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Celebrating diversity

The annual Other Festival in Chennai has become synonymous with experimentation and change. GEETA DOCTOR looks at this year's fare.

Vignettes of autobiography and drama ... a riveting performance by Usha Ganguli.

AFTER seven days of intensive viewing at the Other Festival, Chennai's own wacky brand of tradition meets today's consumer of art and culture, the brain tends to become numb. Only four words remain: Roots. Spine. Words. Wings.

For every evening, during the course of a whole week, we, the audience, have been waiting with Pavlovian patience for the hypnotic presence of Anita Ratnam to tell to us that the piece of music, theatre, video, or dance, (this year it's mostly dance) is going to be the most riveting piece of creative endeavour that we can hope to experience.

If Ratnam is not around, the other half of the Other Festival, Artistic Director, Ranvir Shah, as splendidly robed as Ratnam herself, takes over. His manner is more brusque and clipped. But because of their personal involvement in the showcasing of the artistes, either before their performance or in the inter-active sessions of questions and answers that follow, there's a certain intimacy to the Other Festival, which sets it apart. As we are often reminded — that's what the open hand logo, or mudra, indicates: Music. Dance. Drama. Art. You.

If the Other Festival succeeds so well, it's in creating this sense of community. The performances are watched with rapt attention by those who have flown in from half way around the world, choreographers, musicians and dancers from the North American continent, a dancer from Israel, a Japanese gentleman who's been coming to the Other Festival for the last two years and who keeps training a pair of very powerful spectacles at the stage the moment the lights are dimmed.

This is quite apart from the regular group of theatre people, senior dancers, artists, architects, writers, teachers and students that make up the audience.

Watching the first night performance of Usha Ganguli's solo theatrical performance, that was as much autobiography as small vignettes of drama, for instance, was Veenapani Chawla, herself a celebrated theatre person. It did not matter therefore that for most people, Ganguli's 75-minute creation in Hindi and Bengali, was all but incomprehensible. Just having one person with that quality of attentive knowingness is enough to transform the response of an artist. As Ratnam tells us, "Every year, we debate amongst ourselves whether there's a raison d' etre for continuing with the Other Festival and every year we find a good reason for going on." She was happy to report she said, that corporate sponsors were finally beginning to respond to their call. This current festival has been made possible with the support of a host of individuals and cultural collaborators, such as the ICCR, the Alliance Francaise, the governments of the United States and Israel.

Ratnam and Shah, between them, appear to represent the new generation of Indians who feel equally at home in South India, where they currently live and in the West, which means mostly in the U.S., where they travel for work and amusement.

This dichotomy is reflected in many aspects of the Other Festival. Sometimes unintentionally as in the costumes of the young women dancers trained in the Bharatha Natyam style, who have been taught the "contact dance" mode by a couple from Canada. The girls are candid enough to admit that they felt like "over ripe pumpkins" while doing the workshop that they also found highly liberating. They look completely ludicrous in their costumes consisting of tight black lycra tops, with thin straps that have been combined with South Indian dance style grey striped fitted pyjamas. They bring to mind the dancing hippos wearing tutus that were seen in the famous Disney film "Fantasia".

Yet what they say about the experience is interesting. "As Bharatha Natyam dancers, we have been taught to be centred within ourselves," said one of the dancers. "But while learning this new form of dance, we learnt how to give, to share our centre with others," she makes a gesture of giving, with her arms, outwards from the base of her body to her partner standing apart from her. "We learnt how to trust each other and that gave us a tremendous sense of liberation."

The sense of letting go, of swirling to the mysterious forces of the Universe is suggested in a number of different productions that range from the completely banal to the profound and moving. As ever, what separates the tedious display of teenage passions set in movement to pale homage's to the Chandralekha school of geometric patterns of body centred gestures, from the real thing, is training. That is however part of the Other Festival's formula, a weak-strong approach to programming, a dose of aggressive Western posturing with typical Eastern mimetic.

Whether this constitutes, as Ratnam argues, in her programme notes a radical breakthrough "in the eye of the hurricane that threatens to sweep all arts in the vortex of sound-bite consumerism" or is in effect the very epitome of reducing all artistic engagements to these tiny morsels labelled "East-West export product" is naturally open to question.

Using the roots of Kathak to evolve a new vocabulary ... Aditi Mangaldas and her troupe

What remains of outstanding value are the two evenings devoted to dance and theatre, one by Aditi Mangaldas and her troupe, the Drishtikon Dance Foundation, and two by Jamini Pathak, the young actor, who brilliantly brought to life the story of Mahatma Gandhi's Secretary Mahadev Desai, in the play written and directed by R. Ramanathan and produced by Working Title (Mumbai).

Mangaldas is well known. Her mastery of the Kathak idiom and the excellence of her troupe, whether the percussionists, or the quartet of dancers, male and female, or her use of different modes of creating sounds patterns, her adaptation of new styles and fabrics to suggest the older costumes, only served to underline her contention, that for her Kathak "is not a tether that holds me back but in fact I consider it to be deep roots — using the strength of which I have attempted to reach new forms, create new spaces and evolve a new vocabulary."

As for Pathak, words cannot do enough justice to this exemplary performance by one actor taking us back into a more heroic age, while remaining rooted in the language and idiom of our own everyday one and creating the suggestion of both the larger than life figures who played such a leading role in the Freedom Struggle as also the simple, humble men and women who gave up the safe havens of their families and beliefs to a cause greater than themselves.

It is not an exaggeration to note that several of the older generation had tears flowing down from their eyes at the end of the performance, more in sadness at the age of innocence that they had once believed in and which now has been lost that Pathak so vividly managed to project on stage.

While for once the younger generation led by Ranvir Shah stood in silence not wishing to break the impact by the intrusion of mere "questions".

Again, one piece of brilliant theatre that was created by Mahatma Gandhi himself, during the days when he observed complete silence and yet had to communicate to the masses, that had come to receive his darshan remains. As re-created by Jamini Pathak, who records that the Mahatma would hold up his hand and raise first a thumb and then one digit at a time to signify the various freedoms — from bondage, from communal hatred, from illiteracy and so forth and then point to the wrist to underline the spirit of equality, it becomes an intense piece of not just theatre, but of communicating ideas.

One hand outstretched, with fingers opening out celebrating our common humanity and diversity of experience. We can create our own language grounded in the needs of the day, one for the Environment, Two for Gender Equality, Three for Education, Four for religious Emancipation, five for Eradication of poverty and finally the strong wrist for unity.

The Open Hand of the Other Festival is therefore instinct with many possibilities for experiment and change. It celebrates the exciting times in which we live.

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