Maya Krishna Rao
One theme on my mind is the question of identity – in the wider sense. What are all the bits and pieces that go into making who we are, who we become. I would like to make comedy around this and focus on the little and big things that make up our identity.
What has happened since 2014 is that one event becomes a trigger for the next. You keep getting told, “Make a performance quickly for our march or meeting”. You make one performance quickly and the next call draws you into making the next. Some themes carry through from one to the next performance. Alongside I was also making a show for an auditorium. Often, the rehearsal space was invaded by some call of this kind.
I found that the performance I made for the street inevitably impacted the show getting created in the rehearsal room for a closed theatre space. And vice versa. In 2018, I was making Loose Woman and got a call to participate in a protest against mob lynching. The piece was short and complete in itself. Making it helped clarify my own ideas of how to approach such an inflammatory subject. What you complete on the street may not be what you will do for the auditorium but you discover that the street becomes another kind of rehearsal space. In reverse, having made Walk, (in response to the gang rape of Jyoti Pande) I am curious to discover how quiet, introspective moments usually made for closed spaces can also find form in a street show. So there’s been a kind of ‘speaking to each other’ between the two spaces—the street and the rehearsal space.
Over the last few years, I have also got invited to several kinds of spaces – parks, living rooms, offices including visual arts spaces. There has been a blurring of lines between theatre, visual arts and music and people working in these forms coming together in more informal ways. I have never got as many invitations to be in visual arts spaces as I got in the last year and a half. It is not always politically driven yet there are larger currents at play today in India that seem to be drawing different kinds of artists, a wider cross-section of people, together. I get invitations and find myself playing for audiences I have never before.
Using humour in protest theatre is my biggest challenge. There is a way to dig out the underbelly of an issue or event so that you make connections between issues in comic way that one never sees in more serious theatre. Sometimes the connections are seemingly ridiculous but, underneath, it is dark and you are laughing even while your head is receiving it in another way. In comedy, you can use metaphor and play a kind of ‘cloak and dagger’ game that is exciting. I did a comedy for a JNU conference in which I was the costume manager for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was soon after he was elected in 2014. I had a slideshow of him in different headgear from different states – an idea Indira Gandhi first popularised – the idea of so many Indias in one India. And today, ironically, identity has come back into sharp political focus – of only one kind of India to be determined by the powers that be. I’d like to also revive some old comedy shows – to spot light what and how things have changed.
My play, Loose Woman, made in 2018 too has been evolving. In more recent shows I have started using a live camera to tell current stories. My fingers tell the story and they are blown up large on a projected surface. I’d like to keep this facility of keeping shows open to change for the coming months. We made a story of Mahatma Gandhi meeting nine-year-old Nasreen on a park bench in Assam. Then, he walks to Kashmir, knocking on closed doors. In future performances these stories may be replaced by others. Telling stories only through a play of fingers seems to evoke content in a unique way – its intimate. Often, when you play on the protest stage, you don’t touch on the small detail everyday life, but when I hold up my own hands to tell a story and they are blown up large on a screen, on a busy street, there’s something electrifyingly intimate about that. After all, we seem to be living in times where people, families, the question of home and identity have all been thrown into sharp political focus, thrown into uncertainty and despair by the NRC. The small is the big.
And there again, making performances alone doesn’t seem to be enough. I’d like to continue in 2020, the practice of leading workshops alongside making shows. Apart from helping more people to make a place for themselves in theatre, workshops are my way of keeping in touch with how people are living, thinking and responding to the world around them. This is critical for me. We live in times where everything is up in the air, so that the performer’s entire body and being is being challenged. It is as if your body is on a live electric wire and being asked to go in different ways of working, making, talking, listening. This was one of the reasons I decided after a long time that I was going to participate in a workshop, which I did at Serendipity Arts Festival, instead of leading a workshop, as I normally do.
Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry
Whatever you do is influenced by the winds that are blowing around you, emotionally and politically. I have recently done a play, Gumm Hai, which I am bringing to the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama in Delhi in February 2020. It emerged from my own loss of my husband 10 months ago, but people who watched it started relating it to Kashmir. I am not an activist but my means of expression is theatre. When I feel that I cannot contain myself, where does it come out? It comes out on stage. Gumm Hai is about loss and grief and is adapted from The Seven Stages of Grieving, a performance text by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, which talks about the history of the aboriginals. But people saw their own stories in it.
What She Said, a production that highlights six voices from the Ramayana premiered last week and will be our focus in 2020. Who are the women whose stories we don’t hear much of? In case of Urmila, we have one line in the epic. Shanta, Rama’s sister, we have not even heard of. She was given away in adoption by Dasaratha. The other women are Manthra, Mandodari and the wife of Bali, Tara. The play is largely monologues, by three actors, but very physical as well, with other women playing cameos in each.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play by Bertolt Brecht, was a response to Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime taking control of the state machinery. I am looking forward to directing this piece. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is about how crony capitalist and political mafia take over the country and nobody else has a say. They are a huge mafia, a killing gang. In 2011, I did a show of Ubu Roi, a revolutionary play by Alfred Jarry, and I feel the need to reproduce it again. I feel it has become an important work again in a new context.
If the events of 2019 are anything to go by, I believe 2020 is going to be a year of great significance in our history. Our immediate future is at stake and I would really like my work to reflect some of the questions that confront us as a society. I have a special interest in history and I hope to be part of a project that looks at the appropriation of people’s history, folk culture, and making visible voices that speak of reason and an equal society.
Technology is going to redefine every aspect of our lives. We are on the verge of a revolution, where technology will redefine human history itself, with Artificial Intelligence doing things better than human beings and without any error. But I think the only possibility or skill that humans can do better is fiction-making. Technology, at a conscious level, is zero. I am seriously thinking of a reality show-kind of play that fuses fiction and feature actors with non-actors as participants.
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