Twitter trouble

When Dick Costolo decided to step down as Twitter’s CEO, there was a flutter in the industry as to what Twitter would do now. And, more precisely, who would be Twitter’s next CEO?

According to a news report by TechCrunch two weeks ago when Evan Williams, Twitter’s Co-Founder and now on Twitter’s Board (and also Co-Founder and CEO of Medium), was interviewed on Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference about this very question, he had replied, “An exceptional leader…who can make things happen.”

When probed further, Mr Williams had said that the CEO’s role would be more to do with strategy than with product or revenue: “The challenge is deciding what to focus on and aligning the organization toward that purpose.” It would be, he had said, to get the best out of Twitter as a platform.

Soon after, it was announced that Jack Dorsey, who is Co-Founder and Chairman of Twitter (and also Co-Founder and CEO of Square) is going to be the Interim CEO till a suitable candidate is found.

CEO changes are never a good sign for a company. It means the company is in trouble. Unless financial and legal irregularities are involved, or there are sexual allegations against the CEO, a change in CEO usually means the company is not growing. It means the company is taking a hit on its revenue.

It may also mean the company is not evolving. Which is usually a product or practice or purpose related issue. Or, the company is not in touch with its consumers and the marketplace. Perhaps, it’s a combination of all of these issues, including revenue. Strategy is integral to all of these situations and, yes, the right CEO can make all the difference.

[Citation: Ev Williams: Twitter Should Be A Platform Company, Connie Loizos, TechCrunch, July 14, 2015.]

Manoj Mitra: two Bengali plays

In the editorial of Journal of Bengali Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring Issue dated 27 March 2013, which focuses on Bengali Theatre: Bengalis and Theatre, the editors write,

“Theatre in Bengal was a part of the country lifestyle and the rural folk culture taking the form of Jatra, Pachali, Kabigaan, Tarjaa, Akhrai etc. With the advent of British rule in India, theatre got confined inside the auditorium in a true European blackbox style. However, it was only after the initiative of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev that Bengali theatre got an entry into it. Since then, the mainstream force of Bengali theatre has been, working in European proscenium style. There have been occasional exceptions where people have experimented with text and form, but by and large, through ups & downs and several metamorphosis, Bengali theatre has been able to carve a niche for itself, as a medium of education and entertainment, specially among the elite and middle class educated Bengalis.”

I’ve seen many Bengali plays when I lived in Kolkata, but I realise I know very little about Bengali theatre. Therefore, the editorial excerpt cited above (which I found on the internet) gave me a quick pointer in the right direction, though I must acknowledge I had not heard of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev’s name before. Now living in Mumbai, with zero involvement in local Bengali communities, the chances of catching up on Bengali plays is remote. So, it was with much pleasure that I found an old copy of two of Manoj Mitra’s plays in English (published by Seagull Books): Banchharam’s Orchard (translated by Sangeeta and Ranjan Ghosal) and An Encounter With Royalty (translated by Ranjan Ghosal).

Manoj Mitra is an eminent Bengali playwright, actor and director, having written a hundred plays (as far as I know) and performed on stage with them thousands of times, mostly with his own theatre unit called Sundaram. He and his plays are loved by Bengalis of several generations and are popular “among the elite and middle class educated Bengalis.” Mr Mitra has also acted in films for some of Bengal’s and India’s famous film directors like Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Basu Chatterji and others, and on television, and won the Sangeet Natak Academy Award and the Asiatic Society Gold Medal for contribution to dramatic literature. A most distinguished career indeed.

The theme that runs through both Banchharam’s Orchard and An Encounter With Royalty is death – or, more correctly, cheating death. Banchharam’s Orchard (Sajano Bagan), first performed in 1977 and made into a very popular film by Tapan Sinha titled Banchharamer Bagan, is the story of a poor old and ailing farmer, Banchharam, who owns an orchard which many people have their eyes on. They wait for old Banchharam to die so they can stake their claim on it but, by God’s blessing, Banchharam simply refuses to do so. No amount of cajoling or trickery seems to work and Banchharam finally outlives his detractors to retain his beloved orchard.

An Encounter With Royalty (Rajdarshan), first performed in 1982, is the story of a selfish angry old beggar Brahmin called Lambodar who wishes to get rich quickly by accepting a handout from the king’s treasury which the ailing king is expected to donate to the Brahmin who can diagnose the king’s illness on an auspicious day. Unable to travel to the king’s palace by himself, Lambodar bullies and persuades a simple village blacksmith, Abhiram, to carry him there. When the king dies unexpectedly, Lambodar prays to God and receives a boon by which he dies and his spirit enters the dead king’s body.

