Arclights on History

Dipanita Nath | April 14, 2019

Theatre director Zuleikha Chaudhari dips into the past to explore performative element in text, space and light

At the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in Delhi, art is constantly under review. Paintings are arranged on walls, manuscripts in glass cases and books on tabletops. On the upper floors, Zuleikha Chaudhari, 46, is contemplating opening heavy packing boxes filled with photographs, newspaper reviews, seminar papers and other paraphernalia of theatre, a form that her grandfather Ebrahim Alkazi, 93, helped shape in India. The cabinet behind her large table is lined with books on theatre.

The theatre archive that the Foundation, which already has an archive of 19th century photographs, called Alkazi Collection of Photography (ACP), started building a year-and-a-half ago, aims to enable research and scholarship in the form of publications, seminars and exhibitions. “The broader focus of the archive is to consider theatre a lens through which to read history — how theatre stages history and the unknown/marginal historical narratives that begin to emerge as a result,” says Chaudhari.

Chaudhari, theatre director and lighting designer, is the curator at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. In her works, art has a brush with theatre; her canvas is an arena for experiments with space, the nature of performance and the roles of both the performer and the spectator. Chaudhari’s last two performance-based exhibitions — Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case (2015-ongoing) and Rehearsing Azad Hind Radio (2018) — explore intersections of historical events and contemporary sociopolitical realities, art and law, among others.

Excerpts from an interview:

How has your interest in looking at the place of theatre in the larger scheme of things been influenced by your upbringing in a theatre-making household?

One of the consequences of spending so much time in conversation about theatre and art is understanding that the form and the practice has always been questioned and critiqued: I have a series of questions of the conventions and modalities that I investigate when I make a work. My focus on design, dramaturgy and its relationship to spectatorship would find its antecedents in my conversations with my parents (Amal Allana and Nisaar Allana) and grandfather (Ebrahim Alkazi) on the relationship between form, content and meaning.

You are working with the material that Ebrahim Alkazi collected. Have you worked with these to create a new production?

My work in and with the archive began in 2010 with a photograph (from ACP) by Italian–British war photographer Felice Beato (1832-1909) in the aftermath of the “mutiny” of 1857. Seen at Secundrabagh (2011-2012), made in collaboration with the Raqs Media Collective, is a 50-minute performance staged against the archival image. The performance uses the original photograph and a textual annotation on the photograph by Raqs Media Collective as a scaffolding upon which it considers not just the problem of history, but also the question of the poetics of the real, of memory and oblivion.

What is interesting about projects that re-enact a real-life trial using archival material?

Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case is based on an extended court case in pre-Independence India that revolved around the identity of a sanyasi claiming to be Ramendra Narayan Roy, the second Kumar of Bhawal (the heir of one of the last large Zamindari estates in Dhaka), presumed dead a decade earlier. The claim was contested by the British Court of Wards and by the widow of the second Kumar of Bhawal, Bibhabati Devi. The case was in trial from 1930–1946. Rehearsing the Witness pivots on the question of the imposter as an actor or if the actor is an imposter within the framework of law as performance. This project, which is now in the form of a re-trial (using original photographic evidence) with real-life lawyers and a judge and a series of expert witnesses, looks at whether the performance/retrial can facilitate a legal paradigmatic shift.

Has your work with questions of identity also made you think about your personal narrative?

On the one hand, of course, I think about my constantly changing sense of self in relationship to definitions of identity required and demanded of any and all of us all the time and, in the case of this project, these thoughts dovetailed with thinking about how the actor negotiates the question of identity — the mechanics of this. A central idea in Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case is the audition, which is typically an introduction where an actor has to present a self-portrait as well as his technique and ability to become someone else. The representation is real and staged at the same time.

Another work in which you have used archival material, though not from the Alkazi Foundation, is Rehearsing Azad Hind Radio, which was presented at the Berlin Biennale in 2018. What did that experience reveal to you?

Rehearsing Azaad Hind Radio is a 40-minute video placed within a set of a radio studio. The work re-enacts selected broadcasts Subhash Chandra Bose made from Berlin on Azaad Hind Radio — these outline his political philosophy and his strategies to attain independence. These are interwoven with texts from the JNU nationalism lecture series of 2016. The spine of the work is my conversations with the actors on performing Bose — where does the actor locate the political and in being ‘everything and nothing’, what does it mean to live a life of freedom?

Did you ever work with the well-made play, the traditional model of theatre?

After my graduation from Bennington College in Vermont, US, in 1995, in lighting design and theatre direction, I did a fair bit of Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, Howard Barker, Heiner Muller, Bertolt Brecht, Steven Berkoff. By 2003, I moved away from the proscenium with stagings that physically incorporated the viewer. This resulted in two series of works between 2009 and 2014 — Propositions: On Text and Space I,II and III and The Transparent Performer I, II and III — which contemplated a form between installation and performance considering the relationship between the performer and the spectator using scenography as text. For me, scenography examines the interference of construction, material and form, in a given space, the way they frame the empty space as well as the full one. Due to its theatrical nature, the interference is ephemeral and transient, bound in a specific time and place that gives up functionality in favour of the speculative act.

Since 2014, I have been looking at the relationship between history, law and theatre which hold in common the construction of narratives and the complex tension between the act of speculation/imagination and truth finding and truth-making.

Does working with historical data limit you from commenting on issues of the present?

My interest in the historical material comes from the fact that it is already resonant in the present moment. In Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case, the re-trial considers how identity is written into history and played out in the domain of the law, as opposed to the actual complexity of lived experiences and relationships. Rehearsing Azaad Hind Radio locates nationalism and freedom historically — juxtaposing Bose’s ideas with contemporary critical thinking on the same. At a time when questions are being asked about who can claim the nation/state and speak for it, my next project — The Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar — becomes interesting material to look at.

Your theatre breaks conventions in many ways. You may not work with a script or even actors. How do you see yourself as a theatre director?

I am currently interested in the role and nature of theatre itself — how can theatre create spheres where alternatives can be collectively imagined, tried out, discussed and confronted? Can theatre become a political space, a public sphere, in itself? In order to answer these questions, the form needs to be found anew each time.