What made Veenapani Chawla a familiar name in the contemporary Indian theatre scene? A recently launched book documents her artistic journey

Some names ring a bell. Often, a name has a specific meaning, being associated with what you have heard or seen. But what is it that makes the name? The journey to ‘becoming a name’, is a story that needs to be told.

This is what Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice and Performance edited by Shanta Gokhale, has set out to do. This is not the story of an artist, rather the story of the creative process that made the artist who founded Adisakthi in Puducherry, a name in contemporary Indian theatre.

Theatre critic and journalist Shanta Gokhale, who has followed Veenapani on stage right from the Seventies in Mumbai, says she had tried to build an edifice by editing the book. “Theatre is transient, it is there, and then it is gone. I felt the process must be documented. It is not just for readers of today, but for theatre practitioners of tomorrow.” While the oeuvre may appeal to theatre practitioners and performing arts students, it is equally for those who have a deep curiosity of theatre or are ‘mystified with the theatre of Veenapani’, as Shanta puts it. It is written in a certain fashion that is born of fighting against dumbing down art and yet trying to make art accessible to the reader, she said.

Blend of styles

Speaking after the launch Veenapani said she felt the documentation was useful as she often wished that the gurus of ancient India had the tradition of recording their practices and processes. The book interestingly blends various styles of writing — performance texts, reviews of plays, essays, interviews, Veenapani’s papers on the political and social context of theatre, articles by people who have watched and worked with the artist are all part of the narrative. “I have tried to explore the sources of her work, and the influence that Aurobindo and the Mother had on her theatre, through conversations that were spread over four days,” Shanta narrates.

The result is that the assemblage is both light and deep, as Leela Gandhi, professor of English and an expert on postcolonial studies from Chicago University, said. “Sources from the present, the past and from all over the world have shaped her theatre. It is truly transnational.” Plurality over purity is what makes her work hybrid says Veenapani. “We don’t want to exclude anything — we want the past and the modern, what the British left us, what has been our tradition.”

About Adishakti

The Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research in Puducherry, which Veenapani founded, is very much at the core of the book. “When Veenapani moved to Pondicherry, her theatre also moved to a different space,”’ says Shanta. “The significance of Adisakthi is beyond theatre,” feels Tim Supple, British theatre director, who launched the book. “The place has a certain magic and magnetism of its own that is transformational.” The transformation affects everybody who comes into contact with the work and the place, be it for workshops or plays. In Adisakthi, Supple says he encountered certain distinctive facets. “There is a continuous searching or questioning, understanding of traditional practices that meet intellectual modernism, commitment of artists, direction of the highest order and merging of dance and music with theatre.”

Though away from the vibrant theatre scene of the metros, Veenapani feels Puducherry is an escape from the changing fashions of the stage. “It provides an ideal space, to be free, to address the questions of existence.”

The book was launched at Hidesign and Jacqueline Kapoor received the first copy.

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