Towards a Performance

I believe that it’s very important for spatial designers to engage in theatrical and performative exercises to become aware of the subconscious exchanges between bodies, spaces/ spatial elements & people. We explored this creative process through various smaller exercises which were successively integrated into a very short performance. 

Story Narration

Participants were asked to re-collect instances which triggered or the memories which were triggered by the five emotions they chose for their collages. They could then write down a story – consolidated or fragmented – around the five emotions. Or, they could just narrate a story derived from the collage. Prachi, Mugdha and Ketki narrated very fascinating episodes from a day or a period of their lives. Following each narration we offered the protagonist feedback on the form and the content of the story: what we heard and what we felt. 

While Prachi’s story of a drive across the country with three friends was exhilarating, her narration felt rushed and didn’t allow the listener to soak in her experiences. However, in a brilliant performative closure, Prachi ended her narration with a deep sigh – releasing all the bundled experiences of her trip as well as the listeners through her breath. Ketki’s narration of an incredible study trip was rushed too. Had she introduced pauses at appropriate places, not only would it help the listener stay with and process the experience, but it would also break the monotony, while accentuating the rush where necessary. The dramatic contrasts within her story, however, were incredibly engaging. Mugdha’s narration of a fortnight long quarantine at home carried all the frustration, excitement, guilt, anxiety and contentment that she experienced during that period. Her narration was punctuated with dramatic gesticulation. However, just as Ketki and Prachi rushed through their narrations – leaving no voids, Mugdha has the habit of filling the gaps with a pronounced “uuuhhh”.

Since all four participants chose to narrate impromptu, we skipped the process of reading from scripts. While writing  down recollections prepares one better in terms of structuring and detailing the narrative, it does have one particular disadvantage for the untrained actor. While reading, the uninitiated tend to replicate the professional news anchors’ artificial intonations that are disjunct from the emotional content of the story. Of course, I am referring to the BBC-kind of new anchors and not the sensationalist “kangaroo courts” (as the Chief Justice of India referred to them in one of his recent public addresses).

I believe that this professional monotony is akin to building a fence around: either to keep ourselves all the others from coming in touch with something. The rushed narration as well as the strategies of filling voids, seem to serve the same purpose of avoiding deep contact. It is highly intriguing to observe ourselves simultaneously carrying out two mutually contradictory acts: narrating a story to share and touch, while using monotony, rush and other devices to prevent the sharing and touch.

Compared to the recollection of significant experiences by the other participants, Charvi chose to recollect the emotional upheavals of the previous day and the morning of the narration. This is a clever strategy in terms of making a story relatable, so much so that the listeners find themselves as characters in the narration. However, the narrative did not go beyond presenting a series of events with figures that evoke certain emotions in Charvi. All of us were waiting for a high-point, or a low one, till Charvi ended her story with, “We don’t need to look too far back in memory to find emotions. Every day is filled with memorable instances.” It appeared rather monotonous and unengaging. However, it raises few important questions for me:

What is a story?
Why were the other participants’ stories more engaging? 
Why isn’t there anything memorable in Charvi’s story, in spite of including emotional shifts as well as the listeners themselves as characters?

Charvi‘s approach appears to be one of reality TV, which is relatable because everyday people like us are the characters within a familiar context. Why is it then that reality TV is so popular? Unlike watching clouds shape shift in the sky, reality TV has no meditative or contemplative value. On the contrary it is filled with anxiety or the desire for action – that something is about to occur or should happen. While it is debatable as to whether reality TV programs are really unscripted, perhaps the only hooks are its nomenclatures and marketing – the impression that it is real and unscripted. However, I don’t think there is reality TV anywhere in the world which is live, except for coverage of sporting, cultural or political events. All so-called reality TV is recorded and edited before broadcast. Perhaps this is required by law.

Outside the context of events, websites offer live streaming services ranging from chatting to pornography. So there isn’t any engagement which actually seeks to witness reality unfold as it is, without drama. We either seek meaningless amusement at one end or meaningful insights at the other, or a mix of the two in between. So there is no story without amusements or insights. While Charvi’s narration offered little to none of either, the other three stories offered a mix of  both.

