An artistic path

Print edition : July 25, 2014

e.

A scene from The Tenth Head (Ravana) directed by Veenapani Chawla. Photo: K. PICHUMANI

An exhaustive study presenting a multidimensional view of Veenapani Chawla’s journey in the realm of theatre.

Religion has tradition, music has tradition, even revolution has tradition. As opposed to the monotony of modernity, tradition is richly diverse and resilient. With a penchant for refashioning the world in its own image, modernity, even with its impatience for all things ancient, does open up new avenues. Without being irreverent, how do we invest tradition with new meanings? How do we bend and transform ancient art practices to the requirements of innovative creative thought? Can a form of art embody inter-disciplinary ideas and yet remain true to its original purpose?

The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla: Theory, Practice and Performance, edited by Shanta Gokhale, is an absorbing account of a dedicated practitioner of the art whose body of work is not merely the outcome of a continued engagement with theatre per se but a serious quest into the possibilities of the body and consciousness and how the most organic expression of these seemingly twin constituencies has to be a consequence of its ties with other artistic forms and their inherent philosophies.

This exhaustive work on Veenapani Chawla is warm and dynamic, which is typical of its editor. The book breaks away from the heaviness of academia, refrains from theorising, and pays keen attention to the creative process of the director. This approach is perhaps unique to Shanta Gokhale because she herself is a writer and a translator, and the creative seekings of an artist perhaps forms a large part of her interest.

The book presents a multidimensional view of Veenapani Chawla and her work, bringing to the table diverse perspectives that look at her oeuvre in unusual ways. It is an interesting presentation of articles, newspaper reviews, interviews, texts of plays and a DVD which contains the performance of the play Hare and Tortoise (2007).

Shanta Gokhale, in her “Note on the Book”, says: “I had envisaged a monograph that would be both a description and a critical analysis. However, when I began to think about her work, I began to realise it was multidimensional and equally important in all its dimensions…. If this book was to fulfil its purpose of communicating to the reader the diverse ways in which Chawla had widened the world of theatre for herself and for her core group of actors, it would have to include the various papers she presented at various seminars and institutions. Further, considering the difficulty of understanding, through mere description, what her plays looked and sounded like, led to the idea that the book should contain full texts of the plays. Finally, given that she believed in hybridity…. It dawned on me that the most appropriate form of the book had to be multi-vocal.”

The book is divided into seven parts. It opens with the essay “Mumbai Years”. The essay is crucial to the reader’s understanding of Veenapani Chawla’s journey in the world of theatre. From Mumbai to her final destination, Puducherry, in 1993, the shift is more than geographical. Puducherry is at once the seat of Veenapani Chawla’s spiritual beliefs and the symbol of her quest for the philosophical in her theatrical pursuits.

In her early theatre years in Mumbai, when she was a history teacher at Arya Vidya Mandir, she watched the plays staged by Geoffrey Kendal’s Shakespeareana Company, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Satyadev Dubey and Chhabildas, all from close quarters. Her calling was certainly elsewhere—not Stanislavski, not Grotowski, but Meyerhold. Veenapani Chawla was trying to evolve a physical language that could express the metaphysical. These things were already happening in other parts of the world, in the theatre of Peter Brook, Artaud, Eugenio Barba—all of them were looking at theatre beyond the primacy of the word, body becoming central to the experience of emotion. What is interesting, however, as Shanta Gokhale observes is that around Veenapani Chawla’s “Mumbai Years”, Ratan Thiyam and Kavalam Narayan Panikkar were also trying to evolve a language of movements and music. Both Panikkar and Thiyam had their own local traditions to draw from, but Veenapani Chawla “a Punjabi growing up in Mumbai, had no readily accessible form of physical culture she could really use”. From Oedipus (1982) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1983), Trojan Women (1984), Kunti and the Human Voice and The Greater Dawn (1992), one can see that Veenapani Chawla was on a relentless mission to perfect her language and craft, exploring a theatre that would be the perfect vehicle to carry forward her beliefs. She practised Chhau, learnt Kalaripayattu to improve breath control and voice quality, trained in pranayama, hatha yoga and Dhrupad and finally began to write plays that would reflect her engagement with Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy.

The early chapters and the details they hold are significant, both for understanding the director’s evolution as a practitioner and for the manner in which she responded to historical and contemporary forces not only within theatre but also in society at large. Imbibing, rejecting and shaping—the manner in which Veenapani Chawla’s theatrical idiom crystallised is a fascinating study. Whether it is the search for form, style and technique or the architecture of the auditorium of her Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts & Research in Puducherry, for Veenapani Chawla every act calls for utmost seriousness. Writing about the construction of the theatre on the Adishakti campus, she says: “According to the evidence we have of the traditional performing space both in the Natyashastra and in the Koothambalam, we find there is similarity between the organisation of the temple space which is sacred, and the traditional performance space, the Koothambalam. It seems therefore, that tradition also envisaged a sacred role for theatre, although the traditional notion of the sacred probably differed from ours.”

