A passion from within: Tanika Gupta on her new play about the fight for Indian Independence

It’s often easy to forget that epic historical events are shaped by individual passions.

Introducing UK playwright Tanika Gupta’s new play Lions and Tigers to theatre audiences, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Emma Rice said: “Tanika’s gripping play manages to join dots that I didn’t even know were on the same page. This is important stuff. Fasten your seatbelts, the world won’t look quite the same when you leave the theatre.”

In this unedited transcript, Tanika talks to Jatinder Verma — Artistic Director of Tara Arts—about Bengal, the fight for Indian Independence and the origins of this exciting new piece of writing, currently playing in London.

Jatinder Verma (JV): It seems, with Lions and Tigers, you have inserted a personal spoon into history and dug it up. Of course, all plays are written from personal passion, but this one seems particularly personal.

Tanika Gupta (TG): Yes, the story comes from the family, and Dinesh, my grandfather’s youngest brother, who wrote a number of letters from prison. I think my grandfather collected about 92 letters, and half of them were written in Bengali and the other half were written in English, and so I grew up seeing these letters.

It was only really when I was in my twenties that I realised the importance of the letters.

What was fantastic about them was that he couldn’t write anything political because his letters were censored, so a lot of the letters talk about books and novels and the mangoes that he’s eating. It does show what an amazingly educated young man he was, that he can compare Tagore with Shakespeare, and quote Turgenev — things I don’t think many nineteen-year-olds could do now.

JV: Did this personal connection with one of the most momentous moments in modern history change or shape your views of the story of Indian independence?

TG: I think, more than anything else, it was about trying to tell the story from Dinesh’s point of view, rather than that it changed or shaped my views, to try and tell the story of the violent insurrection by the Bengali revolutionaries. I think, because we come from a very Bengali family, there is bound to be a point of view which is very different from people who followed Gandhi or Nehru.

Of course, in Bengal, even now, when you go to Kolkata, the whole place is full of pictures of Subhash Chandra Bose, which I always find very amusing, because it’s a bit like when you go to Cuba and you always see Che Guevara everywhere, but you never see Fidel Castro. So, it’s a different gaze, in terms of looking at Indian independence.

JV: Part of the different gaze, I wonder, is the way you explore the relationship of the sexes. Dinesh seems to have a very progressive approach to the position of women. Was this something coming from the research, or was that also something that equated with your own sense of how it must have been for women during these extraordinary years?

TG: Well, in terms of Dinesh’s views on women, what I found interesting is that there’s always a lot information, not just in the letters, but also from stories from my grandfather. My grandfather also wrote a journal where he noted how Dinesh used to go off to houses where he had heard that there had been domestic violence, and throw shoes at the man. Apparently, he was a bit of a menace because his father couldn’t control him. So, in a sense, he was quite odd like that.

He was also very close to his sister-in-law, to whom he writes a lot of letters, to the point where it almost looks like he was in love with her, but a very innocent, boyish sort of love, as opposed to a full-blown sexual thing.

Also, there were a lot of Bengali women involved in the revolution, and I wanted to try and make sure that their voices were heard, so that it didn’t just become a whole play about male revolutionaries. There are a lot of men in the play as it is. There are two women, and one is a young woman and one an older woman, and both of them, in their own ways have opinions on Indian independence, one is more extreme than the other, and I think that does represent what was going on.

It’s that usual thing where you look at history, and you realise that, actually, it’s not just about your gaze, but it’s about finding the elements that, in a sense, match what your views are that can be backed up with fact. Of course, as a playwright, you make lots of things up anyway, but certainly the character of Bimala who’s a freedom fighter, was absolutely based on a real person.

There were amazing photographs I found of women prisoners held on Andaman Islands, as early as 1850, so in a sense it’s about forgotten history, it’s about forgotten voices.

JV: Bimala’s drive seems to be based on a sense of revenge. She seems an almost Kali-esque figure. Did you find personal motivations drew some into a larger cause?

TG: Yes, I mean the call of the freedom fighters was ‘Bande Mataram’ which basically means, ‘Victory to Mother India’, so India is seen as the mother, and yes, definitely, women were revered in the revolution. In terms of revenge — I suddenly thought, as playwrights, we don’t often get the chance to write about revenge in the way Shakespeare, for example, used to write. So, it’s a quite powerful trajectory for a character, to write about revenge, but also, I think that, for a lot of those revolutionaries, whether they were men or women, terrible things happened to them, and actually, in a sense, they were vengeful.

