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Staging India

Two plays by one of India's hottest contemporary playwrights come to Tribeca for New York's first-ever Festival of Indian Theater. Kathryn Walat reports on the South Asian scene.

Joy Sengupta and Suchitra Pillai
in Dance Like a Man
Young actors leaving the theater to work in television or film in order to make a decent living. Young playwrights having to do their work in basement spaces for one-weekend runs. Theaters trying to get new audiences in their doors. Typical kvetching in any green room in New York--except the theater professionals discussing the state of the stage are talking a little bit closer to home: India.

"It's so strange, because there is a really strong Indian voice that had come out in English in poetry and nonfiction and fiction, but it's not happening in theater. And the main reason is money," says Lillete Dubey, the director and a cast member of Mahesh Dattani's play Dance Like a Man, being presented by the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) in a Festival of Indian Theatre. "That's probably why a lot more original stuff doesn't get written: because it doesn't get performed often enough," echoes fellow cast member Vliay Crishna, who has over 30 years of experience in the theater in India, playing lead roles in over 100 plays.

Dubey adds, "That's why I commission them to write a play. I pay them up front. I tell them forget the royalties, I'll pay you royalties later." And that's why the IAAC is pioneering the performance of Indian contemporary theater in North America in a first-ever Festival of Indian Theater, playing at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center through August 2.

"The audience reaction has been extremely positive," says Aroon Shivdasani, the IAAC's executive director. "Once audiences realize they can understand and enjoy it, word will spread and hopefully we will get more people interested and aware of our theater and our culture."

The Festival includes Dattani's landmark 1998 play On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, the first in Indian theater to handle openly gay themes, as well as Dance Like a Man, which deals with conflict between artist and society--and conflict between generations--as two aging Bharatanatyam dancers watch their daughter's career as a leading dancer take off. (On a Muggy Night... replaces the previously scheduled production of Vijay Tendulkar's Once Upon a Fleeting Bird.)

Dance Like a Man was written in English (the use of which is tacitly justified by the fact that the husband in the play is Gujarati and the wife is South Indian, making English their common language), and was a huge crossover success of Indian English-language theater. In a post-play discussion last week, the director and cast members communicated their excitement over the phenomenon of Dance Like a Man's premiere in Delhi.

"In a couple of days, there was a huge momentum. I couldn't believe it. Original plays are never done, and so when they're done, they're done in a basement. And I decided that when Dance would be done, that it would be done in great honor--in a theater with 700 seats and an initial run of ten days," Dubey explains. "And that made a lot of difference. It was produced in that manner, so people came to see it. And of course they liked it."

Actor Joy Sengupta concurs. "It also attracted a cross-section of the people. Because English-language theater is mostly about American plays and British plays that talk about life in Brooklyn...and it was Indian theater--Hindi theater or Marathi theater--that talked about the needs of Indian society," he explains. "But this play kind of broke through that barrier. The Hindi theater people could come and see it and appreciate it. And in the English [language] theater they had never seen this--with the accents and all, it was very Indian--and they loved it. It was new for everyone."

And that's just the sort of excitement--for something new, for something Indian--that the IAAC is hoping the Festival of Indian Theatre will generate in New York's Indian community and in New York's theater scene.

A second post-show discussion with the director and cast of Dance Like a Man, moderated by Wynn Handman, artistic director of the American Place Theatre, is slated for Wednesday, July 26. A post-show discussion with the director and cast of On a Muggy Night in Mumbai will cap the Festival on Wednesday, August 2. (Performances both Wednesdays will begin at 7pm.)