Restoring lost voices

Print edition : February 29, 2008

Neelam Mansingh crafts a new folk plus urban stylistics in mother tongue Punjabi.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Neelam Mansingh used her journey from her home town to the metros and back again to become one of the finest theatre directors in India.

Neelam Mansingh crafts

She calls herself twice-born. Her perception of every change as a challenge transformed her from an England-returned, anglicised, convent-educated miss in Amritsar to a theatre director crafting a new folk plus urban stylistics in mother tongue Punjabi. To get into theatre was in itself a somersault for me. Doing Punjabi theatre was to do cartwheels.

Establishing serious theatre in the language of truck drivers, clowns and dhabawalas to winning national and international acclaim took over two decades. When she founded her Company Theatre in Chandigarh (1984), Punjabi was still disdained by the elitist class of Sikhs and the Hindus had opted for Hindi. Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry used her circular journey from her home town to the big metros and back again to become one of the finest theatre directors in contemporary India. Memorable productions include Kitchen Katha, An Unposted Love Letter and Nagamandala. Just when critics noted repetition and creative exhaustion, Neelam came up with an eerily haunting The Suit(2007).

Nothing in her background guided her career choice. Her reformist forefathers conducted the first widow remarriage in Punjab. Her progressive, science-inclined family was headed by a liberal doctor-father. Hopeless at physics and maths (I still cant figure out how a plus b equals c!) young Neelam read, painted and dreamt of becoming a nun. Finding herself at sea in the premedical course, she opted for history and psychology. A pulse quickened when she studied art history.

Neelams hand went up in class when thespian Balwant Gargi asked if anyone wanted to act in a Genet play. I opened the script and got a new life, she says. Around that time the legendary theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi brought Othello and Jasma Odan from the National School of Drama (NSD) to Amritsar. As a backstage volunteer, the small-town girl saw for the first time backslapping informality between the sexes. In her milieu, girls ended up as homemakers and mothers. Words like individual satisfaction and self identity were unknown. An unusual, even frightening, step for a girl from an artistically decontextualised background took Neelam to NSD.

The course was complex, traumatising. Ignorance of Hindi meant being stuck with peripheral roles. She began to learn by observation, if not by participation. Frail Alkazi seemed a Colossus. I wanted to enter his mind. He was a master of crowd scenes, compositions, design, structure. Razia Sultan, Look Back in Anger, Tughlaq were all heady stuff.

Just when critics noted repetition and creative exhaustion, Neelam came up with an eerily haunting The Suit (2007). A scene from the play.-

Just when critics

At NSD, she understood that theatre was not just performance, but paring and examining layers of traditions, innovations, politics, socio-economic structures, histories, cultures, rituals, as well as individual genius, and radical departures from them all. If Shivarama Karanth came to demonstrate and teach Yakshagana techniques, it also meant learning about North Kanara political history. Performance emerged out of these diverse currents and subcultures. A Kabuki course at NSD also meant exposure to a range of subjects from the Japanese tea ceremony to Akira Kurosawas films.

The urge to get away from her small-town home influenced Neelam to marry a man from Bombay (Mumbai). The arranged marriage worked well little conflict, mutual respect, and acceptance of each others differences. The city delivered all its promise. NSD seniors Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri joined Neelam to form Majma. In five years of life, the theatre group inaugurated Prithvi Theatre, did major plays like Uddhwasth Dharmshala and Strindbergs Miss Julie with Neelam and Om Puri in the lead. In-house acting, production and direction spelt a creative high.

Husband Pushis transfer to Bhopal had Neelam in hysterics. How was she to know that she was going to the right place at the right time? Neelam got a teaching post in the newly built Bharat Bhavan, an artists utopia, with thespian B.V. Karanth in charge of its theatre wing. Taking bassinet and baby to workplace, Neelam was exhilarated to be shocked by Karanths chaotic spontaneity and baffling improvisations. A mad carnival after the detailed perfection, iron discipline and classical professionalism of Alkazi. The first bell rang but the last scene was still not choreographed for Mrichakatik. But it worked!"

Assisting Karanth was sometimes to work blindfolded. He would have four productions going at the same time. Hundreds of costumes had to be turned out. I had six tailors on the verandah, drowned by bales of cloth.

One of Neelam's memorable productions is "Nagamandala".-

One of Neelam's

Karanth taught me fantastic intangible things like confidence, hard work, putting companies together, dealing with diverse people, the significance of colourful moorings, the enchantment of improvising. He taught me that in theatre you must speak as if you are singing, and sing as if you are speaking.

Bhopal, in its high tide of multi-pronged creative experiments, proved headier than Bombay. Neelam learnt how the arts were allied, interlinked. Id make soup for Peter Brooks, Ravi Shankar played in my house, Mallikarjun Mansur sang on the terrace, Swaminathan dropped in for a chat Everyone discussed every issue on earth, loudly, freely.

The Bharat Bhavan dream was soon to turn into a dystopian disaster, and Neelam was shattered at having to leave the centre and follow her husband, now transferred to Chandigarh, a town she hated. Karanth advised her: Work with local actors, local energies, hamein bhoolke kaam karna, forget this way of doing things and find your way.

Despite hostility to her efforts, Neelam cobbled together a group and started working, desultorily at first. Then she discovered that working in a city without history, ritual and reference points meant that she could forge her own history, create any theatre she wanted. The fact that people had teased her in Bhopal, Youre going to Punjab! Youll come touring with a Bhangra group! spurred her on to prove that Punjab had more than Bhangra, virile as it was.

