In Search of Contexts: Interview with Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

by Vikram Phukan*

When you ’re participating in an emotion, you cannot really use distance to forge creativity. But within the savagery of the times, I try to find some affirmations, some humanity and some hope.

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

In her many decades as an Indian stage director with a distinctive vision, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry has helmed collaborative projects that bear an unmistakable auteur imprimatur but also stand their ground as collective ventures with a distributed authorship. Many of her works draw from the checkered histories and memories of the state of Punjab in whose capital, Chandigarh, she has run her theatre group, The Company, since 1983. Her stage productions exude visual exuberance while employing a minimalist palette, blend the rooted with the cutting-edge and attempt to pay off the cultural debts of a people riven apart by civil strife. Her plays, based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories of India’s bloody Partition, are testament to a conscientious and introspective outlook that strikes close to the bone. In 2003, Ms Chowdhry was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in theatre direction, the highest Indian recognition given to practitioners of the arts.

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry: Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

Theatre in India itself has changed in momentous ways since you graduated from the National School of Drama in 1975. How do you ensure your practice continues to evolve?

It is really about openness and curiosity. I think theatre is so much in the “now.” Yesterday’s work has to be discarded for you to move forward today. I think the alertness to do something new has never really entered my being in any real tangible way. I remember reading an essay of T. S. Eliot,[1] where he wrote about how the traditions that you inherit can be transformed to create something new. It is very important for me not to get too attached to my work. I am always critical. I am always analysing, dissecting, investigating, reworking, reassembling the work I have already done. Personally, I cannot bear to watch some of my plays, which I did only a couple of years ago, because things get dated so fast. Again, it is not the consciousness of them being dated, it is really the fact that they do not work for me anymore.

It took you some time to find your footing as a practitioner. Could you talk about your early journey?

Initially, I was happy to participate in whichever way I could, front of the stage or backstage, because I had no personal sense of my own equation with this world of performance making. Then, I went to Bhopal and got a job at the Bharat Bhavan. For five years, I worked with B. V. Karanth, and it was life-altering. At the NSD, all I did was observe Ebrahim Alkazi’s working methods. Once you are in a professional environment, you do get sucked into the value system, the rigor, the detailing, the intellectual code that is required to be part of the world.

For five years Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry worked with director Babukodi Venkataramana Karanth; a “life-altering” experience. Photo: Wikipedia

Elkazi was a renaissance man, a man of great discernment, someone who understood choreography, group compositions, grandiose sets, entries and exits, detailing, characterisation. And then you had Karanth, a man of the folk theatre. Even though he had been a student at the NSD, his training was in the style of the Gubbi Theatre Company of Karnataka. This combination became an invaluable pool of resources when I moved to Chandigarh and found ways of working.

A documentary on Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s life

Do you remember a point when you felt like having discovered a principal aspect of your practice?

At Bharat Bhavan, there were many conversations about discovering pedagogical methods for training Indian actors. There was a climate of ad hoc-ism in the NSD, where without mentioning Stanislavsky, we worked on all the dimensions that you might find in An Actor Prepares. At Bhopal, we got local actors to work with master performers of the traditional arts, like the Nacha form of Chattisgarh, bringing together two groups of people from separate worlds. This was not to make the actors learn a folk art, it is more to unlock the stiffness in their bodies, their self-consciousness, the blocks that they had. Making the body move with the sounds that have a resonance in your own familiar terrain drew them away from acting methods, seeped in realism, that existed at that time. When an actor walks across the stage, the moment a rhythm arrives, there is a different impulse that the body discovers within itself.

When I left for Chandigarh, I remember Karanth telling me that my work must be local, regional and vernacular. Because my childhood had been spent in England, I was somewhat cut away from the Punjabi language. And language is not just words and sounds. It is also cultural history. It is also imagery. I started learning Punjabi, looking at local traditions. All this became part of my work, as I attempted to get a sense of my own context. The first play I did, which was of any consequence, was Girish Karnad’s Nagamandala.

A performance of Naked Voices

You eventually directed the play three times in your long journey as a theatre director.

It had to be a new interpretation each time because I truly believe there is no such thing as a retrospective in theatre. In the late eighties, I had cobbled together a theatre company with local actors and had read about Karnad’s new play. He was a close friend of Karanth; that was a connection which lent me some credibility since I had no body of work to be in any position to write to someone of his stature. It was wonderful that he readily sent me his script; it had not even been published at that time. Then, I met the wonderful poet, Surjit Patar, who was considered the voice of Punjab. I wanted to know the way he understood language, how the actors would speak their lines. That was 1989. The second time was in 2004. I wanted to know if the text still spoke to me. One of the difficulties was that part of the cast was the same. The music designed by Karanth was the same. The question was how do you get rid of what you had done earlier? How do you make the actors clean the slate before they begin a new journey into the same character they had already inhabited for over 200-odd shows?

Nagamandala. Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

How did you come to establish the kind of collaborative devising processes considered to be the hallmark of your work?

Even when I did Nagamandala or Yerma or Phaedra, or any of the classical texts that I worked with earlier—what you would call the well-made play with the beginning, middle and end—I was always reconstituting, reassembling, fusing scenes together. So, somewhere maybe, intuitively, that is the way I respond to text. I feel the moment a literary text becomes a performative text, it really belongs to me. Now, of course, the work that I am doing is completely devised.

Vansh Bhardwaj in Black Box. Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

I have just recently done a play, Black Box, a commissioned project for Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. I tossed text around and brought in new references and testimonies. I found that I could not escape from the pandemic and notions of incarceration, isolation and fear. And within the savagery of the times, trying to find some affirmations, humanity and hope. When you are participating in an emotion, you cannot really use distance to make it into a creative piece. But I could not think of anything else, and that is all that has emerged in Black Box.