The dead king comes to life much to everyone’s astonishment, and Lambodar as the resurrected king, plans to steal his share of the wealth from the treasury. Not only is he unsuccessful in this caper but, by a change in circumstances, he sets off a flood, a war and the wrath of an old hunchbacked palace maid who kills him. Thus, Lambodar’s spirit returns to his own body back in the village where Abhiram, out of loyalty, had been waiting for him with the dead body. With Abhiram’s urging, Lambodar comes to his senses, realises his folly, and decides to follow a path of honesty.

Both plays are comedies, centred on old men and village life, but with diverse storylines. In Banchharam’s Orchard, the old man shuns greed and chooses to live simply in the face of death, accepting whatever he has got. In An Encounter With Royalty, the old man, swayed by greed, enters a make-believe life, and then, upon facing death, realises his folly and returns to a simple life accepting what is truly his. This simplicity of storytelling involving simple characters from villages is one of Manoj Mitra’s greatest qualities as a playwright. He has been able to enchant the Bengali theatre-going audience with this philosophy for decades.

[Citation: 1. Journal of Bengali Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring Issue dated 27 March 2013, Bengali Theatre: Bengalis and Theatre, Issue Editor: Sourav Gupta, Asst Issue Editor: Rishi Ghosh, Editor: Tamal Dasgupta, Asst Editor: Mousumi Biswas Dasgupta. 2. Banchharam’s Orchard and An Encounter With Royalty, plays by Manoj Mitra, Seagull Books.]

Anil Thakraney: An Invitation To Death

Anil Thakraney is a friend. We go back to 1987-88 when we both worked at Ogilvy advertising. Over the years we’ve kept in touch, and I watched him switch from advertising to journalism with ease. Recently, he surprised me by saying that he has written a book and it’ll be published soon. It was crime fiction, he said. NOT non-fiction, as I would have thought going by his experience in journalism. He seemed reluctant to talk about the book until it got into print.

It’s on his website now and I took the opportunity to pick his brains before the book hit the bookstores or was available online. He still isn’t talking much, but I hope this short Q&A between us will be enough to encourage you to go after Anil Thakraney and his debut novel An Invitation To Death.

First advertising; then journalism. Now you’re a novelist – and that too, crime fiction. What’s behind this new turn in your life and career?

I am always itching to do something new, to push myself, to challenge myself, to surprise myself. I am your proverbial rolling stone. A stone that gathers little moss but has oodles of fun. I have always found the idea of the static stone enormously boring.

Ok, let’s get down to the book: An Invitation To Death. On your website, you give a pretty chilling outline of the plot of the book. Does it get worse? I mean in terms of graphic violence, sex, etc.?

Yes. The violence is brutal, the language vulgar and the sex seriously erotic. The content will shock you but the book will grab you and won’t let you go long after you’ve turned the last page. That I am sure of.

But, you say that your serial killer is NOT a rapist. He simply preys upon women and kills them in cold blood in a gruesome manner. What kind of a psychopath are we talking about here?

You will have to read the book for that. The protagonist deeply hates women, and the book tries to unravel his mind. The journey into his motivations is one of the interesting facets of the book.

What about the victims? Do they fit into a behavioral pattern? Does your killer, Darius Irani, target specific kinds of women?

Yes. To qualify to be a Darius Irani victim, the women must meet this yardstick: Young, very pretty and interesting. And he likes to kill in a new Indian city each time. No one is safe!

From the cover of your book I gather that your serial killer is an inventive murderer. Or, does he improvise with whatever he finds handy? Have you added that bit to make us feel more squeamish? Or, is that a common trait among serial killers you’ve researched?

It’s a common trait among psychopathic killers. They will plan their murders carefully, but would also improvise when required. And even the improvisation won’t be thoughtless or idiotic, it will be cunning. That is why it’s always difficult to catch them, as compared to ordinary murderers. In fact it is this quality, so to speak, that attracts me to serial killers.

Ok, enough. When do we get to read the book?

It’s hit book stores in Delhi on July 10. It will be available all over the country next week.

Editor’s note: There’s an interesting page on his website titled Why I wrote ‘An Invitation To Death’ which is worth reading.

Sarvani Gooptu: The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta

Sarvani Gooptu’s book The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta is a slim compendium on the history and life of theatre actresses of Bengal who had graced the stage as early as the 1870s. These actresses were pioneers in their own right and had paved the way for theatre and film actresses of today, breaking through many social stigmas and cultural barriers of their times. The book traverses a period of 60-odd years of public theatre in Calcutta when these actresses appeared on public stage for the first time. Sarvani Gooptu narrates their life of courage, perseverance, romance and relationships with mentors and patrons, which these actresses juggled and mastered to create magic on stage for their audience.

When Susmita Dasgupta (a friend) shared her views on The Actresses in the Public Theatres of Calcutta with me recently, I took an immediate interest in the book and its subject matter; and, with Susmita’s help, was able to connect with and interview Sarvani Gooptu.

