She reminded Ori of the dark theatres that were breaking off in flakes of plaster and cement, crumbling into dust. That was the world that had made and nourished her. She was a playhouse with silver-streaked hair and skin beginning to wrinkle. A playhouse ready to vanish.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of two novels that explore connections between the history and the present of Calcutta. He has been especially drawn to those voices, people, places, and popular cultures that are lost—or in danger of being lost—to official histories, political interests, or, sometimes, simply to the fortunes of time. In Silverfish (2007), he presented the interlaced stories of two Calcuttans: Kamal, a young girl married into a family of feudal aristocrats in the late 19th century and widowed soon after, and a retired teacher in 1980s Calcutta named Milan, who comes into possession of a manuscript written by Kamal. Gifted with a narrative voice that brings the city to life in all its bittersweet complexities, and always with what might be termed a tragic affection, Majumdar is an empathetic storyteller who seems particularly drawn to the stories of women seeking to carve out creative lives against great odds. Majumdar’s latest novel, The Firebird (2015), set in the Communist-ruled city of the 1980s, tells the story of the vanishing world of Bengali popular theater, as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Ori and his actress mother, Garima.
Keri Walsh (KW): How did you decide that the story you tell in The Firebird needed to be seen through the eyes of a child?
Saikat Majumdar (SM): What intrigued me while writing this story was the relationship between art and childhood, how art comes across as doubly powerful to small children because they do not think of it as “crafted” or false in any sense. Their literal faith in stories deepens the haunting power of fiction, whether expressed in oral storytelling, visual art, or, as in the case of this novel, live theater. But when do children come to realize that art is, literally speaking, “false,” or crafted, but not quite a lie, either? This is the moment the child simultaneously moves beyond the simple binary of true and false, and the morality of this binary. I think it is a big part of growing up, the realization there is something beyond literal truth, and that it can even be, oddly, more beautiful than truth, and sometimes more dangerous.
The Firebird is rooted in this blurred zone between art and life that belongs to the child. But this confusion is sustained, almost willfully, even when the child is older, old enough to understand the literal difference between life and art. But around him he sees a society that consciously nurtures this confusion, especially when it comes to women in performance. Is it, or is it not, he wonders, wrong of his mother to play someone else’s wife on stage? So this “childish” attitude is also a kind of microcosm of society’s attitude towards women in theater. Not just her actual moments in “false” roles but the lives carved around those moments: dressing up and leaving in the evenings for rehearsals and performances, home and family left behind, walking out beautiful and fragrant into the dusk, evoking the unspeakable.
KW: Where do fiction, history, and biography meet in The Firebird?
SM: About 25 to 30 percent of the novel is rooted in a past that is personally real for me. So it is not a huge part, but, still, a very important part. My childhood and teenage years are rich with memories of theater, not merely of watching plays but of places like the wings and the greenroom, because many around me—members of the local community, family, and friends—were involved in different kinds of theater. Theater is all around you when you grow up in certain neighborhoods in Calcutta. So imagination, research, and life—it’s all here in this novel. As I wrote, I waded through many old playhouses, most of them now defunct and derelict, spoke to a fair number of veteran actors, hunted through archives, old newspapers, magazines. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a boy whose understanding of the factual/historical contours of his universe is very partial. Theater in Bengal, its relationship to sexuality, the strange relation of the theater of pleasure and hedonism to the left-leaning theater of social conscience, and, finally, the story of the extinction of commercial theater, part suicide and part willed destruction—they all loom over the world of the novel. Most adult readers, even those unfamiliar with this milieu, will probably sense their presence, even though the young protagonist’s understanding of such phenomena remains cloudy.
KW: Can you say a bit more about how the left-leaning theater of social conscience coexisted with commercial theater?
SM: There are two clearly opposed traditions. There is the tradition that theater historians always talk about, that of left-leaning, socially progressive, aesthetically experimental theater—known as “group theater” in Bengal, because its practitioners sought to eschew the cult of the celebrity personality identified with commercial theater and instead work with “groups,” or, alternatively, as “amateur theater,” because they did not expect to make money from it (most of the practitioners had day jobs). The other tradition, while wildly popular for a few midcentury decades (people of my parents’ generation remember it well) has generally been a source of shame and embarrassment for theater intellectuals, an overwhelming number of whom are leftists, if not Marxists, who remember the origins of popular theater in the hedonism of the feudal gentry. At best it was popular middlebrow art—totally commercial, gaudy, naturalistic, pretty cheesy stuff, though this was the staple of popular entertainment before television killed it—now you see the same stuff on TV soap operas. At its worst, especially when it was struggling to stay alive, in the ’80s and ’90s, which was when I saw it, it brought in titillating dances by scantily clad women, a pathetic attempt to retain an audience that had already abandoned it. This theater ironically ended where it started, in the red-light districts of north Calcutta—the playhouses were situated close to that district, anyway.
