When theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry received a call from Arundhati Nag, who runs Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru, commissioning her to make a 40-minute piece to be aired digitally and staged physically once the lockdown eases, Chowdhry knew that it must revolve around the absurd theatre playing around ever since Covid-19 struck and changed everything.
“In art, you just can’t escape the times that lurk around — the fears, the uncertainties, the vulnerabilities, the possibilities. Where is a human affirmation? What is happening all around became the raw material of the work we are doing,” said Chowdhry, who started looking at short stories by Manto and Chekhov, which triggered off many things.
‘Black Box‘, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s latest production starring theatre and film actor Vansh Bhardwaj (‘Udta Punjab‘, ‘Midnight’s Children‘, ‘Kesari‘, ‘Heaven on Earth‘ and ‘Cooking with Stella‘) who is in a 10X10 space is a story that has emerged from what everyone is feeling individually and collectively in times when unrestricted movement, both physical and emotional is a thing of the past.
Working without a bound script, and in her improvisational style, which she has been following for the past several years, the theatre director says that that the process of how text is managed, the way one can pull different strands, sometimes completely contradictory ones and weave it into a communicable connection with the actors, with oneself, and hopefully later with the audience is something that has been her struggle as an artist.
Although she started off by working on the scripts with a beginning, middle and an end, but even within that, she would toss it around; she added, “I was always re-assembling and re-constituting the material which I presume every director does. Even if you have a bound script, within that you pull out something ‘else’. There are always multiple stories, never singular tales. What is the position that you take and what are the elements that you pull out — that narrative depends on your own politics, social, political, economic or gender position you are taking — so even within that there is interpretation.”
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry said for the past several years, pre-existing texts do not really suit what she is searching for. “This is not an objection, but a choice. It’s not that we have eliminated text, after all, I don’t do dance movements, but physical theatre, which is narrative-based. It does have a story, a development. But how it develops — in a linear manner, in circularity, in loops and swirls, that is a choice I make.”
Adding that the style she works in may appear quite ‘freer’, but it is much more complex considering one does not really know where it is going to start, and where it will end, she added, “After all, you’ve got nothing to hold on to. In the last couple of plays that I have done, I have worked very closely with Manto, sometimes taking three stories and putting them together.”
While open-air theatres have been opened and auditoriums may follow suit soon, the director wonders that even when the pandemic becomes a thing of the past, how would one erase the memory of the fear? “How do we eradicate that? There is always this tentativeness not to be near anybody.., that will take a long time to be expunged from the psyche. It is surprising how habits get formed in such a short span is a mystery. It’s just been six months that COVID made an entry into our lives and we already have a new ‘caste system’ in place — washing utensils with vinegar whenever something has been served to an ‘outsider’.”
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, who along with several senior artistes approached government akademis, bureaucrats and ministers to ensure some kind of relief for young freelance artists who suddenly had no work post the announcement of the lockdown, just cannot get over her experience.
“It’s quite disturbing. If something that has sustained everyone in these times, it is music, films, literature, the arts. And yet to be so cavalier towards the artist is so shocking and horrible — to know that your life has no significance. Your contribution in humanising the society, the sensitising you imparted has just been of no value. We tried talking to the akademis, almost pleading with them for young artists. They were flush with funds as they already had budgets that came in March. Considering they could not invite a play with some film or television actor, their favourite way of spending huge sums of money, so what was the problem in giving money to young practitioners to make plays, which could be staged post the lockdown? But it was like speaking to people who were deaf, blind and dumb. They were least interested, not even acknowledging that artists existed. Imagine there was not even a response — it’s like your entire life has been trashed.”
Adding that it is not the lack of activity during the lockdown that has been disturbing her, the director says she has reached a stage where she was quite happy doing nothing. “In these 40 years, I have done enough productions, taught and travelled all over with my work. For me, the race has ceased. But yes, there has been a lot of angst, that comes from seeing thousands of people walking home, jobless, hungry and brutalised by the system —the loss of hope. No matter how savage the times are, the very fact that you are performing the savage times has always shown the existence of hope. Sadly, now that sense of hope seems to have died down. In many ways, the pandemic has brought out the worst in people.”