Workshops on ‘Indianness’, National Allegory and Myths - A conversation between Hemang and Vithya from Brown Voices

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Photograph for Purana Residences, a play-reading done in conjunction with Hemang’s workshop at C42

Masthead Image

Photograph for Purana Residences, a play-reading done in conjunction with Hemang’s workshop at C42

Under the Co-Lab Residency, Vithya Subramaniam and Hemang Yadav facilitated several workshops between August and October 2021, based on their own research and writing interests. Vithya ran More Than a Red Dot as a two-session in-person workshop on unpacking ‘Singaporean Indianness’ through objects. Hemang ran Nation and Writing: Using the National Allegory in Playwriting as well as Making the Myth Mine as distinct online workshops for playwrights to explore the national allegory and myths as inspiration and structures in playwriting. Here, Vithya and Hemang discuss their workshop approaches and experience:
 

Vithya: Hemang, before we get into the workshops proper, let me first ask you this: You’ve applied myths and the national allegory to a number of your own works, why do you enjoy these so much?

Hemang: The discovery of just how much of our writing continues to be national allegory, perpetually stuck in the nation-building enterprise and the traumas that has led to, can give us tools to negotiate with the shadow of the nation. Some deliberately use the allegory to question, de-center and re-centre national perspectives and topics, lending an activist or socially conscious colour to certain plays. What interests me more is the possibility, now that we know to what extent the image of the nation has us in thrall, of breaking free or at least attempting to do so from the nation, especially in the form of locating or, like Milton’s Satan, creating from nothing, the personal. Whether or not we succeed in creating this personal ‘space’ in our writing that the nation cannot cast its shadow on, the very attempt to do so lends itself to beautiful, heartfelt, heartbreaking writing. 

As for mythology, I love the familiarity and childlike simplicity of the myth which, like the descent of a roller coaster ride, suddenly throws you into the throngs of the complex and unexpected. I love myth because it helps the playwright formulate nuanced but accurate ways of marrying opposites - the everyday and the epic; the familiar and the uncanny; the past and the present; home and elsewhere; magic and reality. I especially enjoy the way mythology lends itself to interesting writing forms like magical realism and meta-theatricality. 

Vithya: I’m tempted to think of the national allegory as a type of myth. How are the myth and allegory different to you, or are they?

Hemang: There is, supposedly, a major difference between myth and allegory. An allegory has a single meaning, and the work lies in seeing what specific entity is being allegorised in the allegorical story. Myth on the other hand lends itself to infinite mutations, taking on new relevance in every new time and space, rather like the mark of Derrida. However, as a playwright, I think there is an interplay between myth and allegory, a kind of shuttling to and forth from both possibilities. Thus the ‘allegories’ of the nation can function more like myth, duplicating and replicating itself in bewilderingly diverse ways, while the pliable myth can bring home the possible (tragic) fact that certain things never change across millennia! We are playwrights, after all, so let us ‘play’ with these two concepts in stimulating ways rather than be pedantically tied to definitions. 
 

Vithya: Alright, so is that where the idea for your workshops came from, to ‘play’ with these concepts some more?

Hemang: National allegory and mythology both played vital roles in my Masters thesis on the works of late Indian playwright Girish Karnad. The way both these concepts separately and in concert inform and illuminate a text fascinated me and went on to become aspects of my own works as a playwright. I wanted to share some of the interesting theoretical elements I encountered while doing my research as well as the many ways in which I ended up using these elements myself in my play scripts, and so these two workshops were born.
 

Hemang: What about you? What’s the idea behind your workshop?

Vithya: It’s two-fold; one, the workshop process is an ethnographic method as part of my doctoral thesis; two, I had previously conducted a workshop series in putting together Thamizhachi, a digital museum of the Tamil woman, and learnt that the participants too found having such a space productive and comforting which affirmed workshopping for me as a mutually beneficial ethnographic method.

