Mallika Taneja
I sat down with Mallika Taneja ahead of her Mumbai and Karjat tour (29th September to 2nd October) to speak with her about her childhood, theatre and the times we live in. Her solo play THODA DHYAAN SE was staged at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFOK) earlier this year, and has attracted attention for it staging and its satirical approach vis-a-vis issues of gender and sexuality.

 By Gaurangi Dang

Gaurangi Dang (GD): Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mallika Taneja(MT): I am 32 years old. I am Delhi-based; born and brought up in Delhi. I do theatre. I run an arts organization called Lost & Found, which is about taking arts to neighborhoods... that's about it.

GD: When did you start doing theatre?

MT: It's difficult thing to say as to when I started doing theatre because both my parents are from the theatre so I kind of grew up with it. I have watched theatre since my childhood, and then eventually as I got older, I began to get more and more involved in it as a performer. But I think it was in college when I really started taking theatre seriously. I went to college at KMC (KiroriMal College) for the sole purpose of doing theatre. I was seventeen then, so I've now been doing it for about fifteen years.

Mallika Taneja
Mallika Taneja

GD: What kind of theatre did your parents do?

MT: They were a part of the theatre in the 70s, when theatre was really rich and there was a lot of interesting new Hindi writing coming up. The whole Mandi House circle scene was very alive, and there were theatre groups all around. My dad still does plays from time to time, but it gets harder with trying to maintain a job because you know how theatre is, it doesn't pay very much. I think that's the interesting bit, that even though most of these people have held a job for most of their lives and probably spent more time in the workspace than the rehearsal space, they still associate themselves as theatre people. They don't have stories about their jobs that they share; they have stories about the theatre. I've come across so many others from that generation who are like that, who have a teaching job, or an office job or even a business, and still find the time to come together and work on a play. Now of course it's a lot different... enough about the golden age of theatre in Delhi.

GD: Do you think that we live in interesting times?

MT: Of course we live in interesting times. All times are interesting because of the people that inhabit them. People are always interesting. At any given point of time you'll find people that fight and those that love in varying ratios of permutations and combinations. I think we're living in hyperactive times. I think we're living in times where all of a sudden there are a whole lot of things that we do not know how to deal with because of the pace at which everything is happening. There is a hyper-reality and I don't know how I feel about it.

DP: Where does a piece like THODA DHYAN SE stand in these times?

MT: Fortunately or unfortunately, more unfortunately I believe, this piece could have stood at any given time in the past and the present times, because gender and caste are so deep in our system that its going to take us forever to weed them out of our system. Even though things are much better in comparison to a different point of time in the past, we still have a really long way to go. We are still blaming women for the way they dress; we are still questioning her morality. There's still a whole lot of shaming that isn't going to go away anytime soon, partly because the people in power are not interested in altering things.

The other day I was reading about the Women's Reservation Bill. Can you imagine that it's been twenty years since the bill was first introduced into the Parliament? The irony is that it was supposed to remain on a fifteen-year cycle, so if it had been passed back then, then it probably would have done its job by now. People who are sitting in positions of power are not actually interested in solving issues of gender and caste, which is why unfortunately this is an evergreen piece.

I've been doing this piece for two and a half years and I never feel jaded by it, especially of the conversation that it stimulates.

GD: Tell us about the Mumbai tour. What are the disabilities that you've faced while trying to get the tour together?

MT: Honestly it's been easier that I thought. The one big roadblock that we've been facing is about how to make these shows public. A part of me has been wondering as to what would happen if I were to book an auditorium and sell tickets, and perhaps that's the next thing that I would like to try out. However, this is a problem that isn't specific to Mumbai.

I know it's a huge risk for an organizer to have to deal with the risk of offending an audience with a piece like this. However, fortunately within a week we had a lot of people willing to help out. For every one venue that said no, there were three that said yes. So fortunately we have abundant space.

Sure there are difficulties, like since its not ticketed, there's very little money to be made, but these are difficulties that theatre in the general faces. Why should I be any different? So, I don't find any new difficulties for myself as such. However, I'm sure that it hasn't been easy for the people in Mumbai that have been helping me.


GD: What do you think that the media isn't getting right about the nudity on the show?

MT: I think limiting the piece to its nudity is what they are not getting right. Constantly slapping the word 'brave' and 'courageous' while referring to me with regards to the piece is limiting it. You know because nothing is absolute and what I've realized is that this might be the one place where I have courage, but there are so many people that depict more courage on a daily basis than I do. There is grit and bravado shown by women everyday when they choose to get out of their houses and negotiate with cities, their bosses, husband and offices. In my personal life, I do not have the courage to deal with all of that. So when this compartmentalization happens, I find it to be limiting. It paints thing in a one-dimensional manner, and that is never the case in reality. I'd much rather be spoken for and spoken about with all my vulnerabilities instead of being put on a pedestal and being labeled as a 'brave' person. So the nudity is just one part of it. Everything else that the piece says and does has an equal, if not more of an impact on the audience. When I speak to my audience, a lot of people don't even bring up the nudity. They speak about the text and what they saw and heard. They sort of hear themselves; their mothers and fathers resonate within the text.

GD: I was in college in Delhi when you started performing the piece and I remember somebody mentioning the piece to me and saying, ''look, she's so brave for willing to come on stage in her lingerie.'' That's how news of the piece first travelled.

MT: Sure, but there has to be a difference between how news spreads as opposed to the experience of something. Actually at that point of time there was still the lingerie but then as we kept developing it further, we felt that it was important to start with a blank slate. Sometimes I feel that everybody should just get over it. I mean how much more are you going to write about something? What's the big deal? Honestly, I spend a fair bit of time in front of my audience to allow them to move past the fact that there is a body without clothes.

GD: You've travelled a lot with this piece. How have the responses changed over time?

MT: The responses abroad and the responses in India have both been very different. However at the same time you'd be surprised as to how much resonance a piece like this has even abroad. It's very easy to say that this is a piece traveling from India about Indian problems, but soon you realize that's not true. A lot of these issues are universal in nature.

I like performing this piece at colleges because that's an audience that is still forming its views of the world. It's an audience that is just beginning to come into its own and can hence hopefully, take back the most from a piece like this. The conversations after the show are stimulating because the audience is unabashed in its viewpoint.

The one thing I've found very valuable is the number of men who speak about gender when we perform this piece. So it's not just about the women. There are different kinds of opinions. One man had said, ''Just carry a knife.'' Another kept saying, ''What do you want to achieve with this?'' It's difficult to say you know, because what are you really going to get out of this one little drawing room show? Women never ask such questions... something hits home there. But a lot of women have asked me as to whether I'd still have to courage to be willing to shed off my clothes if my body were of a different shape. There are all sorts of different reactions that come from within a group itself. However, never has a person come up to me and said, ''We are offended by what you have done.'' ''You should not do this.'' Never has anybody complained. Even if they disagreed with what was going on, they have allowed the show to continue and this I think is a huge testament to the change that has been a long time coming. If the audience is ready to accept a show like this, then I think they're ready to finally have that conversation on change.

GD: The Mumbai tour has an all female and an all male show. Have you always done this?

MT: This is the first time I'm trying to do something like this. Don't you find it interesting?

Mallika Taneja
Mallika Taneja

GD: I do, but why does it excite you?

MT: I'm curious to see how men in isolation would respond to a conversation around gender, controlled by the only woman in the room who holds more power than them at that given point of time. I'm curious to see how both the audience and myself, deal with this; how different conversation will be with both kinds of audience, of what they will say and what they will not say. I'm curious to see how I will feel in the presence of both these set of audience members and how the performance energy will shift. I think gender is a conversation for both men and women. It'll also be interesting because in the all male group I won't have any women to support me, so one have to find the feminists from within the men. Groups of women are used to doing things together, but men rarely do so. I feel that the absence of the other gender will somewhere lead to a shift in the audience that hasn't happened before.

GD: How do you feel that the piece has evolved over time?

MT: The piece was initially just eight minutes long. Now, it's twenty minutes long. It now exists in both Hindi and English. The beginning and the end has changed. It is now divided into two parts, but most of all, I think I have changed. I think that I can now stand more confidently and say that I exercise these beliefs in my own personal life. The body that now stands at the beginning of the show is very different from the body that faced audiences two and a half years ago. It is a lot more grounded and at ease. It's now a sum total of my experience with the piece.

*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)

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