I waited anxiously, having just refreshed my distant memories of watching Mahabharata on TV on Sunday mornings as a child and being forced to listen to stories of myth and folklore by my grandmother. I rapidly read through an online abridged Britannica essay on the epics in a last-minute attempt to prevent myself from saying something embarrassing while interviewing Nimmy Raphel who attended our stimulating zoom call from the lush gardens at Adishakti in Puducherry.
This call began a few minutes after my riveting text exchange with V Balakrishnan from Theatre Nisha in Chennai, whose informed lens decimated most of my questions and turned them inside out to help me critically engage with the subject matter at hand – a look into Indian Contemporary Theatre and its use of folk forms and mythologies. He began with questioning terminology such as “folk” which made me look into decolonial theory. The word “folk” suggests that the work is not as well-made, valuable or important (as opposed to the academically validated “classical”) due to hierarchies created, in part by the colonial context. We thus moved to a more appropriate and sensitive term “vernacular” or “continuous living traditions of performance” which is what we will imply throughout the article while we loosely use the words “folk”.
Aside from writing the Hindu Playwright Award-winning play Sordid, which paints a picture of the starkly disturbing truth of water wives through a narrative that shuttles between dialogues and monologues, Bala is the artistic director of Theatre Nisha, a theatre group based in Chennai with over twenty years of performances behind them. His work generally explores ground realities and treads a delicate balance between realism and fiction through historical and fictional characters. His plays such as Sordid, Arundhati and Margazhi, like a lot of his more recent work, present their political dialectics in usual and known spaces: in a remote unnamed village parched for water, in a professional dancer’s dissonance that forces her to confront herself, and in the ruptured bedroom of a newly-wed couple that threatens their imagined futures. These plays do not follow a particular style of writing and offer characters whose behaviours are often mundane, banal, and even predictable; and within that gamut of the known, the flotsam of revulsion and terror emerges. Grappling with universal themes such as infidelity, ambition and power dynamics, his work is infused with elements that are borrowed from a variety of traditional and modern theatrical traditions.
Balakrishnan believes that there is no “one” unified contemporary Indian Theatre (beyond perhaps the chronologically defined post-Independence Indian Theatre). He demystified the categorization of the forms labelled as folk, semi-classical and classical by elucidating, “I guess when ordinary people do extraordinary feats it becomes folk narratives. Folk is definitely attached to its region, and its people, but it may still employ articulation as may be found in codified texts. Classical I believe is textbook, not regional, not ethos-centric but book-centric.”
While Bala claimed to have only trained enough to be akin to “a tourist learning the required phrases in a foreign language”, his views on the use and choice of codified forms stem from a refreshingly fluid yet respectful standpoint with a clear notion of elasticity within the codes and conventions of the forms. “I chose not to define them, but to see what they evoke and inspire when acted upon. The process is one of surrender, allowing the energy to lead you, to make the body seek new shapes and create new spaces. I am not bound by the tenets of the Natyashastra for I am not engaging in that kind of arduous classified performances (full credit to them), I do borrow from everywhere and utilise that which can be honestly embodied,” he states.
For Nimmy, the choice is more visual, as Nimmy and Vinay assimilate, build upon and continue the carefully crafted artistic practice of late Veenapani Chawla as active members of Adishakti’s legacy. Adishakti was created in 1981 in Mumbai but it was in 1993 that the company moved base to Pondicherry and began a journey on its larger mission beyond research. The company, of which Nimmy has been a part since 2001, was no longer preoccupied merely with the development of its own theatrical language and of revitalising contemporary theatre but also with offering something to the traditional artist; its partner in dialogue. Its more recent plays, with Nimmy at the helm, have continued to use myth and traditional form but fused and meaningfully layered with youthful exuberance, inventive production elements and much more that contrast what one’s mind would conjure when thinking of watching a traditional performance form.
Nimmy emphasised the training of the body in any formal performance practice, as it adds to one’s grammar as a performer and creates a body vocabulary for the stage by providing a larger scale and range of movement. In addition, it gives the performer a sense of body culture that makes tangible and expands one’s experience for the stage. Her focus on the use of certain codified forms stems from the malleability they provide. “It doesn’t make sense (to us) to display a form as you learnt it because all that does is present the form on stage and display proficiency. As theatre practitioners, that’s not our focus.”
Adishakti uses the histories and movements of Kalari, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Koodiyattam in a malleable manner to form a visual grammar and inform movements in service of the story they are trying to tell. Mainly, “It enables the body to function as a vehicle for the content the director is trying to explore through an actor’s body. Not one (a body) that only moves in a particular habituated and conditioned manner,” she says. She compared the process to how musical notations form a basis to build upon; different arrangements and variations of these notes make one’s mind move differently and the effect depends entirely on the talents of a performer and composer. While the method of engaging with the form, for Nimmy, is asking how one can go behind the mask, to use the form beyond its codes and conventions to inform the movement, and centres around the functionality of movement as a performer, transforming into and accessing multi-dimensionality.