Hemang: Between your thesis, the previous museum project and this workshop, objects and the everyday seem to be important elements in your work. How did you focus on or explore these in this workshop, and what discoveries did you make?

Vithya: In my lesson design, we go about ‘noticing’ the objects around us through several activities that engage our everyday lives at different scales. These include literally looking into our individual bags and homes; as well as just free associating, listing things as a group.

Perhaps less a discovery and more of a confirmation: that when asked to pick an object linked to a race identity, we reach first for the things that are most heavily coloured in ‘race’, the sort I would call ‘textbook’ since these objects are frequently employed in our textbooks to illustrate ‘Indian’ in Singapore—things like the sari, pottu, oil lamp. It’s not always easy to ‘notice’ right away the objects that have agency in our everyday, because they are such an entrenched part of a mundane system, so it takes some time and a lot of questioning and rethinking to start seeing these other, less ‘textbook’ things.
 

Hemang: Do you think there can be a museum-inspired methodology for playwriting? What relations/connections can you find between a museum exhibit and a play?

Vithya: When done well, both exhibits and plays reflect the audience onto themselves, they help the viewer see themselves and their complications in the world, they raise the sorts of questions that encourage living a life examined. So yes, I think there can be a museum-inspired method for playwriting, but I also wouldn’t want to be the one to structure that method… because that would be kind of dull, no? But on that point of structuring, were your two topics of Myths and Allegory meant to go together?

Hemang: Yes and no. Each of these areas is illuminating and fascinating in its own right. With the national allegory one discovers, uncovers and rediscovers the shadow of the nation in one’s own work, and can then decide if the play is going to be a seance or an exorcism. On the other hand, the seemingly never-ending relevance and meaning-making capacity of the myth brings out the epic in the everyday; the mysterious timelessness of events clearly circumscribed within a specific time and space. It can be quite exciting when we marry the two together - after all, an allegory too is a myth of sorts, and perhaps all myths can lead back to the haunting of the nation. Karnad exemplified this perfectly in his mythological plays that also were, as I have argued, undeniably national allegories.
 

Vithya: Who did you hope would sign up, and who ultimately were your participants?

Hemang: The workshop was meant for fellow playwrights, preferably those who already have some experience under their belt. I was also hoping that the participants would not only be Indians. The participants of both workshops fit both categories! What about you, who were your participants?

Vithya: Given the design of my study, my workshop was open only to those who self-identified as ‘Singaporean Indian’. I was hoping to meet the sorts of Singaporean Indians who I don’t already meet as friends or relatives. That wasn’t quite the case, but I’m not that surprised either given the process and structures that inform a certain self-selection. I do, however, wish more guys had signed up… where are the men? I wish I had more male participants, but I guess that too is a data point. I’m also just very happy to have met several new interesting people in person. What was running the workshops like for you? Did you find the online medium adding to the experience in any way?

Hemang: The conversations were as stimulating as they would have been if we had met face-to-face. An interesting aspect was the chat function, which the participants quite liberally used to jot down their thoughts, make comments and ask questions. This enriched the encounter, and the fact that some of the exchange was therefore in writing rather than speech helped all of us to have a better sense of how our discussions could move into the direction of new written work. Have your discussions in the workshops got you rethinking your writing/ your approach in any way?

Vithya: It’s definitely got me rethinking what I’ve been calling the ‘textbook’ objects, to seriously ask why we reach for those and not dismiss it as ‘less useful’ data…but you’ll have to ask me at the end of next year what that leads to, I’m still thinking and rethinking this one.
 

Hemang: Apart from race, what other constituents of identity emerged in the workshop discussions? E.g. Gender? Sexuality? Class? Were you already considering the intersectionality of such identity constituents?

