The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind.
– Marina Abramovic, Serbian conceptual and performance artist, philanthropist, writer & filmmaker
In 2020, during peak pandemic, a Singapore Times poll classified artists among the top non-essential jobs. Ironic, most of us relied heavily on the arts, especially performing arts to cope with the lockdowns. From Netflix or television shows, to listening endlessly to Spotify playlists, or taking up that instrument or paintbrush again – performing arts added rhythm to our routines, lent harmony to the humdrum.
Throughout history, performing arts have been an integral part of society – religious rituals painted on cave walls hint at the role of music and dance in pre-historic lives, Greek hieroglyphs depicted the drama that ensued in the continuity of life, the Vedas mention the ‘tandav’ – a dance that gave birth to the cosmos.
World over, performing arts have drawn inspiration from traditions to represent human creativity. They are testimony to our cultural heritage. Since ancient times, the performing arts have diversified greatly – oral histories, songs, instruments that harness wind, string, metal, or other material, dance and movements, spoken or silent renditions, street and stage shows, solo or group performances.
Yet like all cultural artefacts, performing arts are often reluctant to change or transition. What’s worse, many of them have carried forward traditions that are outdated and oppressive in this day and age – race, ethnicity, gender disparity, class, caste, religion, misogyny, patriarchy, among others. After all if art is an expression of society, it will reflect the social constructs and stereotypes that define us.
Which brings us back to the question, what is the function of an artist, in disturbed times or otherwise? Is there meaning behind the graffitied walls, a rebellion brewing in underground music, a sombre chord struck by cartoonists depicting environmental depravity, or an unrest festering beneath political dramas? Can art born and shaped by an unjust, skewed world, transcend cultural boundaries, social constructs and traditions, and redefine society? Can art allow us, as a species, to be more resilient and resourceful? We believe it can.
Art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics
-Victor Pinchuk, Ukrainian businessman and oligarch
30th December, 2020 marked the 14th death anniversary of dancer-choreographer, Chandralekha Patel. In 1984, at the East-West Dance encounter, Chandralekha penned her thoughts on ‘the internal relation between the dance and the dancer and the external relation between dance and society are questions that cannot be taken lightly’. Her essay has been reproduced by The Wire here, and raises questions on the traditions, creativity, and modernity that can shape dance as a discipline.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring artists or performing art practitioners who are defying the norm, to revive and redefine classical forms, or adding a new twist to more contemporary ones. Here’s to #BreakingBarriers with performing arts! Skim through our social media feeds on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter for inspiration.
Theatre has also been used to stage protests or voice dissent: from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy umbrella protests, to the secret, underground Belarus shows, or the Bread and Puppet street theatre in New York.
In the words of Girish Karnad written as a message for the 2002 World Theatre Day, “the world has never before had as much drama as today. Radio, films, television and video inundate us with drama. But while these forms can engage or enrage the audience, in none of them can the viewer’s response alter the artistic event itself. The Myth of the First Performance (note: the first chapter of the Natyashastra details the first drama depicting the conflict between gods and demons) points out that in theatre, the playwright, the performers and the audience form a continuum, but one which will always be unstable and therefore potentially explosive. That is why theatre is signing its own death warrant when it tries to play too safe. On the other hand, that is also the reason why, although its future often seems bleak, theatre will continue to live and to provoke.”
Not all theatre however, is aimed at political upheaval – but can theatre play other roles at a grassroot level in society? Can theatre enable communities to bond, identify local issues, challenge cultural stereotypes, and equip audiences with the socio-emotional courage to face reality?
What do tea cups, salt shakers, Dame Judi Dench, and bits of PVC tubes all have in common? They have all played prominent roles in critically acclaimed and thought-provoking theatre around the world.
Material has always been part of the general world of theatrical performance, serving as props, sets, costumes, make up, lights and sound. Everything we see when we watch a play which isn’t a human body is technically “material” of course. Yet, when we speak of “Material Theatre”, we’re talking about instances in which material is used in such a way that it steps out of these usual submissive roles, discontented with always playing second fiddle to the performers. Material – everything from found scraps, bundles of fabric, windows and walls of a site or a venue, to common household objects, beloved childhood toys, and recycled trash – stepping into the spotlight to speak for themselves. The texture, age, size and shape all become important tools in telling stories.
