The Park's New Festival in Chennai with its wide range of performances – from the serious to the entertaining – was an eye-opener to creative possibilities in the arts.
The words “contemporary” and “accessible” rarely sit comfortably together in a single sentence, let alone in a single arts festival. So it's worth taking note when that pair of adjectives turns out to be a good description of the recently concluded The Park's New Festival in Chennai.
It's fair to use the term “contemporary” because the Festival programming focussed on aesthetic, cultural and socio-political issues related to our times. “Accessible”, because many of the works had definite entertainment value as well, which made it possible for different kinds of audiences to enjoy the evenings.
The Festival's offerings covered five performance disciplines: standup comedy by Vidur Kapur, a contemporary dance piece by dancer/choreographer Preethi Athreya, Ramu Ramanathan's play “Kashmir Kashmir” directed by Mohit Takalkar, the puppet show “Bollywood Bandwagon” by Anurupa Roy and vocal music by the energetic group Asima made up of male singers and percussionists.
The Festival spanned five consecutive days and was located entirely at the atmospheric Museum Theatre. The opening solo act was by Athreya, an accomplished dancer, who with “Sweet Sorrow” offered a minimalist beginning to the Festival. Though it was a very compact Festival, it managed to build a nice programming arc from the measured launch to the vibrant closing music.
One element of the programming that — literally — stands up and demands to be debated, is the standup comedy show by Vidur Kapur. Kapur, who headlines top comedy clubs in the Big Apple, has a strong following in Asia and a very visible media profile. The debate, however, centres on whether an arts festival is an appropriate venue to showcase a risqué standup comedy act.
The answer is “yes” for several reasons: it is a creative style of performance on its own, and the intimacy of the Museum Theatre made the interactive performance work. The famed British venue, The Comedy Store may have opened a bricks-and-mortar outlet in Mumbai, but there is no equivalent venue in Chennai. Also, conceptually, Kapur's irreverent anything-is-fair-game attitude seemed appropriate for a festival that is seeking to push boundaries, and offer Chennaites a taste of all the out-there stuff that is out there.
Mathangi Srinivasamurti, partner, Chamiers says, “I particularly enjoyed the performance of Vidur Kapur held at the Museum Theatre. It was a packed house and Vidur's stand-up comedy was wacky, out-of-the-ordinary – and skirted the edge of good taste in parts; all-in-all it was a thoroughly different experience for the Madras audience.”
Kapur's show certainly seemed the best-attended and strongest in terms of audience participation. A minor criticism from some young people who actively trawl the Net and YouTube was that Kapur could be more vigilant about not repeating routines that appear online. But as college student Gitanjali Shashikumar continues: “Vidur Kapur was such a great introduction to an arts festival for many of us students. There was a nice communal atmosphere, as though we were chilling with a group of good friends and sharing a good laugh.”
The theatre component of the Festival was “Kashmir Kashmir”, director Mohit Takalkar's newest project with playwright Ramu Ramnathan. As an enquiry into some of the seemingly intractable problems facing the state, it was also the Festival's most political piece. Contemporary dancer and choreographer Padmini Chettur who watched the performance shares: “At some level I found what Ramu has done quite brave — to write a text set in Kashmir. The script had a very particular humour, which actually served to remind one of the desperateness of the situation.”
Takalkar and Ramnathan have both been creating quite a following for their work. As Ms. Chettur adds: “It was also interesting to see the work of a director from Marathi theatre presented in English. The play was very well produced; the high quality displayed in the technical aspects of the work— in the use of light, sound and film — meant that the theatrical structure held together very well, creating an aesthetic framework in which to hear the spoken word.”
Familiar subject matter presented in unfamiliar frameworks makes for good viewing in a Festival, as in Bollywood Bandwagon, which saw the return of the talented Anurupa Roy to Chennai. The style of puppetry was inventive using the heads of live actors with puppet bodies. It was also presented in an unusual way, with audiences able to appreciate the performers' abilities both as live action, and as a projected version on a screen above.
Given the high quality of the programming, one only wished there were larger audiences for some of the programmes, every empty seat seemed a waste of a good viewing opportunity. It would also have been nice — if the venue had permitted — to have some food stalls on the premises outside; part of the fun of attending a performance are the debates that follow. The opportunity to talk about what one has just seen, with friends, does expand an arts experience into a social evening.
Credit for the imaginative programming of The Park's New Festival should go to its artistic director Ranvir Shah. Ms. Srinivasamurti feels that the Festival is very much his brainchild. She says: “Ranvir has been passionate about his “other” festivals, where he's aimed to bring to our city, unique performers of music, dance and theatre from all over the world. The festivals have certainly managed to sustain interest all these years, and this year was no exception.”Special educationist Renu Nayar who attended all five days found the Festival's programming “refreshing. I enjoyed how it finished on such an exuberant note with Asima, one of my favourites in this year's festival. The Park's New Festival has — deservedly — earned the reputation for being the place to enjoy those unusual, more contemporary performances, which you might otherwise not get to see in Chennai.”
Overall, the Festival worked successfully as a piquant sampler of the various ways in which Indians today are thinking and creating, both locally and abroad. By balancing elements of contemporary cutting-edge creativity with deliberately fun programming, the Festival was both entertaining and insightful.