Playing With Ghosts: An Interview with Anuja Ghosalkar on Performing Archival Absences

Co-Director of Staging Our Histories, Arpita Bajpeyi, recently had a chance to meet with Anuja Ghosalkar, founder of the Bangalore-based theatre company DramaQueen.  Ghosalkar is also the actor-writer behind Lady Anandi, a one-woman play based on her research into her maternal great grandfather’s career as a Marathi actor and female-impersonator in late nineteenth century India. The following is an e-interview with Anuja on her work and experience crafting and performing Lady Anandi.

To begin with, you mentioned that you had an opportunity to start writing Lady Anandi as an artist-in-residence at an art lab in Stockholm . Before you began writing the piece, though, what was your experience in the archives like? What drew you there in the first place?

I have always been fascinated with archives—  during my work as a film researcher in 2005 with Rosie Thomas, University of Westminster on the early stunt film in India, I spent hours peering over newspapers from the 1930’s and 40’s at the Asiatic Library, Mumbai. I made several visits to the National Film Archives of India and there too, the smell of film and the documents I found, intrigued me. I suffered from archive fever.

Following this, I did an Oral History project on my grandfather, Ram Tipnis—the oldest living make-up artist in India at the time.  A Sarai fellowship enabled me to record his stories—a history from the periphery of cinema and its technology. The entire project is documented here: http://papaajoba.blogspot.in

During five my years at Indian Foundation for the Arts, as programme officer for the Arts Research and Documentation programme I closely interacted with archivists, academics and organized and attended conferences around documentation and the role of archives. Through this, my significant learning was, while there is some attempt at archiving in India, there is no artistic intervention within the archival spaces. To plug this gap, I, along with a colleague designed fellowships for artists to retrieve materials from archives and use it artistically. Our aim was to enable the archive, not just as a repository site but also as a site of retrieval.

Post IFA, I became an actor— a lifelong dream that I decided to pursue at 34! It was during my early days as an actor, that I had the idea to use material from my family archive. I wanted to tell a story that meant something to me, rather than work with a pre-written text. Thus, I decided to work on the story of my great-grandfather—a female impersonator in late 19th century Marathi theatre. But he was absent from the archive and my archival excavation was drawing dust.

That led me to the question— can the archive be site of omission as well?

One of the things I loved about Lady Anandi was how you used the medium of the play to call attention to the distance between yourself and the scenes featuring your great grandfather. You read from scripts and wove stage directions into the scenes themselves – though the latter is something you did in scenes featuring your character, Lady F, as well. Can you elaborate on your choices in using, and pushing, the boundaries of your medium? Was that something that developed as you wrote the piece, or as you performed it? 

At the end of my residency, I had to share my text in a formal presentation. I had written the text for three actors, however I didn’t have access to actors Sweden, so decided to read all the characters myself. Since I didn’t have time to learn lines, I decided to hold the script in my hand, in case I fumble. During the “presentation” it became apparent to me that there was merit in it. While writing the script I hadn’t decided that will be “read out” rather than performed. But the more I present Lady Anandi, the more I feel holding the pages of the text are vital to create distance. And since in my mind it is unfinished, and it is a presentation, holding the papers seem only natural. Early on, while pitching the performance, I would say it is a lec-dem and I feel that in that form holding your papers in front of an audience is acceptable.

In short, that decision was made while I performed it for an audience. I think a performance can be rehearsed several times but it’s only when one does it in front of an audience, does its impact become obvious. Otherwise it’s a bit like going scuba diving in a swimming pool, the ocean is missing.

Having been a part of many mainstream plays, I feel the idea of a completed piece which is perfect, where everyone knows their lines, and is clean, does not appeal to me. In my aesthetic world, I prefer rough edges, mistakes, it really shows up the spirit of exploration. I do not mean that rigour is compromised, I simply mean that some part of the puppeteers strings show.

You use projections of archival photographs of your great grandfather throughout the play, often projecting them onto your own body. Like him, you slip fluidly in and out of differently gendered bodies throughout the play. It’s no surprise you premiered Lady Anandi at the Gender Bender theatre festival presented by the Goethe-Institut with Max Mueller Bhavan and the Sandbox Collective! Can you speak a little on your use of these photographs, your body, and the place of gender in the play?

Gender is central to the performance. I always knew that my great grandfather had a theatre company and he played female characters. But it was while working with a German dramaturg on Virginia Woolf’s text A Room of One’s Own, I thought about creating a performance on him. In Woolf’s text she writes about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Judith—would she have been given the chance to be a playwright? Or would she be married off? That had me question my place me in theatre, the roles I was given, the lines I was made to say. The responses I received when I decided to be a full time theatre actor at 34! Deeply uncomfortable with my insights, I decided to create a performance that meant something to me—two actors, separated by 100 years, one who plays women characters convincingly, the other, me, struggling to stand like lady.

