Tag Archives: theatre

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.

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.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense Of The Open Mic

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In the late 90’s, the singer Jewel told a reporter that singing in a studio is “like faking an orgasm”. The quote came to mind a couple of months ago during what had been presented to me as a collaborative meeting with a theatre practitioner, who chose to take the opportunity to rip to shreds the work I do as a spoken word artist and organiser.

Let me explain. Spoken word is a performance genre that focuses predominantly but not exclusively on poetry. A related, sometimes interchangeable, term is “live literature”. Performers either read off the page, with a focus on strong vocal delivery, or recite from memory.

Why “spoken word” and not simply “readings”? Because spoken word is a legitimate genre of performance – not everybody is able to read, even their own work, with panache. Those gifted in their delivery, however, are able to have careers with or without the presence of a publishing history. Whereas poetry publishing is a difficult and drawn-out process, performance allows immediate, often intimate, access to an audience. Several professionals I know establish their names through tours, CDs and chapbooks (often self-published). A book, for some, is only icing on the cake.

I knew for a fact that the theatre practitioner I was speaking to had tried to bring poetry to the stage in the past, and planned to in future – only, I couldn’t remember what poetry that had been. I remembered the stage sets, spotlights and the general dramatics of proceedings. But I could not remember a single poem. The poetry itself had been drowned out by the production.

He claimed that his events had crowds of 200, to the dozen average mine have seen in the past six months. Strangely, these crowds seem to have evaporated. Forget my little efforts – where were they during the fortnight-long poetry festival last year that saw attendances of five and six? An audience whose imagination was genuinely captured would continue to be curious and supportive.

Most events I organise follow an open mic format, which allows anybody to read. I like its democratic nature, its value in uncovering hidden talents who may not otherwise have been given the chance to share their writing or their flair for delivery, and its spontaneity. In a city like Chennai, where curiously enough a successful English-centric poetry movement has never taken off, it is also a necessary format: very few people have the confidence or experience to be crowd-drawing professionals.

The bad taste left in my mouth from my exchange with the theatre practitioner was because of his remark that in eschewing rehearsals and encouraging spontaneity, I “disrespect the audience”. His way of doing it would be to select pieces, have selected people rehearse them, and then put on a show.

I’ve been on stage since I was four years old, first as a dancer, then an actor, and finally in the skin I wear the closest: as poet-performer. I’m a professional, just as the theatre practitioner is. Unlike him, however, I am committed to building community. My open mics are intended to seduce potential performers first, and then the audience. I do not believe in the elitism of the stage.

There is one more thing. Remember what Jewel said? I don’t put the Word in the hands and mouths of novices because I don’t see it as sacred. Rather, I do so because I, unequivocally, do. I love to watch it come alive, surprised into bloom, in the unlikeliest people as they tap into that immense power – what in flamenco is known as the duende. And no amount of theory or rehearsal can help you fake that convincingly.

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

P.S. PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING POST ON TEMPORARY COMMENTING SHUTDOWN

A Show of Stupidity

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When I heard that The Vagina Monologues — most famously banned in 2004 when Eve Ensler herself was touring the country — was going to be performed in Chennai last week, I thought (like anyone with vaguely literary or liberal ideas) that it was a good step in the right direction. The much-celebrated play was being brought to the city as part of The Times of India‘s Chennai Festival, and a very excited friend grouped together a bunch of her galpals and planned a night out.

The trouble began with the difficulty in getting passes. The person trying to get hold of them was made to run from pillar to post — and it took two days to finally secure the 8 passes we wanted (among other obstacles was the fact that she was told that only one pass could be given per person; we later heard that they were distributing them indiscriminately because so few had been snapped up).

On the night of the play itself, we got to the auditorium early, and were made to queue up in what was thankfully an orderly fashion for about half an hour.

Then we were ushered into the auditorium, had our passes thoroughly checked, led to our seats, and kept from sitting in the front rows, ostensibly for VIPs.

