A Woman in Motion

Our bodies are so much more than we are told they are. They are instruments that receive and express, and do all these wonderful things. Our bodies have so many stories to tell, some that even our minds are unaware of. This is one such story of a woman in motion.

What does it mean to be a woman in the world of today? And, no, I do not intend to go on a tirade about patriarchy and oppression, as justified and relevant as that might still be. I mean- what does it actually mean to be a woman? To be whole, and not one half. To be complex and not unidimensional. To be imperfect and not flawless. To be flesh and blood, not just breasts and tears. To be more than what you look like, speak like, sound like.

Therein, lies the beauty of modern theatre. It’s exactly like a woman. She is flawed, expanding, ever-evolving, wild, generous. She is a multitude of oxymorons- creating and destroying and re-creating.

Lapdiang Arti Syiem in the throws of a performance

Those of you reading this article know exactly what I am referring to when I speak of the linguistic colonial hangover- the emphasis that was put on proficiency in English as a symbol of class, literacy and education. When I was introduced to theatre as a little girl, I ardently believed that theatre could only exist in the world of English. I could not fathom how theatre could possibly exist in the rounded O’s of Bengali, my mother tongue, or in the crudeness of bambaihya Hindi as I knew it. This was because I had never seen it before. And a lot of these little memories came rushing back to me as I spoke with Lapdiang Arti Syiem, a theatre-maker known for her work in physical theatre, from Shillong.

Yes, you heard that right. How many mainstream actors, theatre or otherwise do you know that are from “the North East,” which encompasses 8 sister states, just by the way? I am willing to bet that it would be challenging for your lexicon to muster even two names without second guessing yourself. Lapdiang, however, is different. And she makes sure she states it loud and clear. She is a theatre-maker from Shillong, Meghalaya, born and brought up in the matrilineal Khasi culture. She is the first person, not just woman she corrects me, from Meghalaya to have graduated from the acclaimed National School of Drama, New Delhi.

Culture Shock

Besides the obvious cultural shock she experienced as a result of moving from one end of the country to another, language was a huge challenge for her. Having grown up in the shelter of the conservative Presbyterian Church community, she spoke and thought primarily in Khasi and English- both of which are miles, if not leagues, away from Hindi. Acting, she said, particularly requires you to be able to think in the language you are performing in. Except, Hindi was not only a language she did not think in, it was also a language whose literature never represented anyone like her. She was far removed from the words she was required to use as well as the subtext of culture, community, identity that they carried with them.

Lapdiang specializing in performing Khasi folklore

As women, I presume most of us are far too familiar with unsolicited advice that stems from very poor understandings of who we are as people, and what we aspire to. So, of course, I had to ask Lapdiang whether her identity as a Khasi woman ever attracted any unnecessary(well-intentioned, of course) suggestions from her contemporaries or others at NSD. Unsurprisingly, it did. In her second year at NSD, the students were required to choose between acting and stage design & direction. A kind soul suggested she pick the latter given her lack of fluency in Hindi. She politely declined, and I suppose the incident simply served to strengthen her resolve to become an actor.

If you are anything like me, you may be wondering where she gets that undying resolve from. And, I must confess, I was not in the least surprised to learn that her mother is as dynamic a woman as Lapdiang is. Her mother is a poet and a teacher. She teaches African American literature at the university, while also penning poems addressing the realities of the modern shifts in their local community. One of Lapdiang’s recent works includes a piece called “Reaching out to Grasp Roots- I Stand Uprooted,” which is essentially an adaptation of three of her mother’s poems. They explore the themes of labour, migrant labourers and coal-mining. Unbeknownst to those living in major metropolitan cities, states like Meghalaya have recently encountered the challenges of privatisation of agricultural land, and their conversion into illegal land mines. With illegal coal mines come cheap, unpaid labor, in dehumanising conditions. It is these issues that Lapdiang brought to the fore through her performance.

 A poster for Reaching Out to Grasp Roots – I Stand Uprooted.

What Motivates her Work

Lapdiang is a deep thinker. She thought through all the questions I posed to her before responding. She ruminates. When asked what motivates her to perform, Lapdiang was quick to respond with  “relevance and representation.” So, for her to respond so quickly had to mean I had touched upon something dear to her. 

The Khasi culture is one enriched by folklore, dance, music and stories passed down from one generation to another. It has a very strong history of an oral tradition for the dissemination of culture. Scripting is a practice that only arose in the wake of the Welsh/Roman missionaries. As a consequence of this, the stories that the Khasi community had been telling and re-telling for centuries were finally penned down, but….in the Roman script! 

The legend of Ka Likai dramatised by Lapdiang Syiem at the Assam State Museum in Dighali Pukhuri, Guwahati.

As a little girl, growing up attending a convent school, Lapdiang spoke and performed in the remnants of imperialist English. She performed The Anne of Green Gables, for instance, and we shared a thorough laugh as we both gushed about how ridiculously colonial the stories we saw, read, heard and performed, were. As she ventured outside her home state to study theatre, and then went to Switzerland to do her residency in physical theatre- the lack of representation of her people became all the more obvious. In India, she was not Indian enough because she was not fluent in Hindi, and abroad she was not possibly Indian because she “looked” South-East Asian, Filipino even, as one chivalrous creep tried in vain to compliment her.

 A still from the performance “Bite.”

Lapdiang narrated to me a wonderful story about the process of the creation of one of her physical pieces called “Bite.” As a Khasi woman with crooked teeth, she had been nonchalantly advised to get her teeth “fixed” if she ever wanted to make it in Bollywood (as though sparkling, straight teeth could help overcome years of racism within the industry). And so her piece was a beautiful amalgamation of culture and identity as described through teeth – the emphasised beauty of white teeth, the crudeness of paan-stained red teeth.

The name “Lapdiang Arti” means to receive with both hands. A sign of gratitude and acceptance. The once young, shy girl, accepted her experience of exclusion, and turned it into something extraordinary. She found her own liberation on the stage, in the spotlight, and made a niche for herself,one that she did not have the privilege to inherit. She took to physical theatre because words could fail her, but her body would not. To this day, she chooses to use her body and mind as an instrument to convey her thoughts, feelings and emotions, that lend themselves to a world that she acknowledges is so much larger than her.


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Satnaam Shri Waheguru