Quasar Thakore Padamsee on Mother Courage

An interview with Quasar Thakore Padamsee, in which the director talks about his latest work with Aadyam — a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children

You’ve added the tag line, Everybody Loves a Good War. The irony seems almost self-explanatory.

Toral (Shah) suggested it (It’s a reference to P Sainath’s book). I think it’s something the play does. It talks about the so-called benefits of war, the madness of it, and how everyone is looking to survive. If you actually take a look at it, all fascist agencies ‘love a good war’, because it breeds nationalism, and economically it simulates industry in many ways.

So really, it is a universal truth. Mother Courage may be a character people recall, but very few people here know the play is called Mother Courage and Her Children. Here’s the thing, the play is about her and her family, or whatever, but the title itself could have just as easily signaled the story of a housewife in Bombay, for instance. The tag-line gives it a little more context, that this is a play about war.

The entire ensemble of Mother Courage and her Children
The entire acting ensemble of Mother Courage and her Children

Apart from the fact that you were re-acquainted with it when working with students at the Drama School Mumbai last year, why have you taken this piece up?

When I picked it up to read last year, I remembered what a fantastic play it was. I had read it in college, purely as a recreational exercise. I loved it then. I remember feeling very empty and drained after I read it, as if my soul had been lost to it. At that time, I had thought it was unstageable — it was so sporadic, and set in Europe. I thought that an epic of this kind was not something we would be able to do justice to in India.

When studying it minutely you realize how the elements work together. Some of the characters are fleeting, but they are very well-written. And there was this underlying tension that kept bugging me. I kept picking the play up again and again to read, and picking up on the truths that are in it. There’s a line in there, “In business you ask what price, not what religion.” That’s an absolute truth. Or when she says, “Thank the Lord they’re corruptible. After all, they ain’t wolves, just humans out for money.” These truths are completely irrefutable. So Brecht’s perspective on the human condition is absolutely impeccable. The play is about a religious war, between religions. We have retained that, but not those religions.

So you have made some changes to the play? Is there a resonance connected to the country?

We’ve asked ourselves the question that if this play was written today, what would it be like? Within the play itself, the themes of refugees, the concept of entrepreneurship, the hard line about religion, the absurdity of war, these are universal things that are very relevant today. There are lines in there that capture this perfectly. About how in a war of religion, we somehow put our conscience last. It’s like saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, let’s invade it for the oil.

I think there is a larger global contemporary resonance. Not just India. The absurdity and the desperation of conflict is once again resurfacing. There is a scene where two people are conversing, and the religious figure chastises a man to take a long hard look at his position before saying anything. That’s very much us today. We all have to take a look at where we are before we utter anything. There are these resonances right through. And obviously they inform how and why you pick up a play. But I didn’t pick it up because I read it as typically Indian. I didn’t have that constraint. It’s a larger comment on religion and war, and the constant need to survive in a world where everyone only have their own best interests in mind. This, in turn, engenders an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. That’s really the human spirit.

Is the play out of copyright, and therefore more adaptable?

We still need rights to do it, from Samuel French, because of the translator’s royalty. The translator of this version is Eric Bentley. Officially, changes are not allowed. But we did ask the question, what if this play was set in the Indian subcontinent at a time similar to ours but not this one specifically. It’s not set in the past. We looked at it like a piece of Shakespeare. No one sets Romeo and Juliet in the 1500s anymore.

Tell me a little about Brechtian techniques you may have used in the production.

When you look at all his alienation techniques, he was heavily inspired by folk theatre from the East, including India. He revolutionized European theatre. But in today’s day and age, if we do it like that, for us it very much like the way we’ve always done theatre. There is nothing supremely different. We have over-the-top characters, stylistic devices, it’s all very much a part of the grammar of our world. In the West, the orchestra was always hidden, but Brecht would always bring it out for audiences to see. In Indian theatre, we’ve had the musicians on stage forever. We’ve always made it clear that this is a performance. So we haven’t consciously adopted Brechtian techniques, they are not relevant anymore. The play was written 80 years ago. It had a role and a place at that time. Again, we were asking ourselves that if he had written this play today, what would he look at? What would be the devices that we would now have in hand that he would use and attack, we’ve really tried to figure out why are we telling this story to this audience. And from there, has emerged a grammar, which I wouldn’t call Brechtian, that we think merges the best of what he imagined with a new kind of storytelling.

Abhishek Krishnan, Arundhati Nag, Junaid Khan and Bhavna Pani play the protagonists
Abhishek Krishnan, Arundhati Nag, Junaid Khan and Bhavna Pani play the protagonists

How does it fit in with the grammar of your earlier works?

I don’t know. I think everything informs everything. In that sense, there are some tropes that are common. I can’t tell now. But a year or two later, when you look back, you notice more things.

The slate provided by Aadyam, how much does that influence the design of the piece?

The way the whole thing works is that when we start out there are rounds of proposals about what your work is, and you keep refining that. There are the line producers from Oranjuice Entertainment. There is Divya Bhatia (Artistic Director of Aadyam). We go through various stages. It’s quite a marvelous process. I’m opening it this month, but we’ve been chipping away at it since last September. So what you start out with may not be what you end up with, but the time frame does allow us to plan better and longer. There is no hard and fast rule that the design has to be a certain way. At the end of the day, for any piece of theatre, the bulk of the money, which goes into rehearsals, will not be seen. If you’re rehearsing with 13 people for seven weeks in a space, feeding them, that’s a substantial chunk and I am very grateful that we are able to work this way. Because that is where rigor comes from, when we are able to develop and push. The grammar that the play has achieved would not have been possible without this kind of support, or if it were three-hour-a-day rehearsals for four weeks, which is the normal thing.