She found the visceral, masculine Ghatka, the martial arts of the big-turbaned, yellow-blue robed Nihangs, descendants of the leading group in the procession of Guru Gobind Singhs army. Her first play in Chandigarh, based on Kurosawas Rashomon, had actors training in this genre. I faced police inquiry because they thought I was training terrorists. She continued working in a city of conflicts. Evening curfews meant passing through metal detectors and locked colony gates for afternoon rehearsals.

Without realising it Neelam plunged into a process of exploration that was going to be a political act: of assertion, resistance, recovering lost communitarian values. I repeated the Bhopal experiment with the rich, living but marginalised traditions of Punjab. I was entering my own mythic world, the cultural, emotional memories of the State. I unlocked what was dormant in my unconscious. Hadnt I grown up hearing Kabir and Farid in gurdwaras? Theres no caste, gender or creed barrier in the Guru Granth Sahib.

In "THE SUIT" Neelam uses all her favourite images - water, fire and smoke from the stove, bathing, food in a tiffin box, and lipstick. But they are fitted into a master plan of menacing control.-


Using Dadhis, or Sufi balladeers, in producing the Sufi love story Heer Ranjha, was to write down the oral text preserved by these Muslim minstrels. She stirred up a hornets nest with her choice of lines where Heer openly flouts the authority of her father and forefathers. This was no modern feminist intervention, but from author Waris Shahs own text, long muffled in popular memory in order to uphold the patriarchal stereotype of feminine meekness. The public furore rose from fear. Neelam learnt the power of the theatre to restore lost voices.

Examining documents in university archives led her to Naqqals, folk performers who specialised in female impersonation. Naqqals worked in Hindi, had Hindu names, followed Sikh rituals, had a Muslim Gugga pir. Their folk art was concerned more with the community than with religion. They brought luck at weddings and chanted in cattle sheds to ward off illnesses. Neelam was intrigued by their ability to play a role, man or woman, drop their energy, smoke a bidi, sing a snatch, play harmonium, and whisk themselves back into character. They havent heard of Brecht, have they?

Teaming Naqqals with urban actors led by stages to a new vision and aesthetics in her work. The way they constructed gender on the stage was stimulating. They dissolve positions of what it is to be man or woman, they are the characters they play. I found my work too moving towards the androgynous, she says.

The 1984 riots intensified the histories of vendetta and alienation. Neelams choice of Punjabi for her theatre she had to learn the language in the process became a radical political statement against divisive forces. Working with rejected low brow folk forms, she created an audience of Sikhs and Hindus sitting together. If somewhere, somehow they recognised their shared histories and language, I feel its a contribution. Today every new play of Neelams Company Theatre has as many people waiting outside to get in as those inside the theatre. However, higher aesthetic standards and widening audiences in no way mean financial security for her theatre.

What makes Neelams theatre stand out? Energy? Earthy strength? A no-nonsense attitude towards life? A feeling for fellow humans, for the beauty and fragility of life? There are other directors who share these attributes. Her feeling for literature is obvious, even in the plays which are not based on literary texts. She avoids wordy texts, but brings to her work the echoic quality of fine literature.

At her best, she evokes subtleties, giving glimpses of what is below the surface, framing feelings infelt, indwelling. There are emotions here that both her characters and audiences are wary of touching, seizing, even examining. She does not manipulate responses, but leaves it to viewers to decide just how deep they wish to go into themselves in response.

Neelam can choose full-length plays by Lorca or Girish Karnad. She can also work with short stories as in Sibo and the Supermarket or The Suit both from Africa, or from Doris Lessing, and make them as Punjabi as they come. She has not forgotten mentor Karanths advice: To be truly contemporary, you must know where you come from. Neelams theatre has been a continuing search for where she comes from.

Neelams work breathes sensuousness. The emphasis is on tactile energy, the kind we know from Latin American literature, or from magic realism. In Nagamandala, as more deliberately in Kitchen Katha, we can see, hear, smell and taste water, flour, food. We can also actually feel the water running down our faces, or the atta sprayed or rubbed on our bodies. We can sneeze at the scattering of rangoli powder. The snake in Nagamandala leaves the silky feel of its sinuous curves on us even though the coils are a piece of flowing cloth.

In The Suit Neelam uses all her favourite images water, fire and smoke from the stove, bathing, food in a tiffin box, and lipstick. (Remember the man and the woman applying lipstick to each other in Nagamandala in a tight close up?) But they are subdued images here, never drawing attention to themselves as they do in some other moments in other plays. They are fitted into a master plan of menacing control. The tactile sense is underplayed, even in seduction, but its shadowiness makes it more insistent.

The physicality in her plays rises not only from human movements, but also from water, flower, flour, colours, dyes, grain, vegetables How did she develop such a tactile versatility? Is it part of any attraction for the erotic? Dont know My images come from what I am, rooted in domestic life. The vegetable market and the flour grinder are realities for me. I go to a grocer and find my hand dipping deep into the pulses. What she does is to defamiliarise us with these commonplace experiences, looking at their veins under the microscope.

No surprise then to learn that her greatest challenge was with the play Sibo and the Supermarket, evolving from a 10 minutes short for the BBC about what happens when a seed is planted in earth. Everyone was talking about dislocation and loss of homeland. It seemed to me that supermarkets are perfect metaphors for no history, no culture sameness in Bangalore or Bangkok.

Ask Neelam if it is worth doing theatre in India and she will sigh: Sometimes I ask myself this question. Twenty-two years of work and a core group of 20 strong loyal artists and I still dont make a living out of theatre. No website, office, administrator, manager. It remains a one-woman show. Living in Chandigarh, Im outside the loop of visibility, funding, publicity.

Ask her why she continues doing theatre and she looks up quickly. Mischief lights up her eyes. She laughs.

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