Vithya: I wasn’t considering intersectionalities from the outset of my research design, since the intention was to begin with objects and follow them to whatever points they lead to. That said, there was a short moment where Class came up. It’s had me thinking since, about who most contemplates and seeks to negotiate a race identity through things—through consumption, possession, and even alienation. To that end, that spark during the session has been pretty useful. How was it for you? How did you find the experience of sharing with other playwrights an approach that you yourself love so much? Have your discussions in the workshops got you rethinking your writing/ your approach in any way?

Hemang: It was wonderful to observe the other participants finding joy and enthusiasm for the topics and methods that I was passionate about. They were very open to new ideas and in the many different ways they engaged with the material I presented, they also opened up new ways in which I could utilise the national allegory and mythology in my own works. In sharing my views and methods, I think I was able to better formulate my own philosophy and methodology, which will help my future work. Have you applied these topics of Singaporean Indian identity to your works or planning to apply them to future works?

Vithya: With my extant work, Yes, I have. But I also think it’ll be hard for me not to, because I cannot divorce myself from being Singaporean Indian. So if we look at Coffee Maker for instance—the short piece I wrote for Late Night Texting 2019—on the surface it’s a story about two lovers, their race doesn’t show up in the script and I think the story would be essentially the same if played by actors of any race. Yet, I cannot not think of that as an implicitly Singaporean Indian because I wrote it based on my own experience… which can not not be coloured by my positionality as a Singaporean Indian. I don’t mean to overstate it, but I do want to recognise that it is inalienable.
 

Hemang: With your workshops, have you found ways to inform scenes/characters dealing with Singaporean Indianness? Or are you advocating thinking through Singaporean Indianness in certain ways to create a script?

Vithya: Admittedly, even though that was the initial plan, the conversion to scenes or characters has not quite been happening… but that’s also because doctorates have deadlines and are expensive  :P 

What I would like to see through, eventually, is presenting how lived identities, in this case ‘Singaporean Indianness’, unfold through objects, through the material world around us… to demonstrate that it’s not simply innate, nor a top-down dictate, nor ‘just in our heads’, that it is a little bit more-than-human to be Raced. 

What was your approach with your workshops? Are you suggesting writers keep the myth or allegory in mind to inform scenes and characters? Or are you advocating thinking through the myth or allegory to create a script? 

Hemang: Both, and much more. It is about your own relationship with the nation and with a myth and how it can then lend itself into a piece of work. How others have engaged with these two concepts is meant not to be imitated, but to start a discourse that leads one to one’s own writing journey. This could take the form of an obsession with a certain character, or a particular plot line, or even a theme or a motif. The engagement might even lead a playwright towards a specific writing form rather than a specific storyline. The possibilities are truly endless and the variety in the proposals put forth by the participants is a good testament to this.
 

Hemang: So on that point of finding your own inspiration amidst the endless possibilities, why do you personally enjoy your topics so much?

Vithya: The current interest in the ‘Singaporean Indian’ is perhaps because I’m an anthropologist and we really like thinking about our own subject positions in the world? And about objects… well honestly, that interest started as an attempt to not have to talk to people so much. It’s not quite working out that way though. (I kid! Thank you and my workshop participants for talking to me!)

Alright, by way of wrapping this up: If you could give readers a one-line take-away lesson on writing with the myth/allegory, what would it be?

Hemang: How about two Haikus instead? 

National allegory:
Playing hide and seek
The nation lurks everywhere
Where can I be me?
 

Mythology:
Once upon a time
In a place we used to know
We’re still residing. 
 

Vithya: Woah! Ok, I also want to try… a line:

We are present here
Perhaps in 
The most mundane thing

 

 


under c42

Brown Voices
Brown Voices (BV) is Singapore’s first collective of Indian theatre practitioners and playwrights. A 12-member team, founded by freelance Indian actor-director-playwright Grace Kalaiselvi, BV supports, encourages and trains play-writing, especially for quality play scripts where the narratives by Indians in Singapore take centre stage. The group previously had their regular meetings at C42, and made their debut with a reading of original works at C42’s Late-Night Texting 2019. Under the Co-Lab Residency,
5 May 2022