It was a chilly Sunday evening in Delhi. There was a sluggishness of stride, the majestic avenues bore a somewhat deserted appearance and the street vendors’ shawls were wrapped tight around their ears. Many snuggled in razais with a book (or a television remote!) in one hand and a warm beverage in the other – my idea of an ideal winter’s evening in this unrelenting city. However, the promise of an unusual experience drew me from my late afternoon lethargy into the city centre. The past weeks had been tumultuous to say the least – the capital witnessed public outrage over a national tragedy – slogans were raised, candlelight vigils were held, traffic was disrupted and the State flexed its muscles in the face of mass protest. The air was tense and the anger of millions still palpable as one traversed the India Gate Hexagon, the site of numerous agitations. I sped along, fighting back anger and emotion, trying to keep my eyes on the road. Turning off on Tilak Marg, I arrived at my destination – an old apartment building that rose well above the green canopy of Lutyen’s Delhi.
The guard at the gate greeted me with trademark hostility, announcing that visitor cars were not allowed on the premises, pointing me to the vacant space between his gate and the next. The neighbour happened to be the Pakistani High Commissioner and as I inched forward to claim my parking spot, his guards presented a similarly intimidating front. With some negotiation (read: pleading), I managed to lodge my car between the two gates and made my way to the check-in desk for Rooftop.
Rooftop was an experience designed and presented as part of Parallel Cities, a series of theatre projects that sought to alter our perceptions of the city we inhabit by intervening in the spaces of everyday life – a shopping mall, a library, an apartment building...
There were only a few of us there, no more than five. We were led down a flight of stairs and arrived at a nondescript door. Upon instruction, a member of the group knocked gently and a lady emerged. She offered a warm greeting and informed us that since she was visually impaired we would each need to come up, shake hands with her, introduce ourselves and then enter the room. As our hands met, she felt my kada and inquired about it. It felt significant that such a brief moment of non-visual contact could be so readily revealing.
Stepping inside the room felt like entering office storage. It was mostly dark with files and papers stacked along every wall, some in shelves, others on the floor. At its centre was a round table with a light hanging directly above. We took our seats around the table and were offered a cup of tea by our host. Was the space we were in meant to completely disorient us? Or would it instead serve to dislodge our usual inhibitions and daylight gestures? Would we soon be engaged in an intimate teatime conversation with a group of strangers? These questions, and numerous others, ran through my head as our host poured the tea with the aid of a sonic liquid level detection device.
As we sat and watched, in anticipation and fascination, our host introduced herself and began speaking about her life. Suddenly the lights were turned off, plunging the dimly lit room into complete darkness and challenging us to allow our other senses to assume primacy in discerning forms, savouring the tea, feeling its warmth and intently listening to the experiences being shared. Our eyes may be the window to our soul but need they also be our only window to the world? Her tale proved otherwise – a narrative of courage and determination, resilience and perseverance, a triumph of will and spirit over all odds.
When the lights came back on, it no longer seemed strange that we were huddled in a subterranean cellar, sharing intimate life details with complete strangers. Before we knew it we were being led back up the stairs, to the elevator and up to the building’s roof. As we stepped out, the dense, cold air slapped our cheeks. The view was breathtaking… Delhi seldom offers such vantage points. The Supreme Court held its ground; the National Stadium’s floodlights brilliantly illuminated a dreary evening; India Gate appeared oddly diminutive and Rashtrapati Bhawan rose up in the distance. The mist clung to the ground below, a flowing white carpet with shimmering yellow and dull green accents. Struggling to take it all in, we walked around, fiddled with our cameras, played guessing games and then ascended a temporary wooden staircase onto a platform. Two sigris stood ready and waiting with glowing embers while a harmonium sat atop brightly hued cushions – all the makings of a baithak. A classically trained singer, our host, guide and by then friend and confidante, sang ghazals and recited some of her poetry. It was sublime – a rare opportunity to locate one’s soul, disconnect from the city, its people, its problems – all while surveying the sea of structures and forms that constitute it. It is certainly evident that the city exists in multiple registers but it took an experience like this to orient us into perceiving and internalising more than what meets the eye.
That chilly Sunday evening in Delhi was Lohri, traditionally the longest, coldest night of the year, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Rattanamol Singh Johal lives in New Delhi.
‘Parallel Cities’, curated by Stefan Kaegi (of Rimini Protokoll) and Lola Arias (of Postnuclear) ran from 9-18 January, 2013 as part of the National School of Drama’s 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav. It was presented in New Delhi by Pro Helvetia – Swiss Arts Council and Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan
‘Rooftop’ was developed by Stefan Kaegi in collaboration with Dr. Priti Prakash Prajapati, a Lecturer in Hindi at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi.
Form is a bookshelf holding books, a spine of a book holding its pages. It is the architecture after the architect. Just as gravity holds the earth down even as it floats in some larger space; just as the body holds a consciousness, even as it daydreams outside of it. It is a line bent into a symbol, droplets of mercury constrained in a thermometer. It is a molecular bond, it is our minds finding habit.Read More
By Rattanamol Singh Johal, Issue 20, FORM: THE BODY LOCATED, March 2013