Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ben Musgrave: Indigo Giant

By | Published on Friday 15 March 2024

I was immediately interested when I heard about ‘Indigo Giant’, a play about the history of indigo cultivation in 19th Century Bengal – which was enforced by brutal British colonists – and which focuses on a newly married couple who come up against them. 

The play is on at Soho Poly this week, and will be back in London – at Theatro Technis – in early April. 

I wanted to find out more about the play and the writer behind it, so I spoke to playwright Ben Musgrave ahead of the upcoming shows. 

CM:  Can you start by giving us an idea of the narrative of ‘Indigo Giant’? Who is it about and what story does it tell?
BM: ‘Indigo Giant’ is about the extraordinary history of indigo cultivation and revolution in 19th Century Bengal – where Indian farmers were forced to grow the indigo plant by brutal British indigo planters.

The story focuses on Sadhu and Kshetromani, a newly married couple whose love is tested by the arrival of a sinister new planter in their district. As the full might of the Indigo Giant is ranged against them, will they be able to find the strength to fight for love, and hope, and the future? 

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
BM: The play explores a story about colonial India almost forgotten in Britain – but very alive in Bangladesh and India.

‘Indigo Giant’ is about what happens in the mind when you wield power, and what happens in the mind when power is wielded upon you. It’s also a story about global trade, farming, politics, textiles and dyeing.

But it’s also a story about love and hope and resilience and resistance. And also a story about the world’s most mysterious colour. 

CM: It’s based on real events, isn’t it? To what extent is it factual and what extent fictional? Was a lot of research involved?
BM: The play is inspired by the remarkable story of the uprisings against British indigo planters that occurred in Bengal in 1860 and 1861.

It is also a kind of ‘conversation’ with Dinabandhu’s Mitra’s explosive Bengali play ‘Nil Darpan’ – or ‘The Indigo Mirror’ – which is about the oppression and struggle of that time – and a play that shook colonial India.

A lot of ‘Indigo Giant’ is also drawn from what I learned and experienced on a series of research trips to Bangladesh, visiting the sites of historic indigo cultivation. I was astonished to be told stories – time and time again – of the hauntings of these sites with the ghosts of the past.

Many of the stories I was told found their way into the play. 

CM: What drew you to this subject matter? What inspired you to create a work exploring this?
BM: I lived in Bangladesh from the ages of eight to twelve. In 2016, I was commissioned by Jatinder Verma at Tara Arts to write a play in response to  ‘Nil Darpan’.

Upon reading the play – which features psychopathic British planters crushing a Bengali farming family and community – I was profoundly shocked; firstly because I had very little idea at all about the brutality of British planters in pursuit of indigo in Bengal; and secondly, because I had never seen ‘the British’ represented in this way. 

Reading ‘Nil Darpan’ was like walking through a mirror and seeing the world from the other side. Through this project and through this research, I’ve come to understand a lot about the role of the British in India. 

CM: Does the play have a message? Do you regard it as political?
BM: That’s a really interesting question. As a playwright I’m not very interested in telling people how to think about something – I’m more interested in asking questions, and probing and questioning and learning about what I don’t understand.

I think there is a message about hope and resilience in the play. And there clearly is also an intent in this production – and that intent is about telling an important story that has been forgotten and perhaps repressed in this country.

And that intent is also about us telling that story together – as a group of cast and creatives from many different backgrounds, each of us acknowledging that we have a shared desire and commitment to tell this story. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast of the show? And other creatives involved in the production?
BM: We have a dreamy company of fabulous performers and creatives – many of whom I have been desperate to work with for many years. I’m not going to pick out any actors because they’re all brilliant. 

Komola Collective, who are producing the show, are four amazing visionary women: Caitlin Abbot, our designer; Sohini Alam, our music co-director and vocalist; Leesa Gazi, our dramaturg, lyricist and producer, and an amazing writer in her own right; and Filiz Ozcan, who isn’t actually working on the show, but has been really helpful in setting everything up.

I’ve been collaborating with Komola on this production for a number of years now and it’s been great to work with them. Meanwhile, Gavin Joseph, our director, has been such a joy to work with – he created such a detailed, spirited, honest, careful, joyous production. And there are plenty of other brilliant people too – the production is a real collaboration.

CM: And now can you tell us a bit about yourself? What drew you to a creative career and what steps did you take to begin it?
BM: At university I loved drama and I also loved writing – and then I discovered that the two came together in playwriting. There was a playwright in residence who gave me a glimpse of what playwriting could be all about!

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far?
BM: I was the first winner of the Bruntwood Prize in 2005 with my debut play ‘Pretend You Have Big Buildings’ – so I started with a bang. Since then, I’ve loved working on projects that take me on huge journeys – and no play has taken me on such a journey as ‘Indigo Giant’ – so this play is a real highlight. 

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
BM: ‘Indigo Giant’ has taken over my life for several years but I am working on a few other things!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
BM: In a few months I hope I’m working on a new adaptation of LP Hartley’s novel ‘The Go-Between’ – something very different from ‘Indigo Giant’!

‘Indigo Giant’ is on at Soho Poly from 19-20 Mar before heading to Oxford Old Fire Station 22-23 Mar, and then London’s Theatro Technis 4-6 Apr.

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