Mallika Taneja is a theatre artist who lives and works out of New Delhi. Through performances, installations and curatorial work, she explores questions of gender, solidarity, pleasure, rest and remembering. She is particularly interested in exploring the political possibilities of performative ensembles, and the role songs have to play in leaving and gathering traces of people, places and things. Some of her works and collaborative spaces include Be Careful (Thoda Dhyan Se), Allegedly, Rest of the Struggle, Zanana ka Zamana, and Women Walk at Midnight. Her new solo production Do You Know this Song? is currently on tour. It traces the journey of searching for a lost voice between the performer, her songs, her dolls and a chorus built by the audience.
What is it about theatre artist Mallika Taneja’s practice that has interested me ever since ‘Be Careful’ (Thoda Dhyan Se), which turns ten years old this year? Is it the courage it took to confront daily atrocities against women in India by putting her own bare-naked body into a fiercely-protected but nonetheless unnerving performative space? Yes, but not just. Is it the way in which she sees any gathering as a potential performative ensemble? So that every time the bodies of women actively enter public spaces—quietly, matter-of-factly, regularly, singly, or together—it becomes part of a theatre of resistance? Yes, but not just. Is it the risks she takes to make her art embodied and innovative? The way in which the street as a place of protest and performance—specifically Shaheen Bagh—has affected and altered her approach to theatre? Yes, but not just. Her admittance that the most courageous thing she might have done is to confront grief in her latest show ‘Do you know this song?’ Yes, but not just. Is it her asking me: “In a society that is so emotionally stunted, so ashamed to grieve, so barefacedly hostile to women—what is a naked body?” What, indeed? – SAMPURNA CHATTARJI
So many things I want to ask you, Mallika, beginning with both familial acknowledgement and admiration for your immense courage. In your performances and your thinking of what you bring to the theatre, the body is centric. ‘Thoda Dyaan Se’ (2013), for instance. What gives you the courage to stand up and literally put yourself out there?
I don’t think it’s courage. Most of the time we don’t understand the enormity of the risk. It’s easier to take a risk when you’re a bit oblivious. I was 10 years younger, and this government was not in place. I got an international gig and that is where the idea of going completely naked came into being. Before that it was always ‘bra-panty’– that is as naked as I could think of getting. <Ek baar jab woh utar gayi>, it felt so obvious, that I never went back. I don’t think courage has a role to play. I protect myself with a vengeance. You won’t find a naked photo of me because that’s the only way you can carry on doing this kind of work in the environment and the country I live in. I think all artists do it, nudity or no nudity, every artist worth their salt understands you take the risk that is needed. It’s my firm belief that art means risk—even if it’s in the direction of beauty. Without risk there’s nothing. Without risk, it’s regurgitative of things that are being said and heard, and that’s not for me. This has to do with the person I am. I’m from Delhi, I studied in Delhi University, <humko aa jaata hain, DU ke bacche alag hote hain, abhi bhi>…
Studying in Delhi also means learning methods of self-defence that become hardwired, that never leave you, no matter which city you’re walking in… Those extreme fears, along with extreme self-confidence. Is that where ‘Women Walk at Midnight’ (2018) comes from? Are you still doing it?
Yes! You have to be brash and unabashed when you live in a city like Delhi. The street is so violent, you have to have your teeth out, there’s no other way. And this fear, this system of protection is so deep and so unfortunate, <tum Dilli mein ho, Bombay mein ho, Europe mein ho>, you’re carrying the fear like Betal on your shoulders. The other day I was going to a party, wearing a dress and lipstick, and Google maps navigated me to a completely secluded corner. When it took me to that corner, I can’t tell you how I panicked. I thought, <Buss, aaj main gayi. Khattam>. I saw this car coming from behind, there were some buses parked, a couple of men and I said, “I’m finished”. And how I reversed and got out of there, still following Google maps, I don’t know. I was like, fuck, I’m going to turn 40 next year… how many more years of this am I going to have to deal with? <Kuch hua bhi nahi aur mujhe laga main gayi. Yeh toh iss shahar ka den hain>. This is too much. When we live in this kind of environment, then what is a naked body? What is nudity? I feel the daily risk on the streets is much higher than the one I’m taking in my theatre.
The imprinting we carry, age has nothing to do with it, I can still feel that primal fear on my skin from my days as a college student in Delhi… So how does a walk become part of a performative action?
For me it is. Because my lens of looking at the world is performance. We’re forever performing, there’s always an exchange of gaze, you’re looking and being looked upon. But I don’t impose that lens on the walk. It is what it says: women walk at midnight. It invites you to do just that. It doesn’t say take back the streets, or anything like that. Just “<A se B chalke jao. Aur issme jo miley, who tumhara>.” You come for whatever reason, you come again and again, or never, but every month you walk in this city, and that’s a practice.
