A work that glows with admiration for experimental theatre pioneer Veenapani Chawla

There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti — certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began. All her life she has pursued theatre wherever and in whatever form she found it, studying traditions as diverse as ‘Chhau’ and ‘Kalaripayattu’, absorbing elements that would help her grow as an artist. It has not been a random, unfocussed casting about for something that will ‘work on stage,’ or ‘infuse a new energy in our theatre’. Veenapani’s has been a concentrated search for methods for which one could use the word ‘spiritual’, except that I don’t like the word. Veenapani may not object to its use: that goal has defined her entire life in theatre.

If she has predecessors in her experiment, it is those European pioneers in mid-twentieth century who, put off by the venality of what passed for theatre in the West, sought to reach the roots of their creativity. This often brought them to the medieval theatre of the East. Antonin Artaud, a French actor, wanted to glory in the possibility of cruelty in art and found clues in Balinese theatre. The Polish Jerzy Grotowski, in search of ‘sacred theatre’, came to Kerala to study how the body could be used as the source of energy in theatre communication. His disciple, Eugenio Barba, Italian, built his laboratory in Denmark, for the investigation of ‘performance universals’ across different cultures. Then there is the Englishman, Peter Brook, less intense and more narrative, moving from experiment to experiment.

To read this book is to meet all these great men in person — except of course Artaud — for amazingly, Veenapani actually met them and discussed her problems with them, learnt from them or , when not convinced, discarded their advice . At one end she learns the possibilities of breath control from Ammanur Madhava Chakyar, the great Koodiyattam performer. At the other she works with Patsy Rodenburg in England, a world authority on voice culture. But the various techniques she imbibes are deftly woven together. “Earlier we discovered, that breath is the physical expression of thought and emotion ...We try to express one thought on one breath.”

She has sought out so many great experimenters of our generation that one is grateful that her talent didn’t get burnt out in the process. But there is another danger inherent in such an ‘inward plunge’ Grotowski is a guide but also a warning: he ended up as a mystic, and Naseeruddin Shah, who spent several weeks in his ashram hoping to receive his theatrical insights, returned home disenchanted.

I am a playwright and this school of theatre virtuallly denies the validity of my work since narrative devices, psychological portrayal of character, and logical verbal explanations — words, words, words — are all eschewed. The attempt is to enable the performer to establish contact with the inner zone, one’s psychic centre. Words, when they appear, teeter on the brink of gibberish, subsidiary to the language of the limbs.

In her conversation with Leela Gandhi, who, apart from being a renowned scholar in post-colonial studies, is also her niece and associate, Veenapani charts out her development. She was a school teacher, teaching English and History in Bombay, when one day she was asked to direct a play with children. At that instant, she found her metier and her purpose. The play was Aurobindo’s Savitri, and it led Veenapani to Pondicherry to study Aurobindo's thought — which she says has a deeper basis for theatrical exploration than Stanislavsky’s.

Fortunately she soon found another actor who shared her views, Vinay Kumar K J. Together they started adapting M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam novel on the travails of Bhima. It was to be a monologue with the actor playing all the characters by reshaping his face as masks and with no accessories except the body.

In Pondicherry, things began to happen. They were joined by Nimmi Raphel, a dancer married to Vinay Kumar, and Arvind Rane, an ex-advertising man who followed Veena to Pondicherry and is now their ‘mizhavu’ player. Others came and went, but the four have remained a tight-knit group, undeviating in their pursuit.

A Danish fan donated money to buy an arid piece of land that the group transformed into an oasis. Adishakti now had a physical base and today at its centre stands the Sir Ratan Tata Koothu Kovil, a magnificent building in which they meet, rehearse and perform. They train every day, but in solitude: the objective is to keep the body as an instrument perfectly tuned, the mind alive and receptive. ‘One is never in command,’ she says, ‘One is only trying to become more and more limpid.’

Her more recent plays can be difficult to grasp, since they have delved into increasingly complex themes, often based on myths. But I invariably put aside the explanatory notes that are helpfully supplied. For the total sensory experience of each performance is so shaped by the control of the body and the visual projection of voice and breath, that I find it unnecessary to get a gist in words.

Aurobindo’s philosophy has been the foundation of all her work. As she succinctly sums up: “In any work I did, I followed the practice of clearing the space within, throwing away all other preoccupations, being quiet and concentrating all my energy — I am preparing myself ... to be empty and to open to the unexpected, to the impossible, to which I am not yet.[The attempt is ]to access that which is a potential of oneself but inaccessible temporarily.”

Shanta Gokhale, the editor, started work on this book as a ‘labour of love’, with no financial funding, no prospect of publishing. It virtually glows with her affection and admiration for her subject. Every aspect of Veenapani’s work is covered, including texts of the plays. There are articles on her by her contemporaries. An accompanying DVD is a great help. Shanta wryly comments that although many critics have disagreed with Veenapani’s experiments and she would have welcomed dissenting viewpoints, ‘they were not forthcoming.’

It would certainly require some courage and a lot of conviction to dissent.

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