‘Words and stories can be dangerous’: playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya on radical history

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, 18/07/2022, 7:00 am

Sonali Bhattacharyya’s Chasing Hares uses folk theatre to depict a trade union dispute in West Bengal. ‘South Asian artists have always been here – but now it’s our time,’ she says

For much of the 20th century, the grey, gargantuan Dunlop factory in Bandel, West Bengal was the main source of work for local families. But from the 1990s onwards, the factory was closed more often than it was open. “People would turn up every day hoping to get a shift,” says the playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya. “It felt like a throwback to what I’d read about the dockers in Victorian times.” Her mum’s family were among those reliant on the shifts the imposing tyre factory provided. The work’s unreliability caused extreme financial anxiety at home.

One of the workers affected was Bhattacharyya’s madhya māmāe, her middle uncle on her mum’s side. A factory worker and trade unionist, he was also a storyteller. “It’s a bit of a cliche in south Asia that the Bengalis are all dreamers and thinkers and poets,” Bhattacharyya says over Zoom. “But there is also a radical history in West Bengal. I love the fact that my uncle has both of those spirits of Bengali culture.”

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