The performance starts dot on time, and Zuleikha Chaudhari hides her annoyance as she lets in a clutch of latecomers. Inside, against a light installation, a man in an orange T-shirt and jeans is contorting his body in various ways. He speaks for a while and then lets the silence do the rest. He collects his spit and rubs it all over his face. Then he walks, the audience gingerly in tow.
This is a solo performance by actor Manish Chaudhari based on a story by Haruki Murakami that goes by the rather splendid title, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. At the end of an intense 70 minutes, the duo disappears into thin air. “We didn’t feel like talking to anyone then,” smiles Zuleikha.
The play, an experiential and spatial rendition of the text, was first performed at Khoj in Delhi. “There, the audience moved with Manish from room to room. The work keeps changing and distilling with every show. For me this story was interesting in terms of what it means to revisit the same moment again and again. One remembers an event in memory differently each time,” she says of her interest in Murakami’s poignant love story.
Chaudhari is a theatre director and lighting designer who studied at Vermont in the US and then London. Her work on light and installations since 2003, that has combined fine art with the theatre form, segues into the latest project too. On Seeing… does away with the audience as a ‘fourth wall’. “It’s like at an art show you decide how long you want to look at a work,” she says. “It was the same idea for this. I don’t even like to call it a play, more a proscenium (stage) space. You can watch Manish when you want or just look around and hear him… it depends on the viewer.”
The duo inhabits different cities but the husband-wife, actor-director team of Manish and Zuleikha Chaudhari have been working together for a decade in theatre. Their group, Performers at Work, came about in 1997 and primarily works on translating text into visuals. It has produced works such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Viginia Woolf’s Orlando and their very own, The Mahabharata Project.
So how does their chemistry translate on-stage? “For starters, Manish is an actor and I’m a director. He’s very open to exploring ideas, and as an artiste, he explores the space that I create. The time is our own — we decide when to work. No matter how creative, any profession at the end of the day is work. We have our occasional shop-talk after dinner, it’s hard not to, though we do make a conscious effort to leave work at the workplace.”
Well, we leave out discussing her lineage — she’s the daughter of Nissar and NSD chairperson Amal Allana, and granddaughter of Ebrahim Alkazi. The idea was to explore Zuleikha in her own space, a world totally her own. And that’s where we found her at her intense best.