British author and prolific letter-writer Lewis Carroll made a characteristically astute observation when he remarked that humans can most accurately be defined as “animals that write letters”. Carroll would have been overjoyed by the idea of The Reading Room, an initiative by Anuja Ghosalkar’s theatre company DramaQueen, which invites audience members to read out letters they have received, sent, or want to send.

The Reading Room was born when Ghosalkar took a break from performing DramaQueen’s first production Lady Anandi – a one-woman show which draws on the story of Ghosalkar’s great-grandfather Madhavrao, a 19th-century theatre actor. “Lady Anandi is so tiring because so much of me goes into it,” Ghosalkar said. “So I thought, what if I did very little and I invited the audience to bring narratives from their life? I am fascinated with the letter as a text, and reading as a performance. So I wanted to gather archival material and make others have a stake in the performance.”

Since its inception in February, The Reading Room has completed six sessions, the last of which was organised at the India Foundation for the Arts in Bengaluru on June 23.

Sessions follow a similar pattern: Ghosalkar selects close to 25 letters, ranging from love letters written by Karl Marx, letters from the first ambassador from India to Russia, to mundane exchanges between the head of a shipping company and the captain of a ship asking for leave. She segregates into numbered envelopes based on their tone and content.

She also asks audience members bring her their own letters. She then performs a second act of curation, putting every participant’s letter with the envelope of curated letters that resonate with it emotionally. Each participant reads out the contents of the envelope handed to them. Everyone present at The Reading Room is required to read and the boundaries between audience and performer are blurred.

The Reading Room invitation. Courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar

Ghosalkar explained that the letters she curates are “tonally different: either they were aggressive, official, or love letters”. She also hopes to demonstrate the gradual evolution of the usage of language by incorporating letters from different time periods.

While the letters have been selected with a larger emotional narrative in mind, epistolary contributions by participants add an unpredictable arc to each session. Most of the letters audience members bring are communications between parents and children. “In my earlier versions, I thought I would keep love letters out because I found it a bit obvious,” she said. “But a lot of people brought in love letters. I had no control over that.”

The letters participants bring are replete with personal histories and intimate emotions. In one of these, a participant writes, “You and I will never sit down and talk about ‘us’, cause there is no us. But I also know (maybe I am being a sentimental fool) that we have a deep connection that goes beyond just being intimate. I really like you, always have, maybe even from the first time we met.”

Marx’s use of language influenced an entire generation of thinkers, and the letters Ghosalkar has selected are exemplary of his particular brand of verbosity. In one letter read at The Reading Room, Marx writes: "The moment you are absent, my love for you shows itself to be what it is, a giant, in which are crowded together all the energy of my spirit and all the character of my heart. It makes me feel like a man again, because I feel a great passion; and the multifariousness, in which study and modern education entangle us, and the skepticism which necessarily makes us find fault with
all subjective and objective impressions, all of these are entirely designed to make us all small and weak and whining." Image courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar

Since the envelopes are assigned to participants randomly, people rarely get to read their own letters. Instead, they hear their personal stories being read out in alien and untrained voices. “There’s something absolutely wonderful happening when non-actors read,” said Ghosalkar. “They read without affect, and pretension. It really is, to my mind, documentary theatre at its most bare.”

Letter writing constitutes one of the few spaces in which people have the room to exercise their creative muscles. It has the potential to function like a pre-aesthetic realm, a place where people can attempt to create their idea of an artistic object without fear or censure. By asking participants if they would like to donate their letters to The Reading Room, Ghosalkar’s initiative acknowledges this untapped potential of letters. Her project attempts to create a space for the recording of alternative – and otherwise ignored – artistic endeavours and personal narratives.

The Reading Room’s tagline, “Read. Listen. Leave.” demands silence and emotional involvement from its participants. Ghosalkar sends each registered participant an e-mail preparing them for The Reading Room before the performance. She does not encourage interaction during or after the performance.

Image courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar

She is also careful not to interrupt people unless they are inaudible. “People are conscious but they read with a sense of honesty, and I think that’s the essence of a good performance,” she said. “As long as they read loudly and clearly, it’s fine, because people bring their own emotions, their own accents.”

Ghosalkar has received feedback from participants who feel validated and empowered after a session. “When I shared my story in ‘Lady Anandi’, it relieved me of an intellectual and emotional burden,” she said. “I think that’s also what is happening with people in The Reading Room, especially since they see others reacting on the spot – they laugh or clap. There is a public validation of your words and your world.”

Image courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar