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By Priyanka Roy

Photographs by Saptarshi Chakraborty

 

 

Walking into his house on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I was greeted by a rather sullen Amyt’da – unshaven, dressed in a pale tee-shirt, his voice sounding hoarse and worn-down, and his eyes slightly unfocused. He had evidently not been keeping well, because the Amyt’da we students and hundreds of fans are used to know is a man who can make your day simply with the uncontainable energy in his voice and the animated twinkle in his eye. However, Amyt’da agreed to keep his promise of granting me this unique interview, and here’s your scoop of the “boy” in Mr. Amyt Dutta, who has much more to him than meets the eyes or ears!

 

 

The first time you met the guitar:

(Squints, thinks hard) It was when I was only 13 years of age, back in the 1970s. I still remember exploring this really old and dusty Hawaiian guitar that just happened to be lying around the house. I knew it was an instrument alright, but wasn’t too sure of how one played it. It was a mix of curiosity and anxiety that pushed me towards it, and I pulled the fourth string gingerly, and WOW! That one sound told me right away that I just had to learn to play this thing!

 

 

Your first guitar lessons were taken from:

I guess the first lessons kicked off with friends of my older brothers. But they were mostly on the Hawaiian guitar.

 

 

The first guitar you owned:

Oh yes, I remember that one! It was local Rs.300 guitar, electric that too! (laughs)

 

 

Your first guitar idol:

Ritchie Blackmore.

 

 

Your first gig on stage:

Well it wasn’t a professional gig of any sort – it was more of a casual performance at school (Don Bosco School, Park Circus, Calcutta) back in Class Seven, if I remember right.

 

 

The first time you were whacked at home for paying more attention to music than academics:

Oh hell, never! In fact my mother, who is from a family of musicians, always prodded me to rehearse more with every passing day. She made me aware of the spiritual side of music-making and has supported me in my work to this day. I am truly lucky and blessed as far as a supportive family is concerned.  

 

 

 

Your first band:

Umm, it was this trio where Kochu (his cousin Monojit Dutta, a member of the bands Orient Express and Los Amigos) and I along with a friend played, it was called Moonbeams. But New Blues Connection was probably the first professional outfit I played with. People really got to know us since.

 

 

Your first feel-good moment on stage:

The biggest feel-good moment was in Bangalore I think – it was a good gig and I really enjoyed myself there. By the end of the gig I saw the whole crowd bowing down! I hold it close to my heart to this day. That moment gave me the biggest joy of my life!

 

But the very first feel-good moment has got to be the time when my first band and I worked out a song right and played it well. It wasn’t a gig, not even a professional band (it was with one of our bedroom-makeshift bands), but yea, that is probably my earliest feel-good memory.

 

 

Your first terrible moment on stage:

Breaking a string on the stage! It was terrible! I was playing a classical piece on a Hawaiian guitar at a performance in school, and at the concluding bit, a string tore off! It felt like I broke up inside! I couldn’t continue and had to leave stage right then. Damn! That felt terrible, in every sense of the word.

 

 

First very embarrassing moment on stage:

Oh yes of course! When we were in the Ninth Grade, there was this band competition at the La Martiniere Schools called Beatstock. Lots of city bands participated and Gyan, Jeff and Jayashree (Gyan Singh, Jeffrey Rikh and Jayashree Singh, his current Skinny Alley band mates) were there too, but as parts of another band. Various others who participated played covers. Kids that we were, barely aware of what a guitar “pedal” is, we went along as Moonbeams, which only played originals! These were simple songs we had written and thought of trying them out on stage. It was a two-day long competition and all bands had to play both days. Well, on the first day we took stage, played our songs but were sorely booed off stage! We gathered only enough courage to go back up on stage the next day and as soon as we came on, the crowd jeered again! We couldn’t play. What was worse, Kochu and I suffered from “embarrassment fever” for the next five days! For the following months we avoided anyone spotted in tight jeans and leather jackets, assuming that he might have been part of the “hip” audience at the competition!

 

 

Your first “flop” show:

Oh, many! (laughs) But I think it’s the corporate gigs that dampen you spirits. As a matter of fact any show where people don’t listen to you is a “flop.” However it’s heartening to know that though most people at a pub or a corporate gig are socializing, there is a handful that’s attentive and respects your music.

 

 

Students you have particularly enjoyed teaching:

Taj (Tajdar Junaid of Span and Band Aid) and Bodhi (Bodhisattwa Ghosh of Insomnia and Crystal Grass).

