Actor Hema Singh has become close friends with a fictional woman called Bola. They bond over dead children. Bola has lost six at childbirth. Singh miscarried after falling down during her pregnancy. In moments of solitude, she still talks to the baby and says, “Sorry beta, you couldn’t be here”.
Bola is the protagonist of an African short story, titled Life is Sweet at Kumansenu, on which Singh has based her solo Zindagi Madhur Hai Kumansenu Mein. She first performed it at the Commonwealth Games Celebrations, organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), in Delhi in 2010 and it was selected in the ‘Best of BRM Category’ on World Theatre Day last year as part of the eighth Theatre Olympics in Jaipur. When Singh was announced winner of this year’s Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Theatre-Acting, she decided to present Bola at the function. “It has taken me 10 years of doing this play to fully comprehend the meaning of motherhood. Think about this — only women have the power to give birth. Bola is a simple village woman, who has no other purpose than to cook and care for her son. She is living in a male-dominated society only because of her power of motherhood,” says Singh.
Women are the heroines of Singh’s oeuvre. She unspools their experiences and lays out their narratives on stage. In Khanabadosh (1993), Singh played writer Ajeet Kaur, who is trapped in a hostile romance with a man but “won’t cry until she is in the privacy of her bed”. Karmawali, in an eponymous play from 1990, is a quiet woman who is determined to meet the son she has left behind in Pakistan during Partition. Singh travels the arc from a naive 18-year-old Karmawali to a cranky 80-year-old. She has played the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1981), directed by Fritz Bennewitz, Calpurnia in Ebrahim Alkazi’s Julius Caesar (1981), Shakuntala in Lok Shakuntal (1982), directed by Magsaysay winner KV Subbanna, and Varya, the girl nobody calls darling or pretty in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1982), directed by Richard Schechner.
“I am a very emotional person but also very strong. I don’t like submissive characters,” says Singh. The daughter of illustrious poet Raghuvir Sahay, Singh grew up in an artistic family in south Delhi. Her father’s study had a polished rug and a table piled high with papers. The walls and shelves of the house displayed artwork of his four children. At school, Singh’s elder sister was winning scholarships but she barely understood what was being taught. “I was the second daughter, so I had to fight for my identity from the start,” she says. Singh developed wide renown as a naughty girl and there was no tree she couldn’t climb.
Singh’s transformation came about at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya where BV Karanth and Meena Williams were teachers of theatre. “Suddenly, I became good in studies and very disciplined. I had wanted to be an actor from the very beginning. My talent needed the right training,” she says. Around the same time, Singh started gathering children of the mohalla and staging plays at home. The children loved it,” says Singh, who graduated from Miranda House before joining
the National School of Drama (NSD) for further studies.
Actors were changing costumes and roles in front of the audience, hanging curtains from nails on the walls and using table lamps to light up scenes. It was Singh’s father who pointed that what they were doing was in keeping with the alienation theory of Bertolt Brecht, in which the audience is not allowed to forget that they are watching a play. Her home remains Singh’s first platform for ideas. Earlier, her father was her critic, now her playwright husband Vageesh and landscape architect and actor daughter Haripriya are the first audience.
Her 10 years at the NSD Repertory Company were to prove transformative. She was “broken and put together” in a series of plays that included actors such as Manohar Singh, Uttara Baokar and Surekha Sikri. BM Shah gave her a life-long love for the exaggerated and commercial style of Parsi theatre by casting her as Hameeda in the play Mashriqui Hoor (1986). When she was 29, Alkazi cast her as the matriarch Zainab in Din Ke Andhere (1991), an adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba and she came out of the experience with a deep understanding of realistic acting.
“To play a character, I split my personality in four parts — I deal with the emotions, do extensive research, work on my technique and observe people,” she says. Almost every role is an offshoot of her life’s experience. In her directorial venture, she returned to Mashriqui Hoor, whose central character Hameeda is a young girl, who dresses as a boy to rescue her father. Singh drew from her tomboy past for this role.
Singh’s career has spanned 15 directorial productions in Parsi style and folk forms such as bhawai, nautanki and chhau as well as films by Majid Majidi, Shyam Benegal and MS Sathyu. On television, she became famous as Imarti Devi, a formidable matriarch, in Kairi (2012 onwards). Singh had mined the mannerisms of her mother-in-law to give Imarti Devi her rustic edge.
Singh owns a big treasure box packed with little things, like letters from her family and Alkazi. These fragments from her past are often reinterpreted on stage. Memories, too, are recycled. “Theatre has been a transformative experience for me. Direction, for instance, taught me how to handle actors with diplomacy. I know a lot of directors are rude and aggressive, but I prefer doing things with affection. Maybe, that’s because I am a woman and want people to be happy around me,” she says.
Is that why she doesn’t do radical roles such as a vamp? Her playwright husband has written several roles for her, especially a gripping one of a voluptuous woman who seduces men before murdering them. “I would love to play her, but I need time to work on my physical appearance,” says Singh.
She prefers to push the envelope more subtly. Singh is working on a script drawn from numerous real-life reports about women, from female infanticide to gender imbalance. These will be accompanied by poetry by her father and songs from tribal communities. A key idea is of the importance of solitude in women’s lives. “Away from the kitchen, we have a life. It is a pity that the word ‘me time’ does not apply to women,” she says.
Her own sense of self is undergoing a transition, too. At NSD, where she is a faculty member, Singh has, in recent time, turned up with her hair open to the waist, wearing a red woollen kurta with green wooden parrot earrings. “Earlier, I would think, ‘What would people say if I dressed like this?’ Now, I don’t care. The SNA award made me think back. I used to be so beautiful but never realised it. Today, I have begun to accept myself more,” she says.