Coming to terms with life and death

Ajuntha Anwari mourns her mother's death, accepts her ageing body and seeks solace in Hayat

Ajuntha Anwari (right) and her daughter Sharda Harrison in Hayat. PHOTO: BRANDON SEAH



Pink Gajah Theatre M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Black Box, Centre 42 Wednesday

Hayat is a deeply personal piece sometimes hung up on its ideas about needing to be art.

It is based on the true account of 66-year-old performer Ajuntha Anwari losing her 92-year-old mother and coming to terms with ageing and the cycle of life and death.

It is directed by her daughter Sharda Harrison, who also performs opposite Ajuntha sometimes as herself and sometimes as Ajuntha's younger self or her mother.

Their movements and dialogue are played out against multimedia designed by Ajuntha's son Sean and sound effects by Harrison's long-term collaborator Lim Mei Yin.

Hayat is very much a family affair and works best when it accepts this.

Ajuntha's journey is completely convincing when displayed as documentary or dance (movement dramaturgy by Norisham Osman, while Andrew Sutherland served as general dramaturg).

Even while playing a character disappointed by her ageing body, Ajuntha is completely at home in it. She moves gracefully and purposefully, whether mourning her lost figure or vamping it up to Annie Lennox in celebration of her current self.

Answers to questions about her mother's death and her own body, filmed earlier, are played during parts of the performance. The revelation that she sees herself as a woman only after the loss of her mother - she is no longer a child to anyone - is heartbreaking and honest. Her musings touch a chord, as do her wails of grief screamed out live.

Prepared lines are where the work falters. Perhaps the reality of losing a mother or recalling a divorce are too painful to be played straight. Her style seems over-wrought, as if dramatic delivery of dialogue will provide an extra layer of protective insulation between the performer and the truth in the work. It only creates a gap between the audience and the performer in an otherwise tight, powerful piece - Hayat clocks in at around 50 minutes.

It packs a lot into less than an hour: acceptance of wrinkles and sagging, recollections of a mother at her peak and, at the end, a move to seeking solace in the spiritual. It is like being on the receiving end of a confession, or that moment when a friendship deepens because one party bares a new emotional layer.

Ajuntha's interest in professional theatre began with an intimate, living-room piece created for the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts' Open Homes series, where ordinary Singaporeans opened their homes and life stories to members of the public. Hayat creates a similar sense of intimacy, requiring the audience to be present with the performers.

At the start, the Black Box at Centre 42 is perfumed with incense while Ajuntha and Harrison move in squares like shamanistic, primal women.

About 20 people are allowed in at a time and the performers move around the audience, sometimes drawing viewers into a dance celebrating life, sometimes screaming grief in the middle of silent watchers.

Having Harrison perform opposite her mother adds a layer of love and anticipated sorrow to the work. Whether they deliberately mirror each other in dance or poses, or naturally wipe away each other's tears during an improvised portion, one sees their lives written on each other's bodies. One reflects on the bonds that link parent and child even after one has to leave the world.

• Hayat is sold out.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2018, with the headline Coming to terms with life and death. Subscribe