To crumble down, to shrivel away, to burst at the seams with joy, to have one’s bubble burst, to iron out the wrinkles in a new system, to whisper; for even the walls have ears – our language already allows for the personification of things. Material theatre plays with this natural tendency to create a drama that hits all the senses.
What ‘things’ mean to us
To understand the potential of using materials, we begin by dissecting the role of things in our lives. While material theatre as a term has only been around for a few decades, objects and materials have been telling stories to us for as far back as history records go. Ancient Greek society had the tale of Pandora’s Box of death and sickness, and hope at the very bottom, and Christian folklore spoke of the passing of Christ’s last used chalice or the Holy Grail.
The society of the 2000s is a veritable era of “things” – iconic mobile phones that inspire overnight queues, a travelling way of life based on waterproof cameras, toilet seats in the shape of our favourite celebrities, 3D printed prosthetics, ethically grown coffee, blow up dolls – these outlandish objects are now found in most Amazon delivery packages in cities and small towns alike. We see, touch and feel more materials than ever before.
You may know of friends who will apologize to tables and chairs that they bump into (or you do it yourself!). I noticed recently that I treat older bits of crockery in my kitchen, armless coffee pots, coasters stolen from fond world travels, with some greater form of reverence than the newer, trendier lot could ever garner. We naturally assign ghosts of life to the non-living realm of physical, tangible things, through the basic human need to imagine. And we start young.
“Children don’t have to ‘make-believe’. When they hold a piece of cardboard to mime a telephone, it is easy for them to make it real, to imagine the shape of the receiver, the wires coming out of it, plugged into a box on a wall somewhere” says Shaili Sathyu, founder of Gillo Repertory Theatre, a troupe that begins the rehearsal process of each play by having observing play sessions of children of the age group of the intended audience.
For their production “The Mountain Who Loved a Bird”, they decided to use a bundle of newspapers laid over a four foot ladder as the cold, harsh mountain and a ball of wool attached to fish wire as the soft and gentle bird. “We try to work with the core quality of the object. We need to leave space for the children’s imagination to fill.” Observing the children create worlds with objects and toys during their play time continues to serve as a source of inspiration for Shaili’s choice of material.
How can dead objects speak?
So how do we go about bringing a materiality into our theatre? “There is no one way to do it that I can recommend besides exploration. When we see a new object we begin by inspecting it, wondering what it could be, how it could be useful. We can begin to explore familiar objects in this way, as though we knew nothing about them.” says Dhanendra Kavde of Swangvale theatre, who is currently working on Jal Nal, an upcoming solo performance for kids that concerns itself with the dynamics and politics of water. On asked if the rehearsal process is very different from those where he has worked with co-actors, he says “The approach to creating the work is not very different from any other production. The material is my co-actors in this case. It is more stubborn, more independent minded. It reacts the way it does. You cannot expect a cupful of water to behave in the same way as it did in rehearsal. It forces one to be more alert than usual.” In the future, he hopes to work with each of the remaining four of five natural elements as well.
While his approach concerns itself with a sense of political and ecological responsibility, many other possibilities of engagement have developed new sub-genres over the years.
The categories of Object theatre, Puppetry, Shadow Play, Immersive and Site-sensitive theatre, stand as proof of material’s multifarious possibilities. While folk and traditional forms of puppetry such as Bunraku of Japan, South East Asian Wayang, Kathputli of Rajasthan, Vietnamese Water Puppetry and Togalu Gombeyaata of Karnataka, have been around for centuries, works by contemporary companies like Complicité’s A Dog’s Heart and Handspring Puppet Company’s Warhorse have given puppet on stage a hip revival. Closer home, Anurupa Roy has been reviving the style for modern theatregoers and as a teacher to young theatre-makers with her Katkatha Theatre Trust since the late 90s.