How does it work? Fixed time, routes?
I was mapping the route earlier, which was limited by what I knew. So then different women started taking us through their neighbourhoods—Jamiya, Malaviya Nagar. They set the routes. We try to make sure there are bathrooms on the route. Loos at night are always a problem. We walk for about two hours. Earlier our walks were longer. After Covid, people are fatigued, more than before. When we got back. post-Covid, we were like, what’s going on? Our relationship to the city, the night, the street had broken after months of sitting at home. The time earlier was from 11 p.m.–1a.m. Midnight is not necessarily a particular time, it’s a state of mind. What we understand as ‘midnight’ arrives at different times in different cities. In Cape Town, there’s a chapter of ‘Women Walk at Midnight’—we did it from 9p.m.–11p.m. It was so deserted at 9! Which Delhi is never, even at 11.30. Post-Covid, the night has gotten very long in Delhi. <Pata nahi kaha ja rahe, gadiya hamesha chal rahe hain>. We want to hear the city change, we want to hear the silence which you can’t in traffic. We want to hear our footsteps, our breathing, some people hum, you just want to hear yourselves. That only starts to happen after 12. Different areas, different times. It’s like a puzzle, we keep shifting, changing, adjusting. Which is why I say it’s a practice.
It seems to be part of your thematic of ‘let me insert this body into different situations, places, predicaments’—some real, some invented. Often, when I read playscripts by young writers, I get the feeling that everything is happening in the mind. But in your practice, there is a marrying of doing and being and thinking and feeling—all of which happens in a way that is fairly unique. And are there other women artists doing this, especially in solo mode?
Honestly, people pushing boundaries in theatre in this country are women, and a lot of them are doing solo work because they reject the frameworks into which they are cast. Because who wants to constantly be a girlfriend/wife/mother? We have bigger, better imaginations and ambitions for ourselves. And so, a lot of the solo work coming from women is really, really good. Of course, the guru is Maya Rao. If you look at her work, and at Jyoti Dogra, Sabita Rani—they are truly, truly unique. Unique is a strong word. I would say ‘newness’. They understand what it means to stand on that stage, to occupy the body they have been given, because nobody is writing roles for that particular body. There is an ambition, about what their own possibility might be and what the possibility for theatre might be. If you’re getting people into a room, you breathe the same air with them for one, one-and-a-half hours—it’s huge. People are buying tickets, driving, taking buses, waiting, with wide eyes, they want to listen to you—and what do you say to them? Most theatre I watch, or a lot of art that I see, I wonder, “Do you not ask yourself this question?” <Yeh sawaal kyun nahi poochh rahe ho?> Why do you imagine, “<Mainey bol diya, toh yeh important hain>!” I am here, therefore people should care?! No! Audiences come with a desire in their hearts, and we should respect that desire. I feel a lot of women artists are addressing this, in a hands-on way.
Tell me more?
Silence is a very violent thing, in many ways. <Chuppi>–which is not the same thing as quiet. I needed to break this silence and talk about grief. Grief is a hard nut to crack. During Covid, <itne log chale gaye, itne brutally gaye>. We may pretend to have dusted it all off, but there’s a lot of sadness around us. Really difficult shit happened. Overnight, people lost both their parents, siblings, and we just didn’t have the mechanisms to deal with this. So I figured, what if a community sits together and grieves? What if we sing together, cry together, what would happen? Why not bring back that old saying that theatre is for catharsis? Why don’t we need catharsis? If the seed of modern Indian theatre was to be political in a certain way, why was grief not political? We are so deeply defined by how we define politics. If your work doesn’t talk gender, caste, class, labour—it isn’t political. If you pushed towards beauty, then your work isn’t political. And I say, why? Aesthetics is a matter of politics, after all.
In this sort of washing-machine tumble-roll—one pulled something out, and I can only say it’s a musical solo piece. I still can’t say what it is about or what it is. All I know is that it hits people. Here, and in Europe, it spoke to people in different ways, and people sang with me, even in Europe.
Song as a link language that transcends the linguistic. When song becomes the structural device for you to let people walk into this embrace, while addressing the grief which is both yours and mine, it seems so simple…
And yet, it’s so complicated! There’s a lot of shame attached to feeling grief, and expressing it.
Why? Do you think it’s societal?
