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Breath holds the key

The winter colloquium conducted by the Adishakti Theatre Group of Pondicherry will help highlight the similarities between Koodiyattom and Noh, says Veenapani Chawla in conversation with GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

Workshop in progress ...

"HOW DO you manage to keep fresh night after night, express the same emotions in exactly the same way?" theatre actor/director Veenapani Chawla asked Ammanur Madhava Chakiar from whom she was learning Koodiyattom.

``Easy," said the veteran. ``We have the unfailing technique of breath to express emotions the way we want, with control and precision." He refused to teach it.

Years later when Chawla saw Ammanur's favourite disciple Usha Nangiar on the stage, she realised that the master had parted with his knowledge. ``This is what I'm looking for," she told Nangiar. The two women worked together for a year at Chawla's Adishakti Theatre Arts Research, Pondicherry (1997).

In the process Nangiar discovered that what she had practised as a routine exercise in a traditional art form had possibilities for far reaching applications.

In adapting the breath technique to her needs in productions like ``Brihannala" and ``Ganapati," Chawla (artistic director, Adishakti), realised that she was able to achieve with her actors and musicians what she had not earlier thought possible. Yet the technique itself was neither mysterious nor mystical. It could be learnt, adapted and used by every actor, director, poet, musician, dancer and filmmaker.

The new theatre coming up at the Adishakti Arts Centre in Pondicherry ...

With a grant from Arts Network Asia, Adishakti Theatre Arts Centre, Pondicherry, conducts a Winter Colloquium (December 2003-January 2004) with experts from Koodiyattom and Noh, to initiate a month long dialogue on breath technique in performance.

``We are always looking at the West. And yet there is so much to learn from the Asian countries," smiles Chawla and talks about Wakita Haruko, Professor of medieval women's history, University of Shiga, who is also a Noh artiste, a rarity in that male domain. Among her books is one on the origins of women in the performing arts. Four Noh artistes will accompany her for interactions with Usha Nangiar, Chawla's Adishakti group with its brilliant actor Vinay Kumar and Dr Rajeswari Pandey, Professor of Japanese studies at Latrobe University, Australia. ``We have always been told that Koodiyattom and Noh have many similarities. This is our chance to check it out." International Observers from Australia and Britain will join Indian participants like Anuradha Kapur, Sanjna Kapoor, Mita Vashisht, Anita Ratnam, Na Muthuswamy, V. Akshara, G. Venu, Kapila Venu (theatre practitioner), Ashish Nandy (cultural psychologist), Shanta Gokhale (writer), Tyeb Mehta (painter), Anjum Katyal, Anmol Velani (theatre analyst). Chawla hopes that these invitees will contribute to discussion and knowledge, and extend Adishakti's concerns through a ripple effect.

Hasn't a Laurence Olivier or a John Gielgud retained freshness through whole theatre seasons? ``We don't know whether they achieved the same effect every day," says Chawla. Not that Adishakti has achieved it, she hastens to add. But with Ammanur's technique she has a clear goal to work for.

``The The Stanislavsky technique of imagining or recalling emotions through psychological processes is very difficult, and isn't foolproof. But in Koodiyattom we've had this method for centuries. Noh has it too, so that the point is to exchange these techniques, enlarge and create maybe a hybrid methodology. Imagine what a contribution it would be to everyone!" With palpable excitement she explains that her workshop will also include an expert from the Italian Commedia del Arte that has breathing techniques for actors. Koodiyattom's codification of breath technique is drawn from daily life.

``The physical expression of whatever you think and feel comes through in way you breathe. Your breath shows whether you are angry or happy, anxious or fed up. Fear stops breath for a few seconds. All we artistes have to do is to work around that knowledge and employ it in a creative way in performance. Even a small movement with which the breath starts is stimulated by an inner impulse. It is part of the rhythm of existence. When we look at breath and its larger rhythm, we are led into exploring many minute, subtle details behind the surface."How does this differ from yoga? ``Pranayama is an internalising process, nadi shuddhi, cleans up nerve channels. But breath technique in performance is an expression of what you are thinking and feeling. It can be complex because with multiple patterns of breath you can get many colours of emotion, or move from one quick emotion into another."

Chawla believes that the breath technique will enable artistes to texture their moments and movements with greater understanding.

She sums up, ``My idea of a theatre is not just putting up shows. It is to do with learning as much and as many things you can, and creating something out of that. Without that constant learning and growing, performance by itself is of no use."

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