How A Playwright Uses Natyashastra To Make You Laugh Out Loud


Director Rashma N. Kalsie seeks to revive ancient Indian theatre on modern stage. She recently staged Padma Shri Prahsana, her play on a failing musician who loses her Padma Shri and finds herself in the middle of a political drama, realising, that her art, singing and practice, are chipping away, and the missing award does not really matter. Painful. Not really. Based on suggestions by Dr. Bharat Gupt, Padma Shri Prahsana opens up the art of writing a prahsana between giggles and guffaws from the audience, as it tickles through the politics of protest, “award waapsi”, and the politics surrounding artists and awards, in nearly 60 minutes.

It is an open script. Kalsie, the playwright, is working on it through readings, rehearsals and interactions with audience, artistes and actors she meets during a wide creative process. She tells Sumati Mehrishi about developing her work through workshops, deriving new playwrighting from Natyashastra and the changing pace of staging.

Tell us about your play Padma Shri Prahsana. How did it shape up?

After a successful reading of my play, Melbourne Talam, in Australia, I felt I should write a play for Indian theater-goers. I wanted to explore more themes. As an Indian writer abroad, you find yourself writing about the Indian Diaspora. Also, there’s an immense satisfaction in staging your work in your home town. Professor Bharat Gupt, my mentor and teacher, suggested I write a prahasana. My understanding of Natyashatra and ancient Indian drama is limited. All plays that I had written in the past were based on Aristotle’s Poetics. I used to swear by Robert McKee and Jeffrey Hatcher’s advice on structure, but none of those guidelines work for prahasana. I had to revisit Natyashastra and ancient prahasanas before I could even type the title. In the course of several discussions, Dr. Bharat Gupt suggested I work on the theme of ‘the politics of awards’. That was the beginning of Padma Shri Prahasana and after six months of research and two drafts, the play started to take shape. After a five- week workshop of the script with the actors and the creatives, the play was ready to be shared with the audience. Now, I am working on the fifth draft.

What do you draw from the concept and structure of a prahsana?

Humour or hasaya rasa is the primary rasa in prahasana. So, I chose a theme that would lend itself to humour. As opposed to the classic three act play structure, a prahasana has only one act. It has a simple plot and the playing time is less than an hour. The events of a prahasana usually take place in a day. The language is racy, or let us say, it is the dialouge you hear on the streets. I have tried to remain faithful to the form of prahasana. I did not have to worry about three acts, nine beats and plot points. The writing was driven by rasa and theme. But theme does not mean propaganda. It is a belief that a writer feels about strongly and then sets about to dramatise it.

Have you taken any help in writing this play? 

Professor Bharat Gupt has been my mentor for years. He initiated me into ancient Indian drama. Writing a prahasana on the theme of ‘the politics of awards’ was his idea. He lent me books on Sanskrit drama and popular Sanskrit prahasanas from his library. After reading the very first draft of the play, he encouraged me to bring it out. He even came down to watch rehearsals. His inputs helped the play take shape.

When was the first time you wrote a play? What triggered it?

If I remember correctly, I wrote my first play in eighth standard for an inter-class competition. We even staged it. It was Mahesh Dattani’s 60 days ‘Playwriting Workshop’, in 1998, in New Delhi, that really got me started. The workshop was the beginning of my training in the craft of writing plays.

Reading helps in understanding the language of theatre and the language used in the play. What made you choose reading?

A new work of drama cannot be performed until it has been developed through a workshop with actors and has had a couple of public readings. A new work of drama cannot be performed before a paid audience until it has been polished and perfected. Most theatre companies run festivals to promote new works. Melbourne Talam has been developed by Melbourne Theater Company through two festivals before being included in their 2017 season. Even now, the script is being workshopped with the director, actors and the literary-director of the company. Public readings of new works are a good and the only way to test your script.

Reading can transform staging. It can lead to wider interaction with audience, a faster flow of ideas and a stronger script. Do you agree?

Play readings are the norm of the day. Most play scripts go through a development process and the first public reading of the script is followed by a Q & A session with the playwright. Audience feedback and their reaction to the play guides the next draft. After the first reading, the playwrights return to their desks with notes and suggestions from their peers, actors and audience reactions. The audience completes the play. Readings ensure that a play does not go bust at box-office because of a loose script and the audience gets complete satisfaction for its time and money. Yes, I can’t think of putting up a play without a reading.

Do readings develop and sharpen humour? How?

The biggest advantage of a reading is that a playwright can check if her/his jokes landed. Sometimes, a joke needs trimming down or needs more explanation. The jokes that do not work are replaced. Since the playwright is among the audience, she/he can see when the laughter dies down. As we tighten the script, the best parts stay and the loose parts are omitted. A tight script is far more humorous than a loosely-written script. In fact, abroad, TV shows pay the audience to check out the jokes and humour in the script.

Is there a need for new plays or change in contemporary playwrighting? 

