The memory of…!
Talking with theatre director Corinne Jaber about her workshop on the Indian Partition

Sophie Burke for Auroville Arts Magazine

Maybe the attraction foreign cultures exert on Corinne Jaber and her work can be explained by her background: the actress and director is of German-Hungarian-Syrian-Canadian ancestry, thus combining quite a mix of different cultures in her own person. But maybe this explanation is too easy. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the involvement with and the working in different countries of the Middle and Far East as well as the portrayal of experiences of exile and migration constitute a central theme in Corinne Jaber´s work. 2001 she won the prestigious French Molière, a theatre award, for Une bête sur la lune, in which she plays an Armenian who fled the USA. 2005 she directed Shakespeare´s Love´s labour´s lost in Persian in Kabul and returned to Kabul in 2008 to direct Fabrice Melquiot´s Soeurs, also in Persian. Regarding her last play, Oh my sweet land, the influence her own biography has on her work can, however, not be overlooked: the beginning civil war in Syria has created a much deeper and more urgent reconnection to her father´s homeland for Jaber. In the play, presented in a monologue lasting just over an hour, she plays a woman of Syrian-German descent who is looking for her Syrian lover, who got lost in the turmoil of the war. On her quest for him, she encounters many Syrian refugees and so learns their stories. These stories are true – Jaber visited several refugee camps in Lebanon beforehand and recorded their stories to then recount them in her play.
For her current projects, she has come to India this time. At the invitation of the Goethe Institutes Kolkata and Chennai, she has held two ten-day theatre workshops about the Partition of India, which occurred exactly 70 years ago this year. With this subject, she again stayed true to her central theme of exile and migration experiences.
I talked with her about her workshop in the Adi Shakti Theatre near Pondicherry.

AVArts: How did the idea arise to do a workshop about the Partition of India, which happened 70 years ago, after all?

CJ: My connection to India has become quite strong over the years. It started back in 1989, when I had a role in Peter Brooks´film adaption of the Sanskrit epos Mahabharata. Also, I performed my play about Syrian refugees, Oh my sweet land, for the Goethe Institute Kolkata. That is when I had the idea of doing a play about then Indian Partition, which after all led to the largest mass migration in history and the displacement of more than 20 Million people. And I wanted to use the same approach than in Oh my sweet land – to gather true stories from the lives of the workshop participants and construe a play out of them later on.

AVArts: Why did you decide to approach the subject via so many different art forms (storytelling, sound, improvisation, movement and music) ?

CJ: Actually we did not make use of that many art forms in the end. The idea of the workshop was mainly to address writers who would be able and willing to write a play from the collected stories after the workshop, and of course actors.

AVArts: Not only was the subject of exile the same one than in your last play, you also used the same approach: to collect true stories of refugees (or their descendants) and to make them tangible by retelling them in a play. Were the stories you heard here in India any different than elsewhere? After all, the people here did not have to leave their whole cultural background or even continent behind.

CJ: In my opinion, experiences of fleeing and exile are universal. Here also, in what today are the states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, at first the people were strangers, wherever they ended up. What displacement means is the same everywhere. On top of that, the migrations here took place in a very short space of time, it all happened in about 6 months. So, the whole dislocation was very abrupt, which certainly inflicted even more trauma on the affected.

AVArts: The Partition of India happened 70 years ago. What influence does it still have on the lives of your workshop participants?

CJ: What became apparent during the workshop is that in South India there is little to no interest for the Partition, as the people here were not affected by it directly. The South Indian participants therefore feel that it has no influence on their lives at all. In the North however, things look a bit different: after all, the conflict between Hindus and Muslims is still going on and still erupts regularly in Kashmir even today. Yet generally, there were only few stories about the Partition and the consequences it had for so many people I could gather from the workshop. That is maybe understandable, though, as there simply were never any national efforts made at reprocessing or reconciliation; there is no national monument for the victims of Partition. So maybe that was the reason I could only get so little out of the participants – of course, on the one hand the Partition happened already 70 years ago, but on the other hand nobody ever spoke about it again. My impression is that this part of Indian history was collectively suppressed.

AVArts: The subject of exile seems to be a central theme in your work at the moment. You yourself are of Syrian-German background. Millions of Germans also had to flee after WWII. Are you considering doing some work about this chapter of German history, which also was never spoken much about afterwards?

CJ: An interesting idea. I will definitely think about it and look into whether this subject did indeed not get that much artistic attention yet and deserves to be reworked.

AVArts: We thank you for your time and answers, Mrs. Jaber.