Love Letters, Tagore And Kolkata In The Monsoon: An Interview With Lee-Alison Sibley

03/07/2015 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

In school, our English question paper had four sections -- reading comprehension, writing, grammar and literature. Invariably, I would answer the letter writing question first. Writing a letter seemed like such a "real" exercise. How many of us write letters today? We e-mail, SMS or WhatsApp. Is our patience wearing thin with letters?

Lee-Alison Sibley, an author, social activist, teacher, theatre artist and singer was recently in the capital with husband George Sibley -- Minister-Counsellor for Economic, Environment, Science and Technology Affairs at the US embassy. Her aim: to resurrect the lives of Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III from A R Gurney's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Love Letters on stage. After the first reading performance by the American playwright himself, along with Holland Taylor, at the New York Public Library, Love Letters debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in 1988.

An ardent admirer of Leonard Cohen and Rabindranath Tagore, Lee-Alison has earned degrees from Boston University and The Manhattan School of Music. From folk to opera, to Broadway, the multi-faceted Lee-Alison has even recorded an album of Tagore songs, titled The Distant Near. Taking us on a tour of a relationship that survived 50 years on the strength of letters, Lee-Alison Sibley talks about the dying art of writing letters, her unforgettable memories in India, the three-tier role of an artist and more.


Is letter writing under the threat of extinction?

Letter writing will be extinct, yes, unless people print what they type on the computer. I still save the cards my children send me. I have preserved my husband's letters.

How often have you written letters to your husband?

When we were apart, we wrote letters every day. This was before the age of electronic mail, in 1985 when he was in the Merchant Marine. Now, when we are apart we either write e-mails to each other every day or else we Skype.

What is so magical about A R Gurney's Love Letters that playwrights continue to stage its adaptation even today? (Tumhari Amrita is our very own Indian version that was adapted in Hindi by Javed Siddiqui in 1992. Veteran thespians Shabana Azmi and the late Farooq Sheikh included the cast).

Love Letters is a great play because it contains all the elements of a relationship--the ups and downs; emotions of love and anger; joy and disappointment. The language is very natural--you can imagine anyone using it, so it seems very "real". Its contemporary quality makes the audience connect with the play so well.

Could you please quote lines from Love Letters closest to your heart?

I don't think I've ever loved anyone the way I loved her, and I know I never will again. She was at the heart of my life...

These concluding lines that Andy writes to Melissa's mother could well have been written by my husband.

" "Alo Amar Alo' is one of my favourite Tagore songs and as far as 'Ami Chini Go, Chini' is concerned, do you mean he wasn't really writing about me?"

As an artist, what should assume priority -- being a storyteller, a listener or an observer?

Every artist approaches a role differently. In my real life, I'm a storyteller. On stage, as an actor, I try to be introspective and delve into the nuances of a character by getting into the skin of that character. An artist, therefore, is all three--storyteller, listener and observer.

Your book Jordan's Jewish Drama Queen: A Memoir About Peace in the Middle East is about sustaining relationships amid hardships, challenges and crisis. Have you ever performed Love Letters in Jordan or anywhere else in the Middle East?

I did not perform Love Letters in the Middle East. However, I have performed on other occasions there like the Black History Month and Martin Luther King's birthday. I have sung songs of persecution and brotherhood. I did perform Love Letters in Africa -- in Madagascar -- and also in Kolkata (with another actor, not my husband).

Your first visit to Jorasanko stirred you emotionally. Listening to "Ami Chini Go, Chini Tomarey" made you feel you were the bideshini (foreign woman). How did you discover Rabindranath Tagore?

I was living in New York City, and I was in graduate school studying music. In my building, I had a friend from Pakistan who had a girlfriend from India named Jaswant Singh. She gave me a volume of Gitanjali to read and I fell in love with the poems. I became a devout fan of Tagore. Gradually, I began reading his short stories, his novels and his plays. Ironically, I came to learn of his songs last. Tagore's respect for women and vision of women as powerful human beings, independent of men, touched me. That Tagore could write about women in such a way was revolutionary. He was way ahead of his time.

"Alo Amar Alo" is one of my favourite Tagore songs and as far as "Ami Chini Go, Chini" is concerned, do you mean he wasn't really writing about me?

Your favourite memory of India?

Almost exactly 12 years ago, I think, during monsoon rains, I was to give a concert at the G D Birla Sabaghar in Kolkata with my dear friend, vocal artist Pramita Mallick. It was called "East Meets West" and was a programme on Peter (Pete) Seeger songs and Rabindra sangeet. It was raining so hard I thought we wouldn't get an audience. I had a little green car and was worried about reaching in time. The water was up to the level of the door of my car. My driver, Abdul, assured me we would get there. Slowly, we drove from the US consulate through flooded roads. Once there, my dear friend Mamoon Akhtar -- of Samaritan Help Mission -- was waiting to carry my guitar and help get me into the hall. He had come all the way from Howrah! I was wearing a sari. I got out of the car, ducked under an umbrella, lifted the sari, handed the guitar to Mamoon and carrying my shoes in my hand, walked barefoot and climbed the steps into the building. We went backstage to get ready for the performance. Pramita arrived and we both wondered if anyone would show up to hear us in this torrential rain. We decided to wait beyond the scheduled time.

When we finally pulled the curtains open, we were thrilled to see a packed audience! There was little standing room left. That was Kolkata -- the city of love and culture --that braved the weather gods to come and hear us sing! It was an overwhelmingly unforgettable experience.

Photo credit: Lee-Alison Sibley's Facebook page:


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