Watching Ghostwriter, by The Necessary Stage was like coming home. As an Indian person, it was refreshing to see the shades of brown and curly hair, upfront and center on stage. Using Tagore’s words as a base, the show progressed through chapters, dictated by time and movement, through space (metaphorically or literally put on screens). A marriage between dance, movement, physical theatre, music, Carnatic or Hindustani, classical or contemporary, the piece travelled through internal landscapes of a woman. Throughout the piece, it never fell short of providing touch points, through classical dance, music and poetry, making sure that the Indian essence (“the essence of the essence” that Priya sought out), the ensemble had a clear trajectory inwards, as much as it was outwards through dialogues that were spliced from Tagore’s poetry, and personal accounts of dealing with life, and death, touchy trigger-warning emotional highs and lows that moved through a series of amazing footage, crafted by Brian Gothong Tan. It was obvious that Tan had a nuanced understanding of the layers of meaning and metaphors in the narrative, to be able to craft such layered footage, that added another landscape of meat to the story.
As Gayatri Spivak (“Can the Subaltern speak?”) argues, by speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity, subalterns will in fact re-inscribe their subordinate position in society. The academic assumption of a subaltern collective memory (or the process of accumulating a history together as a group constantly deprived of space to do so) becomes akin to a re-writing, a mythologizing of sorts, a re-membering of a history (disjointed by the nature of trauma, and that of displacement and dis-embodiment and detachment from an inherited history).
There were several things to appreciate. Tan’s film footages were strategically shot, black and white, with the leading ladies in several states of internal turmoil, in one particular chapter, the three re-enacted a classical Tamil film scene, of mothers-in-law, unfilial sons and weeping daughters, which was referenced later in Nandhini’s dialogues, as the traditional tropes of Indian TV and film. This piece encapsulated the Indian diaspora, many Indian individuals like myself have experienced. And that brings me to my next point (also my favourite part of the production): the music. Listening to Carnatic music, fused with Haikal’s insane creative non-music sounds was an experience.
Namita’s voice was steady, clear and poignant, and it was as if she was the Kadambari, the muse, the essential puppeteer, playing with her marionettes. Her Hindustani vocals was a character on its own, and it was ethereal to listen to, in collaboration with Bani Haikal. I was very, very pleased to see these musicians frontstage and center. Their sound-scaping and musicality was a much needed and important layer to this Indian story, as much as music is an essential part of Indian culture. And as all Indian essences go, the music (although at times jarring and disjointed, but relevant nonetheless) held the piece together, gave the dancers their rhythms, essentially drawing attention to how it was somewhat a metaphor for Kadambari Devi, who was Tagore’s muse. Bani was Tagore, in this piece. And it was a pleasure to watch how the ensemble moved in sync, here and there, and when they were disjointed, it was poignant as a part of the uncomfortable settling into the different paradigms: relationship between mother and son, or daughter-in-law, or the relationship between husband and wife, relationship between sister and dead sister, and relationship between the land, and a forgotten lover, and how these paradigms boxed these personalities in, and forced them to react this way. While all these characters seemed to have separate chapters, it was the music that brought everything together, providing a nice, somewhat bass tone for the characters to develop against.
I enjoyed Namita’s voice, and it could’ve stood alone if the director had wished it to. The ensemble was tight, and I was blown away by Sukanya Venugopal’s grace, the sheer elegance of white hair on a white anarkali dress, crisp and tailored well, swishing as her “aching back, popping knees” moved, her age shone through and it was showcased as a strength. Here, we saw more than one minority group perform.
I especially took to Nandhini’s monologue “Angry Indian Woman” and how the use of Tagore’s words were sexist, and there was controversy in his relationship with his sister-in-law (hello, she committed suicide after Tagore got married and they were close and her death affected him so badly that it prompted him to write all these wonderful things, basically he is so prolific because of one very angry indian woman who killed herself in a fit of sadness) and so the woman takes center stage here. Namita’s voice, Savitri’s school, Priya’s stubbornness and embrace of the very thing that made her weak, Nandhini’s questioning of the manspeak… there was something here that was worth discussing and talking about even after the show had ended.
Here the production attempted to establish a crossroads, between memories, internal landscapes of time, trauma, death and words, with poetry splashed across the canvas of the stage, and to articulate these issues through dance, physical movements and through simple storytelling. The set was ingenious: moving fragmented screens that doubled as walkways through memories, and dividers to physical spaces, and corridors. More work should be done like this, in the tracing of experiences of people like me: Indian and proudly Brown, distinctly conflicted all the time about who I was, and my experiences never fitting in, never being Indian enough sometimes, or too Indian that it is a weakness in the mainstream. I felt like I had come home.