Auroville: Adishakti Theatre Arts
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Adishakti Theatre Arts, an institution of performing arts near Puducherry, is on a campus covered with trees, half of which do not bear flower or fruit. When the group moved here in 1993, the artistes funded their theatre activities by cultivating and selling French bean, cucumber, radish and pumpkin. Three years later, as their art evolved, the performers no longer wanted to look at plants from the perspective of utilitarianism. The practice of taking produce to the market stopped and the fertile land was nurtured to grow a small forest. Mud paths lead to buildings, made of earth and lateritic rock, where artistes live and work. It is in this isolated space that Veenapani Chawla, a pioneering theatre director, created a form of theatre whose sole purpose was not to entertain or inform but to understand the psychic or the “space for luminous creativity” in every person. Adishakti — the name means primal female energy — is celebrating its 40th anniversary from April 5, with a festival, titled “Remembering Veenapani 2022”.
In an interview to Leela Gandhi, a literary and cultural theorist, in 2011, Chawla had said, “We know our superficial personality is made up of a body, mind and emotional/vital being. But, behind this, hidden from us, is what he (the spiritual teacher Sri Aurobindo) calls the subliminal part, which is much vaster but not known by us. Our external personality constantly receives influences, touches and communication from this part but does not know from where these are coming. Hidden behind the subliminal is the psychic, the evolving best part of us. One of the important objectives of our practice is to bring this part into the open, to become conscious of it, to let us direct life.”
Until she died in 2014, aged 67, Chawla was seeking knowledge from multiple sources and exploring the self through theatre. Her iconic productions, such as Impressions of Bhima (1995), Brhannala (1998), Ganapati (2000) and The Hare and The Tortoise (2007), emerged from studying wide-ranging subjects such as ancient Indian philosophy, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem of mathematical logic and the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.
Chawla’s intense legacy attracts new generations of theatre-makers till today. Parshathy J Nath, 31, from Kerala, was a part of Adishakti’s 10-day workshop, “Source of Performance Energy” in 2018, where participants were taught to tap into their bodies, breaths and emotions for the primal source of energy. Now, she is staying on the campus as part of an Inlaks Scholarship to develop a play on Surpanakha, the demon princess from the Ramayana. “The workshop was a very rigorous experience, one I hadn’t found in any other theatre space until then. I wanted to be a part of Adishakti’s experience,” she says.
Chawla was born in Mumbai in 1947, her grandparents having migrated from the part of Punjab that would become Pakistan. She attended Dehradun’s Welham Girls’ school, where she was introduced to theatre by a teacher, and watched Geoffrey Kendall’s touring group Shakespeareana. At Miranda House college, she observed Delhi’s thriving theatre scene and the plays of William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Eugène Ionesco. In an exhaustive study of the thespian, The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla (2014), theatre critic and author Shanta Gokhale writes, “Her first experience of a traditional drama form came during the Total Theatre Festival in Delhi, where she’d seen a Kathakali performance. Her direct experience of the stage was, even now, confined to standing in the wings and prompting or playing ladies-in-waiting.”
Since childhood, Chawla and her parents were regulars at Sri Aurobindo Ashram, sometimes staying up to a month there. The spiritual commune in Auroville was set up in 1926 by philosopher and freedom fighter Sri Aurobindo to reflect his goals of Integral yoga, which is to “manifest a higher consciousness here on earth by transforming human nature and all aspects of human activity”. By her 20s, Chawla knew she wanted to join the commune, but was told it was not her time yet. In a letter to philosopher, poet and linguist Nolini Kant Gupta, the oldest disciple of Sri Aurobindo, she wrote, “I want to develop my mind into a fine instrument. I want to make my emotional being refined and cultivated. I like theatre. Is that the way?” “He underlined that and wrote in the margin, ‘Yes, continue’. And then, he gave me my name Veenapani, as a goal to achieve. It is the name of the goddess Mahasaraswati and stands for the power of perfection in the world and knowledge,” Chawla told Gandhi. Her original name was Veena.