Celebrations of theater tend to pick up on the more “enlightened” socialist tradition, which enacted modern Indian classics as well as local adaptations of Brecht, Beckett, Tennessee Williams, the Greek classics, Ionesco, Shakespeare, you name it—just about every name you can associate with highbrow theater. There simply isn’t a single historical or scholarly record of the so-called “commercial” or “professional” theater in Calcutta, and there is no archive. I was so tired of encountering nothing but group/leftist theater history that I decided to write the essay “The Ashes of Pleasure,” which as far as I know is the only available historical account of commercial/professional theater in Bengal. Nobody cares about it at all, it is now dead and gone, and the halls are all abandoned, or restructured into apartment complexes or supermarkets, or merely stand derelict due to unresolved legal squabbles. Group theater continues to thrive, especially with government aid, though many feel group theater itself has become commercial, far more than before—but that’s a different debate.
This research made me realize once more that popular culture is so ephemeral, so bound to a certain time, place, and economic conditions. High culture, on the other hand, is able to transcend the limits of time, not only because of whatever classic appeal it might have, but because a certain ideology is created and cemented around it, and then an economic system erected by the bourgeoisie elevates it to a level of abstraction where it is protected and insulated from the uncertainties and turmoil of everyday history.
KW: I would love to hear more about the ways in which the traditions of Indian popular theater survive in television soap operas or in popular film. Can you suggest a few examples of places where we might look to catch glimpses of this popular tradition as it survives and thrives on the screen?
SM: I guess genres of popular culture never really die either. They merely change form. TV and video, which rose to challenge the popular supremacy of Calcutta’s commercial theater, have now fully taken its place, providing the sentimentalist and sensationalist domestic stories that were the staple of the commercial stage. Commercial theater was distinguished by the gimmicky naturalism of the productions, which involved everything from trapeze acts and horseback rides to derailed trains, speeding cars set on fire, and flooding rivers. There were revolving stages and cabaret singers and dancers, some from the luxury hotels and lounges of the former British quarters of Chowringhee and Park Street. This same brand of spectacular naturalism survives in mainstream cinema; TV soaps continue to replicate the emotional fabric of these epic melodramas. What is lost to time is the climate of feudal decadence around these playhouses and their productions, and more curiously, how that very decadence provided a staple of middle- and lower-middle-class entertainment. Today, the daily intake of TV serials in the private space of the home signals the curiously disembodying social isolation of late capitalism, recalling, for those who remember it, the communal, even carnivalesque nature of an evening at the playhouses in Hatibagan in north Calcutta. Like the primitive origins of theater itself, the simple act of going to watch it was something of a ritual. For a large section of the Bengali middle class in midcentury Calcutta, it was a cherished family custom, a much-anticipated weekend luxury, a special treat that accompanied wedding festivities. The genre that ended up replacing it, television, is situated in the isolation of hyper-nuclearized family lives. It is not coincidental that the gradual erosion of family and community—the local fabric of the home and the para (the famous Bengali word for neighborhood), spaces central to The Firebird—has formed the backdrop of the demise of the theater of mass entertainment in Calcutta. And since it has little or no place in the archives of academia or the intellectual public sphere, the residual communal memory of the theater of entertainment will soon wither away in the plain light of day, just like the dead and derelict playhouses of north Calcutta.
KW: One thing your novel accomplishes very well is to show the dilemma of a woman carving out a career in the popular theater. Having such a career seemed to require careful management, if an actress were to retain her respectability.
SM: The typical woman actor in leftist/group theater came from the middle or upper-middle classes, was highly educated, and had intellectual and political confidence—rightfully so, due to the kind of theater she did. It was a whole different story for the woman on the commercial stage—usually from the poor or lower-middle classes, with scanty education, but ironically often the family’s breadwinner. This figure carried the stigma of moral suspicion, unlike the woman from the group theater, who came from the “enlightened” class, and did “enlightened” theater. The commercial theater actress recalled her 19th-century predecessor—usually a courtesan or a prostitute—the only women who would appear on the public stage back then. In the 20th century, conditions had improved—though there were still women who were “bonded” to the stage from a very young age, being the daughters or granddaughters of prostitute-actresses (the dividing line was often thin or blurred when it came to the theater of entertainment). Commercial theater was highly profitable till, say, the 1970s, so these women could support families with their income. There were some exceptions, especially when famous film actors and actresses appeared on the commercial stage (there was no aura of disrespectability around them, except the very general air of suspicion that probably clings to actors anywhere), but on the whole, the typical woman of the commercial stage was a figure of moral suspicion and social ostracism, even when she was famous. And life was hell for the small-time actress.
