Important: Keep talking while cooking
* Boil palak, grind and keep aside
*Fry onion, ginger and garlic paste
* Add mutton and cook
*Add masala — chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder and cumin powder
*Add tomato and curd
* When the mix is cooked, stir in palak
*Salt to taste
*Serve warm to audience
That’s the recipe for the play, Saag Meat, being performed by Seema Pahwa across the country. The actor, best known for her role in Hum Log in the ’80s, is now stirring a different cauldron as a performance artiste. Saag Meat, which held a show in Delhi on April 11, sold out several days before and organisers at the venue, Bakheda, had a hard time convincing callers that the “waiting list is still 50 as there has been no cancellation”.
To Pahwa, this may feel like deja vu as she is propelled into a limelight that rekindles memories of Hum Log. “The truth is that I have always been in theatre. I was a part of theatre group Sambhav in Delhi and also worked with the NSD Repertory Company from 1990 to 1992,” she says, adding, “Now, with recent films such as Tere Bin Laden, Ferrari ki Sawari and Ankhon Dekhi, my face is suddenly being recognised again, like that of an old friend.”
Saag Meat, she says, reprises a play she did in the ’80s with Sambhav. Written by Bhisham Sahni, the play is a satire on the middle-class. The solo act features a woman who is regaling an unknown listener — the audience of the play — about her life and her domestic help. “The title of the play could refer to the class disparity in India, where meat is the food of wealthy tables and the humble palak is the sabzi of the poor,” says Pahwa. She adds that in the three decades since she last tackled the play, storytelling styles have changed. “I felt inspired to present the play in a different way. Why not cook saag meat while performing the play?” she says.
The result is a multi-level experience in which the audience can watch saag meat cooking and smell the flavours as Pahwa’s protagonist, a loud Punjabi woman, gloats about her husband and diamonds. “The woman does not realise it, but her conversation reveals a cycle of exploitation and subjugation of her domestic help. So many of us are guilty of apathy and exploiting our servants simply because we pay them. How many of us realise the effect of our actions on those who work at our homes?” says Pahwa.
As she talks, Pahwa keeps sauteing, stirring and sprinkling. Sometimes, audience members pipe in with cooking tips. “We have a chat about masalas and how much to fry. Once, somebody told me not to add green chillis, and another time, I asked people about how much dahi to use. This opportunity to improvise is one of the good things about interactive performances,” says Pahwa, who cooks at home so frequently that the play seems like an extension of real life. “Only the quantities change depending on the audience numbers. In my last show, there were 80 people watching,” she says. After the performance, Pahwa serves saag meat to the audience and “we all eat together”.