Sunday, July 21, 2024

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry on ‘Hayavadana’: ‘The potential for multiple interpretations’  

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry has dedicated decades of her life to the stage. The winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Padma Shri for her contribution to theatre, she is known for plays such as Kitchen Katha, The Suit, Yerma, Nagamandala, The Mad Woman of Chaillot and Stree Patra.

An alumni of the National School Of Drama, she trained under Ebrahim Alkazi in the early ‘70s, making her a peer of actors such as Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Neelam, whose heart was conquered by the stage, reigns as one of the most powerful women directors. She comes to Bengaluru with her directorial venture of Girish Karnad’s play, Hayavadana.

Though Hayavadana has been staged in Bengaluru by reputed theatre groups in English, Hindi and Kannada, Neelam says her version of the play presents her perspective. “Hayavadana is a part of Karnataka folklore and I felt it would be a shame not to show my perspective here. I also saw it as a challenge to bring Hayavadana to a place where the story was born, where it took its first breath and where the people are familiar with the text.”

This brought with it a degree of certainty, says Neelam. “I have no stereotypical notions on how Hayavadana needs to be staged and this helped me steer clear of formulaic expectations.”

While Karnad wrote Hayavadana, it was BV Karanth who breathed his soul into it with music. Some of the songs like ‘Gajavadana he Rambha’ and ‘Bandano Banda Savara’, went on to become classics in the history of Kannada theatre. Neelam says her version also features Karanth’s original music with some tweaks by Amod Bhatt.

“Amod worked with Karanth for years and is a repository of Karanth’s original compositions. We have brought in some interjections and used certain instruments which were not a part of Karanth’s original structure.”

Neelam says, local instruments were brought from Punjab. “Most of the musicians are from Chandigarh and Punjab. This is inevitable as art is not a fixed entity. It travels through time, there is a certain migration of the text. That is when it becomes a classic.”

That is what a combination of Karnad’s text and Karanth’s music leads to, Neelam says. “Though the play was written in 1971, it is still current.” The play, Neelam says has the potential for multiple interpretations. “There is no single way of looking at it. The play has the possibility of an exchange with contemporary thoughts and times.”

Training under Alkazi, Neelam says, built a strong foundation in theatre for her. “I worked with him for three years. He was a renaissance man and a teacher that one can only dream about. He had that magical way of turning your life around.”

Describing herself as not a very visible student at the NSD, Neelam says, “I was not familiar with Hindi or Punjabi as I had lived in England for years. I felt a disconnect with the language. What I did was, observed him as a teacher and director. I learnt the intricate detailing he would bring to stage, what entry and exit meant, and the colour-palate and characterisations on stage.”

The most important thing she learnt from Alkazi, Neelam says, are the ethics of what it means to be in theatre. “That is how you as a director create that invisible thread to keep the group together. These are some of the intangible impacts of working with Alkazi.

Neelam also worked with Karanth for 22 years. “He composed music for most of my plays and we worked together in Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan. Having worked with all these great personalities, I have only been enriched.”

India celebrates diversity in the arts, Neelam says. “If we have English theatre in the cities, we also have Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam and Marathi theatre thriving. There are wonderful plays being staged in different languages without losing out on any particular language or form. We have theatre for the urban as well as the rural Indian.”

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

There is cross-fertilisation and cross-pollination happening constantly, Neelam says. “There is always a conversation going on and this way you slough what is not essential and retain what is.”

Bringing Hayavadana to Bengaluru post the demise of Karanth and Karnad is heartbreaking, says Neelam. “Emotionally it is a great loss to come here in their absence. I bring this play as a homage to them. Karanth was like family while Karnad was a hero to me. I met him for the first time as a student in NSD. We were charmed by this young scholar who had written Tughlaq by then. Both had an aura. I thank my life and my journey in theatre for giving me an opportunity to have met and interacted with the both of them.”

Actors who train in theatre at NSD and use it as a springboard to cinema, do not draw Neelam’s ire. “Training is training. Theatre cannot provide a livelihood. I have done theatre for decades because I am a university professor. I would not have been able to pursue theatre otherwise.”

Ultimately food has to be put on the table, Neelam comments. “If the artiste is married then there are more financial commitments. What an actor makes in a one-day shoot or by doing a cameo on screen brings him more money than his entire month’s labour on stage. This is the harsh reality of life.”

A trained actor, Neelam says, ups the bar in every role they portray. “This can be seen in the works of Pankaj Tripathi, Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.” 

Presented by Bhoomija, Hayavadana features music by an orchestra comprising Punjab’s wandering minstrels, lead by 86-year-old Harpal Singh. Deepan Sivaraman has done the scenography, Gyandev Singh, the lighting design and Melodi Dorcas the costume and props.

The actors on stage include Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Brinda Trivedi, Pallavi Jadhao, Ajeet Singh Palawat, Ambika Kamal, Mahesh Saini, Chaman Bansal, Guru Bamrah, and Puneet Kumar Mishra

Hayavadana will be staged from May 28 to 31 at 7.30pm and on June 1 and 2 at 3.30pm and 7.30pm at Ranga Shankara. Tickets on BookMyShow. 

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