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Reflections of an artiste's dilemma

``An Unposted Love Letter" was a well done play, technically perfect and held the attention of the audience. ELIZABETH ROY shares her experience.


Monologue well-delivered.

THERE HAS always been something wonderfully unbound about Punjab and it is so fitting that Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry should have opened The Other Festival.

The spacious stage of the Museum Theatre was turned into a crowded little green room with racks thickly hung with costumes in exotic shades and prints.

The room was spry with the quickening life that breathes backstage.

The darzi at her hand-turned sewing machine sang as she made last minute alterations. The coal-filled ironing box glided back and forth ponderously spewing steam. A double boiler gurgled tea or coffee as the case may have been.

Large baskets held props, as did those old aluminium trunks. Even as the audience winced, the many mirrors flashed three-dimensional reflections; unmindful a group in the corner practised their music while the Naqqals before the garish mirrors gave final strokes to their female impersonations. This was the setting and the scene of activity of Mansingh's play ``An Unposted Love Letter," enacted as a monologue by Ramanjit Kaur.

Mansingh said she was looking for a piece for performance for her group, The Theatre. When she read Doris Lessing's short story, ``An Unposted Love Letter," she found in it reflections of the processes and dilemmas that she was facing in her own life: the dilemma of the creative artiste. The confusion between the part you play and the person you are. Who are the people out there in the auditorium, applauding? Are they applauding you? The character you played? Your performance? Are you real for them? Are they real for you? How do you communicate and give credence to the androgynous in you? The play tried to answer for her some of these questions.

Neelam Mansingh for long periods had lived outside Punjab. She returned in search of her roots and she did it in the medium that she was most comfortable in - theatre.

In the process she disproved what she had always heard being said, that Punjabi as a language and culture was somehow poorly developed, somehow the lesser.

She traced the evolution of the language beyond even its Sikh influence, to its real roots. She found there was music, there was mythology, and there was history! One finds evidence of this in the very chaste Punjabi the play used. The music used was also from the old tradition - a very Sufi, Fakkiri kind of blend with its open-ended improvisation, a beautiful fusion of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Adapting Doris Lessing's story into Punjabi worked well since the issues the play dealt with were not culture specific - it had to do with the perceptions of an actor and acting.

When Mansingh returned to Punjab she met with a group of Naqqals, one of the remaining carriers of the Punjabi folk tradition, in this case men who traditionally played the female roles.

Through workshops they got to understand each other's work. Ever since, they have worked together and managed successfully to erase the divide between the urban Punjabi actor and the rural Punjabi folk actor, resulting in just actors.

The play though advertised as bilingual was more Punjabi than bilingual. And fair enough.

``I had written this for performance in Punjab, therefore it is in Punjabi. This is the first performance before a non-Punjabi audience. I am hoping that the energy of the production, the energy of the people will transcend language." ``An Unposted Love Letter" was a well done play, technically perfect and held the attention of the audience.

It was good to see Neelam Mansingh's work in Chennai. And, honestly it didn't matter all that much that the play did not actually transcend the barriers of language.

It is perhaps not fair to make an issue of this since it was not her original intention in any case.

However, here one needed language because Ramanjit Kaur's body (at times she came through uncomfortable in her role) was supporting the language instead of communicating independently and making language the ground for the body to dance on.

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