TRAPDOORS INTO OTHER WORLDS: Shayok Misha Chowdhury talks with Tarfia Faizullah about VICHITRA

Tarfia Faizullah in conversation with Shayok Misha Chowdhury on his ongoing project, VICHITRA. Register for the free premiere of episode four, In Order to Become, at The Bushwick Starr, in association with Joe’s Pub and The India Center Foundation, December 10th and 11th at 7pm.

I have a distinct memory of watching playwright, director, and poet Shayok Misha Chowdhury work with his high school students at Meridian Academy, a small arts school in the Boston area, almost a decade ago. Misha was directing them in a play, and he sat very still as his students sorted out their cues, but his eyes were taking in everything. His feedback to his students made it clear to me that there was no detail that had escaped his notice. I was just starting in earnest on my own professional path as a writer and artist, and I remember realizing that Misha has what we call “vision.” Misha “sees” in multiple dimensions, as all great directors do, and through multiple worldviews, too, as an artist whose work is informed by being Bengali, queer, and an immigrant. As a writer, his work is always conscious of the nuance and import of language.

This week, Misha premieres the fourth installment of his project VICHITRA at The Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn. VICHITRA is an “experiment”, as Misha describes it, “in queer South Asian imagination.” The sheer range of experiences the project explores is in and of itself a feat, but what continues to impress me most about Misha’s work is that it’s so darn dynamic. The stories he gathers and highlights are always surprising and unexpected. They are stories that are attentive to the effects of disruption and its power. They are stories that emphatically move the margins to the main stage. 

I’m also impressed (and jealous, my highest compliment) that Misha is creating collaborative work with such depth in this incredibly isolating moment. In addition to working with his partner, video artist Kameron Neal, and sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom, Misha is engaging artists and storytellers from all over the world. VICHITRA is a production that gets at the global through the granular. It also merges the nimbleness of technology with a kind of patience we usually associate with live performance. As he says in our conversation below, “I wanted to make something that spoke the language of video and radio but was still shot through with a certain theatrical sensibility.” VICHITRA is just the beginning of watching Shayok Misha Chowdhury apply the full range and potency of his magnetic vision. I spoke to Misha recently over the course of a couple days, mostly late at night, where we always, in both our friendship and in our professional lives, seem to be most and fully ourselves.   

Tell us a little bit about VICHITRA. How did it begin? Did you know it would become a series when you first set out? 

 So, back in June, I was supposed to direct my friend Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s play The Shaking Earth in the Criminal Queerness Festival. It’s a queer story about the trauma of the 1984 Sikh Massacre refracted across generations and continents, and I’m a huge fan of the play. But of course, 2020 had other plans for us, so that production had to be postponed. The Festival, however, still wanted to do something virtual that engaged queer South Asian folx, and the first episode of VICHITRA was born out of that ask. I thought it was going to be a one-off thing. I had no intention of diving headlong into the internet. As a writer and theater director, my work has lived mostly in 3 dimensions, or in 2 dimensions on the page. But if I’m honest about what I consume most ravenously, it’s audio and video content: podcasts, film, TV. So when I was asked to make something for the online space back in June, I asked myself: what would I actually want to tune into? I wanted to make something that spoke the language of video and radio but was still shot through with a certain theatrical sensibility. So I reached out to my partner Kameron Neal, who is a video artist, and sound designer, Jeremy S. Bloom, and the three of us worked together to make the first episode, An Anthology of Queer Dreams, which is this kind of intimate patchwork of literal, night-time dreams that we collected from all kinds of LGBTQ+ South Asian folx. And in making that episode, we were like…oh! There’s something here. We’ve stumbled upon a form that really excites us. And now, here we are six months later, about to release our 4th episode.

Mubarak! I love that. I want to start with dynamics: an essential component of excellent art that I often see in your work. It seems like you think dimensionally…how deliberately do you go into a project? How do you find your footing along the way in process?

