Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry: Encounters of an unusual kind : The Tribune India

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Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry: Encounters of an unusual kind

Looking for new ways to connect with an over-satiated audience is a constant tussle for a performer. As such, experiments happen

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry: Encounters of an unusual kind

In 2008, actor Harish Khanna lived in full public view, 24x7, for15 days.

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

In the year 1997, I was in London, working on a production. Wherever I went or whoever I met was talking about a play called ‘Oraculos’, performed by artistes from Colombia.

‘Oraculos’ was a totally unexpected experience that struck a different register in my mind and heart. In an abandoned pumping station, 10 members of the audience sat on a wooden bench. A gnome-like figure beckoned me and took me to a room that was bursting with theatre costumes, headgears and a variety of props. A velvet cape was draped on me; I felt disoriented and irritated. The next chamber was a house of mirrors and looking at my outlandish self, I felt both amused and violated. The next stop was a room with a maze of gauzy white curtains and in the midst, a girl sat on a swing, singing in whispers. It looked like a dreamscape. Moving forward, I found myself walking on a floor of pebbles, grass, sand and water. My mind drifted to my childhood and I experienced the various forgotten textures on my bare feet. The silence was broken by the ringing of a bell and I found myself thrust in front of a devilish, androgynous person, dressed in leather pants and jacket, being provocatively seductive. I ran as fast as I could to find myself catapulted in a velvet-lined coffin that levitated and stopped in the Garden of Eden, as tulips, irises, roses and daffodils imbued with a golden light greeted me. Is this what paradise looks like, I wondered.

In 2008, actor Harish Khanna lived in full public view, 24x7, for 15 days.

The next stop was a wobbly rope bridge with a stream flowing underneath. It led me into an ancient kitchen with oversized vessels brewing mint tea; the smell of freshly baked bread was aphrodisiacal. My previously unseen fellow travellers were sipping tea and breaking bread. I had never experienced anything like this before. Puzzled and bewildered in the beginning, I felt a deep sense of calmness. Even after so many years, I recall a sense of feeling unclogged and the spirit detoxed. It was not a performance that I watched but a journey I took that was meditative and uplifting, making me open and vulnerable. The critics in London called the show “a playhouse of the imagination”. It succeeded in going beyond the sterile debates of whether this was or was not theatre.

Marina Abramovic, one of the most barrier-breaking artistes of our time. ISTOCK

In a completely different way, Marina Abramovic’s work comes to mind. A Siberian conceptual performance artiste, she explores body art, endurance levels, relations between performer and audience in all their unusual configurations. She calls herself a warrior of the arts, putting her body on line.

Her solo piece has her sit in front of the audience with a trestle table having 72 items laid out. She invites the public to use them in any way they see fit. Most times, the audience is respectful and would pick a rose, a lipstick. The rose would be gifted or taken away and the lipstick, most times, was used to scribble a name on the arms of the performer. Once, a member of the audience picked up a gun and thrust it on her neck. Suddenly, in the rarified space of the museum, violence entered, throwing everything asunder.

Why was the gun there in the first place? Writer Anton Chekhov famously said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”

But it’s one of the most talked about performances. Thanks to the Internet, I managed to see the show virtually. The show was titled ‘Artist is Present’ and provided a powerful exemplar of not only the audience-as-witness, but also the performer-as-witness.

This kind of show starts a debate about the limits of art. How far can one go? One show had Abramovic naked, standing in a narrow alleyway. Anyone who passed through that space had to squeeze between her with an unintended awkward intimacy.

Art deals with unpredictability and even though performances like these create a buzz, their reading becomes complicated. Yet, the arts must provide space for a range of improbable artistic ventures. Dialogue and conversations must emerge through these unusual encounters.

Another project called ‘The Glass House’, created in 2008 by actor Harish Khanna for the National School of Drama, resonated with Abramovic’s work. A glass house was built where the actor lived for 15 days in full public view, 24x7, surrounded by a bed, a dining area, a kitchenette, an induction heater and a laptop. A surveillance camera was also installed as a watch guard to record any possibility of voyeurism and hooliganism. “I used to cook, eat, sleep and go about my daily chores without reacting to the public that badgered me for reactions or made gestures of recognition. It was about learning to be ‘still’ and impervious to distractions. To be able to confront irrefutable challenges and discover untapped resources within yourself. The glass house used to be a furnace during the day, and at night it felt as if I was sleeping on an iceberg — it was also a test of physical endurance. The only privacy I had was with bathing and my morning ablutions as the washroom was sealed with glazed glass.”

This reminded me of my visit to Kingston in Jamaica where prisoners in an open jail watched as life went on across a barbed wire. Khanna also shared similar experiences of being surrounded by people as a creature in a zoo. He observed life through the glass walls: people playing cards, drinking tea, noise of life. He was cut-off and aloof. “Is it a test of endurance or self-flagellation? I do not know, but have very often interrogated these issues in my own mind and heart.”

Looking for new ways to connect with an over-satiated audience is a constant tussle for a performer. How to make people come to the theatre, buy a ticket, get away from the digital world and enter a space that makes the community think and imagine together.

The social media is like a rampaging bull, assertive and tangible. But what are the qualities that make an artist stand apart in a world of gloss and glitz, hype and hoopla?

Experiencing complexity, novelty and uncertainty can sometimes awaken emotions that have become calcified and forgotten. Sometimes, it is the thrill of ambiguity — to make your own narratives that may be in direct conflict with the artist’s intentions. Does it really matter? I am intrigued by all this and celebrate mixed art existing cheek by jowl with high classicism, realistic representational art, wacko experimentation, along with digitally-created art. Is it pop culture kitsch? A new urban ritual? Or an expression of new-age estrangements? This smorgasbord of goodies is there to savour. Select or reject, it’s your choice. But do check it out.

#England #London

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