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. While curator RANVIR SHAH who took the festival across the country, talks about some epiphanic moments, PARVATHI NAYAR and VITHAL RAJAN take one through the performances.

T his year was the first time in four years that we were touring The Park's New Festival in major metros, starting from Delhi, then onto Kolkata and Hyderabad and finally Chennai, its home base. The team had worked extensively on preparation for nearly eight months in advance, coordinating with technicians in the various cities, press contacts, researching performance spaces and contacting friends in the performing arts community. Budgets did not allow us to have a larger team to travel so I had to double up as main coordinator besides being the artistic director. Every weekend of September was spent in a different city with a different set of issues. Certain kinds of lights were not available, there was too low a stage, the backdrop needed to be worked on and so on. These were par for the course and a given, we knew how to respond to them and solve them but what was a surprise were the various interactions during the day outside the performance space.

Friendships

Delhi had continuous rain. It seemed like a deluge day after day and the lushness outside was causing dampness inside. Dengue and other diseases were about. After the first night's performance of Preethi Athreya at the Stein Auditorium in the India Habitat Centre, Sujatha Pelletier, my friend and the wife of the Minister – Counselor, Public Affairs, U.S.Embassy, took us on a spree of Delhi food tasting. She insisted we had to try “ Paranthas” in a place she knew. Perhaps another time, we dithered, it's pouring…! So what? was her response to our resistance and off we went in the dark to discover a pavement parantha stall under a flyover being built. The crowd was huge and the rain was not letting up. Finally we negotiated to being served in the car – warm tea in small glasses, pickled chillies on the paneer and aloo paranthas and then the privilege of cold soda water that she had packed in anticipation – somehow it finished the evening perfectly – taste buds and hunger satiated and the heart warmed with the nurture of friendship.

In Kolkata it was a time to reflect on nostalgia. I had gone to nursery school here as a four year old and had since the past forty five years met the new city twice on subsequent trips. Amid the fetid decay of buildings over-powered by trees and vegetation, it was a great moment to return to the edifices of memory – the Victoria Memorial, the Princep Ghat and finally the Howrah Bridge on which various trips were made to and from home in Gujarat. Curiosity, serendipity and the strong reference of a friend, Ammu Chatterjee provided for an encounter with film maker Rituparno Ghosh. We talked about Cinema, gender, sexuality, temples and the purity of emotions including grief. It was a conversation of lasting impression and honesty as the meeting was not premeditated.

The week after in Hyderabad was in some ways a completely, unexpected time and the mood was magical. On a fine afternoon the famous poet Hoshang Merchant took us to meet the spiritual leader of the Sufi shrine of Yusuf Ain, pir brothers, who had helped Aurangzeb get to Hyderabad. Their twin Kabrastans are a site of popular pilgrimage and tertiary commerce flourishes in a bazaar surrounding it. Here pickle shops, sweetmeat sellers, religious souvenir stalls and textile stores jostle with one another. Hoshang takes us in through the private door to the home adjoining the shrine. A cinnabar lacquer door, exactly in the style of Gujarat and Zanzibar opens into a small courtyard washed clean by a rain shower. Along its walls are large cages with exotic birds (Hoshang says the Sufis study the behaviour of birds) and there is an overwhelming sense of being in a greenhouse due to the plants and creepers all around. We enter the salon of Sufiji, as Hoshang calls him. He has a large presence in his late forties, ringlets of black descending from his mane, a wise child in a grown man's garb. He is singing, in the midst of his riyaaz a lesson with his blind teacher. They are singing a khayal in praise of the Ajmer Shrine. ‘The soul is longing for you' – the Sufi strains fill up the large room and the blind masters finishing of the song is a moment of sacral lucidity. We are moved. A discussion over ginger tea and homemade dal, roti and pickle (Sufiji is vegetarian!) follows on the ruh's (soul) ability to transcend time and space. Language is the veil of the soul says he and I see Hoshang, the poet's eyes mist over at the simplicity of the philosophy and perhaps a reflection of the poet's inner creative expression. The room itself is filled with carpets, chandeliers, western landscape paintings, paandaans and spittoons and water is served to Sufiji in a silver and brass inlaid bowl inscribed with dua's (blessings). The entire afternoon has left us in a state of mystical feel good. Later that evening Vidur Kapur, the gay standup comedian from New York says it's been the best day of his month long trip for the Festival. I agree.

Connections

Chennai follows soon. Vidur is taken to meet with members of the Sahodaran NGO, a group that works with gay prostitutes and transgenders. I am one of their trustees and have invited many of them to Vidur's performance at the over hundred year old Museum Theatre in the hope that their difficult lives will find some outlet through his humour. They loved him and he reciprocates their appreciation by listening to their stories of survival, harassment and finally emotional victories. He leaves visibly moved and deeply changed.

Festival of performing arts. Music, dance, theatre, stand up comedy et al. Travelling to four cities. Different audiences. Appreciative applause and standing ovation. What else could an artistic director / curator ask for and then the universe gives you more. Why? As Sufiji said that afternoon in Hyderabad –“if your intent (niyat) is good, it may take time but the universe, God, the force, Allah, bhagwan, devi, Christ – whatever name you want to give that positive energy, will be with you” – it seemed surreal and out of Star War's the movie's dialogue, but it had come true – in my minor epiphanic moment I promised myself to stay clearly on the right side of the line of intent, on the adventure that has become, my life.

Ranvir Shah Artistic Director and Founder Trustee, Prakriti Foundation

Photos Courtesy: Prakriti Foundation

T he 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.

Build up

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.

Unique

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.

Parvathi Nayar

Familiar subject matter presented in unfamiliar frameworks makes for good viewing...