The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice, Performance

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Issue No: 95June 15, 2014


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The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice, Performance

Theatre circles in every city across this country begin to buzz when they hear that an Adishakti production is coming to town. Tickets are bought or booked in advance, the tribes and the clans gather before the show outside the theatre, there is anticipation in the air and there is much laughter and eager fidgeting. If the auditorium has open seating, there is a rush to be first in line, an even greater rush inside as we push our way to our preferred seats and settle widely, arms and legs splayed, bags and belongings spread out, sheepishly trying to disguise the fact that we're actually holding places for our slower friends. There is a graver hush than usual as we wait for the lights to go down, an audible holding of hundreds of breaths, all in the confidence that we shall be dazzled, yet again, by a company that never fails to deliver something out of the ordinary. When the show ends, many of us will clap and hoot and whistle and stamp our feet, many of us will walk on air as we exit the auditorium, some of us will wipe tears of exaltation from our eyes, each of us will leave with an unforgettable theatrical image seared onto our retinas, all of us will have lots to talk about for days, even weeks, after. Both critically and appreciateively. No one who cares about contemporary theatre in India wilfully misses an Adishakti performance.

The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla edited by Shanta Gokhale is a timely and comprehensive volume about the art and craft that defines the theatre of Adishakti. Veenapani Chawla, the prime mover behind the repertory more formally known as ALTAR, the Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research, remains one of the most imaginative, innovative and challenging theatre-makers in the country - it is a real pleasure to read about her practise and her philosophy while she is still at the height of her powers, rather than to gain insights into her methods as a posthumous, retrospective tribute to one of the most creative theatrical energies of our times.

Shanta Gokhale, who has been at the centre of, watched and participated in and commented on Indian theatre for the last five decades, basically puts her own remarkable self aside in this edited volume and brings together an array of people who have worked with Chawla, those who have been associated with the development of Adishakti, who have worked with her as well as those who have watched her productions from a further distance. Most crucially, the heart of the volume consists of Chawla's own thoughtful and articulate voice which we hear through essays that she has written, papers she has delivered and a set of long interviews where she reflects upon and talks about the various aspects of her work. The book also contains, interestingly, performance texts for some of Adishakti's seminal works such as the early Impressions of Bhima and Brhannala and the more recent The Hare and the Tortoise. Ganapati, perhaps Adishakti's most acclaimed and beloved work, is represented by its complex musical score for percussion and saxophone.


The volume opens with an unexpected Foreword by Mahesh Elkunchwar (who also has a blurb on the back of the book) where he takes on Chawla's understanding of Grotowski as well as Gokhale's reading of him, contradicting their positions even as he declares his own. Gokhale states, in her 'Note on the Book' which follows, that she delibertately sought a multi-vocality to fully represent Chawla's work which is pluralistic both in its inspirations and expressions. It is no surprise, then, that Gokhale chooses to stay with such a contentious opening for as she says later, while she ". . . would have welcomed . . . dissenting viewpoints in this study, they were not forthcoming." (p.19).

Gokhale herself writes a short impressionistic biography of Chawla before Adishakti, which mentions her start as a teacher at the Arya Vidya Mandir school in Bombay, her early forays into 'kiddies theatre', her exposure to more and more plays when she worked as the lobby manager for the newly-opened Prithvi Theatre, her productions of such classics as Oedipus Rex and The Trojan Women followed by the more daring A Greater Dawn , all of which heralded the arrival of a radical new theatre energy in the city. Chawla's work has always dug deep - into the text and into the heart, the mind and the body of the performer to find the responsive soul that animates truly artistic work. Pushed by this search for what can only be called the spirit, Chawla began to feel the need to expand her horizons, not only through the training of the body but also, in some sense, through the training of the inner being. By the mid 1990s, she had moved away from Bombay and was putting herself through various rigorous physical systems even as she got emotionally and intellectually closer to the spiritual philosophy of Shri Aurobindo. All of this led to her setting up Adishakti in Pondicherry which has, over the years, become a holistic laboratory for theatre practise: a place where Chawla could "evolve a method that would train the actor's body in such a way that the expression of emotion would result from the use of technique, rather than from the recall of emotion." (p.6).

