Subversion has no clothes

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018
Mallika Taneja's 'Thoda Dhyan Se' bruises with its silence and mocks with its black humour. Photo: Kamal Narang

Mallika Taneja's 'Thoda Dhyan Se' bruises with its silence and mocks with its black humour. Photo: Kamal Narang   -  Business Line

Telling it the hard way: Mallika Taneja's 'Thoda Dhyan Se' bruises with its silence and mocks with its black humour.

Telling it the hard way: Mallika Taneja's 'Thoda Dhyan Se' bruises with its silence and mocks with its black humour.

A shard of a play that is a political choice, a protest — one that fractures the conventional relationship between actor and spectactor

Mallika Taneja’s newest stage is a 12th-floor apartment in Greater Noida, a suburb 50 km from the Capital where skyscrapers are the real inhabitants. A small carpet on the floor is her performance space. Clothes, enough to fill a trunk and her only prop, hang from lampshades and a house ladder. More are neatly stacked on a chair and stool. A small table lamp contributes to the lighting.

The audience, a little over two dozen, is mostly academics and university students. They are perched on durries, cushions, beds, chairs and sofas, and at least some of them know what to expect. Taneja has taken Thoda Dhyan Se, a shard of a play that bruises with its silence and mocks with its black humour, wherever her audiences will have it. But some things never change. Like the heavy silence when she walks in naked. As she stands and looks at each of us straight in the eye, the conventional relationship between the actor and the spectator fractures. The actor appears comfortable in her nudity, but it challenges the audience. One earnestly meets her gaze. Another looks away. The third watches, mouth agape. The fourth, shoulders slouched, smiles a casual smile. Gazes wander all over her body. Taneja can feel them all. “Whatever the gaze may be, I have to be doing what I’m doing. I make sure I’m not offended by any of it. I’m very in with the fact that they are no hermits. I have to give them time to deal with the fact that there’s a naked body in the room and what’s the big deal about it,” says Taneja.

She stands and then turns slightly as minds and minutes tick away. She stands till the breathing around her becomes normal. Till the abruptness of the nudity wears off. Till, as she says, “What’s the big deal” becomes a flickering thought in the head. Then she smiles, a smile so beguiling, that the audience is relieved to give it back. She is still naked. But now it’s no more about nudity. The anonymous naked body has become the smiling person. And then she intones, “ Thoda dhyan se” (Be careful). Taneja crushes the potent silence of nudity with a monologue that works itself into frenzy. She talks about being in tune with the ‘atmosphere’ of a place. About being home before dark. About not telling anyone much about you, so that no one really knows you and cannot blame you for anything. Each dupatta she ties around herself, the tops, shorts, socks and gloves she wears, one on top of another, smothers the person who stood before us a few minutes back. A lifetime’s advice of ‘be careful’ makes her a scarecrow. She exchanges individuality for anonymity, if that will keep her safe. Finally, she puts on a helmet. When not an inch of flesh is visible, she says, “If something happens despite all this, you can at least say it’s not my fault.”

Seated in the balcony of her south Delhi home, between spoonfuls of dal-chawal , Taneja talks of how Thoda Dhyan Se started. “Years of being told these things. Years of people watching, touching, looking. Years of being a woman in the city.” It was one experiment among many she and her friends at The Tadpole Repertory were working on four years ago. But this particular work grew each time she performed it — in her innerwear, before friends, artistes and acquaintances in small spaces. “Who knew what this play had,” she says.

The Zurich Theatre Spektakel sent her an invitation. And Taneja reached out to veteran Maya Krishna Rao to work and rework the piece. They decided to do away with the innerwear. “I just stopped having answers to why I’m doing it that way.” Being naked became the only way to do; once she was convinced, nudity was just a part it. “I have understood, emotionally, at a gut level, even if I cannot articulate it exactly, that this is the only way to do it. The rest of it is figuring out how.” A lot of figuring out, at that. “Strength comes in the doing. You can be standing in a rehearsal room and doing it. But it is very different to do it in a room full of people. I had to be comfortable with my body and it is a constant process. To a large extent I have said, ‘ Dekhenge to dekhenge — they will also get over it’.”

The piece is her political choice — her protest, question and answer. And it is risky. So risky that performance in India is still confined to small communities and festivals. Taneja wants it to reach as many as possible, so she has kept both the old and new versions alive. She performed it in Jantar Mantar, under a tree, on December 16 the year before last. The audience stood around as she performed in her innerwear, in a space that guaranteed no security and lacked the sanctity of theatre. “My voice couldn’t carry. I had to use a mike.”

“I’m okay to perform anywhere.” And last month she got her biggest stage so far. In Sankar Venkateswaran she found a curator willing to take the risk. Thoda Dhyan Se was the final performance at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala. For Taneja ITFoK was a turning point; that she could perform at a government festival with the State machinery aiding her is subversion at its best. She is appreciative of the audience, about 300 of them, who had no clue what was in store when they walked into the Black Box. She calls it a ‘moment’, when something shifted for the theatre and the audience. “They could have not let this happen. They might have disagreements with me. But they didn’t stop the show. They let people have their voice and they will debate it later. You cannot ask for a better response. When you let your counterpoint play itself out, there is true co-existence.”

Taneja is set to start work on a piece with Shubham Vardhan on the politics of memory and forgetting. She is also gearing up for the 24-hour walk, her piece at the upcoming walk festival. Thoda Dhyan Se, her experiment at subversion, will happen as long as she goes about it smartly. ‘Careful’ is, ironically, what her friends tell her when she sets out to perform.

Published on February 05, 2016

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