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interviewed | Sananda Chatterjee for Dara

Throwing both light and darkness on a crucial moment in world history, the acclaimed Prayas Theatre Company stages a battle for succession that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be devout, with the magnificently ambitious and highly affecting epic DARA.

With over a decade with Prayas, Sananda Chatterjee has seen it all. Starting off as an unsuspecting usher, her love for storytelling has seen her progress from Usher to Director. We spoke to her ahead of Prayas Theatre Company’s latest production, DARA – on at Tapac until Sunday 24 June.

Tell us about your journey starting as an usher to becoming a director…
I was helping out Prayas with the ushering because I was told I had to. Amit Ohdedar, who is a founding member, the President and my co-director on this one, is a family friend, so my parents happily volunteered me and my siblings for the role. I got a real taste for the stories that were being told and started wishing that I had more to do with them, curious about the making of it. After ushering for a couple of seasons (2005 & 2006), I went on to become the AD and Stage Manager (and costume designer!) for the 2007 production of The Terrace and 11 years on, the rest, as they say, is history!

Have you always wanted to be a director?
No, not until I started working as an AD, did I get the taste for it. I have always wanted to be a storyteller – it has always been my passion, my addiction. I started by writing, you know when you are younger, you paraphrase your favourites, and palm it off as your own, not understanding plagiarism? I did that with some Edgar Allan Poe stories, the one I remember most clearly being gripped with, was the Tell-Tale Heart. Anyway, that eventually gave way to short stories and poetry. Poetry is my favourite form of storytelling. I get obsessed with phrases or images. I guess the images, lent itself to theatre too. When I was younger, i wanted to tell stories through journalism, but I quickly discovered that you couldn’t really embellish those stories, that was more factual and reporting (I wish I was aspiring to be a journalist in the Fake News era, I would have fit right in!), then I quickly lost interest! Now I tell stories through theatre, to elicit a reaction. I love directing now, I don’t know how I ever lived without it!

What’s been your most memorable production and why?
Oh, toughie! I am curious, so I loved shadowing people as their AD, so whenever I work with other directors, I love it. I am a sponge, having not gone to school for performing arts (except the Dramatic School of Life). I have loved working with autonomy as well! I enjoy bringing elements I enjoy watching and being immersed in pop culture, onto stage through what I do! Couldn’t isolate one for you!

What can you tell us about Dara? Is it suited to mainly an Indian audience or have you adapted it to a broader audience?
What can I tell you about Dara… it is an epic, period drama! If you understand politics of power and religion, you will have no trouble in understanding the play. I think of myself as a child of the global economy, of universal sensibilities & culture, so the work will never be isolationist! The script was performed by the National Theatre in the UK, we have used the same one. I am confident that it will lend itself to a wide range of audience, no matter what their ethnic or cultural background.

What about the music and the costumes?
The music is influenced by the music of the period – taking notes from Sufi, Hindustani Classical and Persian. It also has accents from a variety of Indian instruments to accentuate moods and evoke feelings. There are also some original compositions from our amazing group of musicians, who happen to be performing before the show on the Saturday nights! We are so lucky at Prayas to have an in house band!
The costumes are special. We have gone for a unique overall design. I don’t want to give too much away, but we have had to evoke an era and a feeling without blowing the budget. It is also a medium of that visual storytelling in the play.

Who have you cast and why?
We have open auditions for every show, a call goes out, and basically, we decide how the show will look based on who turns up! We have managed to build up a company of performers and production crew over the last 13 years we have been in operation, and every year we gain more and more performers. We try to match everyone up based on ability, and experience. The people are passionate and come from all walks of life, they give up their time, weekends, post work.

How is this production different to other productions Prayas has done?
Well, for one it is historical epic! We haven’t done one of those before. It is Prayas’ biggest undertaking in years, more daring than we have ventured into before, including some kick-ass fight choreography from Alexander Holloway, fresh from the Pop Up Globe. I am way too excited to see it in the space myself, it is one of those plays!

Why should we go and see Dara?
Dara will be as much entertaining, as educational. If religion and the politics of power is your thing, you will like Dara. If you like escapism and a good spectacle, you will like Dara. If you, like me, are entrenched in pop culture, you will like Dara. If you like Shakespeare, you will like Dara. If you like learning about world history, and things that have shaped the present of the world’s largest democracy, you will like Dara. If you like to see how global cultures are able to shape people, and how family dynamics shape personalities, you will like Dara!

Prayas are committed to taking audiences beyond cultural notions of Bollywood and butter chicken. With DARA, they take the audience right into the centre of history: the world of the largest, powerful and by far the richest empire of the world at the time. See DARA at TAPAC from Thursday 14 June – Sunday 24 June.  Buy your tickets here.