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  • Gaurav Singh

Interacting with my heritage and identity as an Indian theatre-maker

In November 2020, the G5A Foundation announced the Writer's Lab program in collaboration with the Soho Theatre (UK). As part of the application process to the program, I was asked to write a reflective essay in response to the question "How do you interact with heritage and personal identity as part of your life in India/Mumbai?"


The following was the response I crafted:


Growing up in Delhi and the beginnings of a "practice"


I was born and brought up in Delhi, and have lived there almost my entire life. My interaction with the heritage of the city of Delhi has been shaped heavily by the professional and personal decisions I undertook as an attempt to define my personal identity better.


Growing up in a liberal Sikh Punjabi family allowed me to pursue interests that were slightly unconventional. After studying science in high school, I pursued a degree in management and later, in the performing arts. My personal and professional journey have intertwined with how I’ve discovered the heritage, culture and landscape of Delhi. When friends ask me “What’s Delhi like?”, I almost always reply back saying its like any other big capital in the world with a few small exceptions – one, it’s own cultural history shaped by the Mughal sultanate is now far outweighed by the collective traditions, foods, rituals and festivals from different parts of India and second, the presence of a growing international community of diplomats, language professionals and citizens who have moved to Delhi. To add to the latter, Delhi’s the international cultural capital of India with multiple embassies, missions and cultural centres from around the world.


Understanding the linguistic implications of arts and culture in Delhi


I’ve always been intrigued by this linguistic diversity of Delhi as a city – I speak Punjabi at home, spoke Hindi at my undergraduate university and English at my workplace. Delhi also finds itself as the melting pot of arts and cultural events, specifically theatre, differentiated by a multitude of languages, approaches and focus areas. For example, the Mandi House region in the centre is home to some of the biggest and most prominent performing arts centre in the city, including the main campus of National School of Drama. Herein, you’d find the cultural programming more in the direction of traditional art forms, especially classical theatre and theatre in Hindi. You go towards the south of the capital and you find venues whose programming focuses more on contemporary art, especially independent theatre that is more experimental in its approach. Back in 2019, I was working as a program management and marketing consultant at the Little Theatre Group (LTG) Auditorium in Mandi House wherein I curated events for their new blackbox space, The Blank Canvas. It was an incredible opportunity for me to find, curate and program a diverse set of events in the space, that was able to judiciously balance the traditional with the modern, taking a nuanced approach to understand how audiences interact with cultural events.


My interest in the diverse cultural landscape of Delhi was further complemented by my work in the theatre with the Goethe-Insitut / Max Mueller Bhavan and Instituto Cervantes Nueva Delhi. In early 2018, I started learning Spanish as a third language. Here, I became a founding member of “El Clavileño” (India’s only Spanish language theatre group), acted in a full-length Spanish theatre production “El Cadaver del Señor Garcia” and participated in AlmagroOFF, the world’s largest classical theatre festival held every year in Spain as the first team from India with our play "Marta La Piadosa". In 2019, I acted in two more Spanish productions that were staged in the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish Cultural Centre – “Funes el Memorioso” (with Embassy of Argentina) and “Un Hombre Muerto a Puntapies” (with Embassy of Ecuador). Earlier this year, I directed another Spanish play called Luz Negra as a digital production that was performed live using Skybe and Open Broadcaster Software (OBS). The fact that I was able to present texts from these different countries and stage them in a language that is not native to the city of Delhi yet draw a crowd of patrons who are interested in Latinamerican stories presented in a contextualized manner.


What makes a language (and the art you make) "native" to you


The fact that I am currently in London, wherein I mostly communicate in English is not lost on me. There is a strange yearning to share, create and cultivate experiences firmly grounded in my own language and heritage. While I’ve met other South Asian theatre-makers and artists here who wish to share their subcontinental heritage with British audiences, for me it is a deeper question of what language do I identify with and can call “my own”? I can say with reasonable confidence that Hindi and Punjabi are my “native” languages but I don’t agree when someone tells me English is my “second” language. For me, its this question of language that goes hand in hand with identity because it defines so many things we see around ourselves – the language we use on our smartphones and the public service announcements on the metro to the literature we read and the signage we see on roads – there is a linguistic element to all of these.


Will language still be a barrier in post-pandemic theatre


As an improv theatre performer and practitioner, I’ve also been one of the few who has come out on the better side of the last 6 months, simply because I’ve been able to perform, create and tell stories from my own life to audiences and performers from the US, UK, Europe and so many more places. Earlier this month, we hosted an open-to-all improv theatre drama jam in Punjabi where we had Punjabi speakers dial in from 4 different countries over a Zoom call, connected through a shared heritage across timezones and borders.


Going forward, I’m deeply interested in these linguistic elements of cultural heritage and how they may continue to impact my own heritage and identity. The question that remains from me is how the use of technology and digital storytelling may interact with the linguistic similarities (or differences) that I share with the people of my city and how they may provoke a conversation through the medium of a live performance.