However, it is also true that the men and woman who acted in plays in Bengal in the 20th century cannot be so neatly divided into these two groups. Many people moved between the two to make a living. The situation was especially intriguing in the 1980s (the historic backdrop of The Firebird), when commercial theater was beginning to crumble and slowly became no longer able to provide living salaries to its people. But it was tough for people migrating from commercial theater to group theater, as the latter was never set up to make much profit and the money there was very meager. Those established in group theater were middle- or upper-middle-class people with independent incomes from other professions—in the corporate sector, teaching, etcetera—and never really expected theater to generate money for them. If anything, they poured money into the productions, from their salaries or from family money. There were of course some government grants, because the Communist government was heavily supportive of group theater, while the government attitude towards commercial theater ranged from indifferent to hostile. But group theater never became the popular, hugely profitable form that commercial theater had been in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
KW: I noticed a narrative of decline in your novel: the decline of this form of theater, the decline of your heroine, Garima. It reminded me of the Kamala Das poem, “The Old Playhouse,” which includes a similar comparison between a woman and a theater: “There is / No more singing, no more dance, my mind is an old / Playhouse with all its lights put out.” Do you think it’s a coincidence? Or was this a circulating trope, a metaphor that naturally suggested itself in a time in which theaters were being destroyed by fire or falling into ruin because of the emergence of television? Das’s poem was written in 1973.
SM: I hadn’t read this particular poem before, though I’m very compelled by its evocation of aging. Garima in The Firebird goes back and forth between these different genres, the left-socialist and the commercial theater worlds. She is trying to cobble together a living as her marriage falls apart. The income she had in commercial theater is now fast disappearing—the playhouse called the Pantheon is both living evidence and a metaphor of that disappearance. She is an educated, middle-class woman who also has a foot in group theater. But that theater gives her hardly any money. She is beginning to age, too. Over the course of the novel, she moves from mid- to late 30s. For a fully empowered woman working in radical group theater, this would not be a problem, because that theater is not slavishly tied to the conventional selling points of a woman’s sexuality. But this woman is caught between two genres—one dying, the other gaining in strength, and the latter fails to give her the sustenance the former did. It was also the time the lights were slowly beginning to go out in the old playhouses that staged commercial plays in the city, even as a new set of playhouses were coming into being, supported by the Communist government for the production of group theater plays.
I could not help imagining this sad, aging, fading woman as one of those dying playhouses that are abandoned, left derelict, or mysteriously catch fire.
KW: The Firebird contains some striking scenes that jolt us with the seductive and terrifying powers of the theater (for instance, the opening scene, in which your child protagonist Ori watches his mother “die” onstage, and the scene in which Ori is wooed into a stage career by his mother’s manager, with very disturbing undertones). In such scenes, the world of the theater seems equated both with death and with predatory sexuality. And yet it exerts a fascination that can’t easily be refused. In both scenes, I also got a strong sense that you were making some interesting novelistic choices aimed at capturing the feel of the theater, for instance the feel of theatrical lighting and the warmth and focus it generates. Can you talk a bit about how you approached the evanescence of live performance in fictional prose? Did any particular writers or other novels inspire you?
SM: It was exciting to write a novel about theater. These are two very different genres—the novel is rooted in a secular modernity and a middle-class readership created by capitalism, while the theater goes back thousands of years, to the ritualistic, the performative, and the religious. One involves the solitary reader; the other creates a communal experience. One is embodied through language and the other is rooted in the sensual reality of the body in motion.
Writing this novel involved some fascinating challenges. For the novelist, the theater is not just the stage but also the audience, the entire community of people in the playhouse, how they are fused together in a common experience even as they react differently to it as individuals. The live performance makes it different from film, which is transportable. Everything, I realized, offers a story—the backstage, the preparation, not just the cast but also the crew, the visual aesthetics of the stage setting, lights, the aural aesthetics of sound—everything is rooted in a physical reality and a human narrative of its own. Looking back, The Firebird seems to embody the intrusion of a more sensual, bodily art form into one that is relatively abstract and intellectual: the theater into the novel.
It’s been a little over four months since the book’s publication, and I’m excited to see it being discussed by the theater community in India, not just by readers of fiction. At a recent event organized around the novel, I was intrigued to hear the playwright Mahesh Dattani talk about what he felt was the psychological landscape of The Firebird. Mahesh has made films in addition to writing plays, and it was especially interesting to hear that he felt this novel would do better on the screen than on the stage. The interiority of the protagonist, he said, would make it difficult to adapt it for the stage, whereas the visual sweep of the dramatic performances on- and offstage would make a splendid film. I was fascinated by this observation, and have been noticing with increasing interest that many people have expressed enthusiasm about seeing The Firebird made into a film.