 

 

The first lesson in music according to you:

If at all you are fortunate to enjoy any interaction with music, then it is you who must go to it, instead of expecting it to come to you. Music is too great to do that. If you are keen, you must try to find your way to music. If you are passionate, you get there someday.

 

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By Reeti Roy

What kind of books did you read as a child?
I read comic books, mainly the American ones, Goldkey, Marvel – the ones that involved superheroes. Ritchie Rich and Tintin were absolutely favourites. When I started school at Cathedral (Bombay) I knew only Bengali, because it was the only language that my mother and I conversed in, at home. When I started school, the headmistress suggested that I read Ladybird books, so I could learn English. My first introduction to the English language came through comic books and the Ladybird books. After that, I went on to read books by Enid Blyton.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Did it happen all of a sudden or did you know that this was something that you absolutely had to do?
I had always wanted to write and I enjoyed reading. I suppose I always knew that I might have been different temperamentally, and that I was always attracted to certain things. The things were neighbourhoods, streets, street life and also the sense of the foreign in the familiar. I wrote poetry in school but nobody really knew that as it was looked down on. Also, the attraction to the romance of being a writer was something that made me want to write. To discover that it was the street, rather than the character, that it was the neighbourhood rather than the plot that I wanted to write about made me want to write even more. I was determined that I wanted to be a writer, so ever since I was in school I would send my writings to England and America and get rejection slips. That didn’t deter me, though. I was convinced of my literary genius (laughs).

Despite being a Bengali, why did you choose to write in English?
I was brought up in Bombay and I learnt Bengali because my mother spoke to me in Bengali. English was the language that I was most comfortable talking in. The reason that I wanted to write was inextricably linked to the fact that as I was learning the language, I was also growing more and more curious about the language and its development and that’s how I began to write in the English language.

Did you have to struggle as a writer?
I didn’t starve, if that’s what you mean (smiles). I began writing A Strange and Sublime Address after I had finished doing my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University College, London. I decided to take a year off after that and begin working on a novel. I decided that I wanted to write a story based on my uncle. And I wanted to write a novel about the room overlooking the street. Now these are hardly plots for a novel. But I realised that in order to be true to myself, that that was what I was going to write about, because this was what interested me the most. When in Oxford, I wrote a chapter and when I re-wrote it, I snipped off bits and pieces. To use filmmakers’ jargon, much of it was achieved from the editing table.

Is a writer being self-indulgent when he is true to himself?
A writer has to be creatively opportunistic in order to allow himself to grow. He doesn’t necessarily need to be self-indulgent, but it often happens in the process of creative satisfaction.

Would you want your works to be translated in Bengali?
They have been translated in other languages but I am immediately warned that the translations don’t quite capture the language. If there is someone who can translate my works, without marring its essence, then I have no problems with it.

Would you ever want your works to be on celluloid? If so, which one?
Well, my writing is like tightrope walking. It would take a certain kind of filmmaker to make this kind of a film. And this filmmaker would have to be adept at creating a momentum out of images rather than a narrative. A lot of people suggested that my first book A Strange and Sublime Address could be made into a film. But I think I would pick Portrait of an Artist. Mrinal Sen thought that The Old Masters would make a good film. I think that that is because there is a great deal of life and the vicissitudes of life in The Old Masters.

A lot of critics have pointed out that Indian writers in English have a tendency of catering to the West and that it has to do with Orientalism and exoticization, because of which a lot of writers writing in the regional languages get left out. What is your opinion of that?
Well, there is a certain justification to the first part of the complaint. There are absolutely wonderful things that exist and have been done and are still being done, although perhaps not as hugely productive as it was in the 20th century. But some writers, by default, fall into this “exoticization”. Perhaps they should know about a lot of things that go on in terms of writings in the regional languages and certain cultural aspects, but the fact is that they don’t. We must remember to question and ask ourselves what the roles of the exotic and the unfamiliar are in literary works, and we should try not to confuse the two.
With modernity and the advent of the free market, one must come to terms with the changing face of the realities that make India what it is, today. I believe that the Indian Intelligentsia still hasn’t come to terms with Indian modernity and still doesn’t know how to define Modernism in an Indian context.