What is unique about Chawla's position in the world of contemporary (rather than traditional) theatre is that she has managed to alchemise the results of a deeply felt, personal spiritual quest with an objective, transmittable technique for the well-springs of performance. It is after years of strenuous engagement with the techniques and philosophies offered by such theorists as Stanislavski, Grotowski, and Barba (among others), a physical exploration of Chhau and Kalaripayittu as well as a ferocious commitment to an understanding of the self, that Chawla emerged with the deceptively simple axiom that "breath is emotion is breath". These journeys and inspirations are detailed in the book and it would be well worth any practitioners' time and effort to read them closely, if only to remind them of the kind of energy that is released when mind, body and spirit work together. And especially because these energies can be unleashed as well as regulated to express concerns and dilemmas that are entirely contemporary.

Much of what astounds audiences and practitioners alike about Adishakti's work has been developed and sustained by its remarkable performers, most central of whom has been Vinay Kumar. Kumar has worked with Chawla for just about two decades, bending his body, expanding and contracting his diaphragm, manipulating his voice, throwing himself into the air and on to the ground, bringing his natural humour to bear upon this exploration of the physical on stage. Kumar and others become the instruments, the living embodiments of Chawla's vision for theatre. Chawla's interest in rhythm was taken forward by the mizhavu maestro V. K. K. Hariharan and forms the backbone of Adishakti's percussion signatures. Other permanent members of the company such as Nimmy Raphael, Arvind Rane and Suresh Kaliyath have all expanded Adishakti's repertoire of possibility with their own previous training and exuberant talents. They speak in this book and, much like the dark groves of trees that recede in da Vinci's Mona Lisa, their voices fill out a background landscape in what is essentially a portrait of Chawla. Their narratives tend to be about their personal histories and how they live and work at Adishakti, rather than an examination of their work or their process.

Vinay Kumar in 'Bhima'

Nimi Rafael in 'Nidrawathwam'

Yes, the book is ultimately hagiographic - the cover itself should leave you in no doubt about that. Many positive energies have come together to make the volume what it is: to name a couple of the most obvious ones, Gokhale herself is Chawla's close friend, the research funds for the book came from India Foundation for the Arts who have previously supported Chawla's work. Apart from Elkunchwar's Foreword and a single, mildly critical review of Bhima by Keval Arora from 1996, there is nary a dissenting word in the 300 pages. Gokhale says (quoted above) that people who are less than impressed with Chawla's modes and methods of theatre-making were unwilling to contribute to the book - which, in itself, says much about Adishakti's standing within the Indian theatre community. In private, Chawla does have her preferred (critical) interlocutors and one of them, Anmol Vellani, interviews her fairly rigourously about the ideas that lay behind the existential confrontations articulated in The Hare and the Tortoise.

But, most notable by its absence is Gokhale's own incisive and insightful voice, one that we have counted on for decades to tell us, gently but firmly, not that the emperor is naked but rather, where his ceremonial robes are missing a few buttons. Gokhale's critical silence is a huge loss to the volume as a whole and this opportunity squandered leaves us all poorer. I also felt the lack of a larger, theatrical context for Chawla and her work. While much is made of her personal journeys and influences, there is nothing about what else was happening in the performing arts (by individuals, by groups and by other residential repertories) in the country or in the world during the decades that Chawla was honing her techniques. Less significant in terms of disappointments with the book but worth mentioning, nonetheless, is the inadequacy of visuals included with the essays and the really poor quality of photo reproduction. Fortunately, an accompanying DVD allows us to re-live some of the stunning visuals that define Adishakti's theatre.

In the final anaylsis however, we can only hope that the stars align auspiciously for us all: that other positive energies come togther to make possible similar books about other practitioners who have changed the theatre landscape of our times.

Arshia Sattar works with the Ramayana and Indian story traditions. Along with D. W. Gibson, she founded and runs the Sangam House international writers' residency outside Bangalore. She goes to the theatre as often as she can.

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