The Park's New Festival transcended the categories of physical theatre by exploring the past in new explorations.
Three is the magic number, and its multiples, in the structure of folktales. The same could be said of 2009 Park's New Festival Edition III, in Chennai. Integrating the principal ingredients of programming: art form, interactive audiences, and business, Edition III had magic, actual and virtual. After the dust of concepts had settled, the iconic significance of the events was revealed. The resonance appeared like rooms within a building where daily activities were imbued with symbolic presences; even in their absence.
Across each of the performing art forms, a palimpsest of traditions evolved into new incarnations. This was the presence of absences. An absence is not a vacancy. It is presence that is not visible, but re-membered. In Edition III past art forms that had created an anatomy and vocabulary, were now turned, tossed, struck, flung, whirled, touched and tasted into new ones creating an interface with technological and audience participation. Edition III was artfully measured in programming primarily dance — installation, physical theatre, and storytelling, with an interlude of music in five days, six events from three continents, and in three different spaces: Museum theatre, Chandra Mandap and Kalakshetra Koothambalam.
Shock of the new
The focus was very much to do with the shock of the new; new work by established artists, and work by emerging artists as well. The uniqueness of Edition III was the dynamism of re-newal by being a remembrance of things past in new explorations. Re-membering is the way Isis placed the dismembered bits of her beloved Osiris's body together and returned him beneath the papyrus; since then Nile has never failed to make Egypt fertile. It is the perfect metaphor: Re-membering; taking the varied and broken instances of our lives, and creating coherence through story.
In a time of Recession, the programming was sensitive to the value of the Arts to provoke, to de-anesthetise, to sensitise us to the treachery and triumphs of being human. Prakriti Foundation's insight for Edition III wasn't lightweight.
Unlike cosmetic promises of split hair being renewed by a new formula of conditioner with “essential vitamins” and that pH factor; it was about new hair and its tensile strength despite exploring a rainbow of hair colours and fashions. Each of the artists in the companies manifested discipline and integrity, and an organic presence in performance.
Park Hongi- Ki's “Ice or Water” was a clever starter. Korean Daegu City Modern Dance Company created compelling paradoxes with child's play spiralling to adult power drives. Bodies moving at stationary speed and then ricocheting into atoms of energy, effortlessly, was mesmerising. A moment flows like water, its life pulsates in memory – unquestionably like ice and its potential of flowing.
Mahmood Farooqui's Dastangoi mastered “Tilism-e Hoshruba”, the enchantment of storytelling, that steals away rationality while indulging the senses. The sighs, silences, gestures were deftly concertinaed into Partition stories. Farooqui is a dextrous storyteller. Accompanied by Husain, they evoked a universe where time was at the heart of space, where imagination spun a matrix of subtle relationships. A coup for Chennai's Urdu listeners, which surprised the Dastangoi.
H. R. Britton's “From Madison to Madurai” was a welcome interior landscape with an American gaze on India defining the gazer. The idiosyncrasies of communication between high tenets of philosophy and street culture with a Woody Allenesque persona perched on his imaginary shoulder offered a moving and humorous account of an India less travelled in the 1970s.
Anusha Lall's “Tilt”offered new frames of perception about all dimensions of lines with spellbinding human architecture- making supple a line that emerges from a point and creates dimensions.
Dr Rokus de Groot's “Shiv Shakti” with oboe and sarangi evoked motion and stillness in its essence of being.
Dusseldorf-based Ben J. Reipe's “Love, Death, and the Devil” was a stunning provocation that disturbed our assumptions about aesthetics. Satire, irony, brutality, self-destruction, rebellion against apathy all mounted to a final score of triumph of the human spirit. It was a definitive encounter of emotional and cultural polarities that concluded in fearlessness.
This was not for the light hearted. A few young women walked out disgusted. It reminded me of “Siyawela: Love, Loss and Liberation”, an exhibition of South African artists' work. There were smashed bits of terracotta images. During Apartheid, Afrikaner police had discovered a resemblance of power in these and raided the artists' studio and smashed the ‘portraits'. The artists preserved the broken bits and released them in this exhibition during Mandela's government. Unmistakable was the impact of art as identity/fication. Art can and must disturb us out of our preconceptions and assumptions.
Reipe's terrific finale of “not being afraid of dying” was testimony to Edition III as a transcultural form beyond the categories of physical theatre.
As an Artistic Director and Producer funded by Arts Council England, London, I know the stakes for an intercultural Performing Arts Festival are high and the risk at times incalculable. Intuition, passion, business sense, and generosity are what drive artistic direction, and Ranvir Shah the curator and Artistic Director of the Park's New Festival is well endowed with these: “I'm a catalyst in presenting a cultural crucible”, he says. I relished his genuine intention in creating a renewed aesthetic. He brought on re-membering of disparate forms by laying out a feast of the familiar with subtle unknown nuances that make us say: ‘Ah! Now I see it!' as we bring our hands together at the end.
The new, and re-newed aspects of the festival is also about the global gaze. This in itself is nothing new. Indians have multiple influences, tastes and identities wider reaching than the subcontinent. Earlier, the west was sought for artistic recognition. Times have changed, and the new India affords different horizons. Ranvir Shah's curation is making the Park's New Festival a space where worldwide and world-class companies are vying to perform.
Shah displays that distinctive humility in his perception of his city's discerning audiences, and raising the bar in what he offers them. He's emphatic about the support from the Park Hotel who trust his artistic judgment without interfering in his curation.
Admittedly from a position of privilege, Shah's taste for art hunting is wide ranging; boredom is his touchstone for what needs to be eliminated. Like any good editor he knows his structure as an arc for the anthology of events. As a designer he manages his team of three, tightly, with checklists bashing toward production deadlines efficiently.
Recessions are a great test for what the human spirit needs and what is affordable. Art, it is assumed, is the first casualty. Contrary to expectations, statistical evidence in the UK indicated Theatre attendance increased in 2008-2009 by 15 per cent and in the Arts, by 26 per cent. Possibly where climate change and Recession literally makes people homeless, there is a quest for meaning.
Edition III's audiences were smaller this year. Recession, and possibly a marketing campaign that needs to be addressed? Is this sustainable? Shah agrees to re-look at strategies, but businesswise, Edition III made its financial mark.
As it moves to Delhi and across India, it's gaining wider audiences too. Shah's Edition IV will undoubtedly be a festival worth waiting for. The best curtain call for any festival is when new, and loyal audiences, anticipate the next year's edition eagerly.
The writer is a FRSA Storyteller and Artistic Director, Vayu Naidu Company, Arts Council England, London