Then there was one

The offbeat Bengaluru-based theatre group evocatively named Visual Respiration were recently in town, and gave theatre-goers a piquant taste of their distinctive brand of immersive style. Under the stewardship of artistic director Aruna Ganesh Ram, they have been honing their distinct form of theatre for some years now. Their work is ‘immersive’ in the sense that audience members are not just the transfixed bystanders they are usually conditioned to be, but are active participants. Depending on how they use the degree of agency accorded to them, the storytelling can veer off into unexpected directions, although embracing this notion of one’s volition is easier said than done.

One of their shows was Coloured and Choosing, which is performed for only one individual at a time, and that person remains blindfolded throughout. It necessitates them being led by hand or sundry instructions through what could potentially be a labyrinth of sensations and ideas. It is an experience that clocks in at just over 30 minutes, but it certainly proved to be an intense half-hour, at least for this writer. Being blindfolded lulls us into a kind of wakeful slumber, in which we relinquish control and hesitantly confer a kind of trust on actors whose voices, at once entreating and imposing, become the chief agents of storytelling — if indeed a story is what we are looking for.

Sense of a matter

Aruna’s team (Lochan Baratakke, Rijul Ray, Ranjitha Sakleshpur, Sudha Sudanthi and Vrinda Misra) is akin to a live five-piece orchestra who speak in tandem, emit guttural sounds, or simply murmur in unison to devise an impressive soundscape using mainly the rhythms of individual voices. Although some aural patterns are constructed using foley props or recorded sound. There is incredible depth to the noise — sounds and voices approach and depart, circle around, linger, and flutter past. Breath, its ebb and flow, is an important part of the experience. The audience of one is convincingly transported from one location to another, and the public spaces conjured up seem both strange and familiar. Found footage especially — like voices from ads or television — is very effectively simulated in wonderfully clipped accents. There is a definite rigour visible (or audible) in the performances.

Several of the voices are those of the urbane, whose cosmopolitanism clashes with the retrograde tongues one might associate with the proletariat. So immediately the lines of privilege are also uncomfortably drawn. It is the spectre of ‘them and us’ that rears its head, something we cannot quite escape from these days, it would seem. Sometimes, the voices devolve into the pip-squeaky utterances of mythical beings. That’s when the piece is at its weakest, because it breaks our engagement with the social spectrum opened up otherwise.

In a piece surtitled ‘an immersive exploration of gender’, the snatches of conversation begin to cover an increasingly gendered turf. Although not one sentence flows into another, the patchwork of textual references conveys much about prevailing gender attitudes. Yet, when cuss words or loaded sexual terms are regurgitated in clichéd fashion, it all seems a little pat. Interestingly, the women are forthright and unapologetic, and the men are quite the opposite — sleazy and disingenuous. So there is a definite gaze that is imposed on the piece. It is a perspective of the world that we must absolutely acknowledge, and perhaps some more than others may immediately find resonances in such a presentation that others can only guess at the sheer perverseness of.

At the very outset of the performance, the usher warns of ‘touch’ being a feature in the performance. This is where the outsider’s experience of gender could perhaps converge with the personal. The team work together to create moments of sweeping vulnerability. In one set-piece, the subject is suspended in mid-air, and subjected to an invasive procedure — no touch, but enough context to drive the situation home. It was a strange play of patriarchy using feminine voices. In another, one is crushed with inflatable pillows, as heavy breathing from all sides adds to the claustrophobia. The turf includes the faintest recollections of personal displays of affection, frisking culture in the metros, or even the onslaught of unwanted touch that one negotiates daily.

The physical realm

One is certainly awash with a physicality of experience that is almost sensuous despite being equipped with default conservatism when entering such a space. Those with tender hands are given to stentorian speech. Of course, actors can be switched between binaries of gender, but certain voices fashion whole personalities for themselves. Ostensibly this is a tailor-made experience, based on entries made in a form before the performance. Yet, it is a charted experience that doesn’t appear to allow too many detours.

The blindfolded spectator is perhaps the meekest of beings, with no way of transgressing an itinerary almost set in stone, unless they are prepared to rebel, or slip in some idiosyncrasy of their own into the mix. This participant certainly did not pick up the clues or the cues that would set him on the way to other rewarding digressions. Instead, there was an overriding numbness, and a dazed countenance afterwards. So, although not one moment was less than engrossing, either in an immediate sense or in anticipation of some distant pay-off, the experience remained skin-deep.

Wherein lies the difficulty in creating and negotiating such pieces, and mapping out the intricacies that would yield the best dividends. However, there is no denying that Visual Respiration have arrived at some great faculty that, with time, they will be able to harness much more effectively.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 1:49:59 PM |

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