In India, material theatre is still somewhat underrepresented in the usual festival and proscenium circuit, but individuals and companies all over the country are bringing new attempts to the public. Material is always speaking to us and many theatre-makers are listening rather keenly.
“In the puppetry circles, one could hear murmurs of Object theatre eight years ago” Choiti Ghosh remembers. In 2010, after some years of working on stage already under her belt, she attended a short intensive workshop on object theatre by the Institut International de la Marionnette, and a year later founded the Tram Theatre Trust, dedicating to making engaging work with everyday objects. “In this form, the nuts-&-bolts-reality of the object lives side by side with the ideational,” she adds. “Working with objects or materials or puppets as co-actors requires a de-centring of the human performer which I enjoy very much.”
Most theatre-makers agreed that material is chosen not based on any criteria, but only through humble discoveries on the floor. Studying different things, structures, shapes, texture to find their natural movement, to follow their organic directions, may lead to spectacular images and ideas. Forcing character and meaning onto the use of materials is not likely to bring forth any real drama.
One Man’s Treasure
As they poke at multiple senses and liberate the imagination from the confines of realism, objects, puppets, grounds of action, and all other forms of material interventions into the stage bring something special to the audience’s relationship with what they are witness to. Choiti adds “The reality of the object is inherent in the physical presence of the object – a lock is always a lock. Sometimes a performance may leave the suggestion wide enough to allow each member of the audience to endow their associations and meanings on to object. You can laugh or cry depending on whether the lock finds its key or is forever broken beyond repair. And the intensity with which you resound to the lock’s situation may depend directly on how deeply you have felt a connection, how successful the play has been in this evocation.”
A material does not speak the language of body and mind that actors and audiences share in common, it is something of the other-world. The spectator meets the world of materials through the threads of memory and experience, while partially obscured from this world which is not quite theirs. In this meeting, material succeeds in using its untransformed power, combined with the choreography of voices, bodies, and movement through space, to evoke nuanced, poetic, and non-literal dimensions of the work.
Written by Saudamini Kalra
DSM Alumnus 2013-14
Co-Founder Meat Puppet Company
L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq
Loved and respected by theatre-makers across the country and abroad, the indefatigable Maya Krishna Rao continues to be an inspiration for the next generation of artists. Although we know of her as a powerhouse performer, Maya has juggled many hats over the years, including that of teacher, educator and mentor. Having premiered her latest show in Delhi she talks to Nimi Ravindran about life, work, politics and her new show, intriguingly titled: Loose Woman
N: Solo performers often refer to being lonely on stage, having been a solo performer for decades, is that something you identify with?
M: Only in a sense, because honestly, you are hardly ever alone during the making of a work. Except very early on in my case during Khol Do, when I was absolutely alone. I have had collaborators that I have worked very closely with over the years. I have worked with musicians and filmmakers and in the studio I’m always responding to the sound and the images created by them, so I’m never alone. It’s a shared relationship and shared process, we understand and even pre-empt each other, so you’re doubly not alone while creating. But, there is loneliness of another kind, of decision-making, of being responsible for your text and for the shape of the show. Over the years I’ve started anticipating things, so in that sense you get used to it after a while, but yes, decision-making is a very lonely process for a solo performer.
At one point I went and lay down on the lap of a boy and told him that when all of this is over we still have to come to each other.
N: It’s impossible to discuss your work without talking about comedy, everything you do is laced with humour, how important do you consider humour in your work?
M: Very important. I believe that comedy can heighten our response to things like nothing else can. I remember in 2002, after the riots in Gujarat, I was invited to perform at a book-launch. How do I make comedy at this time? – that was the niggling thought in my mind. How do you open a different door, how do you approach a difficult subject? I truly believe you can only do this with comedy, to be able to think and reflect. I created a performance where I was the homely wife of a professional communalist, a person who instigates and takes advantage of the riot situation. The same man is a different creature at home, he’s a person who can’t function without his wife. It is a very simple and domestic set up, and yes, it was funny. After the show I talked to the audience, and all of them told me how hard-hitting it was, simply because it was funny. I prefer this to making something that is grim and serious. But you have to remember that comedy is a double edged sword, it is all about the point of view and of perspective. You are not laughing at the thing itself.
