Mita Vasisht is one of those rare actors who don’t become dated. Much like Lalleshwari or Lal Ded, the 14th Century Kashmiri mystic poet, whose spiritual and literary legacy continues to inspire scholars and commoners alike. It has been 14 years since the seasoned actor mounted a solo play on the life and teachings of Lal Dedh who communicated through vatsun or vakhs. With the help of her Kashmiri friends, Mita wrote them in Devanagari script to get the rhythm of vakhs where, unlike dohas, the rhyming happening between the lines rather than at the ends. Mita says Lal Dedh’s message of peace and equality continues to echo through generations. “I get a lot of repeat audience,” says the veteran theatre practitioner, who also made a film on the mystic poet.
How did you come close to mystic poetry?
In 2002, I started searching for women-oriented text. After every five-10 years, there is a change in the way one perceives oneself. When I crossed 30, I started exploring a lot of feminist writing. But none of it appealed to me because it was all very reactive. Then I found myself exploring the Indian women mystics and poets. I narrowed down to four – Meera, Andal and Akka Mahadev and Lal Ded. Initially, I wanted to put all of them together in a play. Eventually, I found myself getting drawn towards Lal Ded. I found in her a very powerful individuation. Even her relationship with god was different. She was like, ‘Shiva, you and I have no difference. We have six senses. the only difference is that you are the lord and master of six senses and I am the one who is led astray by these six senses. I have no control over my senses. If I had, I would be you.’ I think this is very powerful way to see oneself, that you are nothing less than the divine. Architecturally, her poetry is very visual. When she says, ‘the moon woke up in me digit by digit…’, she is talking about the great super conscious mind which grows by cutting through the lower chakras to the higher ones. I took time to understand it. Every text of hers that you deal with, you take a journey into self.
How did you arrive at the form?
The challenge was how to find the aesthetic. Every content has its own aesthetic and you have to be very patient. You can’t just perform everything in everyway. That is one big mistake that a lot of us make. I believe that the form eventually is the content. I worked with the Noh theatre aesthetics and the Koodiyattam aesthetics. It was basically these two forms that allowed me to discover Lal Ded. The Japanese theatre aesthetic has minimal gesture. It has a single gesture with a lot of resonance. I did a workshop which was a comparative study between Koodiyattam and Noh. In Koodiyattam, there is a lot of delayed layering. The text and the gesture never come together at once. They come slightly one after another. Audiences don’t see it. They should not be able to put a finger on it. Otherwise, it will not feel internalised.
How has it changed over the years?
Lal Ded has always been contemporary. What is changing now is that I am working a lot with vakh. When I was playing around with vakhs, I realised I can do a rap with them. Somehow, the rhythm lends itself to rap. Earlier, I used to get straight into the performance. Now I engage the audience and take the audience on a journey through the vakh. I let them rap with me a little bit.
What keeps her relevant?
Lal Ded was ahead of her times. While we are attached to narrow confines of gender and identity, she has been somebody whom no age has been able to confine. She just went beyond all the ‘isms’. People say she was a feminist. She was way beyond that. She redefined secularism completely. Every ‘ism’ is ultimately a grouping. Somebody is for it, somebody is against it. But when you talk of individual soul, those are the people who are really free and don’t want any follower. In today’s time, people want to lead because they want followers. But imagine someone who is completely individuated in herself and is happy to show the way but doesn’t seek followers. That is the world of Lal Ded where there is plurality of every kind and being, where you will know there are many ways to reach Him and everyone has a right to their way. That philosophy is death knell for all ideas of state and nation, religious and political folds.
What does she mean to young Kashmiris?
If you are a true Kashmiri, you will follow Lal Ded. She said Kashmiris have a shared culture but there could be multiple religions. Her idea of Kashmir was very different from what we are seeing in the last 60 years. She is all the more relevant now because I have always believed in the saying: in times of doubt or in times of turbulence, follow the poet.
Did it affect you at some level?
Of course, in order to crack the play, I had to change a lot about myself. I had to clean my own inner cupboards. I had to confront my own unpleasant truths in order to come anywhere close to her. Trained actors turn a sharp lens towards themselves before turning it to the world. That is my practice.
You have cut down on your film and TV assignments…
It was because of lack of challenges. Now web space is opening new vistas to actors who want to work on their craft. I am busy with a couple of them, starting with “Criminal Justice” on Hotstar where I am playing a lawyer.
(Mita Vasisht will perform the life of Lal Ded at Gurgaon Utsav, Aravali Biodiversity Park, Gurgaon-Mehrauli Road, March 17, 7 p.m. onwards)