Lal Ded liberates you, says Mita Vashisht

Actor Mita Vashisht has conceptualized, and written, the English script of the one-act play ‘Lal Ded’ on the 14th century Kashmiri mystic-poet. Vashisht, who plays the poet, has done 55 shows of the play in India and abroad since its launch in 2004. Rajesh Zha translated the play into Hindi while Vishnu Mathur and Vashisht collaborated to build the structure for the script. The trio worked on the final script. Vashisht shares her interesting experiences of the past 16 years about the play with Shirish Shinde, GK Pune correspondent
Lal Ded liberates you, says Mita Vashisht

Q: Why did you choose Lal Ded for the one-act play? What was the inspiration?

I wanted to present something at the experiential level so that people around me, particularly women actors and other professional women, could think about themselves in a different way. We have some fixed notions about ourselves and life. We limit our lives as we grow. Being an actor, I live at various levels. I had this awareness that I have been growing at various stages of life. I started searching for ways to bring these women out of their cocoons. I started reading women-centric literature a lot, such as Italian actor Franca Rame, the wife of Nobel laureate playwright Dario Fo. I also read about our own Draupadi, Kunti, etc. But they all had a common theme of fighting against adversaries, the way modern feminists also declare themselves against the male-dominated world to prove their existence. I was fed up with this idea of searching one's self by fighting against someone. I thought why can't a woman search her own self instead of struggling against the world around her. So, I started searching for someone who operated at a different level instead of indulging in these hackneyed struggles. During that search, I came across Bhakti, Sufi women poets. I thought of connecting to the thing I was searching for. For one-and-a-half years, I read poetry of Andaal, Akka Mahadevi, Meera, Lal Ded (Lalleshwari), Muktabai, Bahinabai, Habba Khatun, Rabiya and others. Later, I focused on four of them: Andal (Tamil), Akka Mahadevi (Kannadiga), Meera (Rajasthani) and Lal Ded (Kashmiri). I thought of bringing them together and develop a narrative and write a play. However, it was a very ambitious project. I did not choose them consciously. Later, I realized that two of them (Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded) were Shaivite while Meera and Andal were Vaishnavites. When I tried to combine them together, I felt that they were four independent powerful personalities like four different directions. My effort was to bring these four diverging forces together. I gave it up and started getting attracted more towards Lal Ded. After two-and-half-years, I concentrated on Lal Ded as her voice, thoughts, verses (Vakhs) were free from bondages. Her relation with the Almighty was unique unlike other three poets. She says, 'O Shiva, Shiva of dark-blue throat! You have your six powers and I have my six. However, I am shattered. There is no difference between you and me. However, one aspect makes you God, where I fail is that you have conquered your senses and I am struggling with them. I have separated from myself and feeling forlorn'. This was a confident spiritual voice. I felt very delighted from within. Then I studied her Vakhs. You can't make out whether these Vakhs are composed by a man or a woman. Yet you know that they have been written by a woman. She never had this wish to have followers. Lal Ded had this independent spirit. One of her Vakhs says, 'By mastering the knife of breath, I cut through the six sorrows'.

She says in another Vakh, 'How can you say you were killed. You distanced yourself from Haru (God) by embracing Garu (this world). Now, you can't blame others for your sufferings'. Her Vakhs appeal to us at a personal level. They go beyond religion and touch your soul. Hence, Muslims and Hindus rever Lal Ded equally. When a person is born, he first has soul and then comes religion. You cannot restrict her poetry to any religion or ism. She takes you on an arduous journey. One needs to leave many things behind, search your own self. For one year, I toyed with various ideas as to how I could present Lal Ded to the audience. I had various experiences. For example, initially I was reading about her, and her poetry in Hindi and English. However, when I learnt Kashmiri, I could grasp the rhythm, meter and deep meaning of her Vakhs. I realized why her verses have been influencing generations for over seven centuries. Even if you read them for a couple of times, you learn them by heart. It is not conventional rhyming.

'Kus mari to kasu maran

man kus tu maran kas

yus haru haru traavith garu garu kare

adu suy mare tu maran tas'

Q: Why do you have a multi-lingual format for the play?