N: So, how does one deal with the blatant misogyny, with the offensive, racist and sexist jokes in the name of stand-up comedy?
M: Honestly, I haven’t watched enough. But there’s good comedy and there’s bad comedy. For instance, I don’t think there’s anything that you can’t laugh at, nothing is so sacred that you can’t make fun of it, but, it is, like I said, not about laughing at the thing itself. For instance I have never made a comedy around rape, but it is something I think about. It’s not about trivialising rape or the victim – that would be god awful! What interests me is, how do I challenge this, how do I open a new door. How do I get into this man’s mind, how do I bring out another aspect to this horror? Because it’s also about our socio-political realities. And, everything about people interests me, how did we get here, who are these so-called rapists, and what’s going on in their minds? But, I repeat, there is good comedy and there is bad comedy.
Walk came from a very personal space, a quiet, reflective space that could be shared on any stage.
N: All your works, at least the ones I’ve seen, have a clear political stand, but Walk which you created as a protest performance after the Delhi rape case saw you plunge into what some might refer to as political activism, do you agree?
M: Not really. My work has always been political, all work I think is. But, suddenly after I started performing Walk everyone went, “Maya is only doing political work”. It has always been political, not for the audience maybe because it was not protest performance. In that sense Walk was created for the protest stage, but surprisingly Walk came from a very personal space, a quiet, reflective space that could be shared on any stage. It was almost new year, and yet it was a time of great sadness and deep loss because Jyoti had left us. I wanted to create something that would dip into each person’s heart and mind. Something that could respond to this hugeness, this scale of tragedy. Where does one go with this?
I haven’t faced harassment in decades, but it is not about me, it’s about all of us. I could see all these young people who probably had never been on the streets before, marching from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. They didn’t have to say anything, just the act of walking was so powerful. I wanted to be a part of it, not in front, and not by shouting slogans, I wanted to walk with them, at the back, quietly. I felt that, if only I could walk freely in all the spaces in my city would I be a full and complete person. So that was the origin of Walk. It was not about raising your fist and shouting slogans. It was about taking one step at a time. And, that was how I started performing walk, it came from the need to respond, but in a quiet and reflective way. N: Has Walk changed you as a performer, and/or as a person?
M: For the last seven years I have only been performing Walk, from places like Jantar Mantar and JNU to small and even smaller gatherings. With Walk you get very little notice, so it’s largely improvised according to the situation and the audience because I usually get only 2-3 days notice before a show, and I decided not to say no to any invitation. The one at JNU for instance happened spontaneously, I was there on some work when I was called to say something, I don’t like speeches so I just went in there and started with one word, “Walk” and I said to myself, “one step at a time.” The whole performance was improvised on the spot.
I saw a girl frantically looking at her phone, I asked her what was going on… and she told me that Kanhaiya Kumar had just been produced in court. That moment transcends performance, immediately I became a messenger I announced to the crowd that Kanhaiya had been produced in court. At one point I went and lay down on the lap of a boy and told him that when all of this is over we still have to come to each other.
Another time I was in a room with just nine women. I knew I would perform, as did the host, but not the guests. At some point when the conversation was just right, I stood up, played the music and started performing. Walk has taught me to slip in and out of performance and real life because of the stage it occupies. The framework is set but we are always re-looking the context and the audience. It has been performed all over and for many, many different gatherings.
N: You just premiered your latest production, fascinatingly titled, Loose Woman. Could you tell us what it was like getting back into performance mode after a long break?
M: It’s been seven years since I created a new piece of work. And, seven years is a very long time. It has been a break from oneself, so you are actually a stranger to yourself. I am a changed person, I am not the person I was seven years ago, my body has changed, my mind has changed. And, yet when you get down to creating a “theatre production”… I mean there is a whole new learning curve. I was worried because in my younger days I just went with my gut, you allowed your gut to lead you. With age the body is not what it was, and I’ve been in a teaching position, so I’ve been sitting and standing not necessarily moving. And, my concentration! My mind keeps interfering all the time, it gives me thoughts that I have to shut down.
