‘So much occurs to me that I am afraid
that my ideas could be fatal
No one has time for letters
it is true that people have no ideas
because they have no time
and they have no time
because they have no ideas
nobody likes to live like a specter
I have the most time
and I have no time at all
that is my misfortune
My ideas bore me
If I were suddenly to have no more ideas’
—adjective: his letters are really rather boring tedious, dull monotonous; repetitious, repetitive; unrelieved, lacking variety, lacking variation, lacking excitement, lacking interest, unvaried, unimaginative, uneventful, characterless, featureless, colourless, lifeless, soulless, passionless, spiritless, unspirited, insipid, uninteresting, unexciting, uninspiring, unstimulating, unoriginal, jejune, nondescript, sterile, flat, bland, (plain) vanilla, arid, dry, dry as dust, stale, wishy-washy, grey, anaemic, tired, banal, lame, plodding, ponderous, pedestrian, lacklustre, stodgy, dreary, mechanical, stiff, leaden, wooden, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, wearisome, tiring, tiresome, irksome, trying, frustrating, humdrum, prosaic, mundane, commonplace, workaday, quotidian, unremarkable, routine, run-of-the-mill, normal, usual, ordinary, conventional, suburban.
How do I explain away a lifetime in an hour? How do I share the secret of filling a space with nothingness with strangers?
‘How do you create so much emptiness?’ they asked him.
‘It isn’t empty, really. Is it? I mean there’s the light . . . the stillness takes up space
. . . and . . .’
Surely they could see. It wasn’t that difficult. This was getting uncomfortable. It wasn’t as if there was something he wished to hide. On the contrary. There were no secrets. But the more he tried to explain the more confused it got. Not for him. For them. Why? He was being sincere. And thorough. It was important that they travel back with him. Or at least as far back as possible to trace his relationship with the stage. Why he felt like he did. The ease with which he had learnt to turn his everyday routine into drama. Taking upon himself the burden without in anyway feeling the weight. As long as his work got done. His ‘work in the arts’, as he put it. This required acumen. And money. There was no ‘before’ and ‘after’ in his understanding of money. You began your work before you got it and continued it after you’d spent it. If this was enigma. So be it.
He yearned of a time when he could slip out of his skin and slither away into the grass leaving reality to others.
But the questions were being fired. And answers being sought.
What is the stage experience made of?
An iconography of impressions, of influences, of readings and viewings, of imbibings without sipping, of drunknenesses and wantonessses, of illnesses borne impatiently, of hurting, of simply waiting for hours on end, of learning to string green peas with a fork and knife, of stealing ideas, and cheating by turning pictures upside down and reproducing them as ‘fresh’ designs, of hero worshipping, of lusting, of restlessness and frustration, of poverty, missing opportunities and of grabbing them when least expected, of inabilities, of struggling in a body that senses movement but cannot replicate it, of bearing crosses, of shynesses and their opposites, of learning to beg for favours, of living with mud-spattered faces, of buried pride and countless funerals, of trepidation, of houses that sold out and those that had too few audiences, of failed cues and ‘moments of magic’, of caring, of detail, of ingenuity, of sensing that ‘A’ ladders are not just for climbing, of throwing caution to the winds, of risks taken and toes stubbed, of slippery slopes and replays, of counseling sessions, of loving women and men, of being moved over issues that seem lost, of politics and hours spent on railway stations, of art, and music, and cinema, of tears that come easily and those that have to be squeezed out of over-wrought eyes, of fabric, and wood, and metal, and paint, and paper, and grease, and the never ending desire to make what-is-not look like what-is . . .
‘My language trembles with desire . . .’
I am at a dream. It is also that which I am dreaming. Dreaming the dream that is being dreamt by me.
By me alone.
I seek words that will emote. Move restlessly across the stage refusing to stand still ignoring the urge to pause. Words that will seek translucence in a pool of light. Words that are nimble-toed and taut. Those that appear to skim the surface of the wine-drenched stage. Bliss. Full. Incandescent. Rhythmic words. Like fireflies.
Like a herald the twilight at the lakes fills the air with expectancy. The fading light will bring the fireflies to play upon its edges. A lad not quite out of his teens will capture seventy-seven or more into a large glass jar. For he has promised his ladylove. She who has no memory of this quest. Nor time enough.
It was well past midnight when I came back to the theatre. Made my way through the basement door and up to the dark stage. I placed the jar of fireflies on the stage and slowly removed the cloth that had concealed their brilliance.
I then opened the jar and let each glowing word escape into the dark of the auditorium.
Unable to reach the bottle of ink on the writing table. I climbed up on the chair. Pushed the leather bound bricks on the table to one side. Making room for myself. Took the red notebook. Went through it page by neatly filled page till I came to a clean white sheet. Took the glass bottle with the blue ink. Took out the conical stopper. Looked around the desktop and found the long nibbed writing instrument I had seen my father use. Dipped it into the ink. Began to doodle on the sheet. Deep in concentration. Tongue between my teeth. Elbows on the desk. My knees rubbing the rosewood top. Unable to decipher. Making my own sense of the language that had not yet begun to reveal itself to me. I labored hard at filling the page. Like I had seen him do. My father. Page after page. In my excitement the hand I was using to write knocked over the ink bottle. On to the page. Unable to stop the inkflow I watched it bleed endlessly on to the pages. Like a tidal wave it soon swept all over my painstakingly written scratched doodled sandcastle drowning everything in its wake. Devouring the white. Blue fanged monster. I began to cry. Copiously. In confusion. And in hurt. My tears like a turbulent river in spate. Chasing the ink. Smudging. Chiding. Fighting its devastation with clenched fists.
Then. As I watched. The advancing ink came to a halt. Close to the edge of the page. Reared back. Arresting its speed. Arched itself into a curve. Revealing its coral green underbelly. Turned on its heels. And began to call back its forces. Gathering them into a swirling cloud that bored a hole into the centre of the page. Like a drill. A well filling fast with ink. An army in blue deciding to drown in its own swell. Till all that remained was an even round circle. Deep. A blue lake. Calm. Serene. Contrite.
The tears of a four year old had washed the page clean.
A series of ‘lessons’ or ‘learnings’ to explore places of freedom and dynamism . . .
‘I don’t want a static picture, but something that evolves, that has movement, not necessarily physical movement, of course, but a setting that is dynamic, capable of expressing changing relationships, feelings, moods, perhaps only by lighting, during the course of the action.’ Josef Svoboda, Scenographer.
Freedom to explore and experiment in any number of design-specific situations/disciplines. To look at theatre design and design that looks beyond the proscenium at other architectural ‘realities’—exhibition spaces for example. It is important to ‘recreate’ the sense of ‘flux’ that surrounds all our actual workings in the field of theatre design. We are never certain of what we will encounter next. There are very few ‘granteds’ and many surprises. Most of our resources are indigenous. Design solutions have to be found in a manner that combines improvisation, risk and practical know-how in different measures:
‘Experiment is an obligation. The sole means of regeneration for real creativity and a voluntary acceptance of risks. This applies with double force in theatre, because a theatre artist has never had and will never have the possibility of testing his experiment “uncommitedly” in some remote laboratory beyond the perimeter of the stage.’ Josef Svoboda, Scenographer.
So how do we structure our teaching–learning sessions so as to create—however temporarily—this ‘laboratory’ environment?
—Definetly against a linear chronological classroom that teaches but does not necessarily prepare us for the ‘real-life’ conditions that exist inside the theatre!
—Would prefer to improvise a model that sets up possibilities—both hidden and visible ones of creating, seeking, experimenting.
—The idea would be to avoid promoting any one artistic discipline—be it painting or architecture or sculpture or film and photography for that matter—as the central one. Use one, use all. Synthesize. Select the one that corresponds most with our sense of the theatrical concept.
Breaking moulds and recasting.
—Try and subvert existing notions about designing for the theatre. Not so much to reject the old ‘out of hand’ but to focus on the here and now.
—To express all that is contemporary and reflects the prevailing cultural mood of the day—the ‘life-style of our times’ as it were.
—This approach is not going to be without its attendant oppositions—after all we are creatures of habit and it is possible that the kind of ‘student’ we are attempting to interact with will find it hard to accept when s/he discovers that lighting people or scenery is sometimes not as important as lighting the air around the actors in a way that the atmosphere vibrates with whatever particular emotions the scene is meant to express.
‘That which is elusive’. Find it. Hold it in the palm of your thought. Articulate its radiance through any form of creativity you call your conduit, for that is what any creative action is: a ‘transience’ through which art reaches its audience.
‘Wear only your second skin’, shed the one that has trained itself to dullness. Let it respond to every single thing. Soak it in. Absorb without smearing your self.
Remember the obsessive use of ‘how’ has erased the letters from your keyboard. They no longer exist. It matters little for you can do without the word ‘ ’ for the rest of your days.
‘rest of your days’—drastic that. Like a prison sentence.
Or: a future that does not question. Simply arrives at the doorstep. A present in the guise of a gift. A letter from a lover.
Or: the trepidation that the unknown brings in its wake— ‘ . . . loves me’, ‘ . . . loves me not’. Games played in a sixties ‘youthood’ when plucking leaves was not a crime
Or: the blushes with which you greeted Lillian Clements, while she allowed you to browse her armpits as you pretended to fumble with the broach you so desperately wanted to install on her wonderous chest; Patsy Alexander, who showed your tongue the path it must traverse so that Elizabeth and Rita and Jenny and Maureen who would one day follow would think you were a hot-shot kisser; and Prem whose motherly tact choose to look the other way when you returned home after a ‘friendly’ black-eye from Gregory with the explanation that you had walked into his grandfather’s four-poster bed.
