Rahul Varma: Playwright, Artistic Director, and Founder of Teesri Duniya Theatre in Montreal
I first met Rahul Varma in 2014 at the symposium "Performing the Post-Colonial: The Political Work of Theatre" held at the University of British Columbia to commemorate the centenary of the coming and turning away of the ship Komagata Maru from Canadian shores. Varma spoke about how memories open up windows to the past and how the remembered past of the Komagata Maru continues to live on in the present.
I was struck by his suggestion of doing a fictional play (not historical) to explore the truth of the Komagata Maru incident. Varma’s implication that truth to some extent may lie in our imagination seems a bit of a paradox, but then so is the Canada and the surreal world that we inhabit.
Rahul Varma, a renowned playwright, spoke passionately about how cultural diversity is missing in the national theatre of Canada, which remains Eurocentric even today. In 1981, he founded an inclusive theatre company in Montreal called Teesri Duniya (third world) which produces plays by and for visible minorities in Quebec. Teesri Duniya's multicultural theatre performs socially relevant plays that promote a spirit of interculturalism.
Varma’s play Job Stealer (1987) exposes the racist myth that immigrants and refugees take jobs away from Euro-Canadians by showing instead that they, in fact, create jobs. He told us how this play was inspired by refugees who arrived in a boat off the coast of Newfoundland in 1979 and created an uproar in the locals who greeted them with signs reading "trash go back" and called them “job stealers.” I love how Varma brings clarity with incisive lines that cut to the truth, like this: “If it was possible to steal one, I would have stolen a better one.” It is a fact that most immigrants and refugees end up doing menial jobs that Canadians do not care to do.
Similarly, in 1914, the Komagata Maru bearing 376 Indians also received an icy reception from Canadians and was forced to return to India after being denied permission to land. It seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The audience listened attentively to Varma as he discussed the insightful use of a multicultural aesthetic in his plays which he says is located in the “hyphen” (of our dual identity) to highlight difficult memories and historical events ignored by the bicultural state policy of English and French. For Varma, this “in-between” space that is produced by the “hyphen” is a “magical” space between cultures that also connects our past to the present - and it is also where he believes that all our social, political and cultural contributions and challenges can best be examined. Varma astutely concluded that since Canada is a community of global cultures, plays should be developed inside this “in-between” space of the “hyphen.” He added that all plays are political and there is no real separation between the public and the private because the issue lives in the characters performing the play.
Varma’s plays are situated at the intersection of culture, class, and gender with a focus on social justice. The goals of his powerful plays are to build cultural bridges, create critical thinking on important issues, and generate intercultural dialogue. Many of Varma’s plays like Bhopal, Counter Offence, State of Denial, Truth and Treason (amongst others) have been translated into other languages and performed on the international stage.
Despite the immense challenge to obtain funding from the Quebec government, Varma has persevered to keep his theatre company going somehow. “Teesri Duniya is one of the most unique theatre companies in Quebec’s distinct society, expanding its horizons, mixing social activism with art,” states The Gazette theatre critic Pat Donnelly (Sept. 2, 2009).
In 2016, Varma was back in Vancouver to attend the staged reading of his play Bhopal and audience members were delighted to meet and chat with him in person. Kudos to Rahul Varma for diversifying theatre by changing both Quebec and Canada one play at a time!