I looked at family albums, one aunt had three photos, the other a few more. It was becoming apparent to me that he was absent from theatre history. In the stories I had heard of him growing up, he seemed like a hero, who played both male and female characters with ease, received critical acclaim, drank five litres of milk a day, loved wrestling. Could these stories be made up to feed my young imagination? Was he an apparition? If not, why was he missing from the archives?

But I found twenty odd photos of him. The decision to use photos was something I made right at the start of the project. That was the only real material I had. The more I looked at the photos, the more connected I felt to him. I could see him and touch him. And as I an actor, touching that image, however ephemeral, makes it tangible for me.

I believe that the body is an archive of the past as well, of what we have experienced, suffered, endured and it holds stories of our ancestors. And as an actor, I wanted to capture those images on my body.

I am interested in looking at the photo archive and its relation to the body as an archive and I put myself at the centre of it. Me, with my imperfections and the photos in all their regality and finesse.

Who is ‘Lady F’? How did you use her to situate yourself within the play? Or was she a vehicle for you to say something else, maybe address a gap that needed some attention within the work or the context/dialogue you see the play functioning in?

Yes, you are absolutely right, she is a vehicle for me. In theatre we love narrators, someone who pieces it together—Lady F is that character, except that she cannot give us a complete picture. I have often been asked is Lady F different from Anuja? Why not just say Anuja? Lady F is certainly NOT Anuja, she is the person who sees the ghost of her great grandfather every time she goes up on stage, Anuja doesn’t see ghosts, she writes about characters who do. A lot of theatre veterans said to me in the early stages of this project, “why should I listen to your story?”, “why is the personal so important for us to watch on stage, pay money for it?”  Therefore I created Lady F (F for Fuck Off, if you will, or F for Female).  But I do not “play act” Lady F, she is natural, urban, can answer questions, talks about process. Anuja later tells her how the show went, scolds her if she got a delivery wrong and so on.

 

When I had the chance to see Lady Anandi, you prefaced your performance by saying that this was a work in progress. After the show, you welcomed questions, critiques and comments from the audience. What has it been like to perform the piece for audiences as a work in progress? What has come out of this process for you, so far? 

It has been a very rewarding experience sharing this unfinished work. It makes me vulnerable as a performer and creator but it also emboldens one’s choices. It ties back to my earlier point about scuba diving in a pool—the audience is one of the most vital elements of a performance for me. Several people have said to me after the show, “thank you for making us feel important, as if what we say really counts. Otherwise we are shown work after it is completed.” The audience, especially in Delhi at S-47 Panchsheel Park, was rigourous in their feedback. They engaged with the process, with the research. They were progressive enough to say “you don’t need a director”, “it is unfinished only because you say it is, we felt it is complete”. Showing it to the audience has given me courage!

I also like the performative element of the Q& A— I sit there, someone asks me something terribly important. There is a shot in Godard’s Breathless where he shows a press conference and the inanities of it. I love it. But on a serious note, one audience member came and said to me, we are as vulnerable as you are, sitting there, trying not to hurt you, but say something that will add value to the project.

To reiterate, I really enjoy the feedback process, it teaches me a lot. And in the absence of a director, who critiques the show, the audience’s response fulfills that.

You wrote, above, that your research led you to question whether the archive can be a site of omission. I think for a lot of us who delve into the (institutional) archives, particularly when we’re looking for histories that tend to be marginalized by text and assumptions about the kinds of narratives that should be preserved as history, we find more gaps and silences than stories. What are your thoughts on encountering these absences in the archives and, more generally, history? How can we use the body as an archive, as you put it to respond to these?

This is a complex question to respond to. In my case, given that I had very little information on my great grandfather, I had to turn to my own body. And I felt that there may be some continuity there, in the stories or memories we physically carry. I think as performers, we can turn to our bodies for some sort of a response, either by juxtaposing our bodies with material we find or simply occupying space, where archival material is absent. For a filmmaker, academic, her relationship to that missing archive might be different. So I cannot comment about it in general terms but I guess what I am trying to say is that in our search for that missing archive, our relationship to the scant materials or tools we use to mediate it, is of great significance. Also, in Lady Anandi, the quest to find the material is what audience members enjoy watching. This leads me to believe that, the endeavor to fill the gaps is as vital an act, as finding that material.

My thought on history— I am not sure I am qualified to answer it. But I’ll attempt it. It is that the more personal, un-institutional voices that write it, tell it, the better it might be. I am a bit skeptical of a grand historical narratives. I prefer the fragmented, disjointed versions of it.

Many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for this, Anuja! We look forward to following your work, and seeing Lady Anandi in Bangalore again in July.

