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‘There are no shortcuts to being an artiste’, says thespian Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary

Renowned theatre director Padma Shri Dr Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary, who has been honoured with the status of Professor Emeritus by Panjab University, she talks about her love for teaching and how there are no static concepts in drama.

Written by Parul |
Updated: January 4, 2016 10:27:24 pm
Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary. (Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh) Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary. (Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

Renowned theatre director and recipient of the 2011 Padma Shri Award, Dr Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary has been honoured with the status of Professor Emeritus by Panjab University. In an interview with Parul, she talks about her love for teaching  and how there are no static concepts in drama.

The Panjab University (PU) Syndicate recently conferred the title of Professor Emeritus on you. What does the honour mean to you and how do you see yourself in this role?
When you retire, your relationship with the university abruptly gets severed. With this new status, my link with PU and the Department of Indian Theatre has been re-linked. I now have access to teaching, and my relationship with the department in an informal way continues. I suppose at this moment this title is fairly ambiguous to me and I have to wait and see how it all pans out.

Tell us about your relationship with the Department of Indian Theatre, PU.

I was part of the theatre department from 1990 to 2015, having the honour of being the chairperson twice. I taught history of drama, western theoretical concepts as well as method acting. As each year new students came, the dynamics of a classroom would change. Each student had his/her sensibility, performance history and understanding of what training meant. As a teacher I had to challenge myself to nurture the intrinsic talent of each student individually and collectively. Teaching was never a routine affair. The most complicated task was to link theory with practice as students saw these as two separate disciplines.

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What were the various dimensions of your work as a teacher, especially in regards to the diverse backgrounds the students came from? Was it tough to connect, considering the intricate nature of your subjects?

Yes, students in the Department of Theatre are from a cross-section of society, all armed with a bachelor’s degree. Theatre has several complex concepts and ideas, and it was imperative for me as a teacher, that the students understood those concepts. The first step was to simplify how these varied ideas would be shared, but never to make the information simple. The idea was to take this journey together with the students, and invest in them, building bonds and connections. Interactions, workshops, studio productions with eminent directors, musicians, set designers from the NSD, made this flow of information an absorbing process. Looking back, I feel I was an invisible part of the profession, focusing my energies within the department.

Did your work as a director of your theatre group ‘The Company’ complement your profession and passion as a teacher?

The experience of being exposed to the many facets of theatre got to the classroom a new energy, and the reassertion of the fact that theory is the foundation of a powerful practice, and it can never be treated in a light manner. Theory and learning give actors confidence, analytical skills and a maturity to understand the many layers of theatre. I was constantly evolving a new vocabulary of work, and knew that when you place students in a place of trust, there is magic.

How important do you think is training in theatre or theatre education?

I feel it is indispensable, for it equips an actor or a director with the technique to say something with passion. How to tell a story, make it effective, reach out to the audience, give a plot or subject a brand-new perspective, training gives you an atmosphere of learning. Pre-conceived notions are quashed, and you are focused to keep the extraneous separate from your work. Theatre is the most disciplined art. I believe when you work, you wear a robe of a priest.

What are the changes that you have seen in students in the last few years?

Students are getting better and better. They question, present divergent points of view and in the process, recharge you. To interact with young people links you with the world of your own passion and is soul-sustaining. You discover there are no static concepts in teaching, and when I teach, I know I am talking to 20 high-powered intellectuals, who have the calibre to understand the cause and effect of their work. Students today are eager to learn and experiment, and they train their bodies and minds to be on par with the varied trends in world theatre. For me teaching and learning go hand-in-hand. When you train actors, you help them get rid of clichés, stereotypes and the result is the opening up of minds and spirits.

So what do you strive to do as a teacher?

I can’t teach them how to act in the formal sense of the term, but what I do strive towards is the awareness of certain techniques required— a space in which to explore their creativity and imagination and how to look at life and the world around. The idea and effort is to get rid of the dead and unnecessary baggage that impedes their response to life. In a friendly way, you reach out to them and encourage them to create their own links with the stage.

Tell us about your current work in training actors.

My recent work with the third-year students of the National School of Drama gave me the space to explore a new way of working. I had been restless for a long time and had wanted to move to a new dimension of training and exploring texts. Working with an institution gives you the freedom to explore, experiment and take risks as money and time are not constraints. Ten stories of Saadat Hasan Manto were chosen and through improvisations the actors fed the story with their own experiences. To take this experiment further, I recently conducted a workshop where I wanted to examine violence. We had no narrative grid, but just a series of ideas. The basic question that we focused on: is violence a consequence of family dysfunctionality, grinding poverty or part of a DNA. With no premeditated plan, what emerged were unusual imagery, remarkable acting, political engagement and sheer intelligence. Put the actors in an environment they can trust and something unexpected will happen is what I realised during the course of these two workshops.

Something that you would like to tell students and upcoming artistes.

This is a question that always gets me a trifle tongue tied. I believe that your growth as an artiste is connected with your growth as a human being. To be an artiste, first and foremost, you must have something to say. Then what you wish to say requires a certain amount of technique, combined with passion. Theatre has given me everything, helped me define who I am, given me friendships, travel, hard work, fun and terror. What I wish to tell young artistes who want to join theatre is that there are no shortcuts to being an artiste. It can only happen if you love learning, watching, studying and meeting people in the charged atmosphere of a rehearsal room or in the darkness of a theatre hall.

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