In ‘Dark Borders’, Neelam Man Singh Calls Upon Manto to Represent the Incomprehensible

Director Neelam Man Singh spoke to The Wire about her attempt to translate Sadat Hasan Manto into a performance of free flowing embodied texts in her play Dark Borders.

A scene from the play. Credit: Gurpreet Singh

Here lies buried Sadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined all the secrets and art of short story writing. Buried under mounds of earth, even now he contemplates whether he is a greater short story writer or God.

Sadat Hasan Manto (1912-55) wrote this epitaph for himself and had it engraved on his tombstone in Lahore, before it was replaced with a less controversial one by his sister. Many would agree that he is certainly one of the greatest storywriters of 20th century South Asia. His stories resist being dated. Manto engages artists and scholars from different streams who find his writings relevant in different contexts – aesthetically, allegorically, analogically, historically, metaphorically and politically. In his writing he defied the boundaries of the short story genre in order to foreground traumatic experience and his writings continue to challenge those attempting to perform them. Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry, an internationally-acclaimed theatre person, rolled out her new production, Dark Borders, based on Manto’s writings, in her hometown, Chandigarh, last week. In the present day, when borders have become sacrosanct, Dark Borders could not be more relevant. Singh attempts to translate Manto’s mysterious gibberish into a performance of free flowing embodied texts.  Here, she responds to some questions by Daljit Ami.

How did Manto’s work invite you to do this play?

I think Manto is the greatest storyteller, not of the last century but also of this century. The way he could plumb the depth of human misery and give voice to the voiceless, the disenfranchised and the marginalised, makes him extraordinary. He talked about the little people who did not enter into the consciousness of history or of development. They are not facts and statistics. They are people whose lives were completely torn asunder by partition and migration, especially women and children. These are the unrecorded testimonies that Manto records through his short stories.

Neelam Man Singh. Credit: Gurpreet Singh

What makes you relate to Manto after seventy years? Is it the past or the present or both?

I don’t find Manto dated at all. What he wrote seventy or eighty years ago is relevant today. The story Tamasha was written after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre but the image of shoes, the holocaust and contemporary Syria merge into one another. I don’t think people have changed or brutality has changed. Today, brutality is more defined and it is more on our threshold, or as Márquez would say, comes in the form of congealed blood through our doorways. I can’t isolate what Manto said and put it into a timeframe. I did not take any time or context into consideration when I choreographed the stories. Manto’s work could relate to any time because men’s savagery has not in any way been reduced. ‘What will happen to our children’ remains a relevant question in different contexts. In Syria people are forced to leave their homes and their images are in circulation on social media and disseminated through the news. In some way, I am indirectly responding to what is happening in our times. I am not a journalist. My work is not a militant work or a recording of events. It is not overtly political but somewhere it is a reflection and response to things one feels, one is alert to.

Is it an allegorical work?

It is allegorical. For me the work is to create images and try to extend the meaning of the text and the narrative. It is also to talk about the unwritten or invisible text, to enable people to create their own narratives. I would try for, as Nietzsche would say, the ‘right to misinterpret.’

How have you structured the play?

This play does not have a structure. There was a time when I did what is called ‘a well-made play’ with a beginning, a middle and an end in which you have blocking, give lines and have a narrative. Now I go to my rehearsals without any structure and the process is more collaborative. The structure is not constructed. It is not linear. It is circular, in loops and in swirls. It goes to a point then it comes down. It is non-structured and works like uncertainties in life.

Is it because of the incomprehensibility of the ideas that Manto is dealing with that the play remains unstructured or something more than that?

I don’t like the familiar. I like the feeling that comes from entering into a room and meeting a stranger and what happens in the dynamics that you create for the stranger. It is like being surprised by the familiar rather than moving towards the familiar. When you think of the Jyoti Singh or Bilkis Bano cases, I can’t imagine a woman whose child is smashed in front of her eyes or fourteen members of a family are killed and raped. I can’t wrap my head around what kind of bestiality this is.  Where is that within us? What does it mean to be human? When I think of the word catharsis, it means release, pity and fear – it means to enter into the dark spaces of your being. If you don’t enter the dark spaces of your being you will never find your essential humanity. Manto enters the dark spaces of our being to search for that essential humanity.

A scene from the play. Credit: Gurpreet Singh

Manto is dealing with sex, violence and hunger. How do you perform this landscape?

We worked a lot on improvisations. What does loss mean? Supposing you have to leave your home in a hurry, never to return, what will you take with you? Photographs, old letters, anything to remind you that what you left behind, once did exist. We did a lot of exercises based on loss and then hunger. It is a collaborative process and authorship is distributed among participants. Direction is not about control. It is about intuition and it is trying to knock out what is within you. Sometimes actors come with an idea which is realised. Sometimes it is a sketch from which you can pull out something – chiseled, refined, hammered into something else. Certain things take shape from the dynamics of actors working together and me providing a certain kind of an eye. I find this way of working more exciting and challenging.

Manto deals with a whole range of sexual expressions from love to desire, to rape, to sexual violence to necrophilia. How do you handle it on stage? 

There was a tradition when realism was at its height. Voice and facial expressions were the essential tools of acting. Now it is very essential that you perform with every pore of your body. I tell actors that they need to be more flexible. I tell them that your hand was not participating, your chest was not participating in sync with your knee. It is a kind of training process. You teach them how to take risks as it facilitates them to discover. They take risks with how much their body can do. They take risks with how much their imagination can go. It is like testing how much you can push yourself to the limits of what you can manage.

A scene from the play. Credit: Gurpreet Singh

You have always experimented with bodies. How have these bodies evolved through performances?

I also grow with these productions. My own and my actors’ growth are parallel. I had my own blocks regarding how much I could push the body because there is so much to negotiate with. You have to negotiate with your own inhibitions. You have to negotiate the inhibitions of the social framework in which you have been brought up. As you grow older you have less to lose, as every play becomes your last play. The instrument of expression is the human body.  If you are worried about how your leg is looking, whether it is too fat or too thin then nothing is going to happen. Performing means forgetting the body, it is like erasing the body. It’s like androgyny where you are not working as a woman or a man. You can’t think, I am a woman, so I have to fall into a stereotype of what it means to be a woman.  The challenge is how you construct a woman on a stage performatively, not in terms of gender stereotypes. Lots of this comes because I have been working with female impersonators. When a man comes on stage as a woman, what kind of maleness does he erase to become a woman? All these are issues I have been playing with. At some points those issues come together. All this has gone into Dark Borders.

Is Dark Borders typical of Neelam Man Singh and simultaneously, representative of Manto? 

It has to be typical of me because I am the director. It takes a long time to create a language for performance. I am not an accessory to a text. I take the text and I toss it out and rework it. How I do it is my struggle. There is sensibility, there is instinct, there is an intuition, that stems from your life experience. The story may be the same but every time you tell it, it comes out in a more chiselled and refined way – what is called ‘complex seeing’. I have seen other productions of Manto. They are done differently. No two directors can interpret the text in the same way.

Daljit Ami is a Punjabi documentary filmmaker and journalist. 

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