World Theatre Day Address 2022
I had just spent three years and close to Rs 4 crores on redoing our amphi-theatre, Natarani, a rebuilding necessitated by the city taking the land that housed the stage.
It was 2018 and we launched our season in the new theatre. That season, and the next, were riotous, energetic, fun, with theatre and dance festivals, shows from 25 countries, talks and workshops.
Then came March 23rd 2020. The nation was locked down. The rest of the season was cancelled. Money was refunded. Money was lost. Colour and sound bled to an eerie stillness. The peacocks and pea hens took over the campus, strutting across the now empty stage. For the first time in 40 years I was neither performing, nor presenting.
And on, the lockdown stretched.
My artistic director, Yadavan Chandran, and I are the only two who live on the Darpana campus. We had at our disposal, all our musical instruments, all our video equipment, all our costumes, to play with. If we could muster the energy amidst the gloom and tragedy.
And energy we certainly mustered. How could performance be reinvented for unseen audiences? How could they be enhanced by creating videos for a virtual space? We explored this and created six new dance and performance pieces.
And then something wonderful happened. The League of Theatre Women based in the US, of which I am a member, decided to organize a series of performance based webinars, in a series called Theatre From The Streets. It aimed at giving performers the opportunity to create three to five minute pieces that drew attention to a problem or issue that they felt passionately about and wanted to bring to the world’s attention. Three countries were chosen, Lebanon-Gaza, Venezuela and India. Each had four Sundays to run the webinars, with three performances being presented each Sunday, followed by moderated conversations with people who had registered. I was invited to curate the Indian month.
I started getting in touch with artists I admired. In the current climate of self censorship and the blatantly misuse of the law of sedition to silence voices that question the government and its policies, I wondered how many artists would dare speak of issues like the oxygen crises, the migrants walking home, violence, divisiveness, environmental damage, rape and more.
Just as I feared, many artists expressed their inability to participate, in a variety of polite ways. Others jumped into it.
I have been very disturbed by the curbing of our right of free speech over the last few years. Many artist and activist friends languish in jails for no reason other than following our constitutional right to freedom of expression. I wanted to create around that. Serendipitously I came across a poem by Swaraj Bir Singh, in Hindi, addressed to the judge presiding in the case of Pinjra Tod activist Natasha Narwal, who had asked for bail to visit her ailing father. On a Saturday the judge declined to give an order, saying he would give it on Monday. On Sunday Natasha’s father passed away.
Swaraj’s poem gave vent to the anguish at the failure of our judicial system, and mirrored the anger, outrage and helplessness that I felt. I created a movement vocabulary for it and read it in the original Hindi. Yadavan directed and filmed it. The process of creating it was both cathartic and anguish generating.
Theatre and the other arts are an incomparable language to draw society to its core, to mirror society so that it finds its humaneness. The challenge is to do this while still creating pieces that have an audience, artful pieces that couch their core idea with audience gripping elements.
At a moment in history where the very idea of India recedes by everyday acts of omission and commission, it is up to us to search for values and truth within ourselves, and then to find the courage and artistry to enrich an audience.
We live in times where the conscience of human beings has all but disappeared. Yet without a conscience we are no different from animals. As artists we need to plumb our own depths to rekindle our conscience, to find generosity and caring in ourselves, and then to use our work to make the world a kinder, gentler, more caring and aware place.
Mallika Sarabhai is one of India’s leading choreographers and dancers, in constant demand as a soloist and with her own dance company, Darpana, creating and performing both classical and contemporary works. She has a PhD in organisational behaviour and has been the co-director of the prestigious arts institution, Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, for nearly 30 years. Always an activist for societal education and women’s empowerment, Mallika began using her work for change. In 1989 she created the first of her hard-hitting solo theatrical works, Shakti: The Power of Women. Since then Mallika has created numerous stage productions which have raised awareness, highlighted crucial issues and advocated change, several of which productions have toured internationally as well as throughout India.