One of the things I remember quite a lot growing up, is that my grandfather and my grandfather’s older brother both said Dinesh was groomed, that he was brainwashed, that they didn’t know what he had got into, that they were very powerful, older people who were in the revolution, who basically picked up these young, bright boys of a certain age and persuaded them into martyrdom.

We’ve heard this story before, quite recently, haven’t we? So, they were quite angry about the fact that these people who had done this work, had never — they died in old-age — they were never punished, they were very secretive. So, there was bitterness there in the family, but equally, there was a huge pride for what Dinesh had done.

JV: Another thing that fascinates me with your play is that it presents Gandhi as someone more interested in the individual spirit and its health than in what it would take to achieve independence. Was that a conscious choice, or did it come from Dinesh?

TG: Yes, it was coming from Dinesh’s point of view, it was very much about the young versus the old. I mean, this is what the young Bengali revolutionaries always talked about, that this country is being led by old people who don’t know what they’re doing, and are just so set in the ways. ‘The days of the bullock-cart have gone,’ is what they keep saying. So, whenever they talk about the bullock-cart, they’re talking about Gandhi, and they’re very anti-Gandhi, to the extent they see him as the enemy.

In a sense, the play for me was really about presenting the argument between violent insurrection and civil disobedience. I don’t necessarily think that myself. I think Gandhi was extraordinary. The salt march was just so clever, and his letter to [the Viceroy, Lord] stating that this is what he was going to do, was the most brilliant piece of literature you will ever read, just extraordinary. But I also know for a fact that he despised the revolutionaries, he hated the idea of martyrdom, and actually, when he had the chance to plead for their lives, he didn’t.

The whole play is trying to look at the situation from Dinesh’s point of view. Only the other day, my seventeen-year-old said to me, ‘You know what, I think all people over 60 shouldn’t be allowed to vote, because they mess it up badly, look what they’ve done.’ I did think, ‘Oh my god, that’s exactly what Dinesh Gupta says in his letters all the time,’ he just says, ‘The old have just messed it up for us, it’s time for them to just move on.’ It’s the same issues all over again.

JV: How far does the weight of history affect how you might shape particular characters? Is there a duty you feel to family history?

TG: Yes, that’s a very good question.

I think that, obviously, because he’s part of the family, I have a lot of information about him, that is in the back of my head, that doesn’t go into the play. My grandfather, for example, was a doctor, and he always used to say, and I put it in the play, ‘Dinesh should not have killed, and he should not have been killed.’ So, that was very much part of what the family thought. They thought that he had done wrong, but equally, they felt that he had been duped into it.

So, in a sense, there is that dichotomy over him, difference of opinion within the family, but because it’s such a great mine of information, he’s also a great hero to write about in a play, and in terms of where he is in India, in terms of the independence movement, he’s massive in Kolkata.

I mean, there’s a statue to him opposite the Writers’ Building, which is the place that they led the onslaught on, and there are roads named after him. He is known as ‘Shaheed Dinesh’, Shaheed means martyr, and whenever I go to Bengal and people go, ‘Is it true that you’re Dinesh Gupta’s relative,’ and I go, ‘Yes,’ and they go, ‘Oh my God.’ So, everyone knows about it.

Coming back to your question about how objective can you be when it’s part of your own family? I don’t know. It’s always very difficult to write in a balanced way. But then I think, I’m not a journalist, I’m a playwright, and so, ultimately, the play has to come from some passion from within, otherwise you might as well write an article for a newspaper. So, there is a point of view, and I guess it is skewed towards him. I’m not particularly ashamed of that, but I feel I have been quite diligent in trying to present different points of view.

JV: In the play, a lot is made about what Bengalis are supposed to be: poets, thinkers, not revolutionaries…

TG: In a sense, that’s what the colonialists do wherever they go, isn’t it? It is divide and rule and they have a brilliant way of labelling everyone. So, I mean, the Belgians did it in Rwanda with the Hutus and the Tutsis. You know, the Brits did it in Ireland with the Protestants and the Catholics. So with Dinesh, one of the things that they kept talking about was how the British always talked about Bengalis being weedy and weakling and intellectual.

I have to say, there are a lot of people that I know who still say Bengalis are small, round, have got glasses and spend a lot of time with their noses in books. And equally, who say that the Punjabis are all martial, they don’t have any culture, they are just agriculturalists.

