Ramanathan’s COMRADE KUMBHKARNA presented by the National School of Drama (NSD) repertory company is a must see.

From the dark recesses of the stage comes forth a troupe of performers to create and inhabit an imaginary world that is at once ancient yet contemporary, impoverished yet dreamy, profane and vulgar, and yet at the same time immensely poetic and beautiful. Before your eyes the story unravels myths, age old lores that we take as given, staid authority, and its banal memorandums. In a very Marquezesque fashion, the divide between the god and the demon, the Aryan and the Dravidian, the good and the cruel is analyzed and cut to size.

Instead we are given a new lore, a new protagonist- a hero in chains instead of the arch archer. An actor who becomes the character he plays; a hero who is part folk performer, part Kumbhakaran…A Kumbhakaran who is part demon, part god. By mussing up the divide between the real and the unreal, between the personal and the political, between the historical and the contemporary, we are taken on a wild journey. It’s also a precarious one as most journeys that take you away from the known are. It’s also a bold play for its current political resonances. There is intensity to it due to the eloquent hyper real imagery that director Mohit Takalkar and his team have evolved to tell the story.

Though the original text by Ramu Ramanathan is in English, the Hindi version by Santwana Nigam is equally remarkable for the nuances it generates while fitting the original to a Hindi speaking, Hindi singing, and Hindi dancing culture of the play’s world. Music by theater veteran Kajal Ghosh is alluring as it takes off from the age old rhythms of the folk and becomes one of the most accessible and entertaining elements of the production.

COMMORADE KUMBHKARNAA special mention needs to be made about the light design by Pradeep Vaiddya. While working at a repertory, that too of a national stature, one often tends to be compelled to make a statement with the kind of facilities available and to dazzle the audience with the power of technology. Pradeep successfully shirks these temptations. The lighting is novel. It is extremely economical and yet very interesting and effective. So was the initial idea for the costumes of the play, but the execution lacks conviction. It would have been interesting to see more grime, dirt, real wear and tear, and crumpling of the costumes and the effect it would have on the overall narrative, akin to the effect that the crumpled tape spools or the red trunk and the mirrors have.

While casting actors without knowledge of fluent English, the director needs to explore other devices that would fit well with the varying power structures that the characters represent. Actors playing the characters of Tripathi and Singh are otherwise quite capable actors but come out as limited in their rendering because of their self consciousness in speaking the English text. The younger Kumbhakaran played by Ajit Singh Pahlavat brings a lot of energy and vulnerability to the role. Though the older Kumbhakaran succeeds at the poetic moments in the play, the angst that can spark revolutions, the simmering and smoldering of the protagonist, is missing from the body language, and makes for a lukewarm portrayal of the central role.

The twin sister played by Rakhi Kumari is memorable and some of the images she creates are stunning. A special mention is required for the role of Amma played by Sajida. Her stage presence, the texture of her voice all lend favorably to the portrayal. The irreverence and the grit of Amma’s character is played out with a studied amount of detailing by Sajida and it’s a pleasure to watch her throughout the play.
Madame X, although a small role, is played by Ipshita Chakraborty with a commendable poise.

Some questions that I took back with me that may or may not be in direct relation to the play-but concern the broader context of theatre and Indian theatre in general —would the real “Kumbhakarans” (who are mentioned at the end of the play’s brochure and who Ramu dedicates the play to….) be really silent on the key issues that get picked up in the play but are met with silence by the stage Kumbhakaran?

COMMORADE KUMBHKARNAIn current political scenarios of the Indian subcontinent what is and should be the role of theatre— can it be ok for us to just be mirrors and reflect back the complex painful reality?

If one is taking pangas with the powers that be…why take a non committal panga? Why make Kumbhakaran silent on key issues? Is it only possible in the Indian context for a playwright to be writing about Gandhian thought and Maoist thought one after the other, and what are the implications of such writing- if any? Will the repertory take such a play to the real places out of which the characters in the script have developed? If at all any such interaction is generated what shape would the play take then?

