In I Promise The Bearer…, Anuja Ghosalkar asks if money is the greatest act of fiction ever created?

Conceived and performed by Anuja Ghosalkar, this genre-bending play is ready for its maiden show in India at the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru on April 13

7 min readApr 12, 2024
Anuja Ghosalkar in scenes from her play I Promise The Bearer…

By Reema Gowalla

Picture this: You have come to watch a play and while sitting in the audience, the performer walks up to you and hands you a ‘fictional’ banknote. And there’s more, you may even stand a chance to take part in an ‘auction’ later. Known for her exemplifying work in the field of documentary theatre, Anuja Ghosalkar’s latest piece is sure to pique your curiosity if you are someone who takes interest in theatre that not only engages your senses but your mind too. Poised for its India premiere at Bengaluru’s Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) on April 13, I Promise The Bearer… sheds light on the everyday struggles of a female artist in the country, as she navigates her dreams and desires in a rapidly changing social and political landscape.

‘I promise to pay the bearer a sum of…’ appears on every Indian currency note. But what does this promise entail? And is money the greatest object of fiction ever created, for which we trade our lives, bodies and loves? — asks I Promise The Bearer… Although delineated as a ‘playful register’ of the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination that a female artist faces in India, this nuanced play encourages the audience to take a hard look at how she traverses the ‘murky terrain of arts funding, grant applications, collectors, curators, gatekeepers as well as the risk involved in questioning power structures’.

I Promise The Bearer… chronicles the challenges faced by a female artist to secure funding for her project

When asked how much she relied on the tenets of documentary theatre while making this piece, Anuja told TheatreRoom, “I Promise The Bearer… is not documentary theatre in the strict sense of the term. As in, it’s not rooted in a real person or a true story per se. But there are several real stories within the narrative, which I have painted with fiction. That said, the documentary aspect of this play is that I make an actual document on stage in the form of money, which I hand out to the audience. I make fictional currency using two printing techniques — woodcut and lithography. The woodcut process is very simple. It’s like how we take a coin and put a paper and draw on top of it, like an impression. Then there is lithography, which is a mechanical printing method. Later in the show, I hand out those notes to the audience. So, here the calibration of the document is very different. Rather than working with pre-existing documents, I give something to the audience which is tangible.”

I Promise The Bearer… is a solo performance which, like Anuja’s previous plays, also uses a projector. Offering a sneak peek at the show, she said, “Basically, it’s the story of an artist who calls herself A, which doesn’t necessarily stand for Anuja. But that line gets blurred when you see my dog on the screen and hear me speak about my mother. However, I still don’t spell it out that this is Anuja. Unlike me, A is a visual artist, who talks about all the trials and tribulations of being an artist in present-day India. The narrative is episodic in nature. We see A going to meet a spiritual guru to pray that she receives the desired grant soon. Her neighbour, a certain Mrs Kapoor, keeps on telling her that ‘art is not going to help you pay your bills and medical expenses’. But isn’t the spiritual guru also making money off the people who visit him? Nevertheless, the guru advises her to keep a coin next to your pillow — not a Rupee but a Euro or a Dollar. In a bid to get calls back from grantors and funders, she even resorts to chanting. Finally, when she meets the funder, they refuse to give her the money. And that is when she decides to auction her body parts — her legs, arms, eyes and even her breath.”

The play first opened in Berlin in November 2021

The play is divided into three-four episodes, one of which also features the artist’s boyfriend who is a climate activist. These short pieces elaborate on the many challenges that the artist faces while trying to fund her art project. Interestingly, the narrative also maintains a very clear emotional arc through these episodes. I Promise The Bearer… is primarily presented in English, with a smattering of Hindi and Marathi.

Art design for the piece is done by Debanshu Bhaumik, while Rebecca Spurgeon has taken care of the performance design. Vikrant Thakar is in charge of light design, along with Aliasger Dhariwala (visual execution and additional design) and Rency Philip (costume design). Lithography printing is done by Pagal Canvas Backyard, and the lithography videos and woodcuts by Atelier Prati. Purvi Rajpuria is in charge of overall production.

Anuja makes fictional currency on stage using the woodcut and lithography printing techniques

The most curious bit of the 50-minute performance is the artist making fictional currency on stage. “Throughout the show, I’m making money on stage. There is live camera footage of me drawing or making the fictional banknotes. And I keep telling the audience that I’m making my money, as if the whole show is structured according to the elements on a note. There’s a picture of Savitribai Phule, in place of Gandhi. Then the question arises as to which country the note belongs to? So, I created a Republic of Imaginaries. How do I seal it now? I do it with a kiss. While the show goes on, I’m drawing these notes, and the episodes appear one by one spurred by these lines. Thus, the elements on the note turn into chapters in the show. In the end, the entire note appears on screen, and I start distributing them among the audience. This lithograph or pink note is a promise from the bearer. It makes you think if this tactile method of making fictional currency will lead us to a more humane existence.”

At MAP, I Promise The Bearer… will be showcased as part of their conference — Beyond Theory: Imagining Infrastructure. Created during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the show first opened at Sophiensaele (Berlin) in 2021, as part of White Money — a project initiated by Flinnworks. The intent of the project was to ‘question the idea of white funding’. This led us to thinking more along the lines of ‘money and an artist’s relationship with it’. The script is written by Anuja, in collaboration with Ashutosh Potdar.

I Promise The Bearer… is layered and thought-provoking

Commenting on how the pandemic shaped the making of the play, Anuja said, “When Coronavirus took the world in its grip back in 2020–2021, we saw how the rich and poor scrambled due to a shortage of oxygen. That’s when the idea of the ‘artist’s breath’ came up. I realised money has no value at that point in time. It made me think that when they give me funding to make art, they will buy my art, but can they buy my breath? In November 2021, when people came back to the theatre, my entire audience was wearing a mask. But was it worth taking that risk? So, why not go back with something that is a strong promise — that if I see these people, I will give them a smile, a conversation, a kind word, a gentle touch, a wink or a breath.”

Cut to the upcoming show in Bengaluru, the script has undergone a considerable change in the recent months. “The pillars and heart of it remain the same, but I have fairly changed the context to make it more relevant now,” she added. One may dub I Promise The Bearer… as ‘abstract’, ‘complex’ or even ‘layered’, but for the maker it’s actually a ‘very simple idea’. “I’m an artist who owns my breath, and money is the greatest act of fiction ever created. Therefore, I’m creating my fiction on stage,” Anuja sums up.

Catch the premiere of I Promise The Bearer… at MAP Bengaluru on April 13 (6.30pm). You can register for the show here.

The Covid-19 pandemic has deeply influenced the scripting of this play