I decided to retain certain Vakhs in Kashmiri for the beauty and rhythm of the lyrics. The play has 10 Hindi, 10 English and 10 Kashmiri Vakhs. These Vakhs impart profound knowledge in a few words. Usually, one needs to give a long lecture or write a book to explain one knowledge point. Kashmiri has been influenced by Sanskrit, Persian and Pashto. Kashmiri language is developed in the mountainous region. Her Vakhs free your brain of all clutter. It has pure, fresh fragrance of the valley. It is full of space. One of my friends asked me why I was not explaining those original Kashmiri Vakhs in English or Hindi. I insisted that let people listen to the pristine melody of the language. Many of us watch English movies without understanding most of the words. We don't complain. This play develops in such a way that the switch-over from one language to another happens very effortlessly and is accepted by the audience. The narrative is mainly in Hindi.

Q: What has been the response of the audience who come to watch this play?

Members of the audience keep coming back to see this play. Every time, they get new insights. Many of them don't go home immediately after the show is over. They want to know more about Lal Ded and her philosophy. The story lasts for one hour while my interaction with the audience goes on for over one-and-a-half hours.

A few years ago, a young actor came to me after a show and said that she wanted to hug me. She said one cannot follow Lal Ded's teachings in practical life, particularly in a city like Mumabai. However, I will live life on my terms henceforth. She hugged me and said, 'Thank you, for being in this universe at the same time I am'. There is some magic about Lal Ded. I staged a show in a drama festival in Ahmedabad at the Mallika Sarabhai theatre in 2013. It was raining intermittently for three days. The festival manager said, 'Your show is outdoor, it looks impossible'. I told him, 'If Lal Ded wishes, the show will happen outdoor only'. He was surprised and asked, 'You are doing a ballet on Lal Ded! She is very dangerous! We tried to arrange a show on her life in the past. We had many difficulties'. We had to abandon it after one show'. I told him that they might have done something wrong. They might not have given Lal Ded her due respect. 'How long were you preparing before launching the show?' I asked him. He said they rehearsed for two months. I told him that I had prepared for four years before staging the play. You won't believe the rain stopped five minutes before the show. The open-air theatre was jam-packed. People were carrying umbrellas. The show lasted for one hour and my film on Lal Ded was screened for another one hour and five minutes. The moment the titles of the film ended, it started raining again. I believe that Lal Ded was a very powerful personality.

Another young lady, I met after a show in Pune. I have shown it in my film on Lal Ded. She started weeping and said that had she known earlier about Lal Ded, she could have understood why she lost her mother. She was 10 years old when her mother left her family. Other family members used to call her mother 'mentally challenged'. She said that she could love her mother again 30 years after watching the play. She had the same spiritual space like Lal Ded. I had many phenomenal responses from the audience. These were non-Kashmiri people.

In fact, I want to narrate an incidence from Srinagar, where I did this show in 2008. It was a moment of pride for me that I was doing the show in Kashmir. A lawyer watched this show and called me outside the Sher-e-Kashmir auditorium. When we went outside, he just kept mum for a few minutes. I thought he was very upset. Then he said, 'Should I appreciate your hard work or creativity?' I did not know how to react and told him that if he did not like the show, it could be his personal view. Then he said, 'No, no, no. I liked it very much. I have been reading, listening to Lad Ded's Vakhs since my childhood. But I met her today!' I do not claim credit for all this because Lal Ded has blessed this play.

Q: After having played Lal Ded for 16 years, what influence she had on you?

I never do this show for commercial gain. A sponsor from Kolkata wanted to do 'supper theatre', where people wine, dine and watch the show. He asked me to perform in the same. I straight away refused the offer. He insisted and also hiked the offer amount. He said, 'What is so special about the show?' I asked him, 'Would you do the same thing with a Rabindranath Tagore show?' He said, 'No'. I have this firm belief that her show happens, only if Lal Ded wants it to happen. I would do a few shows in a year for people who really want to know Lal Ded. I don't do it for free. I have to pay for my technicians and earn some money because theatre is my profession. However, I do not yield to sponsors who look at this show purely from commercial angle.

