Mita Vasisht first became Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, in 2004. The National School of Drama-trained actor’s solo performance about the 14th century mystic poet from Kashmir, titled Lal Ded, includes commentaries, anecdotes and 30 poems in Hindi, English and Kashmiri. Vasisht will resurrect Lal Ded once more in Mumbai, at the National Centre for Performing Arts on 8 March and at the Nehru Centre on 26 and 27 April. The production will travel to Delhi in September.
Although she has performed Lal Ded several times before, Vasisht takes her rehearsals seriously. For several days, she has been preparing for the 80-minute production for 6 hours at a stretch at a suburban college in Mumbai. The rehearsals include intense physical exercises and vocal workouts.
Vasisht’s immersion in the life and ideas of Lal Ded also prompted her to make the experimental documentary She of the Four Names last year. The documentary reimagines key incidents in Lal Ded’s life, including her marriage at a very young age and her spiritual transformation, and explores the poet’s popularity among present-day Kashmiris. Vasisht plans to combine the stage production and She of the Four Names into a double bill that will travel across India over the next few months. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You have been having very intense rehearsals for ‘Lal Ded’—what is the process like?
I rented this 30x30ft room where I am alone for 6 hours. I wanted to get back to that inner stillness. With Lal Ded, it has always been about solitude.
It is not an easy play–you have to work on your body at least a month in advance. These 6 hours are about getting the alignment of the body right, so that your body isn’t something that only knows the gym. When the body is put through a regimen, I find myself responding sometimes inside my head.
Engaging in this play is about having to cut off from a lot of things inside and outside of yourself. The performance is about going in and out of yourself. With Lal Ded, it’s not just about entering a solitary space before the show, it is about having to do it weeks in advance.
I play nine characters in the play, so I keep shifting energies. This time it is the younger Lal Ded, this time it is the older woman. I also make sure I only speak the phonetic of Kashmiri and don’t try to mimic a Kashmiri accent. The three languages weave into each other in different spaces and places.
But when the rehearsals are done, can you re-enter the normal world easily?
Oh yes, I take it all off. It’s not about carrying her. But it is about conserving a certain kind of energy.
In between performing the play over the years, I did other things, like the television series Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii and Bombay Lawyers and the play August: Osage County, as well as my own documentary. The work never stopped coming—in fact, when you do something you enjoy, you end up doing so many more things.
At what stage in your life and career did you get attracted to Lal Ded’s poetry?
I started reading mystic poets in 2000. As a woman, you reach that stage in life when you start to question what your beliefs are, why you have them, where they came from and what use they are to you. A lot of stuff we grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s as 20-year-olds was damaging to the feminine. Even though you had a feminist agenda, you short-changed yourself constantly as a woman. There’s the idea that because you are a woman, you don’t need taking care of, so you put yourself out of a state of nurture. Even some of the most liberating beliefs can be damaging.
I was done with poetry and literature. Was there a different way I could be a highly evolved individual and not give up who I was? I used to think of life as four seasons, but then I also felt that there was a fifth season, where we can live without being subject to time and space. I felt that was there in the poetry of some of these women. After a year, I found myself attracted to Lal Ded. Her poetry after a while was like architectural spaces that I wanted to enter–it is beautiful in terms of visuals. It is not about easy metaphors but sensuous as well as cerebral.
How did Lal Ded transform you?
The journey of understanding her involved having to make hard decisions that I had been putting off in my own life, about my marriage, the divorce that I wasn’t wanting to give. One day, something struck me—that I was trying to reach the consciousness of a poet who is fearless, whose ability to discard the world as well as engage with is so profound, who is so individuated. How do I reach her when I don’t remove things from myself? All the things I was holding on to, I gave them up. The path started clearing.
Which performing traditions have you evoked in the play?
The rehearsals include dance, Kalaripayattu, a lot of voice work. The only props that I use are shawls. I had attended a comparative study between Koodiyattam and the Japanese theatre tradition Noh in Puducherry many years ago. Koodiyattam is very minimalist, for instance. I also met Bansi Kaul and his theatre group Rang Vidushak.
What is Lal Ded’s relevance for contemporary audiences?
Lal Ded roamed the valley of Kashmir naked, she is still loved passionately after years. But there is nothing about her. Even in Kashmir, there are no buildings or temples or anything. There are only her poems. She is their most loved poet, she resonates with everybody. It’s something to do with the work, the way she uses time. There is a power to her poetry that is infinite.
People who deeply engage with Lal Ded enter a kinship where there is no space for anger or hatred, but only an affirmation of her and her poetry. She embodies a Kashmiriyat that is about the idea of shared languages. The fact that she is alive 700 years later proves that the Kashmiri people believe in shared dichotomies and multiplicities. She is more significant to the world today than she was 700 years ago, in terms of her compassion and knowledge. Well, if things are getting bad and the muck is coming out, maybe it will get better. The times are so disturbing that what is emerging is the poet who can make sense of where we are supposed to be going.
What else are you working on?
I am working on a documentary on the aspects of performance that I understood while working with director Mani Kaul. I don’t even know if it’s a documentary. I hope it is a poem.
The documentary She of the Four Names will be screened at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, on 7 March at 6.30pm. A ticketed show of Lal Ded will take place at the same venue on 8 March at 7pm. For details, visit www.ncpamumbai.com.