You said somewhere that “I wish Indian writing were less triumphant”. What exactly did you mean by that?
You’ve been checking me up on the web (laughs). When I talk of triumphalism, I mean the Indian’s place in the world stage. Literature and the literary seems to have become an adjunct of this. Writing and daydreaming seems to be an ambivalent disreputable affair. One must understand that being a writer is not the same as being an activist or doing social work .They are different realms and each has its own place in the larger scheme of things.
Despite all its post-colonial Resistance, I believe that the Indian intelligentsia cannot think of Freud and Foucault in the same way that they think of Indian thinkers and philosophers. Freud and Foucault are like constellations in the sky. This is reflecting in the pedagogy and this is possibly the reason for the lack of first-rate critics and first-rate philosophers in our country.

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By Monidipa Mondal
Photographs by Saptarshi Chakraborty
  
**Click on thumbnails for a larger view of the images**

If there is a theatre director at the moment who can afford to be proud, it has to be Tim Supple. Yet moving around the second-floor balcony of Kala Mandir on a sunny winter afternoon, as the crowds mill in after another show of his much-acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tall, agile man from London is incredibly polite and patient, receiving congratulations, answering questions from enthralled students who throng around him, signing notepads and posing for photographs, that obliging smile never disappearing from his face. Throughout the show he has shuffled around the auditorium, getting a firsthand feel of the audience reaction. And Tim Supple looks like a happy man.  

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So how is does it feel to return to India with his play, after having done more than 150 shows at different prestigious locations abroad? His production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has travelled to the UK and Italy and is all set to take on Australia, the US, Canada and Europe, but as Supple emphasizes, ‘This is where we first rehearsed and performed the play, this is its home. It’s difficult and involves a lot of work and money, but it’s very important and extremely special to bring it back to India.’ Since the last time, the play has moved from outdoors to the proscenium, and the “innocence” of being a nascent production has been replaced by a higher level of confidence and stronger formation. The proscenium lacks the wonderful naturalness of atmosphere offered by the outdoors, rues Supple, but also adds that it gives the play greater aural and visual focus, making it more controlled, which is an advantage.  

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a product of a long and passionate involvement with India on the part of Tim Supple. He arrived in the country in 2005, invited by the British Council to do a play with Indian actors. He agreed to accept this offer, he says, because he was interested in Indian performance and the history of theatre in India. ‘It was new to me, I didn’t know it; so it was an adventure for me to come to India,’ he says, adding, ‘And I was looking for something different in my life and work.’ The British Council offer gave him liberty to choose the kind of play he would like to do, so Supple decided to travel through the country first, exploring various types of performances. And a wise decision it turned out to be, because his assumption of creating a play in English was soon dispelled by the variety and range of performances he came across and “was immediately and immensely struck by”, as he puts it, many of which he realized would not work in English because they were folk forms, classical forms and forms of regional theatre. By the end of his first trip, he says, he was already resolved to experiment and include performers who would not work in English.   

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During his second trip when Supple started auditioning, he had young Indian directors and producers assisting him in different cities (he mentions Ananda Lal in Calcutta, Roysten Abel in Delhi and Atul Kumar in the South) as he selected from both actors who worked in English and actors who did not, with whom he conducted the initial workshops. ‘It was very important for me to have in that room many different people,’ recounts Supple. ‘We were all working on Shakespeare, but some people would work in English and some in Bengali or other regional languages. Some could read the script and others would work from a kind of summary. We did the same sessions around the country in Calcutta,  Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Delhi, Manipur and so on. I would always ask the people to use whatever language they felt comfortable acting in, and by the end of that second trip it was clear that the production would be multi-lingual.’  

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His third trip to India involved selecting sixty actors from these workshops, who were taken to Mumbai and went through another week of workshops, out of which twenty-three actors were chosen for the final play. Three more months of further workshop followed, where people spent many hours understanding the essence of play together, performers from different theatrical traditions worked, watched, respected and learnt from each other’s performance and reached the seamless harmony that the final play seems to radiate. ‘The play is the cement,’ remarks the contented director, grinning.

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Choosing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the play to put up with this interesting assimilation of performers was entirely an intellectual decision, says Supple. It was a play he had wanted to do for years, but he could especially feel it working with the diversity and multi-linguality of the Indian cast. He believed the collision of languages would “animate” the play and liberate its text, and that it would represent the multi-lingual nature of India and also, more importantly, the imaginary world created by Shakespeare in the play itself. ‘Shakespeare gives us a strange Athens,’ he explains, ‘which is partly based on myth, partly on Elizabethan customs, partly on Roman romances – in Shakespeare you always find this wonderful mess of raw material onstage, which is the great thing about him.’ Supple feels his English-speaking Helena and Hermia fit perfectly into the image of women in the aristocracy, just as his mechanicals, who keep switching between English and vernacular, represent the language of working class men like themselves quite accurately. The worst thing one can do to Shakespeare, says Supple, is to preserve him as a neat and precise classical art form, and mentions that performing Shakespeare in his way, he has never been told that the play does not work in an intellectual basis.

