Nisha Abdulla’s new digital play ‘how long is february? a fantasy in three parts’ is set to premiere at 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Based on the 2020 Delhi riots, the hour-long piece forms part of the coveted festival’s Voices from the South showcase
By Reema Gowalla
The 2023 edition of the coveted Edinburgh Festival Fringe is around the corner and Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner Nisha Abdulla’s new digital play — titled how long is february? a fantasy in three parts — is set to be presented as part of the festival’s Voices from the South showcase.
The 60-minute performance forms part of the 15 new online projects from Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and India. These comprise specially curated works in the field of art, music, dance, digital, multidisciplinary performance and theatre. Voices from the South draws inspiration from conversations during the Covid-19 pandemic between partnering organisations that include Sã o Paulo International Theatre Festival — MITsp (Brazil), La Teatrería (Mexico), The Baxter Theatre Center (South Africa), Magnetic North Theatre Company (Scotland) and Pickle Factory Dance Foundation (India).
Other performances from India include Maati Katha (a theatrical piece by Tram Arts Trust), Hallucinations of an Artifact (a dance performance by Mandeep Raikhy), Corona Cha Tamasha (a play by Kali Billi Productions) and The Ostracised Guardian (a musical piece by Tenma and Gana Muthu).
Cut to how long is february? a fantasy in three parts, written and directed by Nisha, this play is based on real-life accounts. Fifteen years after the brutal events of February 2020 in Delhi, a nation reckons with the truth of what really happened. In parallel, there is the urgent matter of 72 arrested goats and an unfolding conspiracy. Set in an imagined future and based on real events, this is a project in narrative justice delivered via the performative. Using a satirical lens, the play “questions the complicity and inaction of various groups involved in the denial of justice”.
A Qabila presentation, the digital play features Faria Fatma, Gagan Ram, Janees Lanker, Manjari Kaul, Masoom Parmar, Parvati Ramchandran, Prateek Sultania, Sheetal Sahu, Shivam Vig, Shradha Raj, Srinivas Beesetty, Sumeet Borana and Ujwala Rao.
Premiering on August 4, how long is february? a fantasy in three parts will be available for viewing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe website until August 28. In a candid conversation with TheatreRoom, Nisha talks about the making of the play, the true events that inspire the narrative and more. Excerpts:
Q. Tell us about Voices from the South at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe
A. how long is february? a fantasy in three parts is basically part of a new grant by Edinburgh Festival Fringe called Voices from the South, and it includes artists from Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and India. Say, about four to five artists from each place, including India. There are showcases from each of these countries, and there are country partners for each nation. The country partners for India are based out of Kolkata. And the mandate of the grant was a digital play. So this play is accessible for viewing anywhere in the world on the Edinburgh Fringe website.
Q. So, how long is february? a fantasy in three parts? is a digital play based on the 2020 Delhi riots. How did these events make their way into the play?
A. It’s a fantasy that we need to see in three parts, because they’re interlinked. Basically, the project is speculative fiction. It speculates about what the pursuit of justice for victims of state violence can look like. And now, I happen to be using the victims of the violence in North East Delhi in 2020. But some of the details in the play can really be about any victims of state violence anywhere in India. And we have multiple examples of various communities across the decades, across different regimes of government, where this pursuit of justice of accountability hasn’t happened.
So basically, it is speculative fiction, which looks at 15 years in the future from 2020. I think it’s our duty to imagine what this pursuit of justice — to demand accountability from people whose very role it is to keep citizens safe.
The play uses real testimonies — fictionalised for creative and safety reasons. And then there is a parallel track in the story about 72 arrested goats which forms the 2nd part or the conspiracy part of the fantasy.
Q. Tell us a little about the form of the play…
A. The play is in English, Hindi and Malayalam. One of the things that I think we’ve seen in the last couple of years, especially, is a sense of solidarity between various communities coming together. And the solidarity that was built around the time of the anti-CA protests was quite special. It brought together people from different walks of life, people from different communities in ways that even many veterans in the social justice and human rights space in activist circles have said that they had not seen in the past.
I’ve used an oral history form, called Mappila Paattu, often practised by the Mappila Muslim community. It’s a memory-keeping form, comprising songs about history, about important events in the region — for instance, floods or great people and their lives and weddings, etc. But in the last couple of decades, it has been reduced to only weddings and love songs. I was also interested in going back to its original intention, which is really to ‘memory-keep’.
So, what does it mean to ‘memory-keep’ as a community? And what is our role as people who are not in the eye of the storm? Who aren’t in the front lines? What does it mean to provide this witnessing? Because the burden of keeping alive the memory of what has happened cannot only be on the shoulders of the ones who have suffered the most.
In attempting to do this ‘memory-keeping’, I have gone back to testimonials provided by those at the eye of the storm, and used Mappila Paatu alongside these testimonials. It’s an experiment certainly. I’ve tried to bring together three different languages with Mappila Paattu. It comes together in the play, I think.
Q. You have got an interesting cast. How would you describe the making of the play?
A. I had to take out an audition call, and there were a bunch of people who had written to me about wanting to be part of the project after the audition call. Of course, the people I didn’t work with before, I invited them into the room and we did some reading. But some others, I’ve worked with them in the past and, therefore, I knew that they fit right in. So, that was great. It was an interesting experience, because this is the largest cast I’ve ever worked with as a director.
The first day when everybody came in and I was like, hmm interesting! It was good to have so many people in the room. Actually, we worked together in the beginning and in the end. But in between, we rehearsed those pieces in parts. That said, a large chunk of the work, maybe 60 % of it, happened in groups.
I also think that when we are making work that is political, it’s important that the cast and crew are interested in the politics of it. For me, it is important that they are aware of it. I know that this isn’t something that everybody would agree with, and that’s okay. Of course, this is informed by my identity. It is important to me that I feel some sense of emotional safety also in the rehearsal room. It’s important that there is a common understanding of why we’re doing the play and what is the lens we bring to the production. And I think the cast has done an absolutely fabulous job here.
Another important aspect is that it’s a digital play, and these are people whose core strength is the stage. Some of them do have experience with screen work.
Q. The stage forms the core of your craft. Was translating the piece for the screen difficult?
Yes, this is a digital play. Right from the beginning, it was designed for the screen. And it was indeed, very heart-warming to see how all the cast members just jumped into exploring this with me on the floor. We explored some very screen based elements as well, you’ll see these in the final play.
The cast just trusted the process. They have done such a fabulous job of bridging that distance between stage and screen. They really are the stars of the play. They hold so much power in their bodies, and held such respect for the real lives impacted by the violence.
The play will be screened in at Lamakaan — The Open Cultural Center in Hyderabad on August 5 (7pm), while plans are afoot to organise more screenings in Delhi and Bengaluru shortly.
You can book your tickets for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows here.