Modernity, as it gets integrated into Veenapani Chawla’s vision, is yet another expression of tradition and never separate from it. She says by way of explanation: “While theirs was largely religious, ours can be religiously, morally, politically and socially subversive, and yet retain its sacredness, as that sacredness is not dependent on established formulae, but on the truth of a lived experience.” Veenapani Chawla argues that the sacred intent of theatre as it existed in the past can happen only if there is an interactive engagement between the performer and the spectator, which begs an intimate space. In fact, commenting about her practice of theatre (the particular case of Usha Nangiar and Hariharan), Sarah Joseph, in her piece “Come, work with me”, observes: “Could there be a productive dialogue between tradition and modernity without the clash of egos? I was fortunate to witness one where not only was the dialogue healthy but which resulted in some outstanding work in both contemporary and traditional theatre.”

Hariharan, the thoroughbred mizhavu (a big copper drum played as a percussion instrument) player for whom tradition is sacrosanct, begins to rediscover its meanings and layers at the end of Ganapati (2000) with Veenapani Chawla. He admits that while working on this production she “impacted him a great deal and helped him to explore his own form quite fundamentally”.

The centrepiece of the book is the postcolonial scholar Leela Gandhi’s interview with Veenapani Chawla. As one of the pioneers of experimental theatre in contemporary India, Leela Gandhi takes you through the journey of this artist who has painstakingly evolved a theatrical practice that fuses traditional and modern aspects with a knowledge and understanding that is in depth. In the stunningly presented interview, the reader is introduced to the various people Veenapani Chawla came in touch with during the course of her journey and who formed a major force in shaping her unique performance methodology. She understands each of these influences and forces in the Aurobindo way—“learning through the body, and not just with the brain”.

So, Veenapani Chawla concludes Oedipus was not a tragedy, that it was a “spiritual opportunity that was available in his crisis”. With clarity, she analyses that the “solution is never in running away, discarding, avoiding, circumventing or being ascetic. It lies in coming to grips, confronting fearlessly, looking for the truth in the situation and allowing it to be transmuted into a positive. …The divine has to be found in all of life and through its smallest details.” Leela Gandhi, through her intense conversation, maps out the philosophical and artistic paths that Veenapani Chawla has walked. Arriving at the thrust of her working methodology, Leela Gandhi avers that “the outward perfection of craft proceeds from a seemingly obscure work on the self”. As an extension of this observation and in a manner of summing up her idea of theatre, Veenapani Chawla says: “I personally believe that the processes of artistic creation are the result of alternative ways of knowing, and one has to guard and nurture this way of knowing as much as one does the conventional ones.”

The book has the entire scripts of all the plays of Veenapani Chawla, and this, in a way, is of great use to theatre practitioners, because juxtaposing her views as against their realisation in her plays is to see her thoughts coming to life. For instance, in an essay on “Space and the Actor”, she propounds her notions on space and how it works in her own productions. She describes how during the first phase of her work in theatre the literary text formed her notion of theatre performance, but in the later phase anything could encompass the notion of theatre with primacy given to the performer with his body imaging concepts and ideas.

In fact, in the play Brhannala (1998), Drona, through the space of his body, expresses the temporal processes of knowing, as against the spatial ways of knowing. With minimal use of the “spoken word”, Veenapani Chawla seeks to establish contact with one’s inner realms, hoping that the performance will acquire the power of the “psychic”. This, she says, is beyond the perfection of “form and craft”, almost a magical/ transcendental experience for the performer, which trickles down to the audience.

The book unfolds interestingly, but it has failed to include the voices that are critical of Veenapani Chawla’s mode of theatre. Inclusion of dissenting voices would have made the study richer. The editor admits to this lacuna. She says there were people who rejected Veenapani Chawla’s theatre on ideological grounds, some because of the absence of linear narratives and some because they firmly believed that theatre must tackle contemporary issues. But no writer was forthcoming to state these views, she says.

Veenapani Chawla’s journey is stunning. She pursues it with the meditativeness of a saint and an austere musician. She enters all the zones of theatre with the intensity of a seeker, stripping the superfluities of everything that she touches in this search, and negotiating it with the sharpness of truth. She is undoubtedly the pioneer of modern theatre in India.

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