I invite you to travel. To wander the thickly populated lands of memory in a ghost-like manner—all seeing but unseen. Who knows what you shall find?
Why is memory so often sensual?
So what does memory have to do with designing stages? Or books? Or catalogues?
It is the hour after Babri.
I am to design yet another stage for a concert featuring Hari Prasad Chaurasi and Zakir Hussain for Sanskriti Sagar at their theatre G D Birla Sabaghar. I have been doing their stages for the last 15 years using whatever material I can lay my hands on: there have been stages for bhajans with 1600 terracotta pitchers forming a gigantic half moon with an aquamarine Krishna and his gopis in a navrasmalika rendering painted on the pitchers as if the undulating surface was a canvas; a Bismillaha Khan concert ushering in the new year has a cluster of large chandeliers gathering dust on the floor in one corner of the stage. The rest of the stage is full of half-covered antique chairs in a helter-skelter that gives a sense of a large havelli which has seen a glorious past and is now in ‘tatters’ . . . but the music must go on; a Kishori Amonkar morning which reveals a backdrop of suspended planks, charred, soot-covered, hanging in various permutations from pristine white ropes . . . like giant swings . . .each plank has a hundred smoldering diyas . . . 50 planks . . . 5000 snuffed diyas and the wisp of innumerable smoke trails struggling to find a way out of the theatre, succeeding instead to slowly drift upwards and hover above the singer and the musicians . . . listening, remembering time that was . . . .
But today this ‘whimsy’ will not do. Or if it will it will be bursting with anger. And frustration. And despair. For I have just heard the rumour that in the wake of the Babri backlash some people rushed into the train from Pune to Bombay to cut off Zakir’s hands.
How does one translate this into the helplessness of a stage design that will both be a tribute to a great musician and a release for my impotence?
I reach for the two aluminum ‘A’ ladders lying in the theatre. One taller than the other. I place them diagonally across the back of the 16 ft by 8 ft platform covered in black velvet which is in turn placed square on a matte black floorcloth that shrouds the entire floor of the stage. I then proceed to insert wooden battens that are like giant spikes into the different rungs of the ladders. Like a porcupine that has been startled. I then rip open reams and reams of blood-red cloth and suspend one end from the black flies above the ladders. The other end ties the ladders into knots and spills over on to the black velvet. Makes its way across the black of the floorcloth. There is no stopping the blood now. It flows freely and out of control. Like an artery that has been slit. It covers the seats bisecting the hall diagonally and makes its way to the foyer and up the stairs and on to the street. I create another fissure across the other side, also diagonally bisecting the first one. Like a giant ‘X’ of Red. This too finds its way to the street from the other entrance.
The audience sits on the bloodied seats.
What does it mean for an artiste to take a risk?
It means that each time you set out to create you go out on a limb. It means having to dispense with the safety nets for the trapeze act you are about to perform. It means having to find your own permanent connection with the inspiration inside your head.
Pluck the idea of what you wish to do out of the air. Again and again. With unfailing consistency.
Theatre and memory.
To recall an event, to free it from the ‘clutches’ of memory, and in remembering, to recount or describe it, is to create the possibility of drama. For in description lies the temptation, even the necessity, of embellishment, of adornment, of enhancement and of course, of omission. What the memory chooses to ‘conceal’ or ‘fail to reveal’ is as inherent in the retelling of an event as is the relationship between that which is being narrated and that which is being received by the listener-viewer, the ‘audience’. Or to put it another way, the tale being told may not be the tale being heard and in both the ‘telling’ and the ‘hearing’ lies the possibility of ‘that which is left untold’, the unsaid. The unsaid having been impregnated by mystery carries within it the seeds of the dramatic. The ‘narrating’ of the unsaid uses a ‘language’ of its own. The lingua franca of subtext. A text that carries within it an entire lexicon of ‘unseen gestures’—signs that are cleverly scattered in the body of what is being said so as to escape immediate detection. Subterfuge or the art of building up suspense? Or simply ‘that which makes its presence felt by its apparent absence’, carrying within it an entire universe of implied meaning that appeals directly to the senses.
Rabindra Sadan in what is still Calcutta. Shombhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra come together after years of estrangement in a charity performance of Char Adhyaya. The performance to a house-full of theatre goers is brilliant, electrifying. The standing ovation for the two actors is a long affair. Seen together after what must seem like aeons to those who carry grateful memories of their days together as man and wife and theatre partners the audience is reluctant to leave, to believe that this may be their last chance to see them together. The applause dies down and in that one pause before the curtain a clear, desperate, hoping-against-hope voice echoes what the other 1103 voices carry in their hearts, ‘Do jon ke aabar dekhte chai’. The silence that follows for a brief eternity meets the fate of all such silences in that it needs a knife to cut through it. Then Shambhu Mitra does something that goes right through to the core of our stretched-to-the-limit senses. He makes what must go down as the simplest of hand gestures with his right hand and elbow. A gesture that whispers ‘Inshallaha’, ‘God Willing’, to each and every individual present as if it had been spoken to them and them alone.
