A Brief Interview with Janardan Ghosh by Rijita Chatterjee in The Year 2010 for Surrey University

Rijita – Mr. Ghosh, first let me start with a very fundamental question: when and how did you get into theatre?

Janardan – There was a familiar desire to take part in my school’s annual plays which initiated me into basic Theatre. School plays were my earliest theatre engagements, which gradually took on a powerful shape of their own with an earnest desire for pursuing a full-fledged career in the same. I remember doing Macbeth and Noah’s Ark in school. My father was an amateur actor and promoted my yearning for the immortal art of histrionics. Later, when I shifted to Kolkata, I was trained by established theatre directors like those of Subhasis Sarkar, Jayatee Bose, Anjan Datta, Badal Sarkar, John Retallack and Wolfgung Kolneder. My learning had been primarily through praxis as opposed to proper theatre-based school education.

Rijita – What is your present understanding of theatre performance?

Janardan – I am now in search of placing myself in a practice that excludes the burden of techniques and style, while formulating a process leading to a defined end; called performance. I wish to discover and forge a path, towards the non dual, non didactic; a nonviolent experience of spirituality and aesthetics within a common time and space concurrence – “A theatre of Liberation and Total Release”. This was more of a journey through Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Richard Schechner, K. N. Panikkar, Ratan Thiyam, Ankaia Nat and Krishna Jatra1 Artists…… towards a neo-theatre.

I believe performance to be an interim halt at a vestibule, while one travels from one compartment to another. The rehearsal is the traveling, which gradually encroaches into newer spaces and fresher avenues, with absolute novel compartments.

Therefore, the entire process of being in theatre should be a stupendous artwork relating the virtual with the real, the theory with the praxis, and the self with the whole. At every performance, an effort ought to be made to generate an exciting denouement with an ambiguity of reality and dream, exploiting the common physiological and intellectual freedom. An effective range of possibility and impossibility should merge into time-charged rhetoric; simulation and scenarios should seek to interpret an atypical analogy of the cosmic design.

Rijita – You have mentioned a long list of “Great Theatre Personalities”, how do you reckon their influences in your work and what was the precise pattern of your journey with theatre as a serious artform?

Janardan – Brecht is a popular reference in Bengali theatre and his political views are considered to be the model of the cultural ethos of Bengal, which have been ruled by a communist party for the past 25 years. His epic theatre, with an emphasis on alienation, was pretty attractive for the young, politically driven theatre practitioners of Bengal and I acted in a Bengali version of Three Penny Opera and Measure for Measure. When I was introduced to Badal Sarkar, his concept of the Third Theatre was based heavily on the lines of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre or The Theatre of the Thirteen Rows, and I was highly influenced by his focused work on actors’ bodies and minds. His techniques to liberate the actor from the narrow pattern of understanding with regard to human action and reaction, were a challenge well-received by the offbeat theatre workers in Kolkata. I received special psychosomatic training from him, and he referred me to books dealing with his style and method.

Peter Brook, who visited India, especially to hunt for actors for Mahabharata11, also worked with Grotowski on many of his projects. He was more of a legacy, and his theatre methods evolved into a practice which Grotowski was trying to accommodate within his laboratory, “Theatre of Thirteen Rows”. His technique influenced me. Brooks’ Mahabharat was a metaphorical reference point for Indian theatre practitioners. Brooks developed a sharper and a fresher utilization of the body-space concept of exploration. His nominal use of sets and props endorsed the Grotowskian minimalism, which you may have noticed in my Hayavadana.

Rijita – Was it a similar economic constraint for Brook, which led him towards this “Poor Theatre”?

Janardan – I do not think so. It was more of an aesthetic and artistic challenge for Peter Brook to work with such symbolic and thought-provoking designs. Brooks Marat –Sade was also a very intriguing work depicting modern theatrical form and its vulnerabilities.

Rijita – You mentioned Richard Shechner and the Indian theatre personalities and forms of folk theatre, which hints at the full circle movement with a strategic return to the roots. Can you enlighten me on the same?

Janardan – The post colonial Indian theatre was not simply a “copy paste” of the European theatre; it was a process to overcome the disability, generated by the neglect of the indigenous Indian performing arts. The pre-independent Indian Theatre failed to integrate the folk art with the British and Russian theatre that was predominant in the country. You must have heard about Lebedeff12, the Russian theatre director who first attempted Theatre performance on a Bengali stage? Well, post-independent Bengali, as well as the Indian Theatre, has gone through a massive change in ethos and semiotic design. The experimental theatre generated after Independence, gave rise to a hybrid theatre which has become an interesting mix of both Indian and European theatre art. A political streak was identified with the Gana Natya Movement  and the Group Theatre activities of Bengal.

