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On Chennai's changing alternative performances spaces

A low-down on the chameleonic nature of alternative performance spaces in Chennai

Chennai has always been a culture-rich city, be it dance, architecture, theatre or music. Circa 1980-90, an evening of entertainment would consist of the rich wearing their Syed Bawkher suits and Kanjeevaram saris, making their way to a ticketed concert or dance recital at The Music Academy (or later the Narada Gana Sabha), in their Contessas.

Come 2018, one finds the city dotted with accessible venues that aren’t quite as elite. One can notice the city’s performance spaces moulding themselves to suit the change in its performing culture.

Booming spaces

The city is now taking under its cultural wings: performance poetry, stand-up comedy, indie music, play readings and all sorts of new-age performances. With this, one finds an increase in more intimate stages — let’s say, ‘alternate performance spaces’ — places that free the performer from having to rent out an auditorium and the expenses that come with it.

The café Amethyst is one of the first such spaces in the city. Kiran Rao, the proprietor of the café says, “In 2005, we partnered most of the time with Prakriti Foundation. But our first performance was by The Madras Players in the old Amethyst.”

Ranvir Shah, founder of Prakriti Foundation, credits its growth to Amethyst. “Kiran would give us the space inside, outside, at the garden, the parking lot, in the courtyard: all sorts of places where we could do all sorts of things. And we’ve continued to do that now with the new space at the Folly,” says Shah, who curates several performing arts festivals and events. The Folly, a space outside Amethyst building, was recently host to a poetry-reading by The Madras Players of TM Karthik’s book of poems Diary of the Mad Hatter.

Another such space is The English Tearoom where one can find comedy shows curated by Sudarsan Ramamurthy, aka Soda of Chennai Comedy, taking place quite often. Deepa Palaniappan, the proprietor of the café says, “We have ticketed comedy shows every fourth Saturday for about a couple of hours. We don’t really rent the space out for performances; they just give us a part of the ticket sales.”

Apart from cafés that accommodate a certain space for performances, Chennai also has spaces that were built expressly for the purpose. Backyard, one such space, is run by young duo Nithya Fernandez and Akshaya ChittyBabu. “The number of people organising these events has increased. These require a more intimate setting that you don’t necessarily get at an auditorium space. Which is why I think Backyard works as a venue for these types of events,” says Fernandez.

On Chennai's changing alternative performances spaces

Access over quality?

As with everything else, there could possibly be a setback to this concept. Anita Ratnam, popular cultural figure and classical dancer, says, “There are artists who are maybe at the cusp of doing something better. That’s where the need for a curator arises.” The artists essentially only get exposure but having a curator in the mix will lead to better quality in the performances as well as creating an opportunity for talent to be nurtured. However, the possible network that these intimate performances create could also lead to this growth; they can hold anywhere between 50 to 100 members in informal settings, increasing the opportunity to interact.

Ratnam herself curates intimate shows that are held at a space in her own home, called the Arangham Studios, “It’s strictly RSVP and I cannot accommodate more than 50 people.”

Taking the arts into people’s homes isn’t a new concept. Sofar Sounds, a global movement, brings live music to intimate audiences. Their chapter in Chennai holds what they call ‘secret gigs’ once a month at venues that range from people’s living rooms to office spaces, on the hosts’ requests. Prashanth Oliver, one of the organisers, says, “In pubs, there’s a lot of chatting and noise. So people aren’t really paying attention to the music. We want the focus to be on the artist.” He adds, “As long as there are spaces for artists to perform and an audience there to watch, it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it.”

On Chennai's changing alternative performances spaces

At the end of the day, perhaps all we are doing is fulfilling our need for human intimacy in an increasingly techonology-dominated world through art. And that is food for thought.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 10:12:17 PM |

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