Mahesh Dattani and Indian English Tradition


The historicity of the Indian dramatic tradition can be traced from the 5th century A.D. when Kalidas wrote his plays, particularly his Sakuntala, Sanskrit literature is the best of all literature on Indian soil and the repository of Indian literary tradition. The greatest theoretician of dramatic literature is Bharata and his Natyasastra (5th B.C) is the landmark achievement in dramaturgy in India. This is older than Aristotle’s Poetics (330 BC), Which is the high watermark in dramaturgy in the West.

Natyasastra is regarded as the ‘Fifth Veda’ in India.

In India, dramas were written in regional literatures (or Bhasha literatures in imitation of Sanskrit dramas in the long past. Though Indian English drama owes its origin to K.N. Banerjee’s The Persecuted or Dramatic Scenes Illustrative Of The Present State Of Hindu Society in Calcutta(1831), it is primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century. In addition to dramas written in the twentieth century, a number of dramas from Bhasha literatures were translated into English.

For instance, Vijay Tendulkar, Manoranjan Das, Badal Sircar and a host of others have appeared in English translation, But Girish Karnad transcreated his plays into English. Hence, he qualifies to be an Indian English dramatist, the same way as Rabindranath Tagore is called an Indian English poet, dramatist and writer. Nissim Ezekiel has written his Three Plays and Don’t Call it Suicide in English. and Shiv K.Kumar has written a play called, The Last Wedding Anniversary. But it is Mahesh Dattani who has given a new direction and sense of purpose to Indian English drama.

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His two volumes of plays, Collected Plays (2000) and Collected Plays, Vol.ii (2005) are landmarks in Indian English drama. He has won recognition both at home and abroad. B.B.C has broadcast his plays. The question that baffles us is how to evaluate Dattani’s contribution to Indian English drama and how does he portray Indian characters, situations and ethos in his plays.

To make an assessment of Mahesh Dattani as an Indian English dramatist is not an easy task. A multifaceted personality, Dattani has written dramas, radio plays, screen plays and acted in and directed many plays over the years. His plays are primarily written to be staged not to be read as stories in the drawing rooms or classrooms. He is charged by the voice of his characters through the mouth of the actors. That is why, he used to give final shape to some of his plays after they were staged. Drama, unlike poetry or fiction is a performing act. The dialogue of the character and the voice of the actor go together to make a play what it is. Therefore, it is not merely the language of the dialogue but the articulation of it by the actor, which matters in a drama. Dattani’s success lies in combining the two artistically in his plays.

Mhesh Dattani, a theatre personality who is actually involved in stage production and performing on the stage, draws inspiration from Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar. Unlike Girish Karnad who lays emphasis on history, myths puranas, Dattani concentrates on contemporary society and reality in the fast changing world. He may be called him a playwright on contemporary urban India and his plays are topical dramas. The questions he addresses in his plays are that of gender, sex, religion, communal tension, feminine identity, same- sex marriage, and above all gay and lesbian relationship. Hence his plays appear to be both revolting and sometimes, courageous. Penguin India has brought out two collections of his plays: Collected Plays (2000) and Collected Plays (vol.ii) (2005). The first collection contains eight plays such as Seven Steps Around The Fire, ON a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Do The Needful, Final Solutions, Bravely Fought The Queen, Tara, Dance Like a Man and Where There’s a Will. And the second collection contains ten plays eight new and two of his early plays are Thirty Days in September, Clearing the Rubble, Mango Soufle. The Swami and Winston, Morning Raga, Uma and The Fairy Queen, Ek Alag Mausam and The Tale of a Mother Feeding Her Child. The total corpus of his plays which include Radio plays, Screen plays and Stage plays available in print is sixteen. He came to limelight and sought into fame with the winning of the first ever Sahitya Akademi Award for a playwright in 1998 for his work Final Solutions and Other plays.

Once Dattani stated, my earliest influence are non- detailed texts of Shakespeare and BBC recordings of Shakespeare’s plays with heavy English accents. ‘On being asked’, Does the dramatist’s capacity to create memorable characters and events depend on his belief in his theme, Dattani answered, “Absolutely If the writer does not believe in his theme, how can he expect the audience to believe in anything? But many a time the theme is discovered in the writing which means that the theme carried conviction in the writer’s awareness of his or her theme, could be a process of discovery.”

