Defining my life and art through displacement
By Lapdiang Syiem
As an artist who has lived and been trained in her art away from home, I have always felt the need to reconnect to the place where I was born and spent most of my childhood. This connection was also a need to go back and re-examine my roots that gave me my identity. Growing up in a Khasi matrilineal culture, one is conscious of the role one held, as a woman within the society, especially in a country that is overwhelmingly patriarchal. These questions became even more persistent as I struggled to find my voice and my expression within the theatre. These questions however, were never as straightforward or as defined. They were questions that took time to formulate in my journey as an actor, a performer, a storyteller. It was through my experiences of discovering my art away from home that urged me to return and question my roots. Choosing to and given that chance to return home, to practise my art is a privilege that I cannot take lightly.
Having spent three and a half years of my life training at the National School of Drama in New Delhi, I struggled to make sense of what the theatre meant to me. I did not grow up in an environment of any performance tradition as such. I come from an oral tradition of myths and legends that have nothing in common with the two Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I was never exposed to the writings of modern Indian playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh or Mahesh Elkunchwar, to name a few. Even though I come from the north-eastern part of the country, I was yet to discover the works of the late Heisnam Kanhailal and his wife Heisnam Sabitri and Ratan Thiyam. One read about the subjugation of women under sati, dowry, female infanticide, and other forms of societal suppression; however, they were foreign concepts to someone who had grown up in the north-eastern part of the country. That part, where one is still exempted from tax, property is inherited by the youngest daughter and lineage is carried on through the female line. I was, therefore, conscious of being part of a minority even within a diverse class of students. The biggest challenge came when, as actors, the language of expression within the school was Hindi. How could one find truth in one’s expression if one was not allowed to express in a language one thought in? This was when I began to struggle to find my own identity as a performer. I knew I had to probe deeper into why I wanted to pursue what I was passionate about and also what would be the content and material I would eventually create as an artist.
The challenges I faced in my years of training only exemplified this disconnect one felt as a minority within a country like India. We boast of a diverse culture and communities existing together. However, it is a struggle to fit into the idea of a pan-Indian identity that many institutions wish to propagate. There was a growing sense of displacement that oftentimes left me feeling inept and insecure in my position as an actor. Surprisingly, however, it did not deter me from wanting to place myself in the shoes of protagonists and antagonists and roles that portrayed characters from different social and cultural backgrounds. An example of this was an adaptation of a Bengali play, Baki Itihas, written by Badal Sircar. The play was directed by Santanu Bose and performed at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, under the name Raddi Bazaar and at the National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi, Pakistan. I played a Bengali woman who was in a crisis in her marriage. My costume was a Bengali sari that I had learnt to drape and I spoke Hindi throughout the play. It was after this performance that I came to realise that if one were to strip off the cultural baggage and leave only the suffering of the human spirit then that is universal and one could empathise irrespective of any culture one belonged to. However, the milieu where the story is placed and the consequences that erupted thus would have been a different story had it been placed in Meghalaya.
We were also trained in Koodiyattam, one of the oldest forms of theatre traditions from Kerala, under G. Venu and the circus arts in a circus-theatre collaboration called Clowns and Clouds, directed by Abhilash Pillai. These two art forms exposed the actors to a more physical approach of the body where the relationship between breath and emotion was explored through the Nav Rasa and the use of the skilled body as an object was displayed through the circus. It was an interesting exposure for the actors to experience two different types of body culture and ways of expression. Even though one was a traditional art, yet one could extricate only the physical aspect of performance without having to delve into the tradition.
These two exposures led me to speculate the possibility of looking into the body and creating one’s own body culture. The idea of physical theatre and examining the body in expression allowed me to confront my body, isolate my physical expression, and manipulate it into performance. Understanding the body and the basic aspects of movement technique allowed me to move beyond the social boundaries we build around ourselves. This, for me, was a journey where I was solely able to discover my identity in performance. The Commedia School in Copenhagen, Denmark, was where I spent 2 years of my life being schooled under the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq, a French theatre practitioner, whose research into the body has been instrumental for artists, who later wish to create their own work. His objective was to bring the performing body into a neutral state, eliminating the social and cultural baggage one carried and allow the body to rediscover expressive movement purely from a physical approach and understanding.
My journey at the school and in Europe also exposed me to another world. where the idea of tradition was as distant as the tradition itself. In India, where one was constantly reminded of one’s tradition and beliefs, one could not escape the implications of how that manipulated many of one’s choices. My experiences in Europe, thus, gave me a sense of anonymity and freedom from having to consider the consequences of breaking tradition if I chose to live a certain way. This permeated through my expressive journey as well and my sole focus became my body and this new culture I was beginning to cultivate. Lecoq had taken Commedia dell’arte and extricated only the physical aspect of mask work and animating a stylised form of physical expression. Commedia dell’arte had its place in the history of artistic expression. However, the form could now be taken apart and studied and placed outside its original social setting. In this way, we also worked on the Greek tragedies and studied the movement of the chorus, the dynamics of space and the relationship with the tragic hero. We were constantly breaking away from the traditional aspect and only examining the rhythms and movements that each style provided us with.
Europe was also a place where my identity in my day to day existence was many a times ascribed to me by my physical features. I was very often asked if I was from the Philippines or another Southeast Asian country where my features resembled the people there. Oftentimes, it was met with disbelief if I said I came from India because my general physical outlook was not recognisably Indian. I was also asked if I had come to Denmark to work as an Au Pair. These stereotypes that are constantly reinforced in the minds of people only heightened my feeling of displacement and confusion. At one aspect even though I embraced the feeling of anonymity, however, I was gradually feeling rootless and this further led me to return to the question of my roots and my identity. This questioning also formed the basis of work that I would create back here in Shillong.
Returning home after my training was challenging in a way because I finally had to put my queries and confusions and translate them all into performance. On the one hand, I was equipped with techniques on how I could create independent work that was new and experimental and unfamiliar to the audience back home. However, I also had to write and conceptualise content that was relevant to the audience here. I chose to become a storyteller in this contemporary age, where technology and social media has become the new platform of expression. What relevance did it carry to retell and adapt our folktales and myths into performance? Would a contemporary audience relate to such stories that were passed on by word of mouth but that are now slowly being forgotten? How would I contemporise these tales and bring out their significance in today’s generation?
All these questions continue to reel in my mind as I struggle to answer them through my performances. As a performer trained in many different performance styles, I am aware that I already carry a multi-cultural identity. However, that only broadens my perspective on what my work would carry and portray. It has been interesting for me to return and create work that although resonates with stories from my birthplace, they also carry with them pertinent questions about identity and probe the audience into thinking beyond their immediate reality. As an artist, I choose to remember and re-imagine the stories that have shaped my community. I believe that it is in the retelling and re-imagination that we place ourselves under scrutiny and are in a constant state of re-inventing our cultures. In this way, we prevent the stagnation of the growth of a people and the growth of self.
Lapdiang Syiem specialised in acting from the National School of Drama, New Delhi, and further trained in physical theatre from the Commedia School, Copenhagen, Denmark. She has performed in India and abroad in countries like Pakistan, China, Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia. Currently based in Shillong, Meghalaya, where she has been attempting to establish herself as a solo performer while conceptualizing and writing her own work. Now she is involved in a film, written and directed by Mita Vashisht, called That thing called the Actor and Iewduh, a Khasi film, directed by Pradip Kurbah.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.