Stage craft Theatre

The in-between spaces

‘Conditions of Carriage’ by Preethi Athreya at OddBird Theatre, New Delhi.

‘Conditions of Carriage’ by Preethi Athreya at OddBird Theatre, New Delhi.  

As the tyranny of the proscenium gives way to intimate baithaks, a look at Gati’s annual dance festival held in a revamped mill in Delhi

Deco Dispatches on Fifo Basis’ says the technical instruction on the wall. In the days when Dhan Mills was whirring with activity, someone could have explained what that strange order meant. But now the compound in Delhi’s Chhatarpur, like many others across Indian metros, is a ghost of its old self. And like all such structures in premium corners of our cities, it is finding a new face.

The audience sits along the walls of the large, spare hall at the mill where Decos were once Despatched on Fifo Basis. In the centre, Preethi Athreya’s dancers are using a square wooden pathway and the pit below to circle and criss-cross each other in a choreography about how bodies move in limited spaces, now aggressive, now in camaraderie and love. Athreya’s ‘Conditions of Carriage’ has turned this corner of a dead factory into an alternative and energetic dance stage.

OddBird Theatre, set up barely three months ago, was the venue of Gati’s annual dance festival, Ignite, in Delhi last week. The unusual performance venue is minimalist and you could walk past its no-fuss black doors if it wasnt for the throng of dance lovers outside taking in the stunning photo exhibition on dancer Chandralekha that sits on the whitewashed walls.

OddBird sits next to a couple of paint godowns, a bridal makeup salon, a design showroom, and even a chandelier boutique. Chhatarpur, in far south Delhi, is a semi-urban expanse thick with temples, farmhouses and wedding venues. The blare of a wedding brass-band on the road breaks into the quiet intensity of Athreya’s choreography till someone pulls down the roller shutters.

There is a reason why Delhi’s leading contemporary dance festival has moved out of the sacred Mandi House circle and into a revamped mill compound. Festival director and architect Virkein Dhar who, along with two associates, set up the theatre, says it is time to challenge the tyranny of the proscenium and the distance it creates between artistes and their audiences. “We wanted an intimate setting for the dancers and the viewers,” says Dhar.

After culture writer Sadanand Menon finished addressing the gathering on Chandralekha’s dance legacy, the lounge turned back into a casual café and audiences moved into the small performance hall beyond, separated only by a black curtain. Adishakti was presenting ‘Nidravathwam’, written and performed by the talented Nimmy Raphel. “The OddBird Theatre is very akin to the European black box theatre — flexible spaces, the chairs and the stage can be turned around to suit the performance and the perspective of the audience. Also notice how food and beverage is readily available to everyone,” points out dancer Anita Ratnam, whose Arangham Trust was among Gati’s festival patrons.

A limited performing space like this makes for a powerful audience experience. Every subtle move, grimace, twitch and flare of the nostril is observable as Raphel sketches, with muscular grace, the dilemma of the perpetually soporific Kumbhakarna.

It isn’t just OddBird that is coming alive with dance. Next door, at Startup Tunnel, where on an average day, smart entrepreneurs work on new ideas, Gati is hosting morning conferences in the basement on aspects of contemporary dance. Sujata Goel, whose ‘Dancing Girl’ drew rave reviews the night before, is talking about playing the exotic dancer with Singapore dancer Daniel Kok. And later in the day, dancers Navtej Johar and Mandeep Raikhy, one of Gati’s founders, will debate the idea of weaving activism and questions of sexuality into dance.

Across Delhi, dance, theatre and music are slowly finding their way out of established spaces. The big ticket venues still rule, but the signs of change are evident. Of course, the scale is different and so is the kind of art on display. At Atelier, designer Sandhya Raman’s boutique in Lado Sarai, a couple of kilometres from OddBird, there are monthly performances of dance and music, and art exhibitions as well.

“This is closer to the essentially Indian idea of a baithak or chamber performance. In the proscenium, you lose a lot of the essence of an art. You absorb and understand very differently in an intimate space. I sometimes get people who don’t understand classical arts but are keen to get close to it. This is a setting that is not intimidating for them,” says Raman, who has hosted hour-long programmes of Odissi, Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music, Kuchipudi abhinaya and Hindustani music at her boutique.

Ratnam says such spaces are very much in tune with the kind of recreation urban India is looking for. “I love the democratisation of live arts in these urban spaces. If people can’t come to the art, then the art will come to them,” she says, pointing to the proliferation of similar spaces in Chennai as well — the December Mylapore Festival in Nageswara Rao Park, the sari shows accompanied by Carnatic music at Amethyst or Kanakavalli boutiques, contemporary dance shows at art galleries, storytelling at Chennai’s Café Coffee Day outlets, and private salons and gardens opened up for concerts. In Bengaluru, performance spaces are opening up under flyovers and, in the near future, at metro stations.

The performances are compact and usually no longer than 45 minutes to an hour, which works fine for time-strapped urban dwellers. Another advantage of alternative spaces is that they offer opportunities for younger and lesser known artistes who don’t have access to big performing arenas. “Their only choice till now was to wait in frustration or turn 40 and then find conventional stages to perform on — by which time they are past their peak,” points out Ratnam.

Meanwhile, OddBird, like others of its ilk, has several plans for its corner space, including indie music and dance, contemporary as well as classical, theatre and much more.

Malini Nair likes to explore the intersection between culture and society in her writings.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 4:56:40 AM |

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