WHEN asked to take her self-portrait with 10 different objects that tell her story, visual artist Tejashree Ingawale chose a wooden elephant. “As a child, I was an introvert. Whenever I used to be upset, my father would send me for a ride on an elephant that used to visit our neighbourhood in Pune and ask me to whisper in its ear what was bothering me. After some days, the anna (mahout) left, presumably, for Kerala. All my life I have been looking for them,” recalls Ingawale, who, among other objects, chose an injection syringe, a reminder of her battle with tuberculosis, and a hibiscus flower that she used to pluck every morning with her grandfather, as part of the visual exercise.
Creating self-portraits with objects, which tell a personal story or history, is the first exercise that the participating artists carried out under “Sisters” — a collaborative project by National Theatre Wales and Mumbai-based Junoon which works on theatre and art outreach programmes. The project brings together a motley group whose cultural roots and histories are intrinsically linked to the Indian subcontinent. Under “Sisters”, the artists — five each from India and Wales — are undertaking a series of research exercises, which aim to explore questions such as: what does it mean to be a woman today in India and the UK? What does ‘home’ mean now? The Indian group is headed by Sameera Iyengar, co-founder of Junoon, and the participating Indian artists are actor-writer-director Sushama Deshpande, object theatre practitioner and puppeteer Choiti Ghosh, writer-actor Sapan Saran and Ingawale.
The task of creating self-portraits and sharing the story behind them was the first step for the participating artists to get to know each other. “This gives a glimpse into the cultural history and baggage people are carrying. This also makes one quite reflective,” says Kully Thiarai, artistic director of NTW, who is currently in Mumbai. This exercise presented a facet of the artists that they usually don’t share with others or have not given much thought to earlier. “The process of creating these portraits allowed me to have a dialogue with myself. I have chosen objects like the first book of Mahatma Phule that I read for my Marathi play Whay Mee Savitribai, my first sari and the mirror that I have been using since my first performance,” added Deshpande, who is known for acting in and directing several landmark Marathi plays such as Aaydaan.
In the wake of a series of cultural activities taking place between the UK and India ahead of the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence, Thiarai intended to focus on the women from the diaspora — their contemporary life and how they connect with history. “I was not interested in going back to 1947. Instead, I intended to start a conversation that in a way shows how women of the diaspora are both connected and yet different. Whether they are living in India or abroad, we want to find out what it means to be rooted to the country,” says Thiarai, who was born in Hoshiapur, Punjab, and was about two when her family migrated to the UK in 1965. NTW doesn’t have a dedicated venue or a theatre of its own. They present their work in existing buildings or outdoors. Some of the successful theatre productions of NWT include Roald Dahl’s City of the Unexpected, Bertolt Bretch’s Mother Courage & Her Children and De Gabay.
Thiarai, who reached out to Junoon for partnership, created a framework for the project with Shahnaz Gulzar, a UK-based digital artist. Gulzar was brought on board by NTW to design the mechanism of collecting and sharing content and resources between the two teams of artists as well as with communities in Wales and in India. Elaborating on the project, Iyengar says, “We will continue with our exercises till October. Sapan and I will attend a week-long workshop in the Wales in October. During that time, we will go through all the material that we would have collected and try to find patterns. Writers will work on those and in April, there will be a production workshop.” The outcome of this workshop will determine their next step and if they should work towards a full-fledged theatre production.
According to Iyengar, the project is more about discovery. “We have a question and we want to understand who we are. And this ‘we’ refers to south-Asian women in India and those living in Wales,” she says. The next round of exercise involves interviewing five women each. Ingawale has already interviewed a woman who sells tea in Kolkata and Iyengar a young mountaineer. Deshpande plans to interview a Pune-based transgender, a woman journalist and two housewives. More exercises involve drawing up of a family tree and choosing three women they consider to be sisters. “These exercises will help in bringing us to the same page. Right now, we are terribly excited about each other’s work and having a lot of fun,” says Iyengar.