Both the artists shared their curiosities towards mythologies for their depth, space for interpretation and dealings with universally keep-you-up-at-night themes such as death, time, ethics and morality. Nimmy, who has previously written plays about mythological characters such as Bali and Brihannala, and is currently working on the story of Urmila, went on to elaborate, “I like myth because it becomes my vehicle, I’m only the driver; every time I read it I find something new which engages me. I know there are countless practitioners, academics and scholars, but more engagement will make it sustainable for this cultural environment.” Myth is not different from where we are, it gives a platform as it is, at its core a strong story providing gaps for interpretation. And one’s ability to decode and understand, in addition to the process of reading and re-reading and going beyond a peripheral understanding is paramount. She also cited mythology as a constant source of inspiration. Its poetics and depth assume a lot of dimensions depending on where you are on your personal journey and a keen interest in what could be called “minor” characters and how that classification sidelines the characters’ contributions to the story.
We dove into the process of how to engage with the text of the performance and by extension the mythological story, to which Nimmy called herself a reluctant writer saying that she feels like toothpaste that is almost empty, sparingly squeezing out only the most pertinent of words. As someone with most of her training in performance, she says she functions as a performer, maker and reluctant writer – beginning with thoughts that are decoded into visual imagery, and then translated into paper, after which the words sparingly arise and are then worked onto the actor’s body. Her process takes on what she defines as multiple layers of translation and I could write a whole other piece about her thoughts on “making work as a translation.”
Bala’s answers ricocheted similar beliefs about the text offering enough and more meanings to continue to explore within his practice. “There are no new meanings. Like a great painting, it’s us – the observers and readers of the workers who get enlightened the more time we spend with the work. Forty-five years later, I realised the Mahabharata starts and ends with the story of a dog.” When asked the about the “relevance” of myth in the modern day, he went on to elaborate – “A good story is relevant any day. Stories are not newspapers (or part of a use-and-throw news cycle) to lose their relevance the next day. The Trojan War needs no combat gear to make it “relevant”. Oedipus can be soaked in by any person in the age of Covid-19 without Creon having to go out to find a vaccine.” Deep explorations of text without forcing a perspective are how I’d describe Theatre Nisha’s work. I have had the pleasure of watching Mata Hari: Butterflies who live in the sun must die young where I noticed the most careful and considered back and forth between form and theme.
When asked about adaptations and interpretations concerning mythological tales, Bala, substantiated by his body of work, clearly states, “Adaptations I can live with, they are seductive to be indulged in. Interpretation is sheer arrogance, that I know more than the writer.” He went on to talk about his process of engaging with the text and by extension the mythologies which consist of one part of his practice. “Either I develop the text first and then engage with it, or I engage with it as is and don’t have to develop the text,” he says, “Personal is realistic, myth is heightened, so no personal connections, except the joy of role-playing those conflicts of heightened realism. I go from action to action. The script gives me the map. Actors explore the territory.” His clear and concise thoughts point to deep inquiry in the years of his practice.
Searching For New Meaning Within Myth – A process of inquiry
Adishakti’s most recent work, Bali is a retelling of the various events that lead up to the battle between Bali, the ruler of Kishkindha and Ram, the King of Ayodhya and eventually, the death of Bali. The Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharat – have shaped our country’s politics, arts and culture. Its stories have been retold and its characters reimagined in many ways through various retellings. Each retelling has challenged the traditional narrative by subverting the dominant versions of the text to throw light on various other interpretations. The play weaves multiple stories through the point of views of Bali, Tara, Sugreeva, Angadha, Ram and Ravan and talks about how each of them makes decisions and take actions based on the ethics that define their lives. The use of Therukoothu, a folk form of storytelling native to Tamil Nadu parallelled the central narrative and the fight sequences seemed to be inspired by movements from Kalaripayattu.
“In Bali,” Nimmy shares, “I was preoccupied with a sense of right and wrong, what complex dimensions are ethics, morality and all things grey, made of. I was looking for a tale where I can play with that greyness and it suddenly appeared to me that the episode of Bali’s death offers a platform to explore one incident from multiple perspectives – where the shifts in perspective of the characters stem from their personal standpoints and losses/gains situate them differently around the same incident.”
Engaging With Text and Political Context
When asked about the current theatrical and political context, for engaging with mythologies from the Hindu tradition, Bala ponders, “I search for the current context for theatre as we know it today. Apart from seeking a gathering of the community to endeavour an awakening by appealing to their imaginative prowess, what else identifies its purpose?” Does it make sense to discuss context when its anima has towered over human evolution like a blazing path showing light, he asks back. “The context has been given and withdrawn by us. If one decides to explore or not to explore Hindu mythological narratives because of the political scenario, then that’s silly. One works with these fascinating works of literature, history, anthropology, sociology, mathematics and more because of their magnificence in exploring human nature and interpersonal relationships. All this and more within the requirements of drama. That is conflict.”
Both Balakrishnan and Nimmy agree that mythologies are great sites for excavation – psychically, visually and thematically and that they won’t ever have been explored enough. As with constant engagement and evolution, there is space for changing, meaning-making and discovery – if one chooses to look deep enough or stay with work long enough. So perhaps there isn’t one unified Contemporary Indian Theatre, but it has been interesting to note the similarities and differences across the breath of performance traditions, however codified or loosely defined, traditional or experimental, as they speak to shared histories, similar concerns and the same ubiquitously “Indian” bodied culture, language and knowledge systems.