Priya Bhattacharji talks to Udayan Chakravarty on his dramatic adaptations of classic literature
Once Upon a Time is a magical summon to the world of storytelling. It’s a verbal drawbridge for places faraway, moments preserved, people unfamiliar.
Its power to transport us to distant realities that vie with our own is unsurpassable.
With new media reshaping spatial and temporal dimensions, the distance between stories from afar and our realities is closing in. It is reflected in the inventive storytelling techniques employed across music, film and theatre. The creation of daringly imaginative narratives is art’s response to the digital landscape.
Recent performance-art pieces, Book Hop and Broadcast by Delhi-based Udayan Chakravarty, interestingly simulate the past. By seamlessly weaving music and stories, he injects a strong element of nowness to works that are on the verge of being forgotten.
Let’s take Book Hop for example. The concept for which was book readings accompanied by a live jazz soundtrack, the charms of a ‘Beatnik Bar’ of 1940s NYC were recreated in Delhi.
For the chilling spectacle of Broadcast, he refurbished Manto’s short stories on Partition as voices of now.
sbcltr caught up with Chakravarty about his approach to art and his ambitions as a storyteller.
‘’It is possible to have a jazz tune set to this conversation. There is a definite format to other genres, be it classical music or rock and roll. The beauty of jazz lies in its improvisational nature. In both my pieces, the use of jazz wasn’t with the intent of Mujhe India ko jazz sunana hai (I want India to listen to jazz). It’s the organic nature of the genre that makes it complement storytelling”, says Chakravarty, a self-professed jazz ‘non-connoisseur’–the type who sits politely yet passively through occasional performances at Delhi’s jazz clubs.
Shunned by white intellectuals, the 1940’s black jazz bars of Harlem (New York) captured the imagination of the rebellious Beat Writers. Absorbing the improvisational spirit of jazz, Jack Kerouac, author of the millennial favourite, On The Road and the father of the Beat generation, used to often accompany the music with 60s poetry and scat singing. Heavily influenced by jazz, the fragmented, eccentric nature of Beat literature is a reaction to the rigidity of form and structure.
“That’s the reason beat literature flows so beautifully. It began as an impromptu dialogue with words and notes. And that’s much pretty how the idea of the Book Hop was floated and the actual performance shaped up.”
This free-flowing expansion of group- consciousness led to the resounding success of the Book Hop, both as a concept and an event. “I happened to strike an acquaintance with Stefan Kaye of the Jazz Bastards who was open to experimentation. I had picked out some seminal pieces, works that influenced me over the years and had actors commissioned to read them out.
However, when eminent writers William Dalrymple and Meenkaski Madhavan got wind of it–they were eager to hop on. Performance artists, the likes of Sabika Abbas Naqvi and Divya Dureja were eager to join in and read out their favourite literary pieces. With two rehearsals and readings varying from the mystical Dohas of Kabir to the racist (yet brilliant) Congo by Vachel Lindsay, in the spirit of improvisation, we let everyone join in.”
His unshaken love for books is Chakravarty’s driving force, “books are my favorite endangered species. All they have is a twelve line blurb to catch your attention. Films have it easier with their pacy trailers. Unless you read out a paragraph from a book, you can’t make people go ‘wow’ over a book.”
Chakravarty also happens to be an ad exec who has worked with leading agencies. It’s no wonder that creative story telling comes to him naturally. “Book readings in the city are sordid, dead, academic affairs. You either spot glum or drunk faces. By virtue of being in the business of selling creatively, I often wondered what I could pull off for books, to create an engaging space for people who like to read.”
For his second piece Broadcast– a dramatisation of 28 very short stories on Partition had a broader, deeper intent.
“It is easy to be flippant about a nuclear bomb if a Hiroshima hasn’t happened. ‘Isolated’ communal acts can’t be ignored if Partition happened. The stories of Partition have become really important stories to tell today.”
“Manto and Ismat Chutgai were simply names I’d heard from literature grads. Fouzia introduced me to Manto’s masterfully crafted Afsanche, tales ranging from 2-12 lines. When I heard them, I realised their incredible relevance in today’s context–beyond content, the format works wonders for a generation that is increasingly consuming content through Instagram and Snapchat. Pretty sure the average attention span today is 90 seconds’
Manto’s tales were set to the tune of “a noise composition, made of percussions and violent sounds with a sitar, tabla and piano.” Broadcast had another element to make the audience uncomfortably close to the tales– Design.
“We created a Museum of Partition. There were 28 significant items, that include a broken bicycle, a clay pot, a saree, a paan daan, butcher knife, currency notes, children toys to name a few. Objects that were closely connected to the 28 tales of horror. We wanted the audience to stumble into the darkness of this Museum with the objects strewn, only to hear unsympathetic stories on a sputtering radio.”
He credits his advertising career in shaping him as ‘responsible storyteller’. “It enforces a certain discipline and doesn’t allow you to be an indulgent, whimsical storyteller . There are tangible metrics for advertising that every story has to perform . It gives you a much-required radar on what works and what doesn’t in a story. You can choose to use this radar to sell colas and conceptualise performances.”
As hauntingly powerful the Broadcast and strikingly different the Bookhop is, one wonders about the niche form of storytelling, possibly restricted to certain cultural alcoves. “Any kind of art is a transmission of feeling. Art doesn’t discriminate There is nothing as lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, the films and advertising that surround us like to talk down. This dumbing down of content produces a lot of rubbish. Still there exists a Vishal Bhardwaj who tells simple stories in the most brilliant manner. If your piece isn’t simple, it is embryonic. If I could, I’d take the same piece of Broadcast and stage it in Lucknow,” retorts Chakravarty.
His upcoming projects include a sci-fi rendition of Hemingway’ s The Old Man and The Sea and ‘a haunted house halloween event layered with stories and music’. Clearly, keeping up with his passion of brigding the stories of past, present and future