From Here to There: Collaboration and Voice


Ever since coming to Canada as an immigrant in 1976, I have been concerned with issues of diversity in the theatre. I have often complained about the miss-representations (if it is presented at all), of Latin American culture that I see in the arts and in the mainstream media. Witnessing, for instance, the tragic Nicaraguan guerrilla warfare lightly used as exotic background for a version of “Carmen”, tends to make me more adamant in my opinion that only those with direct experience of a specific culture should represent it so that it can be done with respect and understanding of its human significance. But I had to revise the validity of having a rigid position in this matter when, in 2004, PUENTE Theatre produced “Uthe/Athe (There/Here), a very personal and culturally specific play written and performed by Raji Basi, a young Indo-Canadian woman–and dramaturged and directed by me, an older Chilean-Canadian woman.

Having been born and raised in Chile I had few connections with India and a very scant knowledge of its culture and customs. I did feel an affinity rooted in some mysterious DNA connection through the gypsies that went from India to Spain and that maybe found their way into my Spanish family. There are some similarities between the Indian and Latin American family and social structure. But all this had only a vague relevance to the background of this play. So how was I going to direct it?   It was a challenging task, full of pitfalls. But Raji and I felt strongly motivated and excited about doing the project, even though we still were not even sure about the content of the piece

The process developed in an intuitive way. We had been talking about doing a play based on the reminiscences of very old people, where there’s an enormous wealth of story waiting to be mined. ” I have an 85 year old aunt, who had to follow the strict path set out for her, yet she’s one of the most contented and settled persons I know”- Raji told me -“Whereas I’m supposed to enjoy many choices, but feel confused and disturbed with questions and doubts”. She wanted to understand this apparent contradiction and discover what had brought serenity to her aunt’s life. Maybe that would help her in her own search for balance.

She videotaped an interview with Gurdev, and we gave the project a working title: “Gurdev, a long life”.  My curiosity was awakened by what she didn’t say in the interview: she talked about her marriage at 13 and all the presents she had received; the saris and suits, which she remembered in great detail; the jewelry; the festivities; how she had been carried from one village to the next and how she had been taken to live with her mother and sisters in law. But what about the bridegroom? What happened with the husband? What happened in the consummation of the marriage? She had several children, lived with her husband for many years, but his name was never mentioned. Through my questions, a picture of the life in an Indian village, and of the situation of women there, started to emerge.  At the same time, Raji’s own connections with this way of life and how it had influenced her present outlook became apparent. I sensed at this point that the piece should be more about Raji’s own life than about Gurdev’s, even though she didn’t completely disappear from the story. A strong play could be developed about Raji’s experiences growing up in Canada in a traditional Indian family, and specially about her relationship with her mother—a formidable woman who embodied Indian culture—her expectations and wishes for her daughter, her intolerance and dismay at her daughter’s attempts at independence—following the dreaded Canadian model that inspired children to leave home as soon as they were eighteen, to marry whomever they chose, or even worse, to live with a partner without being married!

The new focus would make the play more personal and self-revelatory; imply more risk-taking and more vulnerability. Creative work of this type requires a fertile and emotionally safe place for everybody: the actor/writer and her disclosures, and the director, with her doubts and misgivings. Establishing an atmosphere of trust was essential. We looked for a methodology that would help us in this exploration.

We found a routine that worked for us by starting our rehearsals with an hour-long meditation, during which Raji moved following her impulses while keeping her eyes closed. I witnessed the action and kept track of time. After this we would both write for half an hour. We didn’t necessarily share these writings. They helped to create our working environment, but we could freely express ourselves in them, because there would be no exposure. We reasoned that relevant content would naturally become part of the play. After meditating and writing, I’d ask questions and Raji would talk about what she wanted to say in her play.  We were not concerned yet about having a story line or establishing a sequence. We were trying to turn a life experience into theatre. Raji’s anecdotes, her love of dance, of sports, her memories of India, her reactions to parental rules, all became raw material for the creation of scenes. We named them and made a list.  During rehearsal, the scenes were worked on, made more specific and theatrical. In due time we found the connection between scenes and the order in which they should be performed.  Raji did many re-writes.

In some instances, a play is found, not brought into being.  Many times I have felt that the role of a director in the type of theatre that I do is equivalent to the role of a detective: Where is the play? How do you find it? Which are the clues that lead us to where the play is? I am like a hound following my nose.

There were some clues in Gurdev’s answers:  We realized that clothing and jewellery had to be an important element in the play. The fluidity of the materials of saris and suits, the luxurious wedding raiment, the beautiful colours and subtly different textures became an inspiration for the staging. Putting on a sari is routine for Raji, but intriguing and attractive for me: We created the Sari dance.

