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Dr Siddhartha Biswas

Dr Siddhartha Biswas

Dr Siddhartha Biswas

What inspires you to take photographs?

I have been fascinated by the Himalayas ever since I can remember. It was not a conscious response or choice. I am fascinated by the entire Himalayan range.– I have travelled extensively and seen much of the Himalayas except the Zanskar/Ladakh and Karakoram regions. My love is for the Shivalik section that we find in Garhwal. There is this strange attraction that I have for the Neelkanth Peak, for which I have gone back to Badrinath Dham many times. The Rishi Ganga leading to the Peak is the paradigm of peace for me. Chaukhamba from Buda Madhyamaheshwar, Shivling and Bhagirathi Peaks from Gangotri, the entire range from Tunganath, Rudranath, Deoriya Taal and Kartikswami Temple, this is my world. As I have written in my blog, the people of Garhwal are amongst the finest. My brother Tajbar and his family, from the hamlet of Gaundar, have become my own family. In times of personal crisis, these people and these mountains have come to my rescue not as an escape but as elements that have given me strength. In fact, my second phase of blogging was largely inspired by Garhwal!

As far as my photography is concerned, I believe my travels to Garhwal not only allowed me to mature but has also given me insights into humanity and our relationship with nature. Quite like Annie Leibovitz, I believe that photography is an emotional construct. I will not say that I am a ‘mature’ photographer now but my understanding of life has genuinely evolved. As an amateur photographer looking for stories through these images, Garhwal has given me ever so much. In fact, in all my exhibitions Garhwal has found the place of prominence.

Do you enjoying teaching literature?

First of all, Literature cannot be ‘taught’! The study of literature is a journey, and the teacher can at best be a guide. By taking the journey together a teacher can help the learner to arrive at his or her own insights. Teaching should never be coercive or dictatorial. One needs to remember the generational gaps and the demands the young minds face at every point. These demands change over time and if a teacher remains limited to his/her own time, then that teacher is certainly a failure. What we are supposed to teach the next generation is how to think – so they can make their own conscious choices. What we are never supposed to do is to influence those choices.

Theatre is the most difficult thing to teach. Dramaturgy is defined very narrowly in Indian syllabi – it rarely takes into account the myriad issues that an actual presentation/performance faces. But still, the little that we can do in the classroom opens up a large vista to the learners. Studying postmodern playwrights such as Edward Bond, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Sarah Kane, Evald Flisar brings us much closer to contemporary reality. Their plays bring innovation not only in the realm of the dramatic, but of the theatrical as well. Performance entails discipline and responsibility, and it is more demanding than any other form of art. Being a form which creates instant response, this is a field where there is little scope of sloppiness. Since a fully functioning society depends on its members playing their roles to perfection, I believe theatre is the arena that ultimately teaches the youth how to be proper citizens.

Can you tell us about Theatre of the Absurd?

The Absurdity of life has increased exponentially since the Theatre of the Absurd began! Absurdist Drama did not survive for too long a period and all we have are academic revivals and studies. Somewhere along the line I believe people accepted that life would be absurd and there would be little rationale or moral attached to existence. Now that we are entering the era of postdramatic theatre – the term popularised by Hans-Thies Lehmann – we have a whole new mode. With the advent of social media life changed drastically with definitions of privacy and decorum changing dramatically. One cannot deny the significance of social media and the illusion of super-connectivity that it creates. But at the same time one has to remember that such connection promotes alienation and people are lonelier than ever. One of the main tenets of Absurdist Drama was this existential crisis. Theatre at the moment is looking deeply into this crisis; it is just that the form of the Absurd has changed into a variety of other forms. The one advantage theatre still has is that people do not ‘read’ it in the literal sense of the term. People experience the performance – on the stage or the screen. So theatrical expression remains quite popular. If the stage fails, the screen does not. If the cinemas fail, then the online platforms do not. So performance has become the primary mode through which you can get a message to your audience. It is only a question of adapting to the new and adopting the new. Theatre is not dead, but it is evolving in the way it should.

Although I say theatre is not dead, yet in India theatre is facing a crisis. Good plays are being written in all regional languages and in English. But apart from some centres of cultural prominence, theatre is no longer flourishing. There used to be a very strong tradition of rural and folk theatre. But that is now either dying, being defeated by cinema, or is turning into techno-spectacles. The era of playwrights such as Habib Tanvir seems to be fading. The demands of the audience are now blindly catered to. There was a time when theatre influenced the people, but these days theatre in India is forced to bow to the popular demands. It is not always a negative thing, but at the moment it is not really pointing towards a new form of excellence. Even the rich tradition of political plays are now slowly dying. However, there are certain experimentations that are finding some success – a few days back there were several performances of Urubhangam in different parts of Garhwal. It was entirely in Sanskrit. Such performances challenge the audience and create a message. Theatre thrives on such experiments.

Can you say a few words about Valley of Words and what it means to you?

Valley of Words is one of the best things that has happened in the literary scene in recent times. There are hundreds of literary festivals all over the nation and all claim superiority. But at the end of the day they are all about commerce and connections. You end up seeing the same faces and hearing the same stories. VoW is one of the first which includes this incredible variety of literature. The fact that you can come across interest areas as diverse as fiction and military strategy tells you a lot about how successful VoW has become. As you say, the world is now going through a reductionist phase. Everything is diluted to a bare minimum and the process of thinking is curtailed to tailored limits. It is the responsibility of the literary establishment to look at the world, see what the population is becoming. Although I am not talking about being judgemental, but we must remember that the capacity of thought is what makes us human. If literature does not cater to that, who will? Literature must come out of the confines of the text and find its sublime self. And we as figures involved in the literary ‘industry’ must ensure that the next generation has this capacity. They must not turn into robots.

Who is your inspiration?

My father, Sri Salil Biswas! He is a teacher, a theatre-person and a photographer. He is still passionate about all these three things and never ceases to amaze. I have been influenced by all my teachers and many of my colleagues. But the ultimate inspiration that models me comes from my students. I learn from them every day, and through them, I see the world as it unfolds. As a teacher, a photographer, a blogger I owe them the deepest debt of gratitude.

About the Interviewee:

Dr Siddhartha Biswas has published scholarly articles in Indian and foreign journals. Several of his articles on translation theory found space in journals published by the University of East Anglia where he spent some time as Charles Wallace India Trust scholar in the capacity of Translator-in-Residence.

His most recent book is Theater, Theory, Performance: A Critical Interrogation (published by Cambridge Scholars, UK). At the moment his book 'Journey and Home', an edited volume, is awaiting publication. He is currently working on his book on Harold Pinter.

His works have been included in books by publishers such as Hodder Arnold (UK), Orient Blackswan (Hyderabad), Creative Books (New Delhi). He was associated with the much acclaimed academic journal Pegasus, which unfortunately had to discontinue for distribution issues.

Dr Biswas has translated two Shakespearean plays into Bengali – Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice (published by Monfakira). He has also published Bengali short stories and articles in ‘little’ magazines. His recent blog Peregrine's Progress (https://peregrineprogressing.wordpress.com) is about travels and photography. His photographs have been exhibited in Kolkata and Paris.

He is an Associate Professor in English, University of Calcutta.