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Punjabiyat on the Proscenium: a master director holds forth on her art

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry reflects on how she accidentally discovered her love for the stage, her formative years studying under Ebrahim Alkazi, and how theatre has helped her understand and nurture her Punjabi roots, writes Bhanuj Kappal

BHANUJ KAPPAL  20th Oct 2012

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry at a theatre workshop in London, 2012

s one of the titans of Punjabi theatre, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry is well known for her visually and musically rich productions that draw inspiration from the state's culture and heritage. The Padma Shri awardee has staged plays at some of the world's most prestigious theatre festivals and has earned many honours and awards. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when she says that her theatrical career was just something that she drifted into.

"I think my journey to theatre was really mindless meandering, rather than a burning passion for a particular kind of expression," she says. "By temperament, I think I did have a certain inner life that responded to things differently from the context in which I lived. I was born in Amritsar and went to school there; I had a very provincial small-town upbringing. But later I came to study in Chandigarh, and at that time as a student, I saw two plays that came from Delhi."

The plays had been brought to Chandigarh by the highly influential theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi, who was then the director of the National School of Drama (NSD). Along with her friends, Neelam volunteered as an usher for the plays and was left mesmerised by the atmosphere. She says: "I was fascinated by just the energy of backstage, the kind of ease with which men and women spoke to each other. I loved the smells, the sounds, the bohemianism... And I was completely bowled over by the charismatic persona of Ebrahim Alkazi. He spoke a language that was something that I'd never heard in my own environment."

In love with the idea of having an 'artistic' lifestyle, Neelam enrolled at NSD. She spent three years learning from Alkazi and other influential drama teachers in an environment that finally allowed her passion to express itself. After NSD, she got married and moved to Mumbai. At the time, Mumbai was a popular destination for NSD students because of the emergence of alternative cinema, thanks to the likes of Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul and Govind Nihalani. Neelam started doing children's theatre with Pearl Padamsee and realised that though she'd trained as an actor, direction was her calling. "I trained as an actor, but I also knew that I was never really comfortable in my own skin when I came on the stage. I was very self-conscious," she says.

Neelam formed a theatre company, Majma, with a number of other NSD graduates and started performing in Mumbai. But the real turning point came when her husband got transferred to Bhopal. Bharat Bhavan was just coming up at the time under the leadership of B.V. Karanth. She joined the Rang Mandala repertory and spent the next five years developing her own vision of theatre.

"I really perceived him (Karanth) as a guru, as a teacher. I learned a lot from him," she explains. "In a certain way, I felt deeply privileged because on the one hand, I had a teacher like Alkazi, a renaissance man who taught us about work culture, how to look at text and detailing. And then there was Karanth who taught me about people's art, spontaneity, the value of improvisation, going back and discovering things from your own environment and pulling them up. So for me, it was a very special combination of two polarised opinions that dove-tailed into a vision of working."

t the time, people at Bharat Bhavan were looking at ways to evolve a more indigenous language of training, which was rooted in the regional culture. The students collaborated with folk performers and found that the interaction between traditional forms and modern drama led to some wonderful results. "When I moved to Chandigarh, I had all these ideas. I thought to myself that whatever work I do, it has to be in the language of the state, it has to be with the local people and it has to have some regional energy," she recalls.

But first Neelam had to re-acquaint herself with the language and her sense of 'Punjabiyat'. "Five or six years of my early childhood were spent in England; so somehow I was slightly cut off from my sense of being a Punjabi, of learning the language. And there was also a residue of post-colonisation, so there was this whole thing of angrezi bolni hai and that sort of stuff," says Neelam. "In the 80s, the Punjabi language was considered a strange mixture of truck driver and crassness. I thought this is the language in which the Guru Granth Sahib wrote the entire Sufiyana kalaam. Where did this distortion come from? So when I formed The Company in 1983 and started working, I was also trying to learn my own history, my own language."

Her first production was a version of Rashomon by Kurosawa, for which she collaborated with a gatka artist (Punjabi martial art). Over the years she has worked with a number of regional performers and artists. Her core group of collaborators includes celebrated poet Surjit Paatar and a family of naqqals (wandering minstrels). Together they've come up with their own unique idiom.

"When I take a play, whether it's a Lorca, Tagore or a Girish Karnad, I see how it travels. I re-assemble it, reconstruct it and toss it up. And then it becomes local, vernacular, and regional. It's completely contextualised in our own framework," she opines.

Neelam's productions are sensory experiences that use music and a rich visual vocabulary that takes the audience beyond verbal communication. "I think the spoken language is just one dimension of the play," she says. "There's also the language of theatre — emotions, language of images, etc. I had attended a seminar that discussed about what happens when a play ends. What do people take back with them? Is it the narrative? Is it the emotions? No. It is actually the image. They carry one moment, one or two images from the play. So I work very much with objects where the object becomes an image and I try to create an image that is suffused or filled with meaning."

So what is she working on next? "My next play is about a man and a woman who have had a complicated life and they meet 400 years later in a graveyard and they talk about issues of gender, race and discrimination," she says. "These are burning social issues."

They are, indeed, and Indian theatre fans are impatient to see the undisputable queen of Punjabi theatre tackle them head on.


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