Congratulations on publishing your first book. Although the title of the book ‘The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta’ is clear enough, could you tell us something more about the book – for instance, the period of Bengali theatre the book traces.

Thank you. My focus in this book has been on the actresses who came into theatre in 1873. There had been women performing in female roles in 1832 but it was fleeting. Then for a prolonged period theatre in Calcutta was vibrant yet where young men or boys performed in female roles. But gradually there was dissatisfaction aesthetically regarding this and some like the writer-dramatist, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, made a strong case for introducing actresses. So my book starts in this period when in the contemporary journals there is a growing demand for bringing in women into theatre- then continues to explore the entry of the actresses, their struggle to establish themselves and the reaction of the Bengali society towards the actress. Throughout I have tried to also locate the growth of an artistic identity through fragmentary scattered evidence in the contemporary literature. I have wound up my discussion in the 1930s when Sisir Bhaduri was reigning in theatre since qualitatively that was a different phase for theatre and the actress and needs a much more in-depth study.

How did the idea for the book originate? How much research has gone into it?

It originated out of the blue so to speak. While doing my doctoral research on Dwijendralal Roy I used to constantly hunt for references to him in the Bengali periodicals and journals where I came across references to the different actresses. I was intrigued. I must confess this curiosity was more sociological than artistic and because I’m not from theatre background, every little titbit I read was new to me. My training in gender was there because of my stint as Research Officer in the Women’s Studies Research Centre in Calcutta University so I naturally used that lens to look at these women who I noticed were battling tremendous odds to maintain their position in theatre and the society. I got hooked. I then applied for a minor research project in UGC and set on this journey. It was a two year project during which I travelled to Delhi and other parts of the country to research as well as present papers in conferences. It was the tremendous appreciation and encouragement from my well-wishers that convinced me that this could be a book. All this took around 5 years.

Was Bengal leading the movement in terms of introducing actresses on stage? Were there similar movements in other parts of India at the time?

This question haunted me too and I was tempted to make a comparative analysis of entry of actresses in theatres of other states of India as well as other countries. But that was too ambitious a project and would mean too much investment of time and travel. So I tried to bring in Parsi theatre where women performed in female roles from mid -19th c. even before Bengali theatre. Parsi theatres’ impact was also there in theatrical styles as well and I have tried to bring that in too. But the problem everywhere is the same; the focus is not on the actress in the contemporary writing so there references are very fleeting. Interestingly the reasons for this are different in different cases. The entry of women in theatre took place at different times in India and other than Parsi theatre all took place after Bengal. To me the crux of the matter is whether the theatre is public or not. I have a theory that in public theatre women acting in female roles was inevitable sooner than later.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Women in theatre and films are commonplace today, but the actresses you mention in your book would have experienced far different situations than the actresses of today. Can you talk about a few of their experiences?

This is my entire book – their experience at various levels. An actress who came in at a young age faced first of all the most difficult task of grasping a literary language to perform. They were more adept in singing and dancing but the dialogues delivery must have been a challenge. Here the training by the Director who was in most cases the leading actor became crucial and they mentored these young girls so well that they blossomed into accomplished and powerful performers. No wonder then these girls also began to be controlled by their mentors and patrons in all aspects of their lives. I have also discussed their experiences in the context of the social stigma that existed against these girls who were mostly from poor and uneducated backgrounds and most were daughters of prostitutes. In the meagre written documentation that is available by these women it is this stigma and social ostracism that pained them the most. Their desire for social acceptance and fear of isolation led them to take both empowering as well as self- destructive steps. What I wanted to reverse through my discussion of their troubles and travails is a general acceptance by the society of their doomed fate simply because of the accident of their birth in complete callous disregard of their superlative efforts.

Were these actresses welcomed by the existing all-male theatre troupes and the audience? Apart from the novelty of having women amidst them on stage and seeing women on stage, what were some specific responses of the male actors and the audience?

First of all one must acknowledge the great effort and sacrifices that some men – dramatists, actors, managers, patrons made which made the entry of the women in to theatre possible. Having brought these young and vulnerable teenagers these men performed the Herculean task of justifying their claims that these women would deliver the goods so to speak. So it is definitely true that without stalwarts like Girish Ghosh, Amritalal Bose, Ardhendusekhar Mustafi, Amarendra Nath Dutta and many others this tremendous step may have been another flash in the pan. But once the success came every little effort of the actress at independence was nipped in the bud. The logic was always that it was necessary to protect the vulnerable women and safeguard theatre but obviously this was not always true. The battle of the theatres made it too risky to allow any sense of identity to develop in these women. Also there were many different loyalties within a theatre group which always created a sense of insecurity for the management. There was also a similar insecurity of these women whose background experience made them hunger for a financial security through a link with  a rich man within or outside the theatre. Once this was done they invariably tried ingratiate into social respectability by distancing themselves from the theatre, the very institution which had brought them closer to the object of their dream, a secure family. So the reaction of the men within theatre and in the society to the actress was a multi-layered one. They couldn’t do without them but resented them all the time.

