A scene from Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s new play Gumm Hai.
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry
Early this year, at the National School of Drama, I saw Nali Wali Ladki, performed by the third-year students. Anuradha Kapur as director and Deepan Sivraman as scenographer, it created a startling visual language. It had a sense of agitprop theatre but took it to a level where the text and its relationship to the body also became a search. Along with an old printing press that seemed to slowly become a metaphor for civil disobedience, and a set that rolled in and out, transforming from a village, to a gutter, a pond and bath. Images that appear in the beginning, seemingly sedate and harmless, suddenly rolled back and forth to become objects of fear, anger, brutality and torture.
This was not a pre-given text. It may resonate with a concern, if the story already existed. Sometimes just an idea or an image triggered a desire to read a particular kind of text and then it would rework and reassemble, re-cloth or unclothe, through the body of the actors. A brave performance that told us that life is terrifying and imperfect and only when we face our imperfections truthfully do we aspire for hope.
The Beanery, by the late American artist Edward Kienholz at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, is an installation where the artist almost froze time. He installed a bar scene, where people’s faces are clocks not human. It signified their state of mind within the setting of a bar where time is experienced differently. Kienholz first came up with the idea of creating The Beanery in 1964, when he read a headline: ‘Children kill children in Vietnam riots’, while visiting the original bar (in Los Angeles). The contrast between the “real time” represented by the newspaper headline and the “surreal time” of the bar’s customers compelled Kienholz to start work on the tableau. To him, the newspaper conveyed the sense that time — like the clocks — stopped on that particular day. I connected to this artwork because even in my practice, I like to think of the duality of our realities. In my installation, except for the fact that the war was still going on it was a perfect morning, I question my position of a middle-class person looking at the world through the TV screen like most people today.
For me, the telling moment was the performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Joker. I went back to the film again and again, watched it multiple times. I think that it was the best part of the year as a source of inspiration, as something that delves into art and psychosis — it was incredible. As an actor, these are roles, the polarities that we want to have in our lives, and showcase them in a play or a film. The character graph that he goes through, the way they have shot and directed it and the way Joaquin has played it, is incredible. So that was mesmerising for me.
The two incidents that I can recall to be memorable are the outdoor camps that I conducted this year in Manali (Himachal Pradesh) and Thailand.
The purpose of these camps was sketching and painting. These were two very different locations with extreme weather conditions. The trip to Manali was in February, and I wanted to witness snowfall, but the temperature wasn’t so low initially. But by night, when we reached Manali, the temperature decreased to -6 degrees, which was extremely cold and made it nearly impossible to camp. Inspite of such weather conditions we drew sketches and painted at 0 degree temperature, hence it was a memorable experience. In Thailand, we went to the floating market, which is quite a rare and unique experience. These two trips have stayed with me.
Vaibhav Raj Shah
Vaibhav Raj Shah
The audiobook, 1984 by George Orwell, hit me the hardest. To be honest I am yet to come to terms with how Orwell lived with these thoughts himself. The political climate today echos thought control, and I feel if everyone reads this book, we can all find closure and see patterns.
Another work that left a mark on me was a ninth-century (Shiva) Nataraja bronze sculpture from Okkur, Thanjavur, which I saw in the Chennai Museum. To not know the artist’s name really bothered me. At the museum, the way the stone sculptures were displayed, was fantastic. The sculptures have been so exquisitely produced that there was no need of a wall text to explain anything
I recently watched Marriage Story by writer-director Noah Baumbach and was totally blown away. It’s a funny, tender, heart-wrenching story about a couple going through a divorce and takes us through the ups and downs in their lives when the lawyers get involved. I remember watching it at a film festival in Mumbai and I was bawling throughout. When the lights came on, I sheepishly tried to pretend that something got in my eye, only to see that everyone around me was struggling to hold their tears back as well. The film is streaming on Netflix.
This year, two plays on Partition resonated with me, and also gave me a lot to think about. Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s Dark Borders, based on Manto’s story and Yatra 1947 by Kewal Dhaliwal, based on a Punjabi poem written about Partition. Both were unique and thought-provoking productions. The images that were created were original and moving. Every scene was subtle and sensitive.
Poet & photographer
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s new play Gumm Hai, and Aditi Mangaldas’s production, Seeking the Beloved, have left a deep, artistic resonance in me this year. I admire Aditi’s sustained creativity, her deep involvement with the formal aspects of her art, and the way she pushes the boundaries of both classical and modern dance. Her lines are sharp, and the production is outstanding.
2019’s defining read for me was a book titled Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, my maiden read by a Russian author which slowly seeps into the Russia of the 1920s. It’s a historical fiction during the era of aristocracy. The story is of an aristocrat under house arrest in a colonial hotel. The literature was satirical yet enriching and a fascinating read, which will stay with me forever.
The book, The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee, is an endearing love story about misfits searching for companionship, and how their journey brings contradictions and tensions into the lives of the people around them. It is a thought provoking narrative on the meaning of life and living; of being yourself. it is about questioning the idea of socially acceptable romantic love. In the book, the author explores the boundaries of relationships, which are unconventional.