Spoonfed – Naima Khan…

Tagore: The poet, the playwright and his women – An interview with Sharmila Chauhan

18 January, 2012
by: Naima Khan

Naima Khan talks to writer Sharmila Chauhan about what happens when when contemporary British theatre does world classics.

Writer Sharmila Chauhan is hella jet-lagged. But fatigued though she is, she’s not only back in rehearsals fine tuning her script for Kali Theatre‘s production of Tagore’s Women to be staged at Southwark Playhouse; but she also manages to spare some time to talk to me about who Tagore is and what influence he’s had on her new three-part production.

She wasn’t, she tells me, always particularly familiar with the poet, playwright and literary giant Rabindranath Tagore, but was introduced to his works by director Elizabeth Freestone. Born in 1861, Tagore wrote prolifically from the late 1870s onwards and his influence is spread far and wide. Spanish translations have influenced South American writers like Pablo Neruda, whilst Japanese Nobel laureate, Yasunari Kawabata, counts Tagore’s works among his inspirations. There’s even an annual Tagore Festival held in Urbana, Illinois. But when contemporary British theatre does world classics, it tends to be very Eurocentric in a landscape where the most significant game changer to date is the Royal Court with their International Playwrights Season.

Despite winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 and later receiving a knighthood, Tagore’s work remains relatively unexplored in the UK. But Kali Theatre’s short series of plays inspired by the writer will highlight his influence, particularly on female playwrights. Chauhan, for example, says her affinity for his writing stems from his revolutionary depiction of women. “Tagore often had a female central character,” she points out, “and often they’d be the decision maker. He showed educated women, sexually active women and women who worked. Unlike someone like Gandhi who was around during Tagore’s era, he didn’t put women on a pedestal, he didn’t idolise them but he looked at every shade of their characters.”

His influence on her own writing is evident as rehearsals unfold around us and her characters debate and analyse their circumstances in the metaphor-laden English spoken so freely in Indian metropolises. Miles apart from the English spoken in the UK, Chauhan has imbued her characters with the poetic nature of Tagore’s writing. It suits her own style well but she’s found the language to be something that jars with what commonly makes it onto stages in the UK.

“When Indian people in India speak English, the imagery and the tone of their first language – be it Hindi or Urdu or whatever their native language is – so often comes through, and a lot of contemporary theatre doesn’t like that kind of layered and overtly poetic language,” she says. “When every little thing means something, it’s often seen as too much or something audiences don’t want to engage with. But [directors] Janet [Steel] and Elizabeth [Freestone] were happy for me to address the things that I think British theatre doesn’t often look at hard enough, especially in a way that British audiences aren’t necessarily used to. I’m talking about things like the diasporic connection.”

It’s fitting then that The Leaders, part of Born Again, Chauhan’s collection of three short plays, looks at Sumitra: a woman who returns to the country of her birth having spent most of her life in the UK, and finds a community willing to make her their reluctant leader. “The questions she poses,” says Chauhan, “are, how do you go back and change anything? In fact, can we change anything, especially from the outside?”

In the scenes that the cast run through on this particular rehearsal day, Sumitra’s sense of identity stands out in Chauhan’s writing. Her protagonist carries her latte-drinking London self with her into a country where child labour is as much a problem as exploitation of coffee growers in Africa. At this point, Janet Steel appears to usher Sharmila back into the rehearsal process, but what’s clear is that, much like Tagore’s works, there is both a social and a personal statement being made here.

Tagore’s Women runs at Southwark Playhouse until 21st January

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