Until that time, and much later, Indian women were expected to stay indoors. Exhibiting themselves in public must have been a remarkable event. Did women in Bengali society at the time accept the idea of women actresses on stage? Or, did Bengali men encourage the notion of actresses on stage in Calcutta and help bring in social change?

Their impact on the Indian educated women too must have been similar to men though with a difference. There must have been an initial curiosity, an appreciation of their artistic ability, enjoyment of the art and also a need to maintain a distance to retain their own social respectability just like their men. But for educated women there must have also been an appreciation of the difference of the actress with other public women. Unlike prostitutes or baijis who performed publicly as well these actresses were in much closer contact and at the same level as male actors who came from educated middleclass backgrounds. That is why the actresses were cynosure of all eyes – sometimes an appreciative gaze but mostly deliberately condemning so that they were kept in their place like respectable women in society. However the actress begins to feature in the vocabulary of women writers from this period onwards.

There was a strand among the reformists Brahmos who contemplated improvement of condition of women by rehabilitation of prostitutes through marriage. Routing them through theatre was an easy option and Upendranath Das was committed to this. He compelled his protégé Goshtho Behari Dutta to marry Sukumari (Golaap Sundori) with tragic consequences for the couple. Dutta abandoned Sukumari due to social pressure after she had left the theatre leaving her and her baby daughter in dire straits. Sukumari on the contrary showed her mettle in her efforts to make an artistic return becoming the first woman manager and dramatist. The reform to my mind was flawed from the beginning since it looked for a solution, i.e. marriage which would take the women away from the avenues of empowerment, her livelihood and passion, the theatre. In India the concept of linking family and art had not become popular like in contemporary English theatre, so a reform which gave institutional sanction but no social recognition or monetary security while destroying independence was bound to fail. The society was not yet ready for reform which brought empowerment. The mistake that Binodini made of retiring at her artistic peak for ephemeral satisfaction of a ‘family’ without social approval was still considered the height of achievement which is why she was feted over generations and Sukumari’s efforts were lost in oblivion. My book also aims to undo these wrongs.

Sarvani, thank you so much for this interview. We hope ‘The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta’ is a grand success.

[Dr Sarvani Gooptu is Associate Professor and Head, Department of History at Calcutta Girls’ College (Affiliated to the University of Calcutta), Kolkata. Her areas of research are nationalism and culture in the colonial and post-colonial periods.

The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta, Primus Books, 188 pages, Rs.895/- (hardcover).]

Song of the Swan

Bringing in social change through theatre is not easy, though many theatre practitioners have made attempts to do just that. In my previous post I had talked about jatra as an old and still-practised Indian theatre art form which attempts to entertain its audience as well as raise audience consciousness through social, cultural and political messages. This practice of entertain-and-educate is not only true of India but for all cultures around the world. Some messages are embedded in the plays and are subtle; some are bold and ‘in your face’. Still, it’s tough to motivate a theatre audience into action through a performance.

I guess, the best that playwrights, theatre directors, actors and producers can hope for is a degree of understanding by the audience and a ‘pricking’ of their conscience in order to start conversations which gather momentum and lead to action at a later date. Theatre which leads directly to a revolution or an uprising is hard to come by, though theatre must have influenced – and must still be influencing – people to bring in changes in their lives, individually and collectively. Perhaps that’s because theatre relies more on storytelling than on a “go get ‘em” call to action that a great speech can invoke.

The director (extreme left) and cast of Song of the Swan

The director (extreme left) and cast of Song of the Swan

Nevertheless, theatre can move people to emotions and have its audience responding to it at a visceral level. Last evening, for instance, I was left breathless by Knot Theatre’s production of Song of the Swan – a play written by Asad Hussain and directed by Shubhrajyoti Barat – at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. The play, based on a true story, recounted, mainly from a mother’s perspective, the life and later abduction and beheading by Kashmiri militants of a 27-year-old Norwegian named Hans Christian Ostro who had visited India (Kerala, Mumbai and Kashmir) in 1995.

Not only breathless, I felt helpless and angry at what had happened to Hans Christian Ostro. Many women in the audience had tears in their eyes by the time the play concluded. With Song of the Swan, I’d say Knot Theatre has been able to invoke what most theatre productions try to achieve.

Song of the Swan is a play in Hindi and English; currently being staged in Mumbai and definitely worth watching.

A review of Song of the Swan can be found here.