 

Anuja Ghosalkar is a theatre actor, writer and director based in Bangalore. Drama Queen, her theatre company, is evolving a unique form of documentary theatre in India. Anuja has worked with theatre directors including Atul Kumar, Abhishek Majumadar, Kirtana Kumar and Arundhati Raja. She teaches theatre to young adults and children across Bangalore through Jagriti and Ranga Shankara. When not doing theatre, she works on Experimenta, a festival of moving image art in India. In the past, Anuja has worked as a programme officer at India Foundation for the Arts, in film research, curating, writing and teaching cinema. Recently, she was an artist-in-residence at Art Lab Gnesta, Sweden, where she wrote Lady Anandi.

You can follow Anuja on her Facebook page, Drama Queen, and on her website: www.drama-queen.in.

 

Photo credit: Nazes Afroz

Students Bring History Alive in Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery

Last December, Think Arts and students from schools across Kolkata, India, opened a temporary exhibition at the South Park Street Cemetery. In the coming weeks, a new batch of students will have the opportunity to bring history to life in their own way in the same space. Read on to learn more about the project. (Feature image photo credit: Nazes Afroz)

The South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata is one of those iconic spaces in the postcolonial world that whispers to passersby of a very different time and place. The weathered, mossy stones now interrupted by trees and plant life that have had centuries to stretch their limbs invite you see the cemetery as an artefact of the past with little bearing on the bustling city outside its walls. Though largely forgotten by residents of Kolkata, it still has a pull for some people, like Ruchira Das. “Every time I visited the South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta, I have been moved by the gravity of the place. Not having grown up in Calcutta, I discovered this fascinating place quite by accident, during one of my visits to the city.”

But Das, founder of Think Arts – an organization geared to engage children with the world around them through the arts, in unconventional ways – was also keenly aware of the kind of history that the cemetery represented in the city’s past. “After I moved to Calcutta a few years ago,” she writes, “I got a chance to spend a lot more time at SPSC and was struck by the fact that the cemetery was in use during one of the most interesting periods of Calcutta’s history (1767 – 1830) – it was during this period that Calcutta was named the capital of British India, the Asiatic Society was founded, the Bengal Renaissance took its roots and the city saw several such significant events.”

Upon realizing that many of the city’s residents, including children like those at a school just a couple hundred meters away from the cemetery, had never entered the space, Das approached the Christian Burial Board, under whose management the cemetery fell.  The board mirrored her concern about the lack of public engagement with the space.

“Paradoxically enough, it was in a cemetery that the pages of history came alive for all of us.”

Das proposed a project wherein school children would spend six months researching and exploring the narratives buried in the site to develop an exhibition called ‘Our History, Their Times.’ The project was designed to encourage students to think about the spaces and stories that surrounded them through art forms they were familiar with: “Retracing a city’s history and presenting it using their [students’] forms of expression can be an involved, exciting activity with a tremendous scope for learning – learning outside textbooks.” For Das, the installations, which ran from the 7th to the 13th of December, 2015, represented a critical understanding and response to the histories to be found in the South Park Street Cemetery – an engagement that was as much about the form as the content in the physical pieces themselves. This emphasis on the value of art as an active site of learning is something Das believes in firmly, and was a driving factor behind the project. In her concept note on the project, she expressed a need to ensure “that the youth is involved in critical thinking – of investigating history, discovering stories, examining perspectives and questioning the accepted.”

The students, grades eight to eleven, came from schools across the city. They were captivated by the romance of the cemetery from the start. Reflections on their first visit to the site highlighted the picturesque beauty of the space, but also revealed a curiosity of the stories that lay behind tombstones and beneath their feet. “I thought that the cemetery was exquisite, but beauty certainly isn’t skin deep,” wrote one student. “The visit gave me the opportunity to make my way deeper into the stories of the people who lay there, and introspect on the lives that once were. It certainly had a great impact on me.”

The project was a huge success, both among participants and with members of the general public who poured visited the exhibition last December. Over the six months of the project, students explored the histories of individuals associated with and interred at the site, as well as those of the nameless Indians and Europeans who lived in Calcutta during that period. Working in groups with help from visual artist Nobina, and professor of English, Dr. Sudip Bhattacharya, students produced a number of different responses to the space, and explored various themes to bring the history of their city to life within the walls of the cemetery. Sunita Biswas, a teacher at Modern High School for Girls was as enthusiastic as her students about the project: “It’s been a wonderful learning experience for the entire team…teachers and students. It gave them a better understanding of Kolkata and its past. Paradoxically enough, it was in a cemetery that the pages of history came alive for all of us.”

Thanks to Ruchira Das and her students, the South Park Street Cemetery was bustling with live bodies for the duration of the exhibition, which brought in residents of the city from all walks of life who were curious about the colourful displays scattered between the trees and tombstones. “Our History, Their Times” was such a success that the Christian Burial Board has asked Das to facilitate the project again this year with a new group of schools. They will be starting their research and work on their projects in the coming weeks, and open up the cemetery gates for a second exhibition in December, 2016.

You can learn more about Ruchira Das and her organization, Think Arts on her Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/thinkartskolkata/.