The reason I ask my participants and students to seek memories as far back in time as possible is because the significance of most recent events fades away with time. Old memories are embodied and have weathered every thing that we have. Not only do they hold a cluster of emotional information within them around an experience, but they also tell me what our protagonists have been practising. Regardless of our awareness, we are always practising. we get better at what we practise; also regardless of whether it is good for us or those around us. As I mentioned earlier, education is a process of becoming aware of our subconscious. Becoming aware of our practices also makes us aware of their effect on ourselves and the world around us. Becoming aware of the fact that we are always practising, also makes us aware that we have a choice in deciding  what to practise and what to avoid.

Revisiting old memories creates the possibility of examining the cluster of emotions up close and afresh. It also creates the opportunity of re-membering differently and changing the narrative to our benefit. Of course, it’s just the beginning of tremendous hard work to affect that change. 

Charvi’s seeming disinterest In deep memories reminds me of an experience which made me wonder ’where is home?’ long before Covid did. Towards the end of 2018, I was teaching in one of the renowned architectural institutions of the country. I was running my workshops on creativity and emotions across three sections of a batch, each comprising about 40 students. I took note of one particular student who always appeared lost and I wondered as to how I could motivate him to get involved. One day he himself approached me asking for time to discuss his struggles. I suggested that he come along as I drove back to my studio. In my enquiries about his home and upbringing, he told me that his parents were always busy – father with his garment business and mother with a franchise of an abacus institute. Following the conversation the image that I drew of this young student was of a very lonely young boy. I could imagine him, as a little kid, running to his mother with a drawing he had just made; while mother, being too busy with both household and business work, not making him feel heard or seen. Perhaps the child waited well beyond dinner to show his creation to the other parent, but fell asleep before his father got home. Although he got gifts from his father with or without occasion, it was only presents replacing presence. From not being paid attention to all along, the young boy seems to have grown up to believe that there is nothing of interest in or for him. 

Such a sense of despair has been a frequent experience for me while engaging with young students in higher education. Considering that it takes a village to raise a child, it seems that we have lost the child along with the village, in the process of modernisation and urbanisation of our societies. In spite of the evil lurking in its folds and its inevitable disintegration, the joint family did offer its members diverse accommodation. While the city offers a vast relief to those who feel trapped in traditional hierarchies, the economic model of making a living, mixed with an aggressive resurgence of patriarchy seems to make everyone an orphan, regardless of whether they have a family and a house to live with and in. Institutions offered the hope of creating new families and homes, but that social project got interrupted with liberalisation and the advent of big money. With a majority of our population under the age of thirty-five, we are indeed sitting on a highly inflammable pile of unmet emotional, aspirational, vocational, economic and spiritual needs. In fact, the fire broke-out about a decade ago and those in power know how to fan the fires and keep the country burning.

Ketki, Mugdha, Prachi & Charvi’s panch mudra
photos: Siddharth

Embodied Emotional Expressions

Borrowing the embodiment exercise that I was introduced to by John Britton, I improvised by connecting it to the previous graphic & story-telling exercises. Participants were asked to express five emotions (whether from the collage or from the story) in an appropriate mudra (posture). The first quick attempt was within our workshop space and the five mudras were presented by each participant in a particular sequence of choice.

The next step was for each participant to find two different spaces outside the workspace and recreate the five mudras within each. Each of the participants responded to the situation in a distinct way. Prachi’s postures changed marginally to the varying elements of her chosen sites. Her sequence, however, remained unchanged. “I treated the sites as different settings for my choreography,” she said, observing the limitation of her intuitive method. Mugdha altered both the form as well as sequence of her mudras in the two spaces. She appeared to struggle in one, while she felt more confident and was more expressive in the other, which was her preferred space. Ketki’s act was perhaps most responsive to and accommodative of the spatial elements that she inhabited. She allowed her body to rest/ lean/ hold on to the elements to enhance the emotional expression of her mudra. While the posture deviated considerably from its original form, it held on to its essence demonstrating that Ketki held more closely to the meaning.


