CHAT Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Veenapani Chawla on her evolving theatre craft. P. ANIMA
D iverse starting points, varied learning curves and a craft in evolution. Veenapani Chawla's theatre journey never lets off drama. From its beginnings in chaotic Mumbai to the quietude of Kerala, learning Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattom to the Adishakti campus (a theatre research space) in Puducherry, the journey continues zestfully.
Recognition comes with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award this year for her directorial skills. Adishakti, meanwhile, is at the doorstep of the third Ramayana Festival set to begin on February 16, and the founder, artistic director and managing trustee, Veenapani, is cajoling her group of actors to evolve, re-look and re-invent texts.
“Even the Ramayana festival has changed from its first year. When we started off, the real idea was to have this intimate festival and look at the traditional texts as contemporary performance texts,” says Veenapani on the telephone from Puducherry. From the audience's perspective, which Adishakti and Veenapani have awakened to, the festival gains importance this year. “We have tried to bring together the academia and the arts — the intelligentsia, the thinkers and the performers and see how this interface turns out,” she says.
Veenapani, born in eventful 1947, is now steering Adishakti to self-sustenance, while urging the six actors in residence to be independent, producing independent works. “We are moving towards partial sustenance, and partially dependent on grants.” If sustenance on theatre is the Achilles' heel in India, even while not making their performances the way towards economic sustainability, Adishakti is learning to stand on its feet. “We house residencies, give our space for rehearsals and host other people's festivals. We also host workshops, but it is not our theatre workshop from which we sustain (those for the artistes are subsidised), but from corporate workshops,” says Veenapani.
A research subject
Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts Research has evolved into a space where theatre is approached as a research subject. It is a ‘laboratory,' Veenapani says, “Constant discovery” is the guideline. “Nothing is fixed and final, we may subvert our knowledge and the idea is to move on, try not to repeat ourselves,” she says.
Puducherry with its comfortable distance from theatre nerve centres is both a challenge and an engaging isolation. “Being in Pondicherry, we are free from the collective fashion of thinking. Here the struggle is with your self and to be creative…” says Veenapani.
As a youngster growing up in Mumbai with parents who hailed from West Pakistan, “roots” meant nothing much, except the urban India and the disconnect with historical India. Her quest led to Kerala, a place she knew nothing about and nothing like what she has seen before. “South Asia offers so many differences, that I wanted to hold them in my heart and own them.”
The journey into the depths of the country, steered her theatre defined by classical texts till then “to fill the gaps in my knowledge,” to discover different ways of doing theatre which defines Adishakti's work today. But Veenapani insists even when the lessons learnt in Kerala with its traditional forms of Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattom is vital to her, she is learning to go beyond it.
“Though I still go back, now there is greater objectivity and I am not as emotionally swarmed. Now, I look deeper into it, to create from it, using it as a starting point to something away from it,” she says.