Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry
When will anyone want to be in a dark room full of strangers again, I ask myself over and over again. Theatres are shut, time seems frozen and tomorrow is a distant dream. I recall the story of Dalai Lama being asked if he would like to be born again despite the fact that the world will not get better. He answered: “If I could be useful, then I would like to be born again.”
In violent times, the notion of usefulness is radical. Can art be useful? Art sometimes, I feel, is an extravagant and exquisite waste of time and a world complete by itself. Yet, the irony is that art is useful in a deep and enduring way. Poet Joseph Brondsky describes art as the oxygen that might arrive when the last breath has been expended.
We are living in difficult times that expect from us certain responses. No matter how many impediments, we cannot afford inertia due to despair.
An invite from Rang Shankara to work on a performance piece became the catalyst and ‘Black Box’ was birthed. New content was entering the work space as no matter which text I studied and improvised on, the fear of the pandemic was all-persuasive, insistent and slinked its ways through my threshold. I could not escape the contagion, the fear of the virus, the loneliness of being ‘home alone’ the desperation to reach out, to speak to connect, elements that entered my work space.
The images of migrants going home, trudging along highways, on rail tracks, trunks on their back, transportation shut, everything immobilised. These images exploded and became the theme of the play.
The actor sets up a stage, tells a story to a passing dog, an imagery audience? An attempt to keep the imagination and sanity intact? Craving food, a simple meal, but only managing a sandwich, perhaps donated. Humanity asserts itself when the protagonist shares his frugal meal with a stray dog.
Kabir Singh Chowdhry filmed the play by retaining the identity of it being a theatrical piece, yet exploring its cinematic dimensions.
The new dictum ‘All the web’s a stage and the show must go online’ haunted and lodged itself in my head. Can the digital space replace the performance space that involves intimacy, touch, feel and smell? I don’t really know, and have no answers. The digital space is a simulacra where the artiste and his/her desperation of disappearing, of being invisiblised was palpable. Webinars, virtual festivals, lectures became rampant, a deluge. A necessity too, to feel that you are still ‘alive’.
The hard part of creation is the financial aspect. It’s an uncertain future, but despite that some heart-warming works have emerged. Jyoti Dogra’s ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein’, Mohit Takalkar’s ‘The Colour of Loss’ and Amitesh Grover’s ‘The Last Poet’ made a lot of noise. Atul Kumar created a theatre performance in an outdoor space in Kamshet.
A range of performances, small, large, solo and ensemble, innovative, experimental, have been making the leap. The pandemic, strangely, has also been freeing, giving the space to explore and reinvent one’s imagination and passion.
“New ways of making theatre have come into existence and even though it isn’t live, theatre is still happening. And that’s because the process has been inherently a theatre process — it has been embodied both in the moment of making and performing,” says Maya Krishna Rao, who created a character called Paru, expressing the dilemma of the times. Mahesh Dattani wrote a short play called ‘Untouchable’ on two men meeting in 2032 where the pandemic that started in 2020 has revisited twice over. This was his first experience with Zoom, he says.
Welcome to the new dark, uncertain dystopian world which can, despite the lurking fear, still deliver a hard punch. Necessity is, really, the mother of all inventions.
— The writer is an acclaimed theatre director