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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2018: Reflecting on Life with Pink Gajah’s Hayat (Preview)

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“Pink Gajah is a company where everyone becomes family,” Sharda Harrison, Artistic Director of Pink Gajah Theatre muses, while sipping on her drink. “I’m quite picky about the people I work with, because I need them to be comfortable with themselves, and be able to be raw and open with one another. I can’t have people who are trying to plaster themselves onto me or me onto them, they need to do be able to do their own thing, and I’m just here to drive them towards it.”

She ponders for a moment over what she’s just said, and continues: “There’s a high level of both diplomacy and catfighting that goes into the creative process, but I like that we can fight and still come out loving each other at the end of the day.”

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Sharda is perfectly right in using the word ‘family’, considering how both she and her mother Ajuntha Anwari will be appearing onstage in Pink Gajah’s latest work, while her brother Sean Harrison is handling tech and media. Hayat is one of two new productions that will be opening the 2018 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in less than a week, and the entire Pink Gajah team is raring to go.

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Hayat’s inception began in December 2016, when Sharda conducted a Pink Gajah Lab surrounding the themes of grief. During the session, Pink Gajah played with the loose narrative of two women who lost their husbands to the MH370 plane incident, dealing with themes of grief and loss. “When I was flying back from London, I thought I was going to die. Same thing when I got on a plane to Bali. And that’s where I come up with all my ideas: on planes, especially the bumpy ones,” Sharda quips. “I shifted the methodology behind this lab session to Hayat, still using the two women, similar media, and things just started to come together. After coming up with the movement, I added in my own research on Sufi poetry, articles on ritualism and basically pushed it all out, then went into discussions with both my physical theatre dramaturg Sharm and my script dramaturg Andrew.”

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Hayat is many things, but above all it is a story born from truth – Ajuntha Anwari’s truth as an ageing woman who is now forced to look back on her life. Says Ajuntha: “Hayat is about a woman who’s come to a stage in her life where it’s hard not to think about death. I look in the mirror and get a shock with the realization that I might well be on my way out, and learn to accept that. There’s all these emotions that surge up, and it’s almost therapeutic to honestly be able to tell your story and for it to be almost like a manual for other women going through the same thing.”

Says Sharda: “I’m not the brain child behind Hayat. I have to accept that my mother has her own means of channeling her energy into this story, and take a step back from the script and let her decide what is right or wrong, since it’s her story, and so different from my usual pace of work. Hayat is really based on a series of interviews I conducted with my mum when I kidnapped her and brought her to Bali, and mellowed her out with gin and tonics, tequila and massages. It was such a spiritual experience, and in the morning, we walked to our favourite cafe in the morning and I just asked her questions, not as mother and daughter, but as two theatremakers.”

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Ajuntha is no stranger to theatre, having performed as part of Jeffrey Tan’s Open Homes in 2015 and 2017, directed by none other than Sharda herself. Says Ajuntha: “She’s a very good director, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my daughter. Her methodology really got me into the space and frame of mind, and put me in a place of confidence. Compared to the other Open Homes I saw, which were more conversational, I think ours felt the most ‘theatrical’ of all. Hayat is almost an extension of the story I told during Open Homes, just more layered and theatrical in terms of approach.”

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Interestingly, Hayat was originally known by a different name by Pink Gajah. Says Sharda: “Initially, I proposed the name The Process of Honesty, and even though my team was so against it, I was insistent on sticking with it. After Andrew (Sutherland) started sending me messages all in caps to change it, I finally relented and changed it to the Javanese word for meditation. My brother then came to me and said it was awful, and I told him to go find something better. Sometime later he came back to me with Hayat, the Arabic word for ‘living’, and my mum liked it. So that’s how we came up with the name.”

Sharda continues: “My brother is the spiritual centre of Pink Gajah, the wise and all knowing one. I really trust him because he’s such a perfectionist and makes all these great decisions when it comes to artistic direction. Me on the other hand, I’m the machine in this company, and just all ‘go go go!’ I’m the one who pushes them to get new works out, while the rest of the team contribute suggestions and ideas and help them go from 50% to 100%, and ready to present.”

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On how Hayat ultimately links back to this year’s festival theme of Let’s Walk, Sharda explains: “I wasn’t directly influenced by Amanda Heng’s work so much as the idea of the ‘walk’. There’s a lot of in your face feminism, but I looked past that, and wondered how when the anger is all over, when the beauty, the mind, the walk itself is over, then what? It’s not an angry piece, but we could actually have made it a much angrier work with a political agenda, much like the original Let’s Walk.”

Sharda concludes: “Over these last few days rehearsing in our own home, we’re going to just keep going deeper and deeper, and even after the run, the show doesn’t end. For me, I want Hayat to become a long term piece. I want to do this for the next 10 or even 20 years. I want to do this when I’m pregnant, when mum is 80 and in a wheelchair. This show is the beginning of a seed, and I want it to keep coming back over and over again.”

Photos Courtesy of Pink Gajah Theatre

Hayat plays at Centre 42 as part of the 2018 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival from 17th – 20th January. Tickets available from SISTIC

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