We need new plays for the same reason as we need new novels and movies. While it is well established that new novels are published every month and every Friday a new film hits the cinemas, there’s no talk of new play scripts in India. Plays represent their times and chronicle the history. All over the world, festivals of new works are extremely popular. How many times over can you watch Shakepeare?

Writing for the stage is changing every day. Contemporary writing for stage (internationally) has never been so exciting. From connected-monolgues, to narrating plays in Irish story telling-mode, to stand-up comedies, to play scripts that are sheer poetry and new generation musicals — there are many kinds of plays being mounted. Ten-minute plays are very popular in festivals. Plays that are a mix of narratives and dialogue are also popular worldwide. The trend of realistic set has died down. Today, scenes and location changes are indicated in dialogue and no set changes are required. Companies are cutting down cast, sets and cost, and the scripts are written with those constraints in mind.

European and American drama and characters are (still) very popular.  Students choose them, directors continue to adapt/present them, playwrights still find inspiration in them. Where do they not fit?

I love Western drama as much as I admire Indian drama. I am a huge fan of Caryl Churchill, Simon Stephens, Edward Albee, Pinter, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet and many more. There are so many fine plays out there. But, the plays are best performed by actors who live in the world of those characters, who speak the same language as those characters, and know the characters as they have been written, not interpreted. When I was auditioning Indian actors for Padma Shri Prahasana, I had the actors read excerpts from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Glass Menagerie, but the actors didn’t sound like the characters they were reading. The dialogue sounded stilted and awkward. If you have never seen a performance of these plays by Western actors, you would not notice, but once you have seen Elizabeth Taylor play Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), the dialogues spoken with Indian rhythm and accent ring false. Indian English has a different rhythm and we’d better write in the language the actors speak and the audience hears. There’s a new fascination with Broadway musicals in India. I do not think you can successfully mount 500 productions of a musical in India.

What clicks with actors clicks with audience. How do you build/work this connection between the play and actors; actors and audience?

Playwrights know that actors can instinctively tell what is not working in the script. I had workshopped the script with my actors for five weeks. Actors read, discuss, and recreate their characters. Even when they are reading out their lines, I knew which lines had to be reworked. I encourage actors to ask questions because their questions help us write better. Only when an actor makes the lines, his own the audience will enjoy the performance. And this ‘making their own’ happens after the playwright has worked on the script with the actors. For my play, The Lost Dog, Australian actors wrote their own lines. The audience loves to watch characters who feel real and actors can make the characters real if they have been involved in the script development. They don’t learn lines, they internalise the dialogue.

How do you evolve the script from its first draft?

The first draft is written after a long process of research and creation of story, characters and structure. The idea to the first draft takes six months. I usually show the first draft to writer friends. A script may need two to four weeks of workshop depending on how often you meet. After a public reading, which could be even for peers and friends, the script is rewritten. I usually do six to eight drafts of a script before taking it to the paid audience.

Does keeping a script open to audience help in keeping the play alive? 

Unlike cinema and novels, plays are incomplete without a live audience. The audience completes the performance. After the first reading the audience gives you suggestions for the next draft. Some playwrights do not write the end till they have had the first reading. The audience is a pretty good judge of what works. If we listen to the audience, which is, listen to their laughs, chuckles and sighs, we can pick up hints for the next draft.

Why did you choose Hinglish for Padma Shri Prahsana?

Drama is live. The characters, unless it is a period drama, talk like the people on the streets. I hear people talking in a mix of languages. Ancient Indian drama was multilingual.  So, a prahasana cannot be written in one language. We should not shy away from using the language of the masses. English is no longer the language of the elite. There was a time English plays were watched only by the affluent English speaking population. No more. Today, an average Indian theater-goer speaks more than one language and there is no reason why the characters of a play and the actors should not do the same. When I was workshopping the script, I realised Hinglish lines sounded real when compared to English lines.

Can new playwrighting be derived from Natyashastra

Natyashastra offers us 10 genres (dasarupaks) and a playwright can choose any one genre to write a play. If we want to make a place in international theatre, we will have to create something which is our own. We cannot perform Shakespeare better than them. But if we can write plays using the principles of Natyashastra, we can create something beautiful and profound.

Would children’s theatre be a better vehicle for story telling and playwrighting inspired by our ancient literature?

We have a rich literature for children. Most Panchatantra stories can be adapted for stage or narrated as tales. Since Indian values are different from Western values, I would advise against introducing children to, say, Hamlet’s story. Stories from our epics are as popular as animated films and cartoon films on TV. This is the biggest proof that ancient Indian literature should be adapted for stage.

Tell us about themes you would like to explore.

I would like to turn to the theme of racial superiority that people of the developed countries have assumed over us. I am also inclined to write a few more prahasnas about today’s socio-political situation. I find the political support for black money comical.

Tell us about the play you last watched.

Melbourne Theater Company’s production Switzerland in October. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith, an Austalian playwright, it has a cast of two. A really well-written play with amazing performances.

What are you reading?

Currently, I am revisiting The Way of the Screenwriter by Amnon Buchbinder. It is a book I keep returning to.




Featured image: Karanvir Singh