Of mills and banes…

Three of theatre’s most acclaimed writer-directors have created this play


Photographer: Pal Pillai

a scene from rehearsals

Cotton 56 Polyester 84 is the product of the stage-by-stage effort of Ramu Ramanathan, Chetan Datar and Sunil Shanbag. While each is known for different genres of writing and direction, they’ve come together for a play centred around an issue no longer as heated, but more relevant than ever before – that of the ‘girni kamgar’, the textile mill worker, and in Ramanthan’s words the “entire culture and lifestyle around him that is being decimated ruthlessly”. The play is in the format of two old mill workers having a conversation. It goes on to shift back and forth in time, talking about the past and present circumstances with characters like an over-ambitious mill worker’s son, a girl he loves a mafia boss who controls the garbage industry and so on…

The writer of the Gandhian play Mahadevbhai (1892-1942), Ramanthan’s ‘deciding moment’ occurred when he attended a meeting of tamasha and loknatya artists (artists from the worker class) at Hanuman theatre in Lalbaug. “They work only eight months of the year and don’t get paid during the monsoon when there’s no work. They have no sureties for a bank loan, so they settle for the five per cent interest rate the local moneylender charges them. Every group had their tale of gloom and doom.”
Like all of his plays, a lot of research has gone into this one too. “I attended court hearings at the Labour and High Court, met workers who’d attended hearings for years on end, went to formal and informal worker’s meetings, heard songs by yesteryear shahirs (masters in the folk music genre) and
bards – from the worker’s community,” Ramanthan recounts.
He claims to have written the play in five phases – “The golden era and the rise of the communists; the decline of the communists and the rise of the Shiv Sena; Datta Samant and the mill strike; the corporatisation of the mafia and globalisation and the city for sale.”

This is the first play written by Ramanathan which will be launched solely in Hindi. Datar was approached by Ramanathan and Shanbag to translate the original script (that was written in English) to Hindi. He says, “I’m a Maharasthrian, as are most of the characters in the play. Someone had to
bring out the essence of the mill worker’s culture. I’ve sprinkled the play with Marathi too.” While being a director and actor himself, Datar was a good choice of making a ‘theatrically presentable translation,’ he was in a dilemma at times when it came to sustaining the originality of certain words. “For instance, how do you convey ‘inner landscape’ in Marathi or Hindi? Yet it’s such an important word!” Datar elucidates. Another challenge was writing long passages in lyrical format, as a lot of song and dance is incorporated in the play. “I’ve written lyrically before for Jangal Mein Mangal. But that was a translation of Shakespeare. Here we’re talking about a contemporary theme. Also the lyrics can’t be repetitive. The biggest problem is to incorporate important ‘jargon’, and yet maintain the lyrical quality o the lines.”
Shanbag first spent a long time listening to people read the play. “I start thinking when actors are reading their lines. Then when we went onto stage the difficult part was to give a physical manifestation to things which were linked by the script at an idea level only. Sometimes this manifestation takes a moment, sometimes a week… to arrive at,” Shanbag reveals. To make this clearer, the play moves back and forth in time and space – hence the physical manifestation to linked ideas. Shanbag claims he’s never worked harder on a play, “maybe because it was made in a shorter time and was such a challenging script.” Another thing he’s never done is use live music. “I’ve tried to bring it out like an urban Loknatya production, showing the worker’s composite culture – a forgotten phenomenon.” As far as dealing with his actors is concerned, Shanbag was surprised as to how “people from different acting traditions were put together into one consistent style. They also slip out of traditional storytelling into living the scene with remarkable ease. A big challenge,” he enumerates.
Not one, but many. We hope… well met.
Cotton 56 Polyester 84 will open at Prithvi on February 14 at 9.00 pm

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/d2nr


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