And then we waited. For about forty minutes.

We had heard rumours while standing in line that the play had been cancelled, but were optimistic. All this tamasha and security checks — what excitement! It was bound to be worth it.

Then, two people (one of whom was, I think, the director) came onstage gagged, did something forgetful, and left. Still, we thought there might be hope yet.

And then a young man came on stage and tried to be funny.

He failed. “What play are you here to watch? Say it louder! Well, ladies and gentleman, that is not the show you are going to see tonight. Do you want to know why? Yes? Because the cow jumped over the moon and miscellaneousbullshitIdidn’tcatch.”

Then, almost as an antithesis to the poor dude who thought he was funny, came the man who thought he was leading a revolution.

Among the various things he said about “your great city” and “this great play” and “certain citizens of Chennai do not want a play about violence against women to be performed”, one phrase stands out. “In the spirit of Gandhian love”.

Seriously.

And then, a man took up the mic and… sang.

We left the auditorium as the second song began, and needless to say, we were furious.

But not at the police, not at the “concerned citizens”, and not because the play was banned. These serious questions of censorship, oppression and the silencing of voices against violence against women were not the ones that were asked.

No, the only people we were really pissed off with that night were the sanctimonious production company and the organizers who purported to have all the crusading courage in the world, but absolutely no respect for their audience. We were told somewhere during the speech that the organizers had known for 24 hours that the play had been cancelled.

Despite this, we had all been made to wait (and wait). Not one apology at the door. Not one poster, not one phone call. Not a single thing that showed even the slightest amount of respect for the audience. I live in the city and don’t have children. But what about the people who left work early, who found babysitters, or who commuted from the suburbs, that night?

Why did the organizers/production company take such pleasure in being rude to the audience?

We live in the times we live in. We are all bound by rules. It is how — and for what purpose — we bend or break them that matters.

I’ve directed and performed in a mini-production of The Vagina Monologues, and even at 17 I had enough common sense to do the obvious — substitute the word “vagina” with valenki (Russian for felt boots), thereby not just making a statement about the ridiculousness of censorship, but also letting the larger message of the play come across in spite of it. The Vagina Monologues evolves every year — from a one-woman show with the intention of reclaiming a taboo word, the play has come to be an ongoing international campaign against violence against women. I am aware that Chennai society may not be ready for the word “vagina”, even if it is essentially a medical term, and am not holier-than-thou enough in my feminism to force this issue. We may not be ready for the word, but this does not mean that we are not ready to listen to issues of violence and sexuality.

Or, the organizers could have had an invitee-only event, without publicity. Or a charity gala, with selected monologues performed. Let’s face it — there are only so many types of people in Chennai who would go to this play. Democratic space and free passes are all very nice in theory — but when holding an English play, that too about violence and sexuality, what difference is that honestly going to make?

I don’t know if the production company tried to do these things or anything else, but if they did, I would much rather have been told exactly how they tried to circumvent the censorship than been subjected to a speech about Gandhian love (call me unpatriotic, but did anyone else think of the Mahatma’s famous experiments at celibacy — i.e. naked women sharing his very chaste bed?)

And even if there was just no way around it, why handle the cancellation so selfishly and foolishly?

Ultimately, was the point actually to hold the play and spread its message, or to enjoy the notoriety?

For once, I found myself on the side that didn’t belong to the “artists and feminists”. The production company had a wonderful shot at really raising some issues here in Chennai, whether through their performance or because of the banning of it. They wasted it entirely with their unprofessionalism and myopic sense of the circumstances. I write this as a journalist — if I had been told at the door or through a courteous phone call earlier in the day that the play had been cancelled, I would have turned on my laptop as soon as I could and dedicated column space in support of them. Instead, they turned even their sympathizers away with what was quite frankly a completely stupid and insincere way of dealing with the cancellation. Boo — and please, let someone else do the encore!

Updated: Apparently, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, the director in question, has some kind of axe to grind against Chennai. See the comments.