That’s a great question. I think I make my most exciting discoveries in process and in conversation. With each new project, I think, there’s a kind of threshold: some small thing that’s enough solid ground to hold my weight, that pushes me to take a step. That could be a collaborator, a form or skill I’m eager to try out, a song that’s been stuck in my head, a question that won’t leave me alone. Like the episode we’re working on now, it started off simply with: I knew I wanted to work with my dear friend Roopa Mahadevan. That was it. I was curious about her and her world as a Carnatic vocalist. I think I’m deliberate in the sense that, once I’m curious about something, I move deliberately forward, but not toward a predetermined endpoint. The thing ends up shaping itself along the way. Which is why VICHITRA has been so exciting and also so challenging because I’m inviting in all these different voices as interviewees or collaborators or folx submitting audio anonymously, and oftentimes, it isn’t till the very end that I’m like…aha! That’s what this piece is actually about. That’s the heart of the thing.

I love that curiosity is so much a part of your process, as well as friendship. I would also be…curious…to hear about the other ways that VICHITRA has been both exciting and challenging. It seems like you have a ton of trust in your collaborators, am I getting that right? Or perhaps a vision for their role, as the “thing ends up shaping itself along the way?” I can definitely see how the technical aspects of VICHITRA are bumping up against your theater training in that way. 

Totally. I think I bring that uber-collaborative, sometimes chaotic energy that I’m habituated to as a live theater-maker, to my work on VICHITRA. I’m used to speaking so many different languages simultaneously. In a given day, I might be doing visual research with designers, thinking through tactics with actors, consulting with producers about audience engagement, refining a story arc with a dramaturg or a writer or a co-writer, and then, in my rare solo moments, sinking into that kind of deliciously lonely space (which you know so well) of just me and a word or a sound or a half-thought. Now that the architecture of my daily life is so different, I’m developing different fluencies. In VICHITRA, not only do I have to flex those writerly, directorly, producerly muscles, but I’m also learning how to collaborate as an audio and video editor, or how to interview someone via Zoom, or how to think remotely with a violinist about translating a monologue into music. Which is what makes the work so energizing, cause I’m learning so much. And because we’re not in a literal room together hashing it out, I really have to trust my collaborators. I’m learning to communicate more clearly and concisely. I’m learning to lean back. We don’t all work in unison. It’s more like a call-and-response. 

Ah yes, the deliciously lonely place! My favorite. 🙂  

It’s cool how you’re using tools, like Zoom, that are really of the moment.. I see pandemic loneliness as another such tool. I love, too, your idea of art-making as a development of fluencies. “Fluency” connects to a few related questions I have around language and identity. You speak Bengali and incorporate it at times into your work. How consciously do you think about identity as an artist, and how does that connect/disconnect from notions of collective and/or community? You also mentioned working with South Asian folx, specifically LGBTQIA+. Is that also who you perceive as your audience/viewers? Do you ever feel fatigue around the question of identity? 

I love that language is your starting point for this question because actually, I think, my sense of self and belonging and connectedness is completely bound up in language. Which is something you and I have talked about a lot. Even though we don’t come from the same religious background or even nationality (which is complicated), because we’re Bengali — because we speak a shared language — there’s always been this kinship between us. There’s this other register we get to slip into where the rules that govern humor and feeling and thinking are totally different. And I get so excited by that — that languages are these trapdoors into other worlds with other rules. So I guess I would say, I think a lot about language and translation in my work. I think it’s safe to say that all of my work emerges, in one way or another, from my dual citizenship in English and Bangla. Working with my collaborators Roopa and Shiv on In Order to Become, I got to peek into their world as diasporic, Tamil-speaking, Carnatic musicians. And Tamil is this old old language. The wellsprings Roopa and Shiv are drawing from run so deep, both when they’re singing this intricate classical music and when they’re cackling about a pun that makes no sense to me. They reach so far back. I nerd out hard on that stuff. I’m always down some Wikipedia rabbit hold about language trees. And that for me is about identity, and it is about community, but to speak about myself in those terms always feels like a kind of translation — because when I’m speaking Bangla, those words aren’t in my vocabulary. The need for them (maybe?) disappears.

