In the early 1990s, Mehr Kaur’s father, Sarbpreet Singh, wrote a poem called “Kultar’s Mime,” in response to the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi of 1984. When Mehr first heard the poem in elementary school, she said, “…was much too young to understand it.” But later on in high school, she revisited it, and with her father transformed it into a play. Today, the play “Kultar’s Mime,” is touring the world and a cast of actors is bringing to life the father-daughter duo’s vision.
Mehr shares her journey as a director, producer, and actor while transforming her father’s poem into a now nationally recognized production.
Creation of “Kultar’s Mime”
When Mehr was about 10 years old, her father read a poem he wrote, “Kultar’s Mime,” to the Milford Gurdwara kids, prior to a candlelight vigil in memory of the 1984 pogroms. “I remember being a little freaked out by all the graphic imagery,” recalled Mehr, “but not enough to keep me from listening.” Though Mehr said she immediately forgot about the poem after the vigil, the event served to be a turning point in her life that would eventually impact the Sikh-American diaspora. “Something about it must have stayed with me.”
In the Fall of 2012, when Mehr was in high school, she was launching a theater and film collective with her friends and “was itching to find something meaningful to direct in the upcoming summer.” At the time, she didn’t consider herself to be a playwright so she was looking for a story to adapt.
“Almost immediately I became determined to help educate communities about 1984 as it is at the intersection of my interests of politics and identity, but I didn’t quite know how to approach it. Somehow my mind wandered back to this poem I had read almost ten years prior and asked my dad to send it to me.”
Mehr says that a vision of an immersive, intimately personal production came to mind once she re-read the poem.
“One of the things my dad accomplished brilliantly is the visual imagery. It was as if the speaker was painting a picture, and I knew that was something that could come to life on stage. I knew it should be immersive, as the stories of 1984 are so intimately personal, and so I imagined the setting to be an art gallery with pieces depicting the events, created by a team of artist/activists.”
The poem’s characters also intrigued Mehr. She used their stories to create dialogue and action in the play by playing with and shaping the text in the poem. The process was tedious. “There were drafts and edits, most significantly the addition of ‘In the City of Slaughter‘ by Chaim Nachman Bialik.”
Mehr’s goals were noble and full of zest. “My goal was twofold: On a personal level, it was to do my part as a Sikh woman in fighting for justice post 1984; something that I have been encouraged to do for many years. It was also to highlight the fact that though genocide always targets a specific marginalized group of people, it is never only one community’s responsibility to fight it. 1984 was a crime against humanity, as were Kishinev, Rwanda, Godhra, and the Holocaust and we must all speak up for one another.”
Finally, “Kultar’s Mime” became the flagship production of her company, Two Paths Production (TPP). “We wanted to bring new stories and styles to the theatre community in our area and all agreed that this show would be a great launch.”
It had its world premiere on June 28th, 2013 and received many positive responses. “The audience was made up of New England Sikh community members as well as theatre-goers and there was a lot of encouragement to have another run,” Mehr said.
About Kultar’s Mime
“Kultar’s Mime is an immersive play about the young people who were victimized in the 1984 Anti-Sikh pogroms,” explained Mehr. “The audience is led into an art exhibition which depicts the story and which comes to life through the eyes of the painters. Kultar is based on a little boy described by anthropologist Dr. Veena Das in her paper titled ‘Voices of Children’. This boy could not hear or speak, and would mime the death of his father, which he had witnessed during the massacre.”
The production incorporates poetry, music, movement, and original art in the context on the 1984 pogroms which Mehr hopes will engage audiences.
Mehr Kaur, the Actor
Mehr’s love of theater didn’t being with “Kular’s Mime.”
“If you ask my parents, they’ll probably have lots of stories to tell about me being a ‘drama queen’ from a really young age.”
She became truly excited about theater in middle school. “I convinced my parents to let me audition for a professional production in Boston, after which I caught the bug for storytelling. Over the years I discovered that I couldn’t see myself having any other career. My focus has evolved from acting to directing and producing.”
The theater company TPP, that Mehr launched, grew out of a trip her high school theatre ensemble took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “A few friends and I felt that we wanted a greater voice in the student theatre that was being generated in our area and didn’t feel like we had the platform to do so. We were very inspired by the kind of theatre and collaboration we observed in Scotland, and decided that we were just going to create opportunities for ourselves.”
Today, theatre is a huge part of Mehr’s life. “I am an aspiring director and producer, and try to take every opportunity I can to be involved in a project.” Currently, she is training at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center where she is doing lots of acting. “I’m also excited to return to Smith College in the Spring where I’ll be directing a production of ‘Water by the Spoonful.‘”
Kultar’s Mime Today
This year, the Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI) teamed up with Mehr and her father, Sarbpreet Singh, to take “Kultar’s Mime” on the road. “My dad and I worked on developing the play a bit more, and really wanted it to be produced for the 30th remembrance of the 1984 pogrom. We reached out to the SikhRI team who have been incredibly supportive in launching this tour!”
The show is currently touring across the US, Canada, India, and the British Midlands, and will most likely continue into the spring. “My dad has been traveling with our terrific team of Addison Williams, Allison Matteodo, Cathryn Roberts, Christine Scherer, Michelle Finston, Poornima Kirby, and Ross Magnant to conduct talk backs after each show.”
Sadly, Mehr has not yet seen this particular production herself! “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to catch a performance yet, as I’m currently doing a semester at the National Theatre Institute at the O’Neill Center, but I look forward to it in December.”
So, far the play has been received well. Mehr said she read that audience members not familiar with the 1984 pogroms appreciated the post-show talk back where they could ask questions about the context of the piece.
Mehr says the most fun thing about seeing the poem turn into a play is, “Seeing the words on the page translated into movement and painting was really fulfilling.”
Her wish is for “Kultar’s Mime,” to keep touring to theaters, but also to universities and communities with a lot of young people.
Kultar’s Mime: Upcoming Shows
Delhi: October 30 & November 1
Chandigarh: November 2
Amritsar: November 4
Los Angeles: Chapman University, Sikhlens Arts Film Festival, November 20 & 23 Buy tickets here.
San Francisco Bay Area: December 6 & 7
To buy tickets and see “Kultar’s Mime,” check out this site: https://sikhri.org/km1984/