The mudra in themselves were beautifully embodied: Prachi’s sculptural forms, Mugdha’s highly emotive postures, Ketki’s organic forms of relatable expression and Charvi’s graceful postures & movements. However, at closer observation, each of the performers revealed lacunae in either the muscular tension in the body or the facial expressions, particularly the eyes & brows, thus, the expressions lacked reinforcement. We carried out a few iterations, attempting to correct the shortcomings, but it was proving to be very difficult to overcome them. Notwithstanding the participants’ lack of training in acting and performance, I was intrigued by this struggle. Considering that lying, keeping aside any moral judgement, is a natural skill and that very few of us remain the same person in diverse social and professional contexts, it wouldn’t be a mistake to assume that we are always performing according to expectations – our own or others’, depending upon the power structure of the context. So why does it become awkward when the untrained are asked to perform. The fact of the matter is that our context-specific performances in our day-to-day lives are largely carried out subconsciously. We begin to struggle the moment we’re made aware of them. This should not only make us appreciate practice & training, but it also reinforces my proposition that a large part of our training and education entails becoming aware of our subconscious patterns. No wonder it requires rigorous training to be able to simultaneously control one’s mind, body, face, eyes, brows etc. to present a comprehensive and coherent emotive expression. Of course, there are independent training practises that an aspiring actor/ performer embarks upon to become better in each of the dimensions and simultaneously practises integrating them. 

Perhaps a way of integration, rather a non-analytical approach, which does not break the phenomenon into parts, is to believe in a story within such that the body (with all its components of bodily tension, posture & gesture, and face, eyes & brows, and voice, tone & tempo and so and and so forth) intuitively expresses the emotions. One of the many remarkable examples of such an expression is Pankaj Kapur in Sehar (2005). Towards the end of the movie, Kapur, playing Prof. Tiwari, who teaches Mobile Tele-Communication Technology, ends up with a pistol in his hands. He is facing the very criminal that the police have been tracking with his help. In a few seconds, Kapoor manages to convey a tumult of emotions that are paralysing him in that moment: the power of the gun, the helplessness of never having held one, the fear of death, the wrath against the heinous criminal and the utter befuddlement of the situation. Notwithstanding Kanpur’s years of training and experience, I can’t imagine another method for such a performance than an intuitively immersed embodied experience. The significance of belief for expression cannot be overemphasised. Simply put, it is a matter of feeling it to be able to express it.

This reminds me of an instance from a couple of decades ago when I was part of the group at CEPT, Ahmedabad. We’d invited Surjith and Divya, who were pursuing postgraduate theatre studies in Pondicherry then, to develop a production for our anniversary. During one of the rehearsals, Surjith asked me to enact a particular movement which he’d narrated from his own experience. Very well aware of my amateur skills, I tried the desired movement a few times, looking for approval in Surjith’s gaze. Perhaps out of a lack of confidence in my performance, I asked Sujit, “How can you trust another to express your personal experience?“ I remember Sujit shrugging his shoulders and mumbling under his breath “Faith?!“

During the same production a preceding incident provides a check against losing one’s sense of self in the ’belief.’ One of the group members, while swirling around during a movement exercise, lost his bearings and crashed into the furniture at the fringe of the workspace. Surjit was very upset at this and sternly remarked, [paraphrased] “an actor cannot afford to lose themselves in their inner world and should always be aware of the world around.” 

In my workshops, I rely on this dialectical process of delving into a personal narrative/ experience and the constant feedback from the world around. The latter is vital for any good performer who improvises their performance with respect to the audience and the environment. A critical aspect which became conspicuous due to its absence in the digitally broadcast performances during the pandemic. While many struggled due to its absence, many others perhaps also felt liberated and literally danced as though no one’s watching. The former – belief – is particularly significant since it is the starting point: without a belief in one’s story – even if the story is one of confusion – one cannot begin to communicate it, let alone making the other (viewer/ observer/ audience) believe in it. 

