Tag Archives: adishakti

The Venus Flytrap: A Tribute To Veenapani Chawla

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One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”

As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight”, she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.

VP died on November 30th 2014, at 67 years old. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus. “There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti – certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was extraordinarily powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.

The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only twenty minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, my bones, those pepper vines, that soil.

I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied performance under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her – an offer she made me each time I saw her going for her laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible – both in its transmission and its nature. Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30 only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz – the answers to all of these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.

How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Slow Surfacing

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The truth is, I have been back in Chennai, back from the Sangam House residency, for over a week. And it’s staggering to realise just how short the experience actually was, in perspective. Suffice to say that I still have the red soil of Adishakti tinting my slippers. I have never in my life been to a place that lived up to its name more than Adishakti* does.

* primordial energy

The Venus Flytrap: A Time For Inventory-ing

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On the fringe of Auroville is a village named Edayanchavadi, and 3 km of unlit forest roads from there is a property owned and inhabited by a small, acclaimed repertory theatre company.

At night and at dawn, the sounds of prayers from temples in the vicinity can be heard, blared from microphones. By day, if the actors aren’t touring, drumming and voices emerge from their theatre. This is supposed to be a quiet place, and it both is and isn’t. Sometimes it’s eerie, and sometimes it’s all about the earphones. I’ve been thinking about these and other co-existences since the middle of December, when I arrived here.

There are cows, and owls – the former provide for the dairy needs of residents and guests. At any given time, I’m scratching an insect bite and worrying about bigger ones from the erratic resident dogs. Still, I stay within a Laurie Baker-style guesthouse with an inner courtyard and an inspiring rooftop. In the wilderness, I’m in more comfort than at home, where I neither have my own bathroom nor someone to clean it.

I’ll live here for a month. As the recipient of Sangam House’s Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship for 2008-2009, I’ll, ostensibly, write. But coming at the end of a very significant year for me, this residency feels much more like a time for inventory-ing than for story-ing. I dislike that my emotional excavation coincides with all the stock-taking and list-making that this season brings, because I’ve never bought into the optimism many enjoy at the ends of years.

There are other co-existences here, some of them more resentful ones. The community of Auroville, already noted as a kind of fancy ghetto, is one. There’s a sense of entitlement here that is strikingly distasteful, given the fact that it’s supposed to be a utopia of enlightened humanity. One resident I met said that having grown up in India, her children no longer like “normal food”. “You mean French food,” I pointed out, but I don’t think she got it. She went on to protest that Aurovilleans are given “only” one or five year visas, and that someone had been denied a renewal because he’d built planes, which obviously wasn’t a security threat. (I waited for her to finish before telling her I’d once done monthly border runs in another country, and found our government fairly generous in comparison).

As the only Tamil-speaker associated with the residency at the moment, I play translator, mediator and general diplomat between the housekeepers and the non-speakers. They co-exist somehow. Chatting with the workers, I’m aware of an irony: I’ve had to decline a film offer to play a character not unlike them because I cannot shift gears into a new project so quickly. More co-existence: between my ambition and the acknowledgement that things happen in their own time. It’s like opportunity knocked, but I have to talk to it from behind the door because I’m not dressed to meet it yet.

But I am waiting for what is for me the most important co-existence for now: the confluence of space and stimulus. Some of the writers have set targets for what they intend to produce here. I have come with the simplest, most painful, of goals: to mourn. I must find a way to have my life co-exist with my grandmother’s death. In a little while, there will be a little writing. In the meantime, I’ll simply watch. There’s more here than meets the eye, as I’ll tell you soon…

This is what I wish for you, from somewhere near Edayanchavadi, for the coming year: may your lights and darknesses co-exist in the perfect chiaroscuro. It’s also my wish for myself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.