He also admitted to have been influenced by several Bhasha dramatists such as Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Madhu Rye. In course of conversation with Utpal K.Banerjee, Dattani states:

I’m strongly affected by social issues, especially when it comes to power- play inclass and gender. A lot of my plays deal with them and they remain the leitmotifs of my plays. I am, however, not a social activist. From my long experience in theatre, I know what will work in a play, That is, What will be empowered writing. My first sevice is to the story and I believe that the form should serve the content. Usually, There is something like coming to terms at the end and the audience can experience a catharsis- like situation, There’s deliberate and is part of my craft Indian literature 166)1

Dattani brings unusual themes like, hijra marriage, lesbianism, homosexuality, bi-sexuality, dreaded disease like HIV positive into the orbit of Indian English plays. Previously, it was unthinkable to write a play on hijras, but Dattani makes it possible in his well- known play, Seven Steps Around the Fire. He dives deep into the psyche of hijras to portray characters like Kamla, Champa and a few other hijras. Added to it is the theme of homosexuality and same- sex marriage. Traditional conformists will run away from the play on the plea that it violets our traditional norms and offends our sensibility. Dattani has the courage of conviction to say what is what. One can’t run away from reality, however painful it might be. Dattani not only faces reality but depicts it with all sincerity and devotion.

Dattani’s plays such as Seven Steps Around The Fire, Mango Souffle, On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Do the Needful are based on gay and lesbian relationship. Life in these plays are presented from bisexual and same- sex love point of view. By highlighting the problems of hijras in our society, Dattani shows how they are exploited in our society. To treat them as untouchables and again utilizing their services at the time of marriage and childbirth, is to say the least, unfair.

Problems of Indian middle class family such as marriage negotiations, inheritance, poverty caused by natural calamities like earthquakes and droughts are treated as themes in plays like Where There’s a Will, Do the Needful, Clearing The Rubble, and The Tale of a Mother Feeding her Child. Dattani sees life dwindling under the pressure of poverty and depicts his characters with compassion in his plays. In Thirty Days in September, a family play based on incestuous relationship, Dattani shows how women feel humiliated and get exploited by male members of the family. Here, a helpless mother, Shanta turns to Deepak to save her daughter, Mala, for both the mother and the daughter were physically exploited by the same man who happens to be her brother and Mala’s uncle. The agonizing request “Please save her. I did not save her. I did not know how to save her. How could I save her when I could not save myself…” (CPii55) rings in our ears over and over again, as we go through the play till the end.

If ‘family’ and ‘gay’ themes are central to some of his plays, crime and disease are the focus of three of his plays, The Swami and Winson, Uma and The Fairy Queen, and Ek Alag Mausam. Sitaram Trivedi, a fake religions person wants to cheat people in the name of religion by building Ashrams inside and outside the country. The horror of partition haunts him without end. He tells, Uma, researcher about it emphatically. “What do you know of horror of partition? I have lived through it!” Dattani exposes the fake sadhus who betray people in the name of religion. Committing crime for sensual gratification is shown in the character of Nila in Uma and the Fairy Queen. Nila’s killing of Michael, her second husband speaks volumes for her sensual nature and criminal bent of mind. Her son, Feroz calls a spade and a spade:

She was a famous TV star. Everyone knew her face! She thought she could do whatever she wanted to do. But she was wrong. She was an immoral woman and that something we do not forgive. She slept with her actor friends! For money, For pleasure, or just to please the Devil. And I was born out of her cesspool of lust. (To Nila) You! You don’t know what I had to suffer. In school I was known as the bastard! At home I was the unwanted child. We had to move to India and live in hiding to run away from the disgrace, but you won’t let us live in peace. Unless you are dead you won’t let me live in peace. So die. Prepare to go to hell, mother!(cpii456)

The horror of a dreaded disease HIV positive has shaken the very fabric of the society. Aparna’s agonized question to Dr. Machado on how to live with George who is a HIV positive shows our helplessness against that incurable disease. Aparna asks: “How could I carry on with him? How could I when I knew he has HIV positive?” And we are baffled to hear it for we know no answer to it. The only response we can possibly give, comes through the mouth of Dr.Machado towards the end of the play:

The Aids virus knows no barriers of caste, creed, religion, age, gender, race. It is not prejudice, fear or ignorance that will win the battle against Aids. But understanding, precaution and above all love. Today the world over doctors and scientists are trying to find a cure for Aids. In the interest of mankind we hope they succeed. While waiting for that cure to be invested or discovered, let us not forget- that miracles are known to happen. (cpii556-57)

Dattani knows how to close the play which is built on the theme of a fatal disease posing a challenge to the survival of mankind on earth.