Battoo Kaul, who recently passed away and was the sister of Late film director Mani Kaul, asked me, 'Don't you get tired by doing this one-act play, which you have been doing for 16 years. You may not have the same energy which you had 16 years ago'. I told her: Once you start performing this show and say Vakhs, your body gets energized. In a normal course, one would not be able to sit with your knees bent for a minute. However, I feel younger, alert, light and supple while doing this show.

I once staged this play in Lahore. Media persons were also watching. They asked me why I was doing this show. I told them that the importance and need of her teachings was underlined 700 years ago. She is even more relevant today. I told them that she was their poet as well. They asked, 'How?'. I said, 'Pakistan was born seven decades ago. She was born 700 years ago. Kashmir is one culture with diverse religions. The Azan at dawn is performed in a Vedic tradition in Kashmir even today. Lal Ded is a confluence of various ideologies, religions. Kashmir and Lal Ded are inseparable.

Q: How do you describe the Kashmiris and their language?

The Kashmiri youth do not know the richness of their culture. What happened in the past 30 years is a testimony to this. Today's youths do not know much about Lal Ded. Earlier generations had Lal Ded's Vakhs on the tip of their tongue. Many young Kashmiri men and women don't know her Vakhs. A very special thing about Lal Ded was that she was never reactive. I feel very uneasy when some people want to use her teachings for propaganda. Lad Ded liberates you from all bondages, isms. Lal Ded's teachings can never give rise to anger. If you are so close to her, you are humble.

Q: As you said Lal Ded's verses liberate you. They have been a part of Kashmiri culture for over 700 years. They teach peace, harmony, brotherhood. Yet we see unrest in Kashmir. How do you interpret this paradox?

I met a director recently. I won't name her. She is doing a play on a woman poet. She said, 'There are only two voices in Kashmir. There is no third voice there'. I told her that I knew the third voice. She was surprised and asked, 'Whose voice?' I told her it was Lal Ded. She does not fit into the political binary, which has become so shrill in the valley. Followers of Lal Ded do not gather under a particular flag.

Q: I heard that you have a strong association with Pune?

Yes, I was born in Pune. My father was in army. I was his first child and was born in the military hospital, Pune. I made my first film 'Var. Var, Vari' at the FTII Pune when I was 23 years old. It was my second birth. My career started then.

Q: I have also heard that your great-grand mother was from Maharashtra.

She was actually a Gujarati. It was Bombay State then. Her maiden name was Subhadra Dixit. My great grand-father was a nobleman in the Bombay court. Their life style was Maharashtrian. My grand mother used to call her 'Aai' (Marathi fro 'mother'). I met her for the first and last time when I was 10 years old. She used to wear a nine-yard sari and used to look like a typical Puneri Brahmin woman. She used to cook for herself in separate utensils even at that age. A road in Vile Parle has been named after her brother Kakasaheb Dixit. He was a great devotee of Sai Baba. My mother's entire family belongs to Mumbai. My mother's grandfather was Ram Mehta. He was the editor of 'Leader' newspaper in Mumbai. Mahatma Gandhi used to visit his home often.

Q: During her life time, Lal Ded also suffered because she was a woman. How would women relate to her teachings today?

Politeness runs like a thread in my film on Lal Ded. Her mother-in-law could not grasp her personality. She says: 'What kind of a girl is she? Children of her age cry, play and quarrel. She does yoga! She breaks into prayer with the sunrise. How would she manage home when she grows up? I don't know whom I married my son with? What is kept in store for Nika?' Any mother-in-law would expect her daughter-in-law to look after her home and hearth. A girl child born as a prodigy suffers in such surroundings. Lal Ded personally never complained about her mother-in-law. She knew her path.

Western feminism has damaged our strength. They compete with men and try to become like men. Women are creators, they have been bestowed with different powers. Usually, women live longer because they can live with their own self. If you are compassionate, life becomes easy. Women are asked to fight for their rights. They harbour anger against the male-dominated world. If you are strong within and if someone says something which hurts you, you will not react. New feminism seeks appreciation from the outside world. Our appreciation about our own self is proportionate to what others say about us. You should appreciate your own self. You are a power centre. Then you will never bother whether the world is praising or criticizing you. Then you know your path.

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