Theatre veteran Mahesh Dattani on the challenges — and the immense responsibility — of adapting literary characters for the stage.
The art of adaptation and translation are probably the most underrated of all script forms. In my opinion, both are integral to the art of theatre. Every production of a classic is, in a way, an adaptation and a translation. You are adapting it for your artistic interpretation and you are translating it for your audience. The audience, in turn, is adapting/translating it to their emotional and cultural memory.
When I first read Vikram Sampath’s biography of Gauhar Jaan, a 19th century Indian singer and dancer, I was struck by his painstaking research and his passion for music and its rich history. Gauhar came alive to me almost instantly upon reading this vividly limned tome on her life and times. I recommended the book to Lillete Dubey (theatre actor and director), my old-time artistic collaborator. We both share a passion for human drama in a culturally grounded Indian context. She liked it and was keen that I dramatise this story for the stage.
The two greatest challenges I faced were that I had never seriously adapted from a book, and had never really scripted a bio-drama. So I had to deal with two new ways of looking at creative material. Both through the prism of doing justice to the book, as well as creating dramatic meaning from facts. In all this, I had to find the emotional core of Gauhar Jaan.
The biography spoke to me on many levels beyond the facts of her life and the songs she composed and sang. I found the key to her emotional need in her relationship with her mother. What made for surreal reading was how a woman of her talent and intelligence could easily be manipulated by the men in her life. Some of them loved her with equal passion, but there were some whom she had to lose, either to death or to the laws of society. The challenge was also how not to portray her as a marginalised victim. That is certainly not the way she saw herself.
She had beauty, talent, money, power, fame — all that is valued in a hedonistic society. Yet she was lonely and lost. I looked at her relationship with her biological father who abandoned her and her mother when Gauhar was six. They met several decades later. There was something there that might throw light on the contradictions between her professional successes and personal failures.
I do hope I have done justice to Vikram’s biography of this truly remarkable woman who, in many ways, rewrote the history of Indian music, and greatly provides an insight into an extraordinary life lived in a time when women were expected to be ordinary.
Interestingly, Tagore wrote Chokher Bali around the same time Gauhar was experiencing heady success in her singing career. One could imagine Tagore at his home, Jorasanko, writing in solitude a story of love and loss amidst the gentrified Bengalis; and just a few miles away, on Chitpur road, Gauhar Jaan had the Bengali elite succumbing to her singing charms.
It is by a strange coincidence that I was invited by Barnard College at Columbia University, New York, to direct an adaptation of Chokher Bali. Again, the dramatisation of the novel by Partha Chatterjee (noted author), removed the genteel characters of Tagore’s original and placed them in the hands of the servants, who are the storytellers. This was, perhaps, the most exciting aspect for me. As a director, I felt I had a huge responsibility of adapting the intentions of the author and the craftsmanship of the playwright. Once again, I had to rely on my instincts to get to the emotional core of this powerful story, and its significance in our lives today. Doubly challenging was to work with a group of talented drama students with diverse racial backgrounds. Discovering the play through their eyes was the perfect solution to a challenging problem of adapting the classic tale to a culturally diverse audience in New York City.
I don’t know what I have achieved with these two back-to-back adaptations, but, for me, personally, it has been a great learning experience. One that will sit with pride in my memory. After all, we use memory to adapt the past to the present.
Mahesh Dattani is a playwright, stage director and filmmaker. His play Dance Like a Man has been staged 450 and continues to tour. He tweets as @maheshdattani
Mahesh Dattani’s talk, From Life To Page To Stage To Life, will be held on March 13, 5pm
Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, Byculla (E)
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