September 2, 2003

Readings celebrate many voices in Indian theater

By Brian Green

Theater Emory’s Sept. 12–13 festival, “Contemporary Indian Theater,” celebrates millennia of theater tradition in India while demonstrating how that rich heritage speaks to contemporary issues in both Eastern and Western cultures. The festival will feature works by Indian artists of diverse backgrounds whose works span a variety of topics.

Theater long has been part of Indian culture, whether as street plays, dance dramas or musicals. These forms continue to be used for education, for telling and remembering stories, and to effect social change.

Following its independence from Britain, India has witnessed a re-emergence of its theatrical heritage in many dialects and languages throughout the country. The playwrights creating these works are giving new voice and perspective to issues both ancient and modern, such as family obligation and identity in an ever-shrinking world.

Also, India—which has the world’s largest English-speaking population—currently is witnessing a trend to create more works in English. Writers such as Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie have transcended borders by presenting a distinctly Indian perspective to a wider, English-speaking audience in India and abroad.

The performances in “Contemporary Indian Theater” will not be full productions, but staged readings of selected scripts by Indian playwrights who have not reached the same levels of international fame as Roy or Rushdie, but who nonetheless present an innovative and challenging perspective to contemporary issues.

These artists have incredibly diverse backgrounds; some, such as Mahasweta Devi, live with tribals and write only in their native dialect, while others, such as Girish Karnad, write predominantly in English. All of them, however, illustrate the fact that contemporary Indian theater is developing its own distinct voice.

Hayavadhana, by Girish Karnad Friday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m.

Karnad has become one of India’s brightest rising stars, earning international praise as a playwright, poet, actor, director, critic and translator. He has written distinct and powerful plays that use history and mythology to tackle contemporary themes. Hayavadhana, which won the 1972 Kamaladevi Award for best Indian play, asks the question: “If two bodies switch heads, who is who?” Based on the 11th century Indian fable Kathasaritsagara and Thomas Mann’s development of this story in “The Transposed Heads,” Hayavadhana (“the one with a horse’s head”) is a philosophical exploration layered with comedy, love triangles, talking dolls and more.

Harvest, by Manjula Padmanabhan, Saturday, Sept. 13, at 2 p.m.

Winner of the 1997 Onassis Award for Theatre, Harvest is a chilling tale that explores the concerns that arise when two different cultures with great economic disparities collide. Set in 2010, this story of an Indian family seduced by the wealth of the West and the human costs involved—identity, body, mind, organs—evokes a cross-cultural and individually motivated version of George Orwell’s 1984.

A collage of readings from the work of playwrights Mahesh Dattani, Mahasweta Devi, Vijay Tendulkar and Alka Roy, Saturday, Sept. 13, at
7 p.m.

Scenes from well-known Indian plays will give the audience a peek at works by some of the strongest voices of change in India today. These plays cover different styles, regions, political motivations, movement and poetry to explore contemporary issues in a very Indian way. Scenes also will be presented from a play by Alka Roy, an emerging playwright who lives in Atlanta.

All performances will be read in English and will be held in the Schwartz Center theater lab. The readings are free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Free tickets will be available one hour before each event.

For more information, call 404-727-5050 or visit