A lot has changed in the last seven years, even the kind of work that’s being created, the creative process for creators, all of it. So when I started working in the studio with a musician, it was all very challenging. As to how the show came about, I had decided recently that I would revisit all my older works and start performing them again. I started with Khol Do and did a few performances. I then went on the floor with Deeper Fried Jam, and while improvising with a musician, we came up with the phrase “Loose Woman”. It was fascinating, we continued improvising on the term woman and looseness and strung together a series of episodes. Everything about the show is loose, we stretched and pulled to see how we could expand on this looseness. We are not drifting, this is the effort and the process, there is a sense of playfulness, but at the same time, we look at everything around us. Our music ranges from blues to rock and we are constantly shifting and changing things, it is continuously getting stretched and pulled. The performance is personal, but also political, at the end she ends up holding Gandhiji’s hand. N: My last question is twofold: Firstly, what is the politics of solo performance (if there is such a thing) and secondly the last few years have seen a spurt of young women solo performers have you seen their work and what are your thoughts?
M: I’ll answer the second first, the only person whose work I’m familiar with is Jyoti Dogra, I have also seen and spoken with Yuki, I look forward to seeing the others sometime soon. I would really love that.
Coming back to the politics of solo performance, I’ve been wracking my brain about this. In life you are never alone, none of us are Robinson Crusoe; we depend on each other for food and sustenance -for our emotional and physical well-being. But when you stand alone on stage, as a solo performer you have to build your world, and shape your show. Even if there are two people on stage who never talk to each other or see each other the equation changes, it’s not the same as a solo performer. It is different from being alone on stage because it takes the bodily relationship out. Things, events, places – that solo body has to create it all, and represent itself not as a person. It forces you to look at yourself again and again. Remember Franka Rame’s Woman Alone? We might have broken out of realism, but realism has its politics.
The other thing about being alone is the freedom of choice. But, it’s like a fundamental right, with freedom comes huge responsibility and here is a woman who creates her own text and takes authorship and responsibility for this performance. And, there is no getting away from yourself. I think that’s quite powerful.
Maya Krishna Rao is an Indian theatre artist, stand-up comedian and social activist. She is a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2010).
The recordings of some of Rao’s works, including Walk, can be viewed on YouTube.
Nimi Ravindran is a writer/ theatre director and the co-founder of Sandbox Collective, a Bangalore-based arts collective.
He shares a love-hate relationship with Mumbai, the city which is at the heart of most of his plays. She has been lighting, directing, and conducting workshops all across Mumbai. The two collaborated for Ambu and Rajalakshmi, officially. But unknown to Ramu, she has lit most of his play-productions for the past few years. Gurleen Judge and Ramu Ramanathan kick-start the Conversations@theDSM series, a celebration of the guru-shishya tradition in theatre, at Purandare Hall in Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh. More
Conversations@theDSM has brought theatre veterans and raw talent together to discuss myriad nuances of drama and theatre. Last week, actor Shernaz Patel came to DSM to speak on theatre and share her experiences.
