We beg to differ!

Arwa Janjali
Saturday, 24 February 2018

Curated by Sapan Saran and Irawati Karnik and directed by Sunil Shanbag, Words Have Been Uttered, presents the idea of ‘dissent’ through songs, poems, narrations of extracts from plays and other literary sources

Words have been uttered
Long before us
And for long after us
Chop off every tongue
If you can
But the words have been uttered.

Translated from Punjabi, these powerful words from a revolutionary poet of the ’60s couldn’t have been more relevant in today’s day and age. Lal Singh Dil, a Dalit poet whose writings emerged out of the Naxalite movement in the 20th century India, has become inspiration for Mumbai-based Tamaasha Theatre’s new performance named after Dil’s above poem. 

Curated by Sapan Saran and Irawati Karnik and directed by Sunil Shanbag, Words Have Been Uttered was performed at the recently concluded 10th Annual Vinod Doshi Memorial Theatre Festival. 

Presenting the idea of ‘dissent’ through songs, poems, narrations of extracts from plays and other literary sources spanning eras and countries, the act is symbolic of a protest against a time, when silencing opposition and difference of opinion is the norm. 

“Different views have started to be seen with suspicion. But the idea of dissent, from how it was portrayed through writings 500 years ago…everything that we read while creating this performance, resonated with what was happening today,” shared Shanbag during the interaction with the audience after the show. 

From Galileo’s heretical argument favouring Copernicus’s heliocentric theory to Ismat Chughtai’s laugh-out-loud account of the Lahore court case, where she and Saadat Hasan Manto were tried for obscenity in their writings, the performance also travelled to Afghanistan with its folk poetry Landay, sung secretly by Afghani women, owing to its sarcasm. Also, Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin found stage space alongside an extract from Premanand Gajvi’s 1997 Marathi play Gandhi Ambedkar among other texts. 

In an attempt to “weave an intelligent narrative and create theatre out of it” by the theatre makers, Words Have Been Uttered could well be described as a stimulating archive of poignant voices on dissent across centuries. Combining live music and singing with video clips, the act was a mix of readings, poetry recitation, singing and enactment of scenes. And since it moved away from the traditional theatre format, Shanbag insisted on not calling it a ‘play’. 

The songs, poetry and narrations are carefully structured though, so as to not make it too tedious for the audience to absorb. For instance, an intense narration is followed by a light-hearted song or a humourous extract, providing an instant breather and shift in mood. Performed in Hindi, Urdu, English and Punjabi by a bunch of multi-talented artists, the act had each of the actors holding books in their hands throughout. Not everyone was reading from the books but, they still held them in their hands while performing. “Holding books in our hands was a reminder that this is not our text. As theatre people, we have this whole thing about taking ownership of texts and making them our own,” Shanbag smiled. 

The director also fielded questions on creating a fiery production, which runs the risk of coming under fire from the moral police. “Let’s get real. Nobody is interested in our small little performance. People are after bigger things like Padmaavat,” he joked, adding, “Jokes apart, this is a gentle piece. It doesn’t hit you on the head. It is not poster politics. This is poetry. It is layered and nuanced and we invite people to find their own meanings and interpretations. Having said that, you can’t buckle under fear while creating something. You would be doing half the job for them in that case.”  

As much as the content was applauded by the audience, there were reservations on the performance not being fit for an auditorium. As it is consciously designed for more intimate spaces, its overall impact was viewed as being affected because of the larger space. Although, if ‘viewed differently’, the show did serve the purpose of being watched by a larger audience. 

Words Have Been Uttered has had 25 shows ever since its inception. With an overwhelming reception so far, Shanbag plans to take the performance to educational institutions. “We are already performing at IIT Mumbai as a part of their two-day conference on use of archive in performance. I believe this piece is significant for that age group,” he opined.

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