The situation of women was revealed to me very powerfully in the story of the ceremony of death.  Sometimes instead of being celebrated, the birth of a baby girl is mourned with this traditional ceremony because of the burden it places on the family. It is a heavy load that some girls have to carry. They encumber their families just because they exist. This story became the starting point of the play, as it had been the starting point of Raji’s life.

We would find other clues in a meeting with older Indian women. We invited them to a social gathering with food and conversation. There were about twenty, all over 60 years old.  Four younger women, Raji’s friends, were there to take notes. Much of the conversation was held in Punjabi. I was the only non-Indian, and being an impartial witness, facilitated the gathering, so as to break the ice. It was a wonderful meeting. The presence of those older women, with their experienced faces, their clothing, their laughter and their dignity, was inspiring. There was also an enchanting six-year-old girl there, who gave meaning to what we were doing in trying to explain the mystery of Indian womanhood. This little girl was very curious about me, she was clearly worried because of my lack of jewellery and beautiful clothes. She said: “Why don’t you have a salwar khameez? Where’s your jewellery? We could give you some.” It was clear that without proper attire I was not a complete woman in her eyes.

The younger women present wanted to have a discussion about whether the traditional ways were still acceptable. But Raji and I wanted to listen, not to engage in discussions of right or wrong. After introductions and conversation I explained the rules of a word game that we’d play:  I asked them to freely say the words that came to their mind when I said, for instance :Indian, Canadian, wedding , family , and so on.

Some of the responses were very telling. The word “ Daughter ”, brought the following associations:  

Love – friendship – sadness – headaches – responsibilities – sleepless – worry – groom -dowry – gossip – wealth – teaching – dressing-up – luck

India and Canada prompted words that showed contrasting worlds: India was about traditions, religion, and family. Canada, about freedom, good living, drinking and drugs.

When Raji   proposed the word: “sex” there was lots of laughter, and silences. Uneasy looks were exchanged.  Finally some words came out: forbidden – silence – fighting – making up – important – forgiveness – cheating – wedding night – abuse – hugging – honeymoon – power – embarrassing

We received interesting answers to:  If you could say one sentence to a young Indian woman, what would it be?

Get married – no sex – learn to sew, knit – be honest – learn good housekeeping – learn to manage money – respect elders – have patience – come home straight from school – dress nicely – no orange or purple hair – live in harmony in your household – make decent friends – if your parents tell you to get married, do it! –  Trust in God…

As we were doing these exercises I sensed that the young women were feeling frustrated by the answers, believing them not to be truthful enough. However as the evening progressed the women became more trusting. At the end they started talking freely about their own experiences in marriage.

Finally Raji asked: If you had to live your life over again, would you do the same thing?

This provoked discussion and soul searching. One of the women said bluntly that she had been married at 16 to a drunk, that she had been abused and lonely, and couldn’t confide in anybody in her community; other women talked about how difficult it had been to adapt when brought from India to marry an Indo-Canadian.  Only one of them said that she had been content in her marriage. As if suddenly coming to a realization, a woman exclaimed: “We are doing this! We are asking our daughters to do the same thing we did, even if we were not happy? Why do we do it?” This question was unanswered. We agreed that it was a subject for more discussion and reflection, and that was the end of the evening.

This workshop provided us with direction and content for our play. We could express at least the possibility of questioning whether what the tradition dictated was right and appropriate for everybody. We wanted to express a difficult and complex situation, an oppressive one in many ways, but we also wanted to show the beauty and the power of the culture. It is every immigrant’s dilemma: what customs and traditions do I keep from my homeland, what do I reject? What do I embrace from the new culture? How can I become a whole person when living in two worlds?

We agreed that “Uthe/Athe (There/Here)” had to truthfully express the conflicts and heartbreak and at the same time show the beauty, the sensuality, the great longevity and depth of the Indian culture. This would allow us to understand how important it is for Raji to keep in touch with these profound roots and why she strives to stay true to them, and yet find her own way according to the new influences in her life in Canada.

I believe that, in spite of the trepidation with which I started this work, my interest in the lives that were being disclosed to me, my admiration for the facts I encountered and my delight in the beauty   and mystery of Indian culture, helped me to find my path as director and dramaturge. Thanks to ”Uthe/Athe” a fragment of Indo-Canadian reality has been revealed to me. Our audience’s responses show that they also experience a feeling of discovery and admiration. “Uthe/Athe” remains in our repertory and we consider it a piece that truly expresses PUENTE’s mandate of being a bridge between individuals and between cultures.

Printed in Alt.Theatre January 2006