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Mansingh’s ‘Trunk Tales’ strikes a chord

The happenings in the past two years have had a detrimental impact on performing arts and particularly devastating impact on theatre. Stalwart Indian playwright Neelam Mansingh Chaudhary's play ‘Trunk Tales’, was put together as an act of courage, an attempt to surmount the pandemic odds. Sakoon Singh, writes a well-deserved paean to Mansingh's play that was critically acclaimed and ran to packed houses in Chandigarh.

Neelam Mansingh’s ‘Trunk Tales’ is a narrative hinged on memories. If there's blood and bone that hold a human frame, the intangible memories hold the consciousness. Water, here, is the centerpiece: a pool, nay multiple pools fragmented with rigid geometrical frames. Those perhaps are the lines that fragment all resources: natural, material and human. This fragmented water imagery consistently lends to the underlying idea behind this production: how the binaries of caste, class and gender restrict the expression of natural self, further, how this division is founded on violence. On the clay and brick studio walls, reflection of the water playfully dances, frequently changing gradient. The play of dramatic studio light along with the rippling shadows of water create a striking visual that is akin to a parallel drama unfolding on the walls. A text and a context.

These are stories emanating from a stack of trunks, wheeled around in the beginning for the audience to absorb as the leitmotif. Solo performer, Vansh Bhardwaj, initiates an intimate dialogue with an unpretentious idiom and ample use of body language. Before long, the initial movements have drawn you into one of the stories he has to offer. The trunks are off loaded and placed strategically in the backdrop, indicating the source he will keep dipping into. That is also what makes the stories disparate, yet connected. Indians of a particular generation do enjoy a special connect with trunks and that mooring was untied somewhere amongst the audience as animated conversations about memories and trunks, got carried over from inside the studio to the garden outside after the play.

Bhardwaj’s lithe frame slides in and out of costumes, as into the multiple dimensions he essays with lightness. He enunciates fluently in all three languages: the colloquial Punjabi, Hindi and English. The discipline and practice called for in such challenging performances is very evident in Bhardwaj’s body language. The stamina required to sustain a week of intense solo performance on a daily basis is not possible without the bulwark of discipline and understanding between the mentor and mentee and that unflinching mutual trust is very palpable. In an earlier interview Mansingh had claimed that she considers herself the kind of Director who thrives on cooperation of her actors, leading towards an organic process of devising rather than straightjacket direction. That synergy, whether between her and the actor or the blend of various literal and experiential aspects in the performance is evident in this performance.

By and by a barrage of memories, experiences and trauma emerge from each trunk, spurring a dialogue on politics of food, gender, child sexual violence and appropriation of natural resources. Despite being a production that draws from many literary sources, the language of the play is very conversational, a register of common everyday use in these parts. The childhood ditties and popular songs are made part of the script and all this together has no truck with pretence of any kind. It is always powerful for drama to speak in popular tongue because that is the first point of connection with the audience.

It is a view from the margins, and as is Neelam Mansingh's aesthetic, she styles the production dominantly with the sensory where play and reflection takes place in equal measure. The actor’s play with water, feet dipping, splishing-splashing and further using it to enhance the emotions of greed and shame. At one point the water in a taut polybag is released in a stream to merge with the stream of tears of the actor. That is about the pain of a child who is victim of sexual abuse. Real food on a thali consumed by the protagonist adds another sensory dimension, conjoining the act of eating on stage with memories of violence around food. The idea of caste is so intertwined with access to food and company in this country, that it has led to alienation and dehumanization of the most vile kind. The protagonist partaking of the actual victuals adds to the narrative in an earthy way.

The element of water is further expanded from the stable visual of the partitioned water. A skirt drenched in water transforms into an object marked with signification. Somewhere it is repository of painful memories: the mother’s skirt, a coveted sartorial choice that is denied to a man, and so best to dispose it off. When he repeatedly asks it to ‘go, go now,’ and pushes it down the watery grave, water becomes a vehicle. But the memories continue to haunt. So the drenched skirt becomes a reminder of that violence that had been targeted at him- a potent symbol triggering childhood fears, then morphing into a symbol of gender identity that is embraced and celebrated with much glee and then a sad reminder of the violence it attracts. The intimacy of this pain that cannot be articulated travels lightly on the folds of the dripping skirt. Mansingh triumphs here with the power of suggestion.

The act triggers the subconscious, digging into childhood ditties that form an important part of this experimental improvised script drawing inter alia, from Omparkash Valmiki, Pablo Neruda, Nandita Haksar’s Flavours of Nationalsim: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship and Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men. The play showcases these concerns powerfully, with a taut storytelling condensed into 50 minutes. Very contemporary in its concerns and in sync with today's alive debates, Neelam Mansingh creates a powerful non-linear production, rooted in local concerns yet eminently international in appeal.

Here it is worth reiterating that Neelam Mansingh recipient of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Shri awards, with her troupe ‘The Company’, established in 1983 has long been at the centre of city’s cultural life. Her earthy home studio is a testimony to a life-long commitment to theatre despite the numerous challenges. Her performances have been invited to International festivals on numerous occasions and her oeuvre has a stamp of international acclaim. The Black Box which came out in the thick of pandemic last year was her response to the pandemic. Collectively, the happenings in the past two years have had a detrimental impact on performing arts and particularly devastating impact on theatre. The play was really, above all, an act of courage. Similarly, to have a daily show of Trunk Tales running for a full week to packed house is a feat for which ‘The Company’ deserves congratulations. Trunk Tales is supported by Goethe-Institute and RangaShankara.

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About the Playwright-Director

Neelam Mansingh Chaudhary

Dr. Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry is a world-renowned Chandigarh-based Indian theatre artist. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award awarded by The Indian National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama in 2003 in the Theatre Direction category. She is also the recipient of the Padma Shri Award in 2011 for her contribution to Performing Arts and theatre. She is Professor Emeritus at Punjab University, India . Her well-known plays include Kitchen Katha, The Suit, Yerma,  Nagamandala, The Mad Woman of Chaillot, Little Eyolf, Bitter Fruit, Naked Voices, Stree Patra, Gumm Hai and Trunk Tales. 

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Sakoon Singh currently teaches literature and Cultural Studies in Chandigarh. A recipient of the Fullbright Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, she has published her academic writings extensively, and has served on the editorial team of prestigious journals, Dialog and E3W Review of Books. She has recently been selected as Associate Fellow at IIAS, Shimla. When she is not indulging the written word, she is walking the wilds or listening to Jazz. She lives in Chandigarh with her husband and son.

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