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The veteran director seems slightly jarred if asked whether it was difficult to communicate with actors speaking different languages. ‘Everybody asks that question as if it is a problem, but why? Why in life are we so stuck with language?’ he retorts. ‘Language is important and I’d find it very hard to have a close friendship or love affair with someone who spoke a different language, but you never know. Why should we restrict our communication to only languages we know? Of course it helps, but it’s not necessary. Theatre is the magic, it’s the magic of communication.’

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Neither does he accept that the incomprehensibility of many languages is one of the reasons why much of the play depends heavily on physical acting. The fact that the question even arises, says Supple, indicates how much modern theatre has moved away from physicality. ‘I would have always done A Midsummer Night’s Dream like this, even if I did it in English,’ says he, and goes on to illustrate how the actual acting in his play depends much less on active physical expression than a viewer seems to remember having seen it once: ‘The first and the last scenes are very long and with minimum physical action. And the mechanicals just sit around in a semicircle, I’ve never seen the mechanicals done like that.’ The physical acting is chiefly seen in the forest scenes, and Supple agrees, saying that it’s natural, because the forest is about sex, violence, danger and unseen animals. ‘ For me it’s not physical acting, it’s just acting’ he justifies. ‘It has nothing to do with language and I wouldn’t want to do it in any other way.’

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However, Supple does acknowledge that British actors would possibly not be able to perform the play as well as their Indian counterparts, as they are less accustomed to creatively using their bodies. He blames it on a steady process of loss of attachment to theatrical forms in the West ever since the 16th century, as writers and the script gained more and more importance. In India traditional forms of art are learnt, practised and sustained, he observes, while in the Western cultures each generation of artists tries to tear up the previous generation’s achievements and move on. As a result, he says about the current generation of theatre actors in England, ‘Realistic acting is all they can do.’

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Supple is full of interesting anecdotes about the audience reaction to his play. The Indian audience in general seems to be more anxious about the “purity” of Shakespeare than the British, he notes with some amusement. The British audience doesn’t flinch about the sexual content of the play, and their reaction is intellectually much simpler while in India, says Supple, there is more critical awareness about the content of the play and more discussion and detailed feedback. But while the Indian audience can identify the different performances and languages more readily, Supple is surprised to notice in them what he calls a “snobbery about language” – for example, sitting in the audience during a performance in Calcutta, he had found his neighbour, a gentleman in his 70s, completely annoyed by the excessive usage of what he referred to as the “Southern languages.”  However, says Supple, in India he found the audience in Mumbai the most conservative; and while the audience in Calcutta almost baffled him into despair by not laughing enough at the funny scenes and sitting down during the song at the end of the play, they made up for the lack of exuberance with engaging comments and feedback, post-show.

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Also, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream sets itself to tour the world as a play performed in the proscenium, Supple is heavily nostalgic about the outdoor performances. He speaks with unmistakeable fondness about the intimate, three-sided Elizabethan stage of the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, the enormous Roman amphitheatre-like performance space in Verona, the large horse-shoe shaped stage at the Roundhouse in London, and in India, the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. He also recollects his earlier trip to Calcutta when the play was performed outdoors in the grounds of the Tolly Club. Things like constructing the performance space from scratch, a little village-like structure that was gradually formed, exposure to the elements and even the cries of the jackals in the background, he says, added a distinct natural atmosphere to the play that is impossible to imitate in the proscenium. The reasons for the shift were chiefly economic, explains the director – the costs for production are high, and since prosceniums theatres in cities in Europe and America have a steady business and audience, it was necessary to fit the play into that pre-existing structure, as he remarks, ‘The decision to go to proscenium was so that the play can have a life.’ However, people watching the play for the first time in the proscenium do not find anything wanting, assures Supple. The proscenium, moreover, helps the actors to gain more focus and mutual coordination, he adds.

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And before the ethereal strains of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fade from our memory, Tim Supple is already working on his next project, a unique adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. He says he hasn’t made concrete plans yet but he has been travelling, planning the script and auditioning actors in India, China, South America and Europe. Would this production be along the same lines as A Midsummer Night’s Dream? ‘That depends on what you mean by same. If you mean there would be a mixture of languages and mixture of performances, probably,’ says the director. And we can only wait and speculate what other magic he plans to unravel next.

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