Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Invisible Mediator

(Prachi Bhagwat is a History student, currently studying Gender Development in Pune. She's just as big a fan of Natak Company as I am and I sometimes suspect that's the biggest reason she moved to Pune. She was also one of the Festival Directors for Thespo 17 and is a regular at Prithvi. A very aggressive debater, sometimes slightly annoying, she's also a very good friend.)
A new, unusual play by the name of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit has generated interest and curiosity in the widely popular Marathi theatre circuit in Pune. The play happens to be written by Nassim Soleimanpour, a playwright of Iranian origin and its translator is a 22-year-old who could be mistaken for a regular college going boy in the city of Pune. Siddhesh Purkar in a short span of time has made his mark as a promising young playwright with plays like Patient in 2009, Kabadi Uncut in 2013 and his latest offering ‘Item’ among numerous other projects. An offer by QTP- a Mumbai-based theatre production company who are the co-producers of the play in its Pune run along with Natak Company and Aurora Nova, saw him take on the role of a translator. What many might assume to be a daunting task for a 22-year-old, Siddhesh saw the offer as a wonderful opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. For him, translating the play was indeed a great opportunity but not as much as an exciting challenge. Of course, the excitement stemmed from getting a chance to assume a new role but also owing to the unique nature of the play- if you could buttonhole it by calling it that. 

White Rabbit Red Rabbit tells a story about social conditioning and obedience, challenging and breaking norms about what a conventional show in the theatre should be like while commenting on societal norms through the show making for a genius of a juxtaposition. The surprises don’t stop just there. The actor must know nothing about the show, should not have read the script beforehand and must be given the script on stage for the very first time. Apart from a few instructions by the writer, a day prior to the performance, the actor knows close to nothing about what to expect on ‘show day’. This makes it but obvious that the show can  be performed by a particular actor just once.  Moreover, the design of the play  also challenges the audience about what an evening at the theatre should be and feel like. 

When , Kalpak- who runs this blog, asked me to go speak with Siddhesh about what the process of translation had been like, both Kalpak and I exchanged exhaustive Whatsapp voice notes about what the complexities and subjectivities of translating a play could be. We spoke of cultural references, audience-specific concerns and much else that made us feel intelligent and as we would later realise, did little to help. I went armed with my list of seemingly intelligent questions only to realise how simply and joyfully Siddhesh had taken this on. The version that is being performed to nearly packed theatres was ready in the very first draft. A narration to the producers of the show, which read to them like a fourth or fifth draft, was approved and was good to go with a few changes. 

Sai Tamhankar
There did, of course, exist challenges and things to keep in mind while engaging with the text and translating it. The play employs a generous usage of symbolism and it was important to enter the mind of Nassim Soleimanpour, as it were, to be able to begin the process of translating the text. Once Siddhesh was sure he knew what Nassim was talking about, the translation took just about a week to be completed and was duly presented.

 Another concern was that of language. A number of translations are often produced of a single play but the play is most probably remembered in countries that don't speak the language of the playwright by just one version of the many extant translations. The other forgettable versions are often clinically approached, translating word for word without much thought about differences in cultural references and formality or informality of language among other concerns. A corollary to this concern was that of the expectations of Pune’s theatre going audiences and how the radical design of the play could be made palatable for those audiences who were used to what Siddhesh believes is the run-of-the-mill Marathi play. Audiences in most places prefer to recede into the shadows and assume the role of passive spectators to the action on stage. Because this was not to happen in White Rabbit Red Rabbit, the language of the show had to be crafted so as to break the ice in the first few minutes and acclimatise the rather stiff audience members for what was to ensue. The fact that the show was to be performed in classic proscenium styled venues in the city made things tougher.However, that some audiences come out of the theatre confused about what they just experienced is not a cause for worry for Siddhesh. That most of these confused audience members wait back to speak with Siddhesh and ask questions about the play and its message is proof enough that the play has struck a chord with the audiences in the city. That is enough to satisfy the young writer.  
Atul Pethe after WRRR
One would imagine that the translator must undoubtedly have exchanged numerous notes with Nassim, the writer of the play on tackling issues during translation and other concerns that Nassim might have. I, at least, did. Surprisingly there seems to be no significant  record of correspondence between the two. The process of translation comes across as one with no interference allowing him complete freedom to tell the story in Marathi while also enjoying the process. Having completed his work on White Rabbit Red rabbit, his mind, evidently, is on his forthcoming projects of which he talks animatedly. His new play 'Item' is a commentary about women in the show-business and the agency they possess over their bodies and sexuality. That 'White Rabbit Red Rabbit' is described by The Guardian to be a universal hit and the fact that it has been performed by the likes of Wayne Brady, Josh Radnor and acclaimed actors in Marathi theatre and films like Atul Pethe, Mukta Barve and Sai Tamhankar, seems not to be the foremost thought on Siddhesh’s mind. He seems almost unaware of his genius. The playwright Christopher Hampton once said that the best translators remain as invisible as possible. Siddhesh remains comfortably invisible.  

(Book tickets for the next show of Item here:
and for White Rabbit Red Rabbit performed by Jitendra Joshi:

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