So, this terrible stereotyping is what Dinesh was fighting against — going to gyms and doing bodybuilding and trying to be big men. In a sense, that’s also quite teenage behaviour. I mean, I have teenage nephews who are always asking me to hit them to test out their muscles. So, it’s, kind of, universal as well, isn’t it?

JV: Were you conscious that this is a particularly Bengali story?

TG: Yes, it is a very Bengali play, absolutely. It’s all about Bengal, and they are all Hindu Bengalis, as well. I think that that, in a sense, the more specific you are, the more universal you can be with plays. Equally, in terms of Indian independence, the thing that actually woke all these Bengali revolutionaries up was Amritsar and the massacre the British perpetrated in Jallianwala Bagh. It’s very, very clear that the Bengali revolutionaries, the minute that happened, they became quite incensed. I mean, the Punjab is so far away from Bengal and yet, it was a kind of call to arms.

JV: So, who are the lions and who are the tigers?

TG: The lions are the British and the tigers are the Bengalis. The phrase comes from the Andaman Islands, where a Scottish jailer actually welcomed them and said, ‘This is the place where the lions tame the tigers.’ So, I thought, ‘That’s a good title. I’ll use that.’

JV: That’s also referring to the Tigers of the Sundarbans?

TG: Yes. My family originated from Dhaka in east Bengal, which is now Bangladesh. I think my parents were born in Chittagong, but this is all before partition.

JV: So, did they?

TG: Like in the Punjab, yes.

JV: They crossed the border?

TG: Yes, it was exactly the same thing as Punjab, wasn’t it? The Bengali Hindus and Muslims were in the same sort of terrible exchange of land. You know, interestingly, the families still see themselves as east Bengalis, whatever that means. It’s all that identity thing, isn’t it?

JV: It’s a very potent thing, identity. That seems to me one of the great virtues also of your play. Where we see Dinesh trying to make a plea for another kind of identity for the young, who are going to inherit a new world. An identity which is shorn off old practices. And that that’s as much a part of trying to wrest independence from the British.

TG: Well, they were modern young men, in many respects. A lot of the Bengali revolutionaries were young women, as well. So, I think it was a very exciting time for women, in terms of getting involved politically. Some of them even did the same thing — there was a couple of fourteen-year-old girls who went and shot the district magistrate, and they believed that those two girls were trained by Dinesh, but there’s no absolute proof about it. That was one of the reasons why Tegart was chasing after Dinesh.

JV: You mentioned the statue of Dinesh outside the Writers’ Building in Kolkota. Do you think there’s a post-colonial shadow still hanging over India?

TG: Oh, God. I don’t know, actually. There’s a lot of things that I find disturbing when I go to India — Modi and the communalism and the anti-Muslim feeling that’s in the air all the time, I find that really distressing. The whole thing about the way women are treated, that feels like it’s gone backwards rather than forwards. The massive capitalism, too, is, if anything, a legacy of the British because what they did in India was to drain it of money. It was a capitalist venture: to make as much money out of people as you can; it doesn’t matter how many millions die.

JV: Aren’t there some extraordinary women in India?

TG: There are. There are extraordinary women. I still love going to India and I feel, ‘Gosh, this is much more modern than where we’re at in Britain.’

The sort of conversations you have with feminists there are just, like, unbelievable. Fantastic stuff. The kinds of thing Bose talked about — the intellectual humiliation, the racism, the feeling that the whites were superior — I think that has gone.

There is no kowtowing to the British in the way there was even 30 years ago when I used to go back, and that’s a positive thing.

JV: What story do you want to tell today’s Britain about Indian independence?

TG: Well, I think there’s a different side to it, so one of the big things that I was quite interested in was the whole story of the Andaman Islands, which we don’t ever hear about. I read History at Oxford and I never knew any of this. So, for me, this play has been quite a revelation.

At the moment, there’s a certain revision of the way that we look at history, and the way that we look at the Empire. One of the things about the Andaman Islands was the torture of political prisoners that went on there for over a century, and it’s not dissimilar to Robben Island in South Africa. It’s that same thing of sticking political prisoners away from civilisation and then beating the hell out of them, as far as I can work out.

I wanted to present an alternative view, and it’s not made up, it actually happened.

Lions and Tigers plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until Saturday 16 September 2017.

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