How was the experience as a director this time at Aadyam? It’s not like you have completely relinquished your producer’s hat.

I quite enjoy working with Aadyam. Mainly because once they’ve bought into the idea of what you want to do there is never a ‘No’. There’s always a “Let’s figure it out and try and make it work.” If there’s a problem then they come back and say, “This is not possible.” But there’s always a discussion, and I really appreciate that. I think that’s a little bit why it’s more like a festival than a sponsorship idea. They are proper commissioners of work. I am not saying there are not differences of opinion, all those are there but that’s part of the creative process. But it’s an open conversation, about production difficulties, about dates to be shifted around. I really appreciate that as a director.

Tell us about the casting. It’s quite a coup that you managed to get Arundhati Nag on board.

The casting was a long drawn out and difficult process, which went on much longer than we intended. We did an open call to start with, which more than 250 people responded to. Then we had a second round, which was group-work, trying to see what people had to offer and how generous they are as performers. In round three, we had Arundhati interacting with the prospects, and looked at combinations. What works and what doesn’t. Then, eventually we had to settle on a dozen performers, aside from Aru. We didn’t know we’d need thirteen.

I had seen Aru in Bikhre Bimb (the Hindi version of Girish Karnad’s Kannada monodrama Odakalu Bimba) in Kannada years ago, and I really loved her in it. And then, when White Rabbit Red Rabbit was happening, I very much looked at her and thought I would really enjoy working with her. When Arghya Lahiri and I were talking about options for the character of Mother Courage, I half-floated the idea, “What about Aru?” and he was like, “Yeah, of course, no question.” We did worry about the fact she was Bangalore-based, but felt there was no harm in asking. Amazingly, she said yes. It’s also a very special play for her, she has performed it before, and it’s very dear to her. (Note: Ms Nag had staged a Kannada adaptation in Bengaluru as a tribute to her late husband, Shankar Nag, on his first death anniversary, in 1991)

It’s a homecoming because she’s coming back to Bombay and performing after 38 years. She’s originally a Bombay person, who moved elsewhere. Coming back, leaving your home state, and performing with a new set of people, and working with me — and I am very different from anyone she’s worked with before — it’s been a lovely and exciting journey, but it has been daunting as well. The fact that she’s a multi-lingual actress means Mother Courage is as well. We now have multiple languages in the play, very organically. Whether it makes sense or not, we’ll see.

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Mr Padamsee with Ms Nag at Sitara Studio
Aadyam provides the launch, and you are immune to box-office-receipts and other logistical issues. How do you see a future for a large-scale project like this?

It ended up becoming a huge production. Partly because the set is massive. We cannot do Mother Courage without a cart of some kind. The play is about her lugging her cart around. We don’t have too much fancy paraphernalia except for the cart but transporting it is difficult. The set has been designed by Abir Patwardhan, from Pune. So another thing that ended up happening was that the technicians were mostly from outside Mumbai — Gandhaar (Sangoram) is from Pune; Medha (Khanna), our costume designer, is from Delhi. Most of the actors are Bombay-based, except Tushar Kadam, who’s using this show as his move to Mumbai. Tavish Bhattacharyya has spent time in Goa, and is technically from Bangalore. This is where the director’s hat and the producer’s hat splits. Because right now, I am not thinking too much about the future. Right now, we are trying to get home with the production. We have shows in Kolkata after this opening. We got the gig through Aadyam, but it’s a Kalamandir presentation. Then we come back to Bombay, and then Delhi, and then we really want to go to Bangalore. Aru’s from there, but I also think the play will work really well at Ranga Shankara. It’s a huge space.

I’d love it to have a life. That this has 13 actors, and the lead is from outside, automatically mounts costs, and 200-300 seater auditoriums are no longer an option. Then we are looking at larger spaces that come with their companion risks. If we do fill houses, then we have a chance to recoup costs. Yet, the play has an art-house vibe to it. It is a very funny play, but the humor is dark and intense. We are just trying to get these ten shows done, and we’ll look at the second season in January or February.

Why doesn’t Aadyam do extended runs of these shows?

I don’t think that’s their mandate. I think their idea is to take groups that normally work in smaller spaces, and give them access to a larger space, allow them to build and showcase their works there. Having said that, maybe The Siddhus of Upper Juhu and Twelve Angry Jurors have had other iterations through Aadyam. Their search is not to get a hit play to run. This year the selection has been more eclectic in terms of the diversity of themes, so it’s clear that the bottom-line is not what they are looking at. Right now, if you came back at me and asked if I wanted to do a smaller production, yeah maybe. But I’m quite enjoying and relishing the challenge of playing it at the Jamshed Bhabha auditorium.

This conversation with Mr Padamsee took place at the G5A Cafe, on Aug 14, before the play’s premier shows at the NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. This interview formed the basis of an article filed for The Hindu on Aug 18.

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