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Views from the Underside

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s new play, Dark Borders, attempts to scrape the bottom of the human experience and “look for affirmation and hope”.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published: August 25, 2017 1:05 am
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

If you were to leave your home in a hurry, never to return, what would you do?” Two months ago, theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry put this question before a group of actors, and watched as they churned through ideas. Lost, emotionally-violated, physically-tired and hardened protagonists crowd her new play, Dark Borders, named after an anthology of the works of the writer of the Partition, Saadat Hasan Manto, which will be staged at the India Habitat Centre on August 26 and 27.

The Chandigarh-based director accumulates experiences and sensations, from the Nirbhaya case to Bilkis Bano’s, from her visit to the Holocaust Museum to the photographs of homeless people of Syria, and “it spills out in the rehearsal room”. Dark Borders is not a linear narrative or even a single story, but an idea of the dark spaces of the human experience communicated through sketches, fully-formed sequences, and incomplete fragments of stories of Manto and Maxim Gorky. A member of the audience may be familiar with one or all the stories and protagonists, but the intention of the play is more to make an intuitive connection about loss and hope.

“There was a time when I did what was called the well-made play, which had a beginning, a middle and an end. Now, when I go to rehearsals, I have no structure in my mind. The process between me and the actor is more collaborative. The stories flow in circles, loops and swirls, perhaps like the uncertainties that we are a part of in life,” says the director. Dark Borders completes a trilogy — the previous plays, Naked Voices and Bitter Fruit, were performed with students of the National School of Drama.

When she went to the Holocaust Museum, she saw images of shoes whose ownership is unknown. Working on the idea, the actors and she created a sequence in Dark Borders, referencing Dalits who carry shoes on their heads in the presence of upper castes. Manto wrote Tamasha in response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre but the short story now speaks to Chowdhry about “Syria, people running away from their homes, elders trying to protect their children and the role of a child”. “I would say, ‘let’s have a refugee camp, tents, people cooking’ and then we see what can develop. That way, the authorship of the play is distributed,” says Chowdhry.

A scene from Dark Borders

A Gorky short story about poverty features in the play as an example of the director’s firm faith in humanity. “I am always looking for affirmation in life. No matter how dark things are, I am always looking for examples of hope. I think poverty is a great violence but, in this story, the two protagonists are scratching and snatching food but, when she finds he is collapsing, she cares for him. The world may be getting darker, but there is always a tinge of hope,” she says.

The stage is bare because the actors’ bodies tell the tales (“also because, where’s the money?”), using props limited to a bucket and a steel grid that has done duty in previous plays of the director. The costumes, unlike the previous plays of the trilogy, are dominated by browns and beiges and Chowdhry’s group of musicians will accompany live on instruments ranging from coconut shells to air-conditioner pipes.

Dark Borders, 75 minutes long, will be staged at India Habitat Centre on August 26 (7 pm) and 27 (4 pm). Tickets priced Rs 500, Rs 350 and Rs 200 are available at the Programmes Desk, Habitat World, IHC

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