Is it simply the myopia that attaches itself to nostalgia that makes those of us who grew up in the sixties and were watch-doing our theatre through the seventies feel it was more desperate, angry, stubborn and necessary? Why do we feel that the whole act of performance ‘then’ was as if our life depended on it and ‘now’ it is, at its best, an acquired competence and at its worst, vapid? Is there some truth in the lament ‘that we have run out of causes’?
So invent new causes. Seek them out or learn to recognize their new guises. A theatre aspiring towards any kind of relevance cannot live off a continuous diet of excuses. The causes are around us and they are twice as relevant.
I found the words that had escaped.
Rounded them up at gunpoint.
Marched them into the compound ringed by barbed wire.
Knocked them senseless with the butt of my gun.
Watched them collapse into a heap of meaninglessness.
Lit a match.
Flicked it on to the heap.
It took several lifetimes.
But at last I succeeded.
To set the words on fire.
The rising smoke drew across the sky
the meaning of my life.
To write is to delve.
To hope. To write is to set off on a journey. There’s no arriving. There’s no ‘getting there’. Just the tramping. The walking. The dust tracks as signs of life. Someone has walked this way before. The reassurance. The comfort of friends. And of course the words. Words as solace. Words as recollection. Incomplete words seeking salvation. Broken words in limbo. Premature ones spewed into the gutter even as they are born. Words without moorings. Or roots. Homeless words seeking shelter from the storm. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Words that act like an opiate. Words that sing a lullaby. Unashamed words. Naked and stripped of veils. Harsh and therefore often truthful words. Words of the people. Words that refuse to die. Or be buried. Fighting words. Words with a cause. Borderline words strutting to a neutral tune. Neither-here-nor-there words. Our words. Their words. Words of attrition. Those that feast on anger and prejudice. Words of war. And those that want nothing but a happy ending.
The freedom of language as we used to know it is under a cloud. The very clouds that we grew up turning into sentences are now under suspicion. Trusting words to mean what they say is no longer an option. Sure, we hear them. Often, we even ‘see’ them as they sway down the ramp of language. Stony eyed and anorexic in their transparent gowns. Unblinking in the harshness of the flashing lights. A dull salute to conformity. Or words in the grip of fear. Wrap your tongue round such a word and you see it thrashing and struggling to slip away. The desire to spit out words is unadvisable. Surreptitious tip-toeing after a cautious glance to the left. The right. Then scurrying across the road to safety That’s the way, today’s way, with words.
A brief rumination on nothing:
The image I have is of a deserted whiteness. Desolate and uninhabited. The sheet of paper stretches into the twilight. Barren, solitary, introverted, hermit-like in its desire for seclusion. Companionless. Unfrequented except by thought.
How do you create loneliness? And its close Other, intimacy? Without which you cannot write.
The act of writing is one of solitude. Like diving into the innermost, blindfolded. Of turning eyelids into tightly clenched fists. The nails dig deep. Drawing blood from the darkness.
Of waiting for language to find an opportune moment and reveal itself.
Of digging into memory that is elusive and often helter-skelter in its desire to be untamed.
Of chasing ‘butterflies with nets of wonder’ often with the cruel intent of preserving them like dead flowers between the covers of a book.
Of seeking your muse, night after night, with the remaining glass slipper in the hope that it would fit.
There are words that are welcome. Welcome words. Genial and hospitable. Magnanimous and large-hearted. Words that have kind faces creased with the wisdom that comes with years of usage. Sculpted words that know the pain of the mallet.
There are words that are not so welcome. Unwelcome words. Met with suspicion as they thrust their way forward. Words that have to prove their identity in a post-nineleven new order where a passport is a document of mistrust. And hostility. Nomadic words that have no choice but to remain in perpetual exile. The Jews of language. Imagine mailing letters home and finding them returned unopened with the legend ‘address unknown’.
There are words that come to the feast wearing masks. Disguised figments awaiting the witching hour when they will turn into mice and scurry back into the dark. Unless . . . unless they can be unmasked to reveal their true selves.
Words, like mourners at a bereavement, inconsolable. Devastated and stricken with grief. Wearing the garb of deep and profound sorrow. Intense. Emotion writ large upon their countenance.
‘Every now and then it is possible to have absolutely nothing;
the possibility of nothing.’
Naveen Kishore. Theatre lighting designer, photographer, publisher. Seagull Books.