Dattani depicts communal distrust and disharmony in his well- known play, Final Solutions. The title is highly suggestive, for it makes us think whether the evil of communal violence can be rooted out, lock, stock and barrel. There are hints and guesses in the play which whisper results, pronded we pay heed to it. To write a play on a burning topic like this, requires courage of conviction, Which Dattani has in plenty . Bobby’s reply on Aruna, “If we understand and believe in one another, nothing can be destroyed”, provides a clue to Hindu- Muslim reconciliation and further Bobby adds, “And of you are willing to forget, I am willing to tolerate.” This reminds us the great Shakespearean dictum, “Forget and forgive.” If the Hindus and Muslims forget the past and forgive each other for the wrongs done in the past, then the road to understanding and cooperation will be free of thorns. After all, the past is irrevocable. Why waste the present, for the happenings in the past and destroy our future? This seems to be the message of the play.

Dattani not only deals with the themes like communal violence, crime, homo- eroticism, lesbianism, disease and the breaking down of joint family system, but with finer things of life like dance and music. In Dancing Like a Man and Morning Raga, he dives deep into the heart of the dancers, artists and singers who pine for recognition. Dance and music transcend the baser instinct of human beings and bring joy to their minds. It is an irony of life that some people like Amritlal in Dance Like a Man and Abhinay’s father in Morning Raga are opposed to dance and music respectively. But their chidren remain unfazed and cultivate dance and music against all odds. Dattani suggests through the characters that ‘dance’ and ‘music’ can be taken as respectable professions in our society. Old prejudice against dancers and musicians should go. The reviews of Lata’s dance speaks volumes for the sublime aspect of dance. It reads like this:

Her rendition of the ashtapad from Geeta Govindam was tenderly intense and intensely tender. The audience was transported to Gokulam and witnessed Radha pining for the divine lover, who has failed to arrive Lata’s tearful expression and heaving bosom conveyed all that was humanly possible. (cpii150)

The love of music and passion for dance are depicted through the characters of protagonists of both the plays. Dattani shows clearly that fulfilment in life comes through the success in music and dance. No doubt, these two plays have added a new dimension to Dattani’s plays.

On being asked Why Dance Like a Man ends with Ratna’s voice saying “Then we had all the grace, all the brilliance, all the magic to dance like gods? What do you mean by’ dance like gods?”, Dattani answered, “Dance with perfection. In Traditional dance, only Shiv is the perfect dancer.” Dattani’s plays could be divided into six broad categories:

1) Plays on violence and crime (Seven Steps Around the Fire, The Swami and Winton, Uma and Fairy Queen, and Final Solutions),

2) Play on Gay and Lesbian relationship (On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Mango Souffle, Do the Needful and here we can also include Seven Steps Around The Fire),

3) Plays on Natural calamities (Clearing The Rubble and The Tale Of a Mother Feeding Her Child),

4) Family plays (Thirty Days in September, Bravely Fought The Queen, Where There’s a Will and here we can include Do the Needful),

5) Plays on Music and Dance (Morning Raga and Dance Like a Man),

6) Plays on Disease and Disabled (Ek Alag Mausam and Tara)

Mahesh Dattani always lays emphasis on theatre and the performance of the actor-not-on printed words. As Michael Walling puts it:

To Mahesh, a play is never really finished. Plays only really happen in the theatre, as ephemeral events. The apparently permanent printed text is just one approximation to what might occur when the piece is performed.2 (CP229)


1) Utpal K. Banerjee, “Utpal K. Banerjee in conversation with Mahesh Dattani.” Indian Literature 48:5 sept. oct.2004.

2) Michael Walling, “A Note on the play.” Collected Plays, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2000.

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Mahesh Dattani and Indian English Tradition. (2019, Nov 24). Retrieved from

Mahesh Dattani and Indian English Tradition
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