Theatre director Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry is immersed in the final rehearsals of her new production, Gumm Hai, the play which opens at India Habitat Centre in the Capital on August 18 and then travels to Chandigarh. The play, says Chowdhry, was a way of engaging with the world, dealing with lost memories and retrieval and archiving of these memories through performance and storytelling. Excerpts from an interview:
What is your new production all about? What are the texts that have inspired it?
The play Gumm Hai is sourced from many references. One is The Seven Stages of Grieving, a performance text by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, which dips into the history of the aboriginals. The other play that started the conversation for me was Nale Wali Ladki, directed by Anuradha Kapur for the National School of Drama. Gumm Hai is a play with several layers, the narrative of a child gone missing and examines how an inexplicable loss, irrevocably changes the dynamics within a family and the community. These varied skeins of narratives were dovetailed to examine and understand grief, loss, death, human affirmation and survival.
The play’s recurring leitmotif follows Pinki, an 11-year-old girl, who has gone missing from her village for two months. It portrays the broader, more abstract idea of something precious that has been forever lost, never to return. The questions posed, however, revolve around not only the missing girl but echo the loss of a certain life and value system. The narrative follows the experience of ‘everywoman’, chronicling her worldly grief and joys. The stories are ultimately a work of ‘fraction’ — a mixture of fact and fiction culled from literature, life, memory and from personal experiences. Loss here is not communicated conventionally, but in an ironical, humorous and irreverent manner. However, despite the stories dealing with a subject that can be considered dark and brooding, the dominant atmosphere is one of affirmation, dance, song and sharing of stories. The overall tenor is the resilience and strength of the human condition – survival.
Do you hope it will be cathartic, considering the personal tragedy — the loss of your husband recently?
The act of grieving, Freud told us, in his 1917 work Mourning and Melancholia, involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life. On the surface level it would seem that I fully understand that death is irreversible, but I was not sure if I could present a coherent face to the world. Making a new performance was a way to construct a cognitive engagement with something outside myself. It helped me from sinking down a dark hole. But during the process of working, I felt I was inhabiting two worlds, the inside which was in turmoil, and the outside, a carapace that was necessary to give the impression that I was in control. The deep loss of your partner is a twisted knot that gnaws at the edge of your skin, a constant reminder of how life had changed. Death of your loved one is an irrevocable reality. Life changed fast, in one instant. One moment I was sitting in a classroom, teaching, and suddenly a phone call informs me that the life I knew and valued, had ended. How does one cauterise grief is a struggle.
Tell us about the process of creating this production. How is each play the beginning of a new journey of exploration?
The method that is best suited for my work at the moment is improvisational. I make it fairly clear to the actors that I do not require them to learn the lines, as even in a pre-existing text. I prefer them to toss it, rearrange it. Suggestions are given, objects and costumes are arranged. The actor then either creates an improvisation sometimes, entirely different from what I had imagined, or sometimes a rough sketch is created and sometimes a fully-realised idea is presented. This becomes the raw material on which the production is built. Every aspect is given equal significance. Gesture, space, body, all have the same significance as the spoken word. Authorship gets distributed and the work becomes collaborative. I don’t think in the system, my role as a director is diminishing, but I think the actors’ responsibility is increasing. This is really about different functions. I think the role of the actors will remain fundamentally different from mine, but the conversation becomes equal, like the dialogue between two people, fulfilling different functions. Whenever one develops something new, whether it is an agglomeration of memories, anecdotes, songs, poems or personal or historical experiences, the aim is to uncover or discover the ‘internal logic’
of what appears to be a set of random, disjointed ideas.
Why are we not witnessing the emergence of enough young playwrights?
A couple of years ago, I was invited to a literary festival to speak on, ‘Is the Playwright Dead.’ This is an ongoing discourse and at times a fairly contentious space to participate in. Many people believe that theatre is a place where an actor recites a written text, illustrating it with a series of movements and actions in order to make it understood. Interpreted this way, the theatre became an accessory to dramatic literature. Ideally, the play is a beginning and not an end to interpretation. But personally, since the last couple of years, written plays are not suited to what I am searching for. At present, it is an instinctive rejection, not a judgment. In the absence of a pre-established text, it’s always difficult to decide when the production is over. When you move in undefined spaces, one thing you recognise is that this ‘form’ of performance isn’t as free as one thought. Gradually one notices that one is constantly making choices, erasing, adding, chiselling and faltering. On the contrary, it is our search for a new language and our continuity really lies in our abandoning the path which we had already tried. However, even in a well-made play, once the play has been written, it has a life of its own that goes beyond the intentions of the playwright alone. The play comes alive differently in the mind of the director and in the body of the actor.
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