Richard Shechner explored the oriental theatre forms to identify these hybrids and the essential roots of theatre which originated from rituals. Similar work has been done by Pannikkar and Ratan Thiyam.

Ankaia Nat and Krishna Jatra are still the surviving folk theatre forms of India, which define the design I follow in my Theatre.

Rijita – Did this post colonial period bring about a paradigm shift in practice and an early stage of theorizing the practice? What do you feel?

Janardan – Yes, I also feel the same and this is when we notice the development of laboratory-based theatre studies, and theatre being considered as an independent academic discipline. Prithviraj Kapoor15, Shambhu Mitra, Utpal Datta and Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay created major differences in the practice.

Richard Shechner, as I’ve already mentioned, was a pioneer in performance studies, who opened new venues into the indigenous Theatre practices in India; especially Ramlila. We also have Indian directors like Panikkar and Thiyam, who are considered pioneers in using folk forms in extensive ways during modern theatrical performances.

Badal Sarkar, a great influence in my theatre, was a prime mover in the experimental Bengali theatre giving rise to the third theatre. The use of body along with a bare minimum use of props, was extensively encouraged. They started performing in intimate spaces and open air parks and porticoes.

Rijita – Tell me about your work experience?

Janardan – I have done plays written by Bertolt Brecht, Rabindranath Tagore, Badal Sarkar, Shakespeare, Gunter Grass, Peter Handke, Howard Brenton and many other known and lesser known playwrights. Presently I am working on Girish Karnad’s famous play Hayavadana, written in the year 1972. I have also started working on the proscenium and then later explored street performance and intimate spaces like bookshops, galleries and cafes.

Rijita – But somewhere midway in your career why did you choose a play so old and overdone as Hayavadana? As far as I know, that almost all established Indian directors from the 70s onwards, must have attempted the play. There was also a German version directed by Vijaya Mehata edited ruthlessly to suit the understanding of the European actors, but eventually lost the essence of the Indian ethos predominant in the play.

Janardan – The financial scenario of theatre in these difficult Third World countries are pathetic and depressing. I believe that we were funded for the project primarily because we chose to do a celebrated work by Girish Karnad. Fund for an experimental theatre project, in a shopping Mall infested Kolkata, with a post colonial hangover, is a rare occurrence and that too for an informal theatre group; it is lucky by chance!! Incidentally, we also had Girish (Girish Karnad stays in Bangalore, almost 1000 kms from Kolkata, and he is a busy celebrity with an illustrious history following him) in town and he himself interacted with the entire crew before we started rehearsing. This was a great experience. A rare one indeed, where a playwright faced the actors, violent and curious to explore the play-text. The actors were eager to abandon all that they felt was a botheration for them, while Girish insisted upon the relevance of all that he had written and would not consent to edit. This was a very healthy way to groove with a popular play script and create a harmony with the adi srastha (first creator, the playwright ) and the projected alteration anticipated by the samasmayik srastha (contemporary creators, the director and the actor).

The imperative and most pressing reason to choose this play script was its wider attribute towards a straight question – What constitutes the essential identity of an individual, his Head or his Body? The question traverses through an abundance of artistic forms and formulations. The actors and the designer get ample creative opulence to nurture upon, while working on this play text and it also allows a lot of experimentation with the space- text relationship.

The approval of the playwright himself allows another creative license to the performers to explore and enjoy while rehearsing. The advantage of doing an overdone play, as you have rightly mentioned, is that it also pushes us to an extreme limit of extracting something new and fresh from the text and that often gives way to an avant garde production.

Rijita – What is your interpretation of avant garde and how do you view it with your middle class Bengali background being predominant in your production, which includes your morals, ethics, value system, ways of life and your education?

Janardan – Don’t you consider this to be too broad an aspect? Yet to briefly answer you… avant garde for me is an exercise which leaps beyond the limited matrix of our material being….. I feel that my mediocrity is reflected as a constraint, appended to the art that I create. The process, propped by the spiritual ethos of the nation, levitates the production to the avant garde strata.

Rijita – Thank you.


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