Mita Vasisht on why she keeps returning to perform Lal Ded
With Lal Ded, Mita Vasisht takes the stage in a role she has conceived, co-written and travelled with since 2004. The play, performed in Hindi, English and Kashmiri, is a journey into the collective consciousness of the present times and introduces the viewers to some of Lal Ded’s (also known as Lalleshwari) works and how she was, as a person. Mita keeps returning to this solo performance, which is closest to her heart. We talk to her about the legendary Kashmiri poet and her play, and more.
Excerpts from an interview.
What does Lal Ded stand for?
She was a great mystique and a powerful poet. She has remained in the Kashmiri consciousness for years. When I travelled to Kashmir, people would talk about her as though she is still alive and they would refer to her in the present tense, “Lalla Kehti hai”. For both Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims, she is a shared icon. She was a Shaivite (tantrik), and the Muslims don’t want to change her at all, they accept her. Lal Ded represents Kashmiriyat.
Is that what makes Lal Ded so relevant even today?
She has always been relevant. Kashmiriyat itself means a culture, which is shared even if the religions are different. It’s about a society that shares everything together and religion doesn’t matter, and that is Lal Ded for you.
What about Shaivism in Kashmir?
Shaivism in Kashmir is very different from Shaivism in the rest of the country. They don’t believe in idol worship. They would believe that God is a vast form of life and we are all particles of that life.
Tell us a bit more about Lal Ded, the poetess...
She was highly individuated and she did not want followers. She emphasised on how God is within everyone. But at the same time, she wasn’t a boring mystique. She stood for individuating the self, which is a very Vedic concept. If each one of us is highly individuated, then we don’t need to follow anyone. You will not follow a sect, or a caste, you will follow your own calling. This is why people relate to her so much. She doesn’t push you into any kind of dogma and tells you to go deep within yourself. She also predicted natural disasters that would be brought about by us misusing the environment. That is exactly what is happening today.
What was her poetry like?
It was simple to understand. It wasn’t highly ‘Sanskritised’. It was like spoken words that was accessible to everyone. She spoke words that would just fall into the ears, and they were not complicated. The ideas were highly evolved but it was presented in the simplest of manners.
What does she represent to you?
For me, Lal Ded represents a person whom no time can confine. I find it enormously liberating. She is a person of the times. She goes beyond all ‘isms’. She has such high consciousness, that she could predict what’s going to happen in Kashmir.
Could you talk about the process of conceiving and co-writing Lal Ded?
There were so many people involved at the time of researching and writing. I was reading a lot about numerous mystique poets for about two years. I finally came to Lal Ded, and I stayed with her. Writing and putting the script together was a collaborative process between myself and Vishnu Mathur, who is a very senior filmmaker and another person called Rajesh Jha. The structures of the scripts happened then. From 2004 onwards, I made certain changes the way I wanted to. People have come along with me at different points in the play. Symbolically speaking, I walked a certain path with a certain collaborator, and then another path with someone else. But without them, it wouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t me doing everything. The play is also a great technical achievement in terms of light direction. It is very much the soul of the play.
What are the responses you have received on Lal Ded?
I have had some amazing responses from all sorts of people and they are not just Kashmiris. For instance, a 24-year-old actor, I met some years ago, came up to me and told me “I’m so glad I watched the play, because I learnt that I don’t have to do what the world tells me to do in order to be successful”.
What do you think about the way your career has panned out over the years?
When I came in first, I did the most fantastic work with the most great minds ever. I worked with Govind Nihalani, who was at the peak of his career then. I worked with Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul and Mahesh Bhatt. I also worked with Gulzar Sahab. So, the first four or five years, I got to do a great body of work. I was really lucky. I feel I have been gifted with a talent and I have to look after it — the gift of acting that I had in me had to be nurtured. I also feel like every time I have not focussed on my craft, I have gone offtrack. I was in an industry which was highly star-driven, it still is. So, if you were doing a good job in a non-lead role, your parts were brutally cut and you weren’t allowed to make much of an impact. It protects the stars to a great extent. There were these heartbreaks that I went through but now, in hindsight, over the years, I feel like I have done it my way. My career was made up of the right directors, I wouldn’t say I was arrogant, but I had the sense to respect myself and my craft.
Do you think you got better opportunities in TV than films?
I did the most amazing films. I think, I worked well in all the three mediums. You put me in a Mani Kaul film or a Mani Ratnam film, I will work. Tomorrow, you make me dance around the trees, I will do that, too. Even in theatre, I have done a lot of varied work. All the three mediums have given me the opportunity to explore all aspects of being an actor.
Which of your roles do you cherish the most?
I love all the roles that I did in my early days. The thing about me as an actor is that I love the roles because they’re different people for me. I would never say, ‘Oh my god, I did that!’.