On Valentine’s, celebrating energy of affection in arts with Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

A poet shared his experience of meeting a nomad, who when asked about the role of art in any culture, replied: “The job of the artist is to remember where the water holes are. The survival of a whole group depends on the water holes scattered around the desert. When people forget the water holes, the artist leads them to it.” What an apt metaphor for the role of the artist. The water is the history, the memory the juice and the elixir of shared experience.

Theatre is about community and family, love and humanity. Love is not only an abstract feeling and no matter how deep or intense your feelings may be, it’s got to be accompanied by action. Love is action, about support, understanding and pride.

In order to engage in effective action, you find something that you value and put it in the centre of your life. I could not have managed my theatre company for 35 years without my family. The premise came from love, but it was transformed through effective action. My husband designed the posters, the brochure and handled my accounts. My sons did the sub-titling on tours and handled the sets and props. They helped in the ushering during shows at the Rock Garden, much to the chagrin of a society where helping the wife/mother was seen as gender reversal, dissolving the stereotypical entrenched practices of role playing!

Hope and love is what makes us strong. It is this impulse that makes us explore the arts. It is what we fight for when all is lost. This is why we tell stories, stories that need to be shared and taken forward. This is only possible if you ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ with empathy and love.

Our body tells a story — how we sit, walk, eat, interact, dress, all tell a story. We read, see films, hear stories and through experiencing these, make them our own. The artist combines and edits existing material to create something new. Every work of art bears references to another work. Everything then becomes a remix, processed and combined so new stories and fresh ways of working are generated. All this can only happen if there is openness, curiosity and love.

Even when we talk about catastrophe, pain, the darkness of the human condition, the very fact that we are performing shows the existence of hope. It’s impossible to do theatre if one is not conscious of this. Most of my recent work has been on migration, loss and fractured identities, works of Saadat Hasan Manto, devised production revolving around an image, a moment in history, in an attempt to give voice to the voiceless. Despite them being dark and brooding, there is a sense of affirmation. Tiny little gestures of assertions — through a song, a childhood game, sharing of food. It is imperative that hope and humanity glimmer through, no matter how savage the times!

Very often this question comes up: do we have the right to tell stories of people that are far removed from our world? “How else can we imagine living together without having the ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, to understand that in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world,” says Judith Butler.

‘What is that one moment that alters your life?’ I ask myself. Is it the people I met or my experiences? I suppose it is a mix of what I have seen, heard, smelt, experienced, eaten, remembered and forgotten.

Love has the capacity to transform you in one instant, like a haiku. In the same way, a painting, a book or a work of art can. It can unblock clogged hearts and souls, creating fresh ways of seeing and feeling.

The work of Pina Bausch, Nelken (Carnations) changed all my tidy and safe definitions on what was possible on the stage. A stage covered with silk carnations and dancers in cascading gowns, crawling amongst the flowers, giggling and playing leapfrog before they are confronted with passport officers and snarling dogs. Men sniff onion rings and pour powdered coffee on their head while a naked woman carries an accordion, but doesn’t play it. It met with immediate rejection, as I didn’t know how to access the performance.

But the show clung to me, made me restless. It made me realise the immense potentiality of the stage. When an actor enters and creates a world of images, sound, movement, ideas. How space animates and expands, how boundaries dissolve, space magnifies and transforms in an unimaginable way.

We do not just go to watch, but take ourselves to every show. Theatre does not exist in isolation but always within a social, political, geographical and architectural context. I saw set patterns being challenged, and in a flash realised that rules are there to be broken and that the fourth wall can be battered down, even in the case of classical text.

I’ve been able to lead multiple lives through my work. In Naga-Mandala, I reflected on how moments of love and happiness are imagined. In Yerma, I learnt that the artist, particularly the poet, is always an anarchist. He must heed only to the call that arises within him; the voice of death, the voice of love, the voice of art. In Phaedra, I understood systems of patriarchy when Phaedra wails, “How these vain ornaments, how these veils oppress me.”

Kitchen Katha, a play about food, suggested to me that “each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves”. In Black Box, I understood incarceration and the existential question of aloneness. In Gumm Hai, I plunged into grief and loss, how grief is processed and managed. Working on these plays was my way of leading many lives, of becoming many people, understanding myself. But is this possible without identification, sympathy, connections and love?

Theatre is not necessarily a cosy place designed to make us feel good. We stick around, for it reminds us of the wonders and passions that we always had for the world but have now lost or forgotten them. Theatre holds out hope for a shared space in a segregated world, invites us to enter a space of the unspoken, the unspeakable and helps us reimagine reality, not just as an idea, but something we can touch, feel, smell, taste.

Art, even as it entertains, is always a search for meaning, a struggle. One of the basic functions of art is what the Greeks named catharsis. According to Aristotle, catharsis is the purifying and cleansing of emotions, by evoking a sense of fear and pity in the audience. The etymology of the word is ‘to shine through dark spaces’. Yet, when we try to explore the dark spaces in our soul through our work, very often we have a tendency to shut the issues with the busy work of the daylight hours. But without looking into those dark spaces, as Carl Jung said, we will lose touch with our essential humanity.

In these confused, uncertain days and the escalating global tensions, we seem to be in some sort of greyness. In negative times, we need to discover what was once contained in such ‘hackneyed values’ as beauty, harmony, order, peace and joy. And a visit to the theatre, as a visit to a restaurant or time spent with a friend, should leave one feeling better on the way out.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Kamadeva is hovering among young hearts, it’s only appropriate that we have a quote that celebrates this event — “Love is wise, hatred is foolish,” as Bertrand Russell put it. Say no to hatred and divisiveness, say no to intolerance and prejudice, say yes to diversity and love.

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