There are times I tell myself, ‘What I do as a profession is play make-belief. I keep on doing that, and it has brought me to India,” says David Lander, one of the celebrities who fill the credits of Mughal-E-Azam: The Musical that is playing at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium till September 17.
Lander, a 52-year-old New Yorker, stopped acting after his “wonderful” teacher at Ohio State University told him, “David, you’ll be a fantastic light designer”. “He didn’t say, ‘David, you are a bad actor’, which was brilliant and I thank him. As a theatre artiste, I am trying to support the story but through light,” he says.
Mughal-E-Azam, Feroz Abbas Khan’s magnum opus, is being hailed for its flawless technical execution and Lander’s lighting is among the best seen in Delhi in recent years. The room of queen Jodha is a cocoon of warm lavender lanterns, the court of emperor Akbar is golden while dancing girl Anarkali’s space is all soft lattice work, candlelight and shadows that reflect her doomed romance with Salim. The crown prince is assigned a terrace that is cold but moonlit. In the choice of illumination are the hallmarks of personalties that are cued to clash in an epic drama.
Lander’s father, an engineer who moved from Toronto to the US when Lander was very young, rigged up his first lights. “I was a cub in the boy scouts and one of the tasks in the activity book was to do a puppet show,” he says. He enrolled his dad to install a puppet stage and they also put together front lights in red, blue, green and yellow, small household dimmers, and different coloured lights for the backdrop. “For a 10-year-old, I had a very sophisticated lighting system going,” he says.
His great grandmother was the first audience (“She was very supportive”). He made muppets with moving mouths and full body puppets with his mother’s help, shadow puppets as well as puppet films. “I did puppet shows through school, toured different townships during summer and did a lot of birthday parties, all the while wondering ‘how do you captivate an audience and keep them mesmerised?’’ he says. Lander graduated to performance and dance before enrolling with the Ohio State University for his graduation in theatre performance and the New York University for further studies in stage lighting. His early stint on the stage infuse Lander’s lighting designs today with an understanding of the body on stage. In Mughal-E-Azam, for instance, there is a high use of side lighting to dramatically sculpt the performers.
Eminent directors from the US and the UK, such as Steven Soderbergh and Jonathan SIlversetin, and actors, from Jane Fonda to Mia Farrow, have Lander’s number. His recent Broadway shows include The Heiress, starring Jessica Chastain, The Lightening Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical (about Percy, son of the Greek god Poseidon), I Am Ann Hutchinson/ I Am Harvey Milk (about a heroic woman preacher and an LGBT crusader from America). There have been a number of Shakespearean plays, from King Lear and Macbeth to Cymbeline and The Tempest, and operas Puss in Boots, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Lander has worked on dance projects for the New York City Ballet, films such as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 by Warner Brothers, art projects and theatre design.
He was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009 for 33 Variations, a play about Beethoven writing 33 variations of a simple waltz. “He became obsessed with this piece. The director wrote 33 scenes. In lighting, how do you do variations on a theme? Each of the 33 scenes had to have a unique look. In the piece, we time travel from the present to Beethoven’s era. I try to create light in the 1700s and lights in 2000s,” he says.
As he talks of his works, Lander interjects “I don’t know if it worked” every so often. So, he didn’t know if it worked in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, about two soldiers and a Royal Bengal Tiger in a Baghdad Zoo after the bombing of Iraq. It was an existential piece, starring Robin Williams, in which the tiger becomes a ghost. “It talks about the meaning of life and many other things. To me, it was a ghost story. Whenever the tiger appeared in the play, it became very surreal. I use a lot of blue and purple lighting, which don’t appear in nature, to highlight the absurdity and magic realism,” says Lander. In 2011, he was nominated for his second Tony Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award, and won the Drama Desk Award for Best Lighting Design for his play — so he surely did something right.