I’ve been performing at the India Habitat Center in the Short + Sweet Delhi Theatre Festival. A mixer format that puts up 10 ten minute plays in one evening giving the theater community a great opportunity to come together, create a tasting menu of theatre presentations and exchange ideas. Really fun.
Our last show was on Ashura. The day of mourning in the month of Muharram. My auto got stuck in the Karbala parade on Mathura road past Nizamuddin. A great commotion. A large procession was snaking up the road. A group of boys were beating a variety of drums. Younger boys had wooden sticks that they were using as performance swords and playing out swordfights with each other in the middle of the road. Traffic was honking but the parade was oblivious to the noise. They were marching to their own beats. Far in the distance above the heads of people, were two taziyas decorated in black, green and gold. Being carried along. Bobbing on the surface of the crowd like logs of wood are carried along by a rousing river. Under the flyover, a dozen military men waited with big guns. Lean, tall statures. Bodies relaxed, leaning on the pillars but the gaze alive and alert, full of intelligence, confidence and swagger. A majestic sight.
The auto-waalah was whining about the jam. He didn’t understand why festivals needed to block the street. I nodded along. All the while thinking in my head.
“Why do I need to be anywhere else when we have this to be part of? Can anything be more enthralling? My performance later in the evening does not hold a candle to this story.”
He finally peeled off to the wrong side of the road and went against traffic, zig-zagging across cars coming from the opposite side. I was dizzy with excitement and joy.
“The Muharram traffic is insane”
I texted my friend. It sounded like a complaint but cell phones often overturn meaning. In reality, it was like I was shouting the words while dancing on the road myself. Later when I met her, I said “how is this related to Muharram?”
“How is anything related to any religion in this country?” she answered.
That’s when I realized this has nothing to do with Muharram. This is just the passion of humanity. The desire to put on a show, to participate in the public space, transcends all boundaries and connects us as human beings. Although my insistence on piety and sincerity in matters of religion was still firm, I could set it aside and just see these people have a good time. I wonder how often they actually take the time to do that.
I felt gratitude towards my friend for propelling me to a larger truth. I felt gratitude toward the military men. Toward the city of Delhi for opening its streets to its people to just have a ball. To the autowaalah for finding the fastest possible way to get me there.
I left the pandemonium behind as I walked in to the premises of the Habitat Center. As I approached the Stein Auditorium, I stood in the open courtyard for a while. I appreciated, as if for the first time, the tranquility of the building. The red brick. The trees swaying in the breeze. The marriage of the interior and the exterior. The oblique lines and open vistas. Surely, Mr. Stein, deserves to have the auditorium named after him. What a privilege to perform here.
India Habitat Center, New Delhi
A group of people had spread a very large canvas on the floor under the open sky. The canvas was full of wild and colorful art. A public art project. Buckets of paint lay around. I put my bags down and looked at the artscape for a while. Vivid. Mediocre. Free. I saw a large yellow flower someone had painted. I painted a bunch of green men climbing all over it. They looked somewhere between aliens and grasshoppers. At the very end of the canvas, there was a girl. She sat wearing jeans and a denim shirt. On the floor. Her hands folded around her legs hugging her knees in. Evening had begun to set in and her face was illuminated by the glow. She said nothing but her eyes smiled without any effort. I pretended to walk to the end to draw something there. Then I struck up nonsense conversation with her. I spoke in my best Urdu. She replied but her Hindi was terrible in an adorable way. She spoke with a thick Eastern accent. Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, was my guess. She told me “aap is corner ko aur sundar bana sakte ho.” Then she coached me through some basic art work. I was just blankly dipping my hand in the paint and drawing circles with my index finger. I was trying to look at what I was doing but my entire aware consciousness was transfixed on her. It was awful, what I was drawing.
“Mere khayaal mein, yeh corner ab pehle se zyaada khoobsurat hai,” I said.
We invited her to come to the show. She never did. After the show, a father came on stage with his son. A little boy. He said that his son wanted to congratulate us in person for a good show. How beautiful is life? The energy. The color. The irritation. The thwarted promise. The parrots perched on trees. The desperation. The desire. The dominance. The death.