When the iterations of this residency’s theatrical strands were falling short beyond the primary movement and postures, I tried out a voice modulation exercise. I asked the participants to assume a martial artist’s stance: feet wide apart, knees bent, open thighs, lowering the elevation of the torso, back straight, shoulders relaxed, arms on the sides, elbows bent at right angles and hands closed into fists facing upwards. We had to punch the air straight in front of us with one hand, twisting the wrist as the fist thrust forward, turning it down at the end of the punch. Simultaneously with the punch we had to cry out a loud, “HAA!“- as short as the quick punch. The participants replicated the body posture and gestures well, but it was discomforting to see how they struggled with their voices. Except Mugdha – who generated good volume and intensity – all others seem terribly embarrassed to let out the warcry. Reasoning with this curious struggle I realised that they have never explored or experienced this dimension within themselves ever. I consider this as an attribute of the gender discrepancy within the roles ascribed to us by our society (across domestic, professional and educational contexts). Women – and even men other than the alpha or alpha-designate – are not allowed to express their anger or even disappointment openly. On close inspection, even mugdha’s warcry was not in her own voice; it had a borrowed weight. Her mudra, however, were intense. Being the oldest in the group with some exposure to theatre as well as frequent engagement with audiences in the form of students, Mugdha seems to be in a position where she can harness her experiences to express both gravity and intensity, at least in the space of performance. The others, however, owing to a lack of opportunity of expressing intense emotions – at least in the presence of others – were either struggling or chose to avoid intensity entirely. Prachi invested all her energy in creating abstract sculptural forms using her body. Her face carried no expression. Ketki’s narrative, though relatable, was not convincing when it came to ‘anger.’ It was clearly evident that she was holding herself back. Charvi denied ever having felt angry in her life. Regardless of its plausibility, I wonder why then did she choose a mudra of intensity, which requires a lacing of anger. Acting – or any embodied expression – requires the performer to feel the emotions to be able to express them, without which, I believe, it remains a hollow pretence.


I carried out an exercise in rhythm borrowed from UK-based theater and percussion artist Eilon Morris (’d participated in his 2018 workshop in Mumbai – Playing in the Cracks). I distributed five assorted sound instruments among ourselves: two percussion instruments (a Dafli and a pot with monitor skin stretched over its mouth), two bell instruments (a chime and a Ghungroo) and a Bamboo Rainstick. I asked Prachi to start with a rhythm at any volume and tempo. A while later I asked Mugdha to join in with her Ghungroo: adding her own rhythm to the ongoing one. Another short while later I asked Charvi to join in with her chiming bells, while signalling to Prachi to stop. Soon I joined in with my pot and Mugdha stopped; then Ketki brought in her Dafli and Charvi stopped.Then we all stopped playing the instruments and relished the silence. 

session in rhythm explorations
screen-grabs from Siddharth’s videos

I spoke to the participants about how we reconcile the rhythms within and without to create explicit rhythmic sounds. We repeated the exercise a few times, exchanging our instruments each time. Finally, it was an open house: anyone could initiate, anyone could follow, anyone could stop and resume whenever they felt like. Observing our tentativeness with certain instruments compared to others I reflected that the ensemble is perhaps helping us create in and with unfamiliar mediums without adversely exposing us; that we need to be sensitive to the larger picture and realise that we contribute by both participating as well as through withdrawal; that even small gestures are significant in the collective sound; and that sound and silence are intrinsically related in rhythm and music. To reiterate our undeniable relationship with rhythm I closed the session by repeating the previous open exercise, but without the instruments. Using clapping, tapping and vocables we created a music of primordial sounds. This shows how well-equipped our bodies are even when unassisted by tools and instruments.

Intertwining the Strands into a String

I improvised again with John’s Britton’s method of integrating the individual strands of performance into a single string. For this the participants first worked in pairs, then in trios and finally as an ensemble of four. Participants were discouraged from speaking or attempting to direct each other’s movement explicitly. Instead, each  iteration had to be worked out through a conversation between bodies and the meanings & associations that their configurations brought about. Participants had to rely on the non-verbal communication of gaze, touch and movement that they’d been practising over the past three weeks as part of their morning routine. Although the ensemble could have developed multiple iterations with numerous meanings by combining their mudras in several ways, due to lack of time, I decided to limit the final performance to a single iteration.

explorations of compositions in duos & trios and the final choreography
screengrabs from participants’ videos

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