Thankfully the life of repertory productions is far greater than most other productions that get mounted elsewhere in the country. And a lot can be done with such a play. It will be quite interesting to watch the journeys that it embarks on, and the effect it produces.

*Sonalee Hardikar is a graduate of the National School of Drama and also the recipient of the Jim Henson fellowship under which she studied scenic design at the University of Maryland. She is a visiting faculty at the National School of Drama and runs a photo studio in Albany, New York.

Original article here

 

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A democracy that sleeps

Suprateek Chatterjee, Hindustan Times, March 03, 2012

Exactly two months after alleged Maoist Arun Ferreira was granted bail, post a widely criticised four-year-long incarceration, comes playwright Ramu Ramanthan’s politically-charged play Comrade Kumbhakarna.

The Hindi play, inspired by the 2007 arrests of Ferreira along with Sridhar Srinivasan and  Vernon  Gonzalves, will be staged in Mumbai for the first time this Sunday.

Comrade Kumbhakarna was written in English towards the end of 2010. He wrote the play for Pune-based director Mohit Takalkar’s theatre group, Aasakta, with whom he had worked on Kashmir, Kashmir in 2009. “It [Kashmir, Kashmir] was an incomplete script,” says Ramanathan. “I decided, therefore, to write Comrade Kumbhakarna to compensate for it.”

Oppression is what the play deals with, as it introduces a central character named Kumbhakarna, a member of a theatre troupe that enacts stories from the Ramayana. Born into poverty but high on self-respect, Kumbhakarna proceeds to subvert the mythological figures his plays portray, which leads to him being branded a rebel by the government, and his subsequent arrest.

Commenting on the parallels with Ferreira, who recently spoke out against inhuman police torture methods, Ramanathan says, “Democracy in India is only skin-deep. There are innumerable Arun Ferreiras out there, still languishing in jail. This is what Comrade Kumbhakarna attempts to show.”

The play has been extensively staged all over North India as well as cities such as Bengaluru. It has received rave reviews as well as several standing ovations.

However, according to Ramanathan, this may just be the only show Mumbaikars get to see, given that the play, which has been travelling since last June, may be reaching the end of its run.

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Its easier to censor Theatre

Vidya Rao, Thumri Artist

HYDERABAD: A guided tour of Unnava Laxmi Narayana’s ‘Malapalli’ and a taste of cynicism through Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry’s ‘Aaru Saara Kathalu’ (Six stories on arrack) marked the second day of the national seminar on law and literature in the city. Socialism and class struggle as captured in literary works and machinations to censor art depicting real-life situations formed the essence of the discourse.
The issue of censorship on literature and play-acting brought different perspectives. Noted Gujarati playwright and activist Saroop Dhruv observed that it is easier to censor theatre than movies. “Staging a play requires the script to be submitted in advance. This is something films don’t go through. The experience is similar to having a foetus aborted before it takes shape,” said Saroop whose plays were targeted for critiquing contemporary issues, from communalism to displacement of slum-dwellers in the name of urban beautification in ‘Suno Nadi Kya Kehti Hai’.
Wielding censorship on women musicians by centres of power — a largely male dominated area — was brought out by publisher and Thumri artist, Vidya Rao.
The struggle of workers, marginalised classes and agricultural laborers in Andhra pradesh were covered in separate sessions by writer and filmmaker Kutumba Rao and Sudhakar’s paper on Ra Vi Sastry’s portrayal of the rot in judicial system. The censorship on ‘Malapali’ in pre-independent India was discussed in detail by Kutumba Rao whose recitation of Sri Sri’s rebel cry in ‘Maro Prapancham’ brought alive the struggle of the worker.
In the contemporary context, the legalese employed courts was portrayed in an anecdotal evidence by Suneetha Rani, professor at University of Hyderabad. The Tollywood movie ‘Leader’ which borrows from the dynasty politics in the state was presented through a paper by Sam Gundimeda which drew parallels between the case fought by K.G Kannabiran and Balagopal against the killings in Karamchedu and the cinematic portrayal of a warped sense of extra-judicial justice.

Indian Express

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