Bombay Showcase

The cycle of creation and destruction

Ganapati’s story is told through different rhythm patterns and textures, performed by actors who are also musicians.  

dishakti’s Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research, a theatre group from Pondicherry, will perform two shows of Ganapati at G5A today. Appearing in Mumbai after a gap of seven years with this production, the group then travels over the next twenty days to Pune, Bangalore and Chennai.

A stunning visual and aural experience which loops together cycles of creation and destruction, Ganapati exemplifies Adishakti’s distinctive hybrid style, with aesthetic fluidity and improvisation. Although it takes its lead ideas from history and mythology, Ganapati also has an unforced contemporary temper. A few irreverent, deliberately down-to-earth touches, and the creolisation of Ganapati is complete. After more than a hundred shows, it will be a treat even for those who have watched it before.

Ganapati was created by Adishakti’s late founder, the theatre director Veenapani Chawla, in 2000. With sparse dialogue, it is the music which replaces text in the 70-minute production. Drawing from the birth stories related to the myths of Ganapati, the story is “told” through different rhythm patterns and textures, performed by actors who are also musicians. Central to this is the joyful two-beat rhythm of the mizhavu, a bass drum which comes from Koodiyattan, Kerala’s classical dance theatre. There are tabla bols too as well as an orchestration of percussion along with ghatam, edakka, mrindangam and folk drums.

Fifteen months after Ms Chawla’s untimely passing, the revival of Ganapati, with three new actors, is undoubtedly an occasion to celebrate. But these have been difficult months for the group. Although their intensive acting workshops — in the calming three-acre campus and modern, with touches of Kerala’s traditional architecture, auditorium in Pondicherry — have many fans in the theatre and film community in Mumbai, the group had struggled for direction in the initial aftermath of Chawla’s loss.

“Everybody says make a business plan, but for that we must have a product. And theatre does not sell,” says a slightly bemused Vinay Kumar, who has taken over as Adishakti’s artistic director.

In a departure from its focus on its campus as an ideal space for incubating productions, with the group only travelling when invited, Adishakti has now started to actively seek out shows. In the last year alone they did 40 shows around the country of The Tenth Head and Nidravathvam, two plays from the Ramayana series. Like most groups in India’s chronically underfunded arts sector, when invited for one show, with travel and boarding covered as well as a fee, they approach other organisers and institutions for additional shows, especially in cities close by.

It is this shift in strategy that has brought the show to Mumbai.

Six months ago, Adishakti was invited to bring Ganapati to the Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival in Pune, in February 2016.

The group naturally wanted to bring the show to Mumbai too. Especially because, two months before her passing, Chawla had finally had a positive discussion with one of Mumbai’s leading — and one of the few well-endowed — arts institutions. The latter had expressed an interest in hosting a festival of plays from Adishakti, from the celebrated Ramayana festivals Chawla had curated to wide and critical acclaim in Pondicherry from 2008 to 2011.

But their attempts to resume that conversation last year went nowhere.

Rebuffed. and lacking sponsorships and offers, the group took the difficult decision to perform without a fee.

Vinay Kumar is painfully honest: “Our kind of work is conceptual. Sponsorships are not really an option.” He means that Adishakti’s plays are pleasurably complex and stimulating and they require an investment from the viewer.

The Adishakti style does not fit in to an already undernourished arts ecosystem that privileges nosiy, packaged entertainment.

Help came from Atul Kumar. of The Company Theatre (TCT), who stepped in as the local organiser and helped set up the show at G5A, a recent entrant on performing arts space in the city.

“We have no sponsorship for this event, we did not even seek it. We never look for sponsors for our shows either. It never works out, so we depend on box office collections only. In this case too all we have is box office collections and we take the risk of running into losses if people don’t turn up”, he says. At full capacity the space can take about 200 viewers with each ticket priced at Rs 500 and there will be two shows. What they take in at the box office must first pay for production expenses, publicity, permissions, hire of space for technical set up and for the two shows at G5A (on a costs only basis).

If the group sells out both shows, Adishakti might make just under a lakh. If they don’t, Atul Kumar says he will take that hit. He can do this because TCT’s successful play Piya Behrupiya brings in enough revenue for them to support friends in other theatre groups.

Heartwarming as it is to know that the creative community stand by each other, the situation is a reminder of how critically underfunded the system is for anyone working in the more serious end of the spectrum. The classical arts can still seek funds under the heritage and tradition labels, but contemporary theatre is left to fend for itself in a hostile marketplace.

Ironically, Adishakti’s Pondicherry space is a refuge for performers and groups who can have an unhurried day-long use of rehearsal space and technical support, luxuries that for city-based groups.“We hope to offer deals to visiting theatre groups to Pondicherry so that we can in turn travel more”, says Kumar.

As the group makes its way across five cities for shows of Ganapati, all of which share the Mumbai model, happier things are happening in Pondicherry. Dancers from leading contemporary dance school PARTS (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) in Brussels, join 15 Indian dancers for an ambitious 45-day residency. And the group is working on the last of the Ramayana series, a play by Chawla on Sita. The actors are also exploring a production with a seventh-century play written by the Pallava King Mahendra Pallava Vikrama Varman, Mathavilasaprahasanam.

But that brings little comfort to us as we settle down to watch Ganapati tonight, knowing that we are part of a system which permits us to watch challenging art for nearly free.

Ganpati: G5A, 6pm and 9pm. See for details

Devina Dutt is an arts writer and founder of first edition arts

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 3:14:12 AM |

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