Shernaz was interviewed by Manjiri Pupala, a talented actress and an award-winning documentary film-maker. With a gathering of 50 people, Shernaz was able to mesmerise the audience by narrating tales from her early theatre days. More
The Drama School Mumbai has arranged yet another Foundation Skills in Acting workshop in November. Conducted by dancer-actor Sanjukta Wagh, ‘Exploration with Body, Sound and Space’ will focus on learning to imbibe elements of sound and movement to enhance performance. The workshop will use learning processes developed by Sanjukta which comprise of various methodologies – classical and contemporary dance techniques, Hindustani classical music, Voice-Movement therapy, Yoga, and improvisation within the movement. At the end of the workshop, participants will have an insight on using the body, space and sound in performance and understanding the basic elements of improvisation with sound and movement for performance. Workshop takeaways:
Exploration of movement and its basic components
Understanding the use of the body and voice as a tool in performance
Develop and build presence in performance, working with focus and clear intent
Understanding the mechanics of sound and rhythm in performance, and learning to embody text (with a focus on poetry)
About Sanjukta Wagh: Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, London | Co-founder, Beej Sanjukta Wagh is the co-founder of an interdisciplinary initiative called Beej, which is engaged in exploring the creative process and improvisation, alternative methods of classical dance, pedagogy, and collaborative performance, since the year 2005. Sanjukta has trained extensively under Rajashree Shirke in Kathak and Pandit Murli Manohar Shukla in Hindustani music. Her engagement with theatre was honed by playwright-director Chetan Datar, Navarasa Sadhana training with G Venu, a year-long experience at the Trinity Laban School of Dance, London, her love of literature, and a deep unease with comfort zones. Encompassing all these have led to her interdisciplinary and exploratory mode of work. Sanjukta has been a curator for dance at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in the year 2009, 2012, and 2013. She has been honoured with several awards and scholarships including the Vinod Doshi Award for Significant Work in Performing Arts, Sur Singar Samsad’s Singar Mani, British Council’s Charles Wallace scholarship among others.
Details: Date: 20th to 24th November | Time: 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm Venue: Fifth Floor, Purandare Hall, Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh, Girgaon, Charni Road East, Mumbai. To Apply: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org Call/WhatsApp us: +91 9619336336 Visit: www.thedramaschoolmumbai.in
Every theatrewala has a burning desire to perform onstage, but what one encounters before being onstage is the world of the inglorious backstage.
Backstagewala Koni is a narrative that gives inner shades from the life of a struggling actor who wants that one desperate chance to prove himself and satisfy his longing passion. He tries hard, struggling to enter a theatre group, to get even a single entry on the elusive stage. The performance humorously represents the variety in the life of a theatre actor, its audience, and critics, who come together to develop a full set of drama.
The play also deliberately points out the various different perspectives and ideologies of people who pursue theatre and arts. Backstagewala Koni is a story of a young actor and his overwhelming journey working backstage. But is he successful and satisfied at the end of it all? Production House
Awishkar Written and directed by
Yugandhar Deshpande Cast
Umesh Jagtap/ Suhas Sirsat
Kiran Pavaskar Duration: 50 mins Language: Marathi Date and time: 28th October, 7 PM Venue: 5th Floor, The Drama School Mumbai, Girgaon, Mumbai – 400 004 Tickets: Rs. 200/-
Book tickets here.
After a small break in September, Conversations@theDSM is back in October!
This month we have veteran theatre actor and co-founder of RAGE Productions, Shernaz Patel, who will be interviewed. Shernaz has an immense experience in acting, not only in theatre, but also in films and TV. A multi-talented thespian, Shernaz was born and brought up in a theatre family as her parents, Ruby and Burjor Patel, have been two of the most prominent figures in Gujarati theatre.
Shernaz Patel will be taking us through her life, her idea of theatre, RAGE, and also give an insight about how growing up in a theatre family helped her as a person and a thespian. More
The DSM’s Weekend Acting Programme is back!
This time we have actor, director, producer, and Artistic Director of the Actors’ Cult Theatre Company, Maneesh Verma, conducting this acting workshop over three consecutive weekends. The details of the workshop are as follows: More
If we cannot handle the economics of theatre then what remains of it is a hobby, albeit a very expensive one. So maybe we don’t need theatre anymore and maybe somewhere we are all responsible for its slow death.
Mohit Takalkar has an ability that very few people seem to have- he can move people, to an extent that may even infuriate them. It’s hard to tell when and where it began, but one can see its trace present in his work. There is a little bit of him in each of them, his moods, his life, his loneliness, his growth and somewhere his genius in being able to channel it all through fragments and texts. If you were to ask Mohit, he’d probably describe himself as a medium between the writer, the text and the actor, not denying his presence but somewhere not acknowledging it enough. If you spend enough time with him, then you could probably see how his art consumes him.