‘The HRI Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange’ article on ‘Afterlife of Birds’, oral histories and research.

Abhishek Majumdar’s ‘Afterlife of Birds’ travelled to Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai this December and received a hearty applause. The play, which touched many a local chord, was crafted from interviews of parents of young Muslim boys in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar accused of involvement in terror attacks and testimonies of women who were associated with the movement for a Tamil homeland led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) before they sought asylum in London.

Given our interest in archival work and oral histories, we were interested in learning more about the research process that went into devising this play written and directed by Bangalore-based Majumdar. The research process from 2010 to 2012 was supported by the Robert Bosch Arts Grant, and the play was presented under the aegis of Indian Ensemble, a prolific theatre group in Bangalore that brings together young theatrewallahs and seasoned stalwarts.
Majumdar shares that the initial proposal was about migration of women within the country, from small towns to big cities. “This migration was not by choice. The women had to move because their men were moving. The men automatically found a new world because of their new context of work but the women had to create their own new worlds as they moved with their men. When I came across stories about women in the LTTE, I was struck by the idea that these women were migrating out of their own choice,” he says.

How did he go about recording these stories? Did he capture them on video? He says, “I did not carry any equipment to record, not even pen and paper. I think the moment a filmmaker sets up a camera or a writer sits down with pen and paper, the nature of the conversation completely changes. I like to have long conversations and listen carefully. I note it down afterwards. Of course, there is a risk of forgetting but I think that is better than the risk of people being inhibited by a dictaphone or a diary. I think this approach really helped. People who initially said they would meet me only for an hour would later ask me to come home for lunch or stay over and talk. It was very interesting for me to know these people as personally as possible.”This personal element comes across quite powerfully in the play. The audience is compelled to think of the characters as human beings with dreams, desires, needs and fantasies. We get to meet a prisoner who likes to dance in her cell and has a large collection of toys. We encounter a woman who had to leave the movement and her friend behind but found new experiences in her role as a mother. We are given an opportunity to see what the label ‘terrorist’ hides from us.Majumdar recalls his meeting with a woman in London who sat behind a curtain while she spoke to him. They had a long conversation but he never got to see her face. Photographs from the walls had been taken down. She did not want to reveal all, and Majumdar was comfortable with that. “I would love to make these stories public but these women are working to build a new life. I want to respect and honour that.” The stories, therefore, ….
Entire article can be found here
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