I will speak in a binary, because it exists. For men, you’re not supposed to show grief because it’s seen as a sign of weakness. Women have an ability to grieve. I suppose shame because it’s a very naked emotion. It’s an admittance of loss of various kinds. I suppose in a world where you have to constantly ‘win’, you can’t admit loss. But that doesn’t sound like good enough reasoning. This thing about moving on is so ingrained, <ki aagey badho>. Moving on to where, and for what? <Dhakka maar maar ke>, you’re moving on. Grief is an albatross. You are moving on with everything gripping and hurting. And then you realise, how freeing it is to grieve.
Especially if you can share this emotion in a community. One thing that struck me was the dolls you use in ‘Do you know this song?’. The impression I got was of creating— through these diminutive figures—a sense of scale. What was the thinking?
I always knew I wanted dolls in this piece. I always knew it would have song. I always knew that people would have to sing together. Part of the reason I brought Hansa (Thapliyal) on board, was because I understood dolls through her doll-making practice. The little dolls have come from Sangeet. The main doll has come from Hansa. This piece has parts of so many people in it. <Isme kitne log ke kitne hisse hain>. And this has been my most successful collaboration. Collaboration is like family for me—I want it, but it’s not easy. Collaborative art spaces are pretty familial, people break up like families do. But this one, people have walked into it and taken up space and given of things that I can’t say I brought. Lots of people’s bits and bobs. So many people who I don’t even know sent us clothes to make the dolls. There were multiple parts to the process. All of it was not material. Artistic process should have multiple purposes. The purpose shouldn’t be <hum ek product banayenge, phir usey dikhaenge>, it shouldn’t be a ‘product’ to be made, and shown.
So much of theatre does feel like product. Whereas you are thinking “what is material to the making of…”. When I see scenes from ‘Do you know this song?’ materiality seems to be a co-actor in that space…
Oh sure! You know, we tend to forget that we are also material. Especially in solo work. And of course, you are grappling with all the other physical material on stage… But at no given point in time are you <not> material, relevant, invested. Politics or public interventions—<you> have to know your own relationship with it. You have to know why you want to speak about something. The first material occurs inside you. You’ve got to be honest to that. It’s painful. For a person painted as brave verging on bravado, courageous and all that, for me to say publicly, “I’m sad”, becomes the most courageous thing that I’ve done.
The difficulty of acknowledging grief reminds me of your piece ‘Often, sometimes… it feels like this’ (<Aksar yunhi… mehsoos hota hain>) constructed around what you called the “mundaneness of mental health”… What were you attempting there?
We speak of mental health as if it were an ‘event’. It’s not. It’s literally every day, waking, sleeping. It’s like hunger. You don’t pay attention to things that are mundane. And therefore, it is a bigger problem. <Yeh to roz hota hain. Yeh toh hota hi hain>. But why is it not alarming that it’s happening every day. A friend’s family used to deal with a schizophrenic mother, daily. A lot of my understanding of what happens to kids dealing with mental health comes from knowing that family. Decades of unattended grief. Delicate and difficult to talk about. But we have to talk about it. Parts of me push back against the trigger-happiness of Instagram, social media, because I don’t believe it serves or solves too much, it feels like a pill you swallow and everything becomes better, but <aisa nahi hain>. Grief is a grind, having a mental health issue is a grind, this city is a grind, it’s a daily grind. There’s that poem by Pash, <yeh sabse khatarnak cheez sapno ka mar jana, ghar se kaam tak jana, aur kaam se ghar aa jana>. Pash was a fucking revolutionary poet, because this is what he wrote, that the worst thing in the world is for your dreams to die and for you to become a person of the grind. When you’re in that grind, where is the space for mental health, or grief? Isn’t this a systemic problem? Isn’t this a political problem? But we don’t see it that way. We need a particular kind of structure to see it as political or not.
Do you think that the performative ensemble is the only space where you can explore those political possibilities? Because this does not sound programmatic, ensemble is not orchestration for you, it’s molecular, granular.
