‘Phrases and tales will be harmful’: playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya on radical historical past | Theatre

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Ayesha Dharkar and Scott Karim rehearse Chasing Hares.

For a lot of the twentieth century, the gray, gargantuan Dunlop manufacturing facility in Bandel, West Bengal was the primary supply of labor for native households. However from the Nineties onwards, the manufacturing facility was closed extra typically than it was open. “Individuals would flip up day by day hoping to get a shift,” says the playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya. “It felt like a throwback to what I’d learn in regards to the dockers in Victorian occasions.” Her mum’s household had been amongst these reliant on the shifts the imposing tyre manufacturing facility supplied. The work’s unreliability prompted excessive monetary anxiousness at house.

One of many staff affected was Bhattacharyya’s madhya māmāe, her center uncle on her mum’s facet. A manufacturing facility employee and commerce unionist, he was additionally a storyteller. “It’s a little bit of a cliche in south Asia that the Bengalis are all dreamers and thinkers and poets,” Bhattacharyya says over Zoom. “However there’s additionally a radical historical past in West Bengal. I really like the truth that my uncle has each of these spirits of Bengali tradition.”

Bhattacharyya’s new play takes inspiration from her worker-dreamer uncle. Quickly to be taking up the primary stage on the Younger Vic theatre in London, Chasing Hares examines the rising insecurity of labor, the harmful repercussions of protesting towards poor labour circumstances, and the ability of tales to encourage neighborhood motion. “It talks in regards to the concept of creativeness as refuge, and storytelling as a automobile for social and political change,” says the director Milli Bhatia, who joins Bhattacharyya from a midweek rehearsal. “I felt so extremely fortunate to get my fingers on it.” Bhattacharyya beams.

In Chasing Hares, it isn’t a rubber manufacturing facility the drama relies round, however a garments manufacturing facility. “I felt like that may converse to folks. We all know a lot in regards to the garment sector after issues like Rana Plaza,” Bhattacharyya says, referring to the catastrophic collapse of a constructing in Bangladesh that contained 5 garment factories, which killed greater than 1,100 folks. When she began writing the play, in 2018, the tradition of labor was shifting round her. Since then, with India’s months of farmers’ protests and Britain’s college and railway employees at the moment combating casualisation, the play feels much more pertinent. “The office precarity that my mum’s household had been so used to was more and more changing into the norm right here.”

On the manufacturing facility ground, Chasing Hares follows Prab, a employee who was an outspoken commerce union member, combating for higher staff’ rights. “However he’s now a brand new father,” Bhattacharyya says, “so has decided to be able to retain employability, and to have the ability to present for his household, to attempt to shrug off that popularity of being a troublemaker.” When his boss’s son holds a Jatra, a efficiency showcase, Prab turns into entangled within the creation of tales which can be, Bhattacharyya says, “imbued with the radicalism of the utopian politics he’s needed to deeply repress”.

Ayesha Dharkar and Scott Karim rehearse Chasing Hares.
Ayesha Dharkar and Scott Karim rehearse Chasing Hares. {Photograph}: Helen Murray

With the Jatra, Chasing Hares takes on a play-within-a-play type. A Jatra is a kind of Bengali folks theatre, historically carried out within the open air and within the spherical, typically at massive expos. “Rising up, once we’d go and go to again house, we might go to expos,” Bhattacharyya remembers. “I used to be by no means allowed to go to the Jatra, it was at all times on too late. However it will be hours and hours of leisure. You’d take snacks in, and spend all evening listening to music, poetry and performs.” She and Bhatia needed to echo the sentiment of those occasions of their manufacturing. “The language of Jatra has been an enormous affect on our conception of this manufacturing,” Bhatia says. “The design, the best way we take into consideration area, the place the viewers are inside that. As a result of they had been touring, they might make use of one set-piece to symbolize a complete epic world, so one factor has nice standing in an area. We’ve been actually impressed by that for our manufacturing.”