Oof. It is complicated. You and I both speak Bengali but grew up with two totally different words for water…speaking of language as trapdoors, and as glimpses into other older worlds! Yes. If I may translate (pun intended) a few of your thoughts: am I correct in hearing you say that identity is an exploration, rather than nationality and religion…or even a kind of self-branding? I noticed each installation of VICHITRA is distinct from the one before, but they’re united under an umbrella I might loosely term “exploration of selves that are not easily/readily accessible.” I see this project as an exploration, not to mention an excavation, of deeper, dare I say, subliminal selves. Do you see it that way, or do you have other themes you’re striving for? 

Absolutely, I mean, I feel like I’m always walking this delicate tightrope between speaking from an authentic place as a queer Bengali-American and what you described (so aptly) as self-branding. Which goes back to your question about fatigue. I think that’s just the reality of making work in a predominantly white, anglocentric culture. It makes it difficult sometimes, for me, to distinguish between what’s true and what’s necessary. But with VICHITRA, I feel like I’ve been able to thread that needle successfully. I call it “an experiment in queer South Asian imagination,” and that language, yes, signals a kind of marginality to the majority culture. And cynically I would say, sure, there is a kind of currency to that kind of self-articulation in this moment, in the liberal, white-led arts institutions that largely fund my work. But what’s been so energizing and strangely freeing about “branding” the project in that way is that, even though “queer South Asian imagination” reads as niche to the majority culture, it’s actually infinitely capacious. You asked earlier about audience. As a director, part of my job is to be an audience proxy — to imagine how different potential audience members might experience the work. With the upcoming episode for example, I’ve been considering how it might land both for someone who is steeped in Carnatic music and someone who’s never heard of it before. And both of those imagined viewers could be queer South Asians because the category is so vast. South Asians, on the subcontinent and in the diaspora, make up one quarter of the world’s population. The possibilities are endless! We chose to call the project VICHITRA because it’s a word that, in so many languages of the subcontinent, has this dual meaning that encompasses both “strange”, “weird”, “grotesque”, and also “many-colored”, “miscellany”, “heterogenous”. The episodes have been so varied. I feel like I’ve been able to get really specific, really dig into the nitty-gritty. Being reincarnated as the Bengali martyr Khudiram, for example. A 9th century Tamil poet wanting to become a stork. Interviewing an 84-year-old woman about the time she saw Black American soldiers as a young girl in British India, and how they gave her Butterfinger chocolates. I’m always on the hunt for unexpected, granular stories that can’t be reduced to a thesis statement. And I think, yes, those details, those particularities are often subliminal, they do get buried under “branding” because they complicate the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

I love the vastness of your thinking here. I’ll be thinking more about your idea of identity as an experiment in my own practice. It seems like one of the other aims of VICHITRA is to not lose those stories that are particular/irreducible, and to also not forget the past they’re a part of. How much do you think about time as an artist? 

I mean, I’m a sucker for old stuff. I was just reading the other night, on one of my late-night Wikipedia binges, about how, during the last Ice Age, humans may have lived in Beringia, the land bridge that existed between Asia and the Americas, for 10-20 thousand years, unable to move southward because the whole Western Hemisphere was covered in ice. I mean . . .  WHAT? How do I begin to wrap my brain around that kind of timespan? Our memories are so short, we forget so easily. But I think I’m always running headlong, smashing myself into the impossible fact of time. I want so badly to peer into the past and understand how it is that we are who we are. And I feel like, in some small way, my work lets me do that. As a kid, my friend and I went to Building 19, bought a bunch of junk, and built a time machine. I think I’m still just doing that, I’m still just trying to time travel.

So what’s the future hold, time traveler?

Oh boy. Isn’t that what we’re all asking ourselves right now? Thinking about the future has become kind of terrifying. I’m taking it one small step at a time. I’m writing a play about a cinematic dream my uncle had. I’m working with my mom on a project about the physics of the sand. I feel like my work these days is helping me focus in on the present rather than spiraling out into that never-ending “What’s next?” I feel immensely blessed to be supported as a maker through this precarious time, by theaters like Soho Rep and HERE Arts Center and Ars Nova and the Bushwick Starr where the next episode of VICHITRA is premiering. For better or worse, the world has been forced to slow down a little bit, and I’m trying to use that opportunity to slow my own heartbeat a pace.

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