Yes. Like <mutthi bhar ke chawal>. For me ‘Women Walk at Midnight’ is an ensemble. Every time we gather, it’s an ensemble. This line of thinking started for me with the anti-CAA protests. That sea of women sitting there—that was a performance for the state to see. The image as it is. It is there, it is stable, and it is for a gaze. For me that is enough for it to be a performance. These last eight years, we’ve been in a shit state, and protest has taught us a lot. If the street is protesting the way it is, and if ensembles are gathering and dispersing the way they are, what is going to happen inside the theatre? We made this piece going the CAA protests called ‘Zenana ka Zamana’ with 25 women. I thought, <agar bahar bheed khadi hai, toh stage pein bhi bheed khade honge, jhund khade honge> (if crowds are standing outside, crowds must stand on stage). Because the ensemble is the war cry, the group is a war-cry. And my friend Rajesh Nirmal who co-wrote the piece with me said, “<Movement se movement nikalne chahiye>”. The girls, these artists who have joined us from the anti-CAA movement, they will go on to create something else. My thing about the political possibilities of performative ensembles really comes from there. And that was also the time I really starting sinking my teeth into song. With ‘Do you know this song?’ I came out into the open, and said, I sing, I play. It’s an artistic shift. <Naarey nahin laga sakte hain, toh gaana ga sakte hain kya? Kis tarah ke gaaney>? (If we can’t shout slogans, at least we can sing songs. What kind of songs?) Songs come and go. But what is the new song of today? What is the song that we need today? <Woh IPTA ke gaaney abhi nahi chalengey> (Those IPTA songs won’t do any more.) The CAA protests were a moment of newness. A moment of occupying. Of taking up space and giving voice to people and things we wouldn’t have heard. It was not liberal Delhi. We were the outsiders. It opened the doors for us.
When I was growing up, street theatre was a big thing in and of itself. Does that thing as we knew it still exist?
It does. But what does it do? This is interesting for me, because at the end of this year, I will be directing a street theatre piece for Jan Natya Manch, which has turned fifty. So, I’m asking myself, what is street theatre, what can my practice bring to street theatre for it to stir a little bit. Lots of people are doing <nukkad-natak>. Right-wing <bhi nukkad-natak kar raha hain>. Plays that tell us how booze is bad and how Kejriwal has ruined us by opening up booze shops. Street theatre is actually a big part of agit-prop. It’s bigtime during canvassing, during election-time. When I was younger, I used to get so many calls, <ki street play likh doh>, for political campaigns. Because nobody wants to listen to speeches, you can put your manifesto in the street plays. The possibilities are many. But innovations? Innovations in tone, presentation, subject—do people want to hear those? Not just street theatre, theatre is in a moment of crisis, because we are deeply sabotaged by content. Massive industrial generation of content. During Covid, no theatre—buss content hi content. And now that we’re back, these questions are even more important, why are we doing theatre, what are our subjects, what can we say. So many things that we have to consider—the State, the lack of space. We have to search a lot.
So much of what the OTT or cinema pipeline is producing now is the sewage of the minds that want this propaganda to percolate. Do you sometimes feel afraid when practicing your art? Do you feel that the idea of the free agent is more and more impossible?
Thankfully I am not permanently attached to any institution, so I am hanging on to my free-agent status, but that doesn’t mean I can run around saying anything at all, because the consequences are so incredibly dire. If someone decides to take offence <chhoti moti cheez nahi hoti hain>. By shifting the burden of proof—guilty until proven innocent—you’re fucked for ever and ever. We know so many colleagues and comrades in this situation. And I don’t think anybody wants to sit in jail. There’s no heroism in this. Everybody just wants to be happy, live well, eat well. <Bahut badi qurbani hain, yeh nahi deni chahiye, kisi ko>. Nobody should have to. That you have to, nonetheless, is a different matter. Because of this censorship that has gotten so deeply into us, we’re constantly calculating, if we do this or that, what will happen? Then you make a backup plan. If this happens, who will we call? So, you’re not living. And that has a huge impact on what kind of work we’re making, where we are standing and speaking from, how much we are able to say. This is a huge loss. But I give myself this consolation, you can muzzle a voice but you can never silence it. Sometimes it’s also about patience. We have to sit on the side, and wait it out. Easy for me to say because I’m not Muslim, I’m not Dalit.
Thoda Dhyan Se turns ten this year. Are you performing it again this year?
One show in Oslo. And I’m also taking it to various living rooms, to see what happens. My body is different, my mind is different, this country is different.
Sampurna Chattarji is a writer, editor, translator and teacher with twenty-one publications to her credit. These include Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins 2015, 2020), which she wrote while on residency at the University of Kent, Canterbury; Dirty Love (Penguin 2013), which is her short story collection about Bombay/Mumbai; and Wordygurdyboom! (Puffin Classics 2008), which is her translation of Sukumar Ray’s poetry and prose. Her translation of Joy Goswami’s prose poems After Death Comes Water (Harper Perennial, 2021) has been lauded as a recreation of the Bangla originals in ‘a living voice, as inventive and vivid as the English of Joyce’. Sampurna’s work as an editor includes Future Library (Red Hen Press 2022) an anthology of contemporary Indian writing released in the US. The most recent of her eleven poetry titles is Unmappable Moves, just out from Mumbai-based indie-press Poetrywala. She can be found on Instagram as @ShampooChats.