The workforce have examined the historical past of the artwork type and its evolution intimately, from its origins within the Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the best way they grew to become extra political in the course of the independence motion, resisting the British occupation. “That’s what we’re exploring right here,” Bhattacharyya says, “how the democratic nature of the shape and the potential for subversive nature of the shape will be reignited. That’s what Prab is making an attempt to do within the play, to pull this medium again right into a folks’s medium, which can converse to this injustice they’re dealing with.”

Bhattacharyya and Bhatia had been eager to work collectively for a while earlier than Bhatia, who’s finest recognized for steering Jasmine Lee-Jones’s Olivier-nominated Seven Strategies of Killing Kylie Jenner, directed a rehearsed studying of one other of Bhattacharyya’s performs. That was King Troll – The Fawn. “We had been a bit shy earlier than we met,” she remembers, whereas Bhatia places her head in her fingers and laughs. “It was a bit like a date. I used to be like: ‘I believe you’re actually cool,’ and I hoped that she thought I used to be actually cool as nicely.”

Politics are key to their work. “I’ve been concerned in political activism since I used to be an adolescent,” Bhattacharyya says, “however it’s extra just lately that I’ve seen a very tangible connection between my work as a author and my activism. I believe it’s as a result of issues obtained more durable, and it feels self-indulgent to maintain them separate.”

Bhatia feels an identical sense of urgency: “The very first thing I ever directed at 18 was as a result of I needed to lift cash for a refuge I used to be working for, so the basis of my work as a director has come from making an attempt to handle an injustice.” Over time, she has turn out to be conscious of the similarities between the 2 types of neighborhood deal with; facilitating the method as a director is loads like organising a protest or a motion. “You think about who your viewers is,” she says, “the way you wish to maintain them in an area, which voices you wish to prioritise, and what you need them to think about or motion after they go away the area.”

“Milli is a type of administrators who actually walks the stroll,” Bhattacharyya says. “She’s fostered a very collaborative and democratic room. It’s not simply within the context of the work, it’s in how we create the work, and the way we make a extra inclusive and accessible theatre trade.” Each author and director felt it was essential to have a forged and crew with connections to the world they’re exploring. “It’s a rare feeling to sit down in a room with a forged and inventive workforce completely made up of artists of the worldwide majority,” Bhatia says. “There’s a shorthand, an understanding about why this issues to us. I hope extra rooms will appear to be this.” Exterior the rehearsal room, she is worked up to be seeing a surge of labor being produced by south Asian artists. “We’ve at all times been right here, however the work I’m seeing popping out now, and the area we’re taking on – it’s our time.”

Simply earlier than the pandemic hit, the play gained the Sonia Friedman Manufacturing award, and shortly after, the Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting award. All through the method of the play, Bhattachharyya has stored her uncle in Kolkata within the loop. When Irfan Shamji, who performs the character loosely primarily based on her uncle, had particular questions in regards to the character, Bhattachharyya urged asking the person himself. She despatched them to her cousin who put them to her uncle, who then wrote solutions in Bengali and obtained somebody to translate, earlier than sending them again. “It was tremendously transferring studying these and sharing these with Irfan,” she says, “to learn his ideas on his place as a father, as a labour organiser, as a author, as a dreamer.”

Handing down data and tales by way of generations like that is key, Bhattacharyya argues, to the best way tradition shapes what we imagine is feasible. “Tales are about remembering. What have folks completed earlier than? What has labored? How have folks stood up? That may be an inspiration but additionally a mannequin for the way we go ahead and the way we will construct a greater world.” To make actual change, Bhatia agrees, progressives want to higher perceive the ability of tales. In rehearsals, they’ve talked about activists in India being arrested for his or her tweets, and writers being placed on CIA watchlists. “We all know that phrases and tales will be harmful,” she says. “That’s as a result of they’ve the ability to impact change.”

Chasing Hares is on the Younger Vic, London, to 13 August.