The other play, Gumm Hai, of which I had shows before the lockdown, was partially based on Seven Stage of Grieving, a performance text by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman. The text is so rooted in testimonies of the kind of brutalisation and disenfranchisement of indigenous Australians that, while there were portions I connected with, certain bits were too specifically rooted for me to be able to make them travel. So, I used some core elements and developed it through the actors’ imagination, through my own interpretation. And we put in the leitmotif of a girl who is missing, and the community that is out looking for her. So, sometimes, even if I use a play as a reference, I use it really as a starting point. The development, the nuancing, the contextualisation changes completely, so much so that somebody familiar with the text would not be able to figure out that it is based on it. I always say there is the text, and there is the subtext, and there is the unwritten text, and there is the invisible text. And there is a text that happens in the actor’s body, and the text that is present in the director’s mind. How do you place all of them together and create a story that really is claimed by all of us?

From Gumn Hai. Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

How much autonomy do you give actors both in terms of developing an idea and within the scope of their performances?

The actors are as much participants in the development of the narrative as the director. I give an idea. Like I might ask, “What does protest mean to you? What does hunger mean to you? What does home mean to you?” We spend almost a month and a half on improvisations. And it is the last ten to fifteen days when we pull out the material that has emerged. The actor might create an improvisation far removed from what I had released as a thought or an idea. Sometimes, it might come very near to what I had imagined. Sometimes, it is a fully-realised idea; sometimes, a moment that I can pull out from an otherwise not workable exercise, which becomes raw material to chisel and hammer, and re-work and make together. This does not mean that my function as a director is diminished, but authorship gets distributed; the actors’ function will always remain as the arbiters of what happens on stage, but I become the outside eye that is stitching the whole thing together. Within that, I always like to bring in notes of affirmation, that somewhere, despite the hopelessness of the situation, there is still space to dream.

From Fida, based on Phaedra’s story. Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

Ηow do you feel your work in the present decade compares to your early output?

Earlier, it was a lot about blocking and movement, though I never went into intense script reading or actors learning lines, which was the norm. I would ask actors to think about what the content meant to them, in their own language, their own expression. So, the seeds of what I am doing now, as a full-blown way of working, were already evident in that.

In those days, there was always this thing about the director. The word director had such a note of authority, it meant something masculine, something about control, but I feel a theatre is really about a group of people breathing, responding, reacting in the room together. Earlier, I gave every aspect of performance to actors, whether it was about creating the image, or the dynamics or frisson generated on stage by how you position them. So, all those conventional tools were a journey, but you can only reject once you have experienced a structured way of working.

From Dark Borders. Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

It is widely held that these collaborative processes were ushered into Indian theatre by female theatre-makers, who created setups markedly different to that of, say, the auteurs of yore.

When I was working with Karanth, dipping into our own traditional tools in order to train actors, the winds of change were everywhere. Like Ratan Thiyam in Manipur, or Kavalam Narayana Panicker in Kerala, or Habib Tanvir in Madhya Pradesh. We had women directors like Sheila Bhatia or Vijaya Mehta, great stalwarts who were not really talking about the feminine. There was no feminine way of working, a woman’s way. They were women making theatre within the same template. This is not in any way to decry them.

At some stage, in the 1980s, women felt that they needed to tell their own stories. I have seen every production of Anuradha Kapur’s, or Anamika Haksar’s, or Amal Allana’s, any of other women directors that were working, choosing teams that were particular to the woman’s understanding. Suddenly, epic characters were replaced by the quotidian; suddenly, grand events were of no interest. Domestic images started entering the workspace. They were more interested in women washing or bathing, what you might call the routine of life, and within that finding epic moments which could be powerful enough to become dramatic text. And because nobody had any expectations from them, they felt they had nothing to lose, so they could take all kinds of risks.

Yes, I personally feel that when we talk about gender, there is a certain kind of ghettoisation because there are lots of women who are not working in this particular way.

Scene from Bitter Fruit. Photo special arrangement: Vikram Phukan

In your plays there is an emphasis on the power of an image and its aesthetic value. How do you work with these aesthetic parameters while working with material dealing with, say, Manto’s dark stories of the Partition?

I am very conscious that I do not try to use anything for its decorative value, but more in terms of how it lends itself to the narrative and takes it forward. I like to extend the meaning of what the text is saying, through objects, through visual material, through body language, through simple, everyday things. Darkness with the darkness, I think would cancel out each other. So, a certain kind of visual exuberance becomes a kind of counter-text. It contradicts the text, or it enhances the text, or it underscores the text, or it completely goes in opposition to the text. A lot of it is done very intuitively and instinctively.

There are archives inside your mind and art and spirit. Where do those archives come from? What does it store? How do you pull it out into your workspace and make it into something. Fed by your own experience or non-experience or collective experience, it comes into your workspace. So trust it.

[1] Tradition and the Individual Talent, T. S. Eliot, 1919. 

*Vikram Phukan is a Mumbai-based theatre practitioner and stage critic. He was the theatre columnist for India’s national newspaper, The Hindu, and his writings on theatre have also appeared in several other publications. He is a Working Committee member of the Indian branch of the IATC. His writing credits for the stage include Stories in a Song, Limbo, The Gentlemen’s Club, Even Mists Have Silver Linings, Those Left Behind Things (which he has written and directed), Adventures of Jil Jil and Dry Ice.

Copyright © 2020 Vikram Phukan
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