Stage is meant for exploration

by vaibhav Srivastava
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Rashma N. Kalsie, an Indian writer/playwright, has been representing Indian theatre in Australia as the founder of the Indian Diaspora Dramatics Association. She rose to acclaim after her widely-popular show ‘The Day I Left Home’. Now, she has prepared Padma Shri Prahasana, especially for the Indian Audience. A satirical take on Indian national awards, it was staged at IGNCA, New Delhi, recently. Rashma has co-authored two books — Ohh! Gods Are Online and The Buddha; The Bitch. In this interview, she talks about Padma Shri Prahasana and her creative writing process.
What is your methodology?
I have come to believe that you cannot write plays sitting in a room. I do 50 drafts and at least one compete rewrite. Typically, I workshop the first draft with actors and put it up for a public reading. The Q & A session at the end of the first reading always throws up new ideas. It also gives me a chance to check whether the jokes are working or is the audience moved or bored. After the first reading, I let the script sit for a few months and then one day I just get on it with gusto. I rewrite the whole script after I have had a considerable emotional distance from it. The rewritten script goes into the rehearsal room and I am open to suggestions. I believe we writers need to work with the actors and be open to ideas and revision.
After having excelled in diverse mediums like TV, novels and articles in what ways do you think has theatre been a constant attraction?
Actually I didn’t excel in any medium. I have written all kinds of things across media, but never excelled. Writing for different media teaches you many a thing about writing. I think I have a talent for dramatic writing and I love creating characters and their worlds. I feel theater is intelligent. There are issues you can explore on stage that you can’t touch in other media. I feel that non-naturalistic theater is so imaginative – it breaks the barrier of geographic location. You can jump cities in seconds. You can jump time frames – just like movies, but with more imagination and less money. There’s so much happening in the performing arts world across the world, it’s exciting to write in these times.
For how many years have you been struggling with this sense of Diaspora and how do you feel about it today?
You can’t struggle with the sense of being a Diaspora. It is your status at a given time in life. For a couple years I tried to become ‘Australian’. But then I had to accept that I can never stop being Indian. But living and working abroad has given me an insider- outsider perspective. My stories are about Indian people, living in India and abroad. But my worldview has expanded and my stories are universal. The experience of having worked with some fine theater professionals has helped me grow as a playwright. I have been able to hone my craft. On the other hand, my association with the shastras and Indian classical arts has added a new dimension to my understanding of plays.
How did you come about using principles of Indian aesthetic theory in Padma Shri Prahasana?

Dr. Bharat Gupt has been my mentor/guru for many years. I had been attending his workshops and lecture series on Natyashastra, but I didn’t ever think of applying it to my work. He encouraged me to write a modern satire based on the principles given in Natyashastra. I adapted the format of ancient Prahasanas for the modern Indian audience. I can safely claim that the first experiment with Natyashastra was successful.
The audience enjoyed the show thoroughly.
Did Prof. Dr. Bharat Gupt assist you in concretizing the concepts of ‘Prahasana’?
Oh yes, he is the driving force. I have been learning with Prof Gupt for over a decade, understanding the siddhanta/principles of the Indian aesthetic theory and getting a handle on Prahasanas in particular. I am a research associate with Vision India Foundation, an organization committed to nation building. As part of my fellowship program, I am writing modern plays on the principles of Natyashastra, under the
mentorship of Prof Gupt. I consult him all the time. For instance he advised us to enact ‘Padma Shri Prahasana’ in a non-naturalistic fashion. Using non-naturalism enhanced humour. If you remember, the frame of Padma Shri became the metaphor for ego that the award brings.
What is the importance of a satire to the Indian cultural narrative?
Satire as a genre has been extremely popular since the time of Bharata Muni. In fact Indians have always enjoyed sophisticated satires. I think satire is a powerful genre – you can use this genre to expose the hypocrisies of the society, the vices of institutions, and the fallacies of ideologies. The best example of a great satire is Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. Satire speaks to the audience. Satires are the need of the hour – be it India or any other country.
How is Padma Shri Prahasana different from any other comedy?
Well, firstly Padma Shri Prahasana is not a comedy, it’s a satire. Additionally, it follows the format of Prahasanas – for example Sutradhar and Vidushak open the play. There is live classical music in the play – a tradition borrowed from ancient Indian drama. The play is based on a theme, rather than a situation. The theme of ‘politics of awards and awardwapsi’ has been dramatized. Most comedies tend to be situational, but Prahasanas are a good lens to explore the clash of ideologies. Even though Padma Shri Prahasana is based on a serious theme it is full of hasya rasa. It is not did actic like other theme based plays. It’s a clever satire for the intelligent audience.

Should we expect from you something along the lines of The day I left home or will you devote more time to Padma Shri Prahasana.
Both. For now, I am trying to bring my award-winning, critically-acclaimed play ‘Melbourne Talam’ to the Indian audience. I decide the format of a new work on the basis of its genre and theme. I am working at double speed to bring to the Indian audience new plays in both the formats.

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