Adishakti was set up in Mumbai in 1981. By then, Chawla had made her mark as a director through children’s plays such as Savitri (1975), based on Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem about the soul’s spiritual destiny, with pupils of Arya Vidya Mandir in Mumbai, where she taught history and literature till 1978. She introduced the young performers to meditation as part of prepping for the play. Chawla was well-known in the cultural circuit of Mumbai and attended the experimental performances emerging in the city but, according to Gokhale, was unmoved by these. “On the contrary, they convinced her that this was not the kind of theatre she wanted to do,” writes Gokhale. Chawla’s first production with adults, Oedipus (1981), starring Naseeruddin Shah, shows that she seemed less interested in the collective messages of society and more on working with the self. In Oedipus, she saw not a tragedy of a king who blinded himself as a punishment for heinous acts, but a seeker shutting out external distractions and developing an inner gaze. What did the Mumbai audience think of the radical interpretation of a classic? Gokhale writes, “Oedipus succeeded beyond Chawla’s and her cast’s wildest imagination. They had expected to do five shows but did 25, each to resounding applause.” Shah returned, as Hamlet, in the next Adishakti performance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1983). Gokhale writes, “Chawla referred to the spirit during rehearsals as a ‘state of controlled anarchy’. The play kept its promise. It sparked with wit and excellent performances.”
The land where Adishakti is located in Auroville was gifted to Chawla by an admirer of her theatre. Symbolically, it is on the outskirts of Tamil Nadu and the Aurobindo Ashram which is its spiritual wellspring. The surrounding villages are rich with subaltern practices and rituals of the Draupadi cult, with temples to the heroine of the Mahabharata, who is not a figure of worship in mainstream India. A short drive from Adishakti is Koovagam village in Villupuram, which hosts an annual 18-day festival of the transgender community. The different forms of artistic practices would provide a rich palette for Adishakti’s later works.
“I first met her at a martial-arts institute where I was training. I saw somebody in their 40s who had the dedication of a person in their 20s. There was an enthusiasm to break free the body from its social conditioning. Later, younger performers like me had no excuse because, however problematic a movement was, she would jump into it,” says Vinay Kumar KJ, the artistic director of Adishakti. The body and its actions, especially breathing, is the crux of Adishakti’s process. Chawla’s interrogation of her body took her to folk performance forms such as Chhau, Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattam.
When he joined Chawla, Vinay realised the extent to which a person’s body is conditioned by social influences and their behaviour constructed by the people around. “Our personal behaviour is not really us, and this can create all kinds of contradictions after adolescence. Unlearning is important and difficult,” he says.
Vinay, 52, is one of the country’s most powerful performers and an integral part of Chawla’s oeuvre. If she was the philosopher, he was the body on stage. Their first collaboration, Impressions of Bhima, had a difficult start. Chawla and Vinay worked for three years to free his body and activate different facets of it. “The training was so rigorous that, even now, I feel Bhima changed my body,” he says.
Had Chawla been directly applying Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy on stage or using traditional moves to talk of present concerns, she’d have created mundane works. She studied to form an opinion and searched within herself and her actor. Impressions of Bhima and other myths that formed the core of her subsequent works was chosen because “with modernity, we assume we have a more fashionable physiological and psychological understanding of the world, but our ethical dilemmas haven’t changed from the mythical stories from ages ago,” says Vinay. Bhima started as an exploration to show two Bhimas, one is strong and the other a child, within the flash of a second. Vinay is on the stage, his knuckles planted on the floor and the light illuminating only his taut back muscles. Then, only his hands loosen and, the moment his head turns, the audience sees a baby face. Bhima is an example of how Chawla and Vinay created the works that followed, such as Brhannala, which traces the concept of ardhanarishwar in terms of gender fluidity — male and female energies in the same body; and Ganapati, inspired by koodiyattam, and how mathematical progressions of a rhythm structure reflects a basic human emotion.
Bali (2018), the first production by Adishakti after Chawla’s death, was directed by Nimmy Raphel, 39, a senior actor of the group. It maintains Chawla’s methodology — a gestation process that goes on for many months, no linear narrative, each actor playing multiple roles and stories meshing into one another. “Our idea is that the actor expresses the bhava and the audience gets the rasa,” says Vinay.
Students of theatre find that, at Adishakti, the core of each production entails working on the breath. “Our ideas of happiness depend on social constructs (jobs, home and money), which cater to four primary impulses: greed, desire, lust, gluttony. We see this when we look at breath philosophically,” he says. The Adishakti way of theatre is complex, it requires confronting one’s strengths and fears. There’s much to learn and unlearn. “In Adishakti, there is no ownership, we are just custodians. We enrich the space and the method and transfer to the next generation of artistes,” says Vinay.