Friday, January 20, 2006

Not be so bothered about making pretty gestures

The 1st Dec Programme: A conversation with Priti Ghosh ’64 , conducted in mid-November, on the intricacies of staging the 1st December Programme
Can you tell us briefly what is the subject of this year’s programme?
The subject which was suggested to me at the beginning of the year was ‘The Hour of God.’ I started working on it right away. Then, a few months later, I realised that it was getting a bit too intellectual and leading me nowhere. So I recast it in a completely different way. ‘The Hour of God’ is the theme, but the actual script is based on lines taken from Savitri and parts of the ‘The Hour of God’. Now the new script is titled ‘A Light There Is That Leads.’
I tried to find a way of expressing this idea in a simple way. The script is divided into five or six parts. First, we start with the Creation, then we show the Awakening of the Earth. After this there is the Emergence of the Ego, then Release from Ego. Earth is then ready to hear the voice cautioning her that this is the Hour of God. And finally, the Supreme Mother’s coming down to uplift mankind. That, in short, is the theme of the programme.
What will actually happen on the stage?
On stage there will be the performers, and on one side, facing the stage, the chorus, which will recite the lines. In fact we have decided to chant some of the lines rather than recite them in the usual way. And the dance movements will be in a free style, choreographed to Sunil-da’s music.
Right from its inception I had selected Sunil-da’s music for the choreography because it meant that at least one element was already fixed. That way it gave me the freedom to concentrate on the dancers and the recitations. Also, Sunil-da’s music carries an atmosphere which is very very elevating.
The interesting fact about the annual programme is that so much labour goes into the preparation of this one single performance. So many different kinds of skills are woven together before the programme can be presented. Can you tell us something about the details of the preparation of your programme?
When I started working on the script I realised that it was a colossal task. Directing one-act entertainment in the School Courtyard is one thing, and directing a programme on such a vast and abstract theme, and that too in the Theatre, is another – it is just stupendous. So I asked several people to help me, specially for the choreography.
As I told you, the music was already there. Now, for the dances, I wanted them to be choreographed in such a way that there would be no allusions to any of the classical forms. I wanted something different, something very expressive. It is impressive to see how Vimala (Molly), Shraddha, and Datta have put in their best efforts and hard work, and almost spent sleepless nights in trying to find something fresh and different and beautiful. Veenapani (Chawla) and Vinay too have put in a herculean effort to choreograph a scene for boys, which I wanted to be completely different from the others. I cannot leave out Ashok (Acharya) who has been perfectionist in taping the several pieces of music in our programme umpteen times. I have been lucky in the selection of my helpers.
And how did the dancers respond to this different choreography, since no one actually has any base in contemporary modern dance style?
Yes, that has been a problem. Our students are very gifted and graceful but the girls all have a background of either Kathak or Odissi. It is very difficult for them to break away from that mould into which they have been cast for several years. Their body automatically reverts to classical poses. We have actually had to work very hard to get them to express themselves freely and not be so bothered about making pretty gestures, to get into the feel of the text rather than execute a perfect, but flat, movement.
And what about the recitation part?
Here the person who has helped me most is Maurice. He is the perfectionist and relentless in his efforts. The only innovation he has tried is, as I told you, chanting, where Shilpa worked miracles with her suggestions.
As a director, you have an advantage in that you are also an artist. Your strong visual sense must have guided you for the lighting, décor, and the position of actors on the stage.
This is only partially true. Although I can visualise two-dimensionally, visualising for the stage has not been so easy. I have already prepared the colour schemes of the lighting by actually painting the scenes on paper. But visualising the position of the chorus has been complicated. Firstly, there is the technical factor which limits the possibilities of where the chorus can stand. Every time I chose a position for it, Mahi would point out the disadvantage it posed for the mikes. So finally the chorus will stand outside the stage to one side. As for the colours, all the costumes of the dancers are white so that the colours of the light remain very pure.
What has this work meant personally to you?
Thanks to this programme I have realised that so many of my capacities left unoperational had just gone to sleep. I have been concentrating so much on my paintings over the past long years that I have let myself get intellectually mouldy. At one point Maurice asked me to join the chorus, and I realised how difficult it was for me to memorise even a few lines, and yet it used to be so easy not so long ago. This programme has helped me to be conscious of so many other parts in myself.
How did you choose your cast? Did you face any difficulties?
Actually, the cast has changed in the course of the preparation. We had set off with a different conception so we had a different group of people. Then, as we changed our script I realised we needed more people. We have a group of dancers and another group, forming the chorus which will recite the lines. The best thing to have happened is that, apart from the selected few, some students themselves came forward and asked me if they could participate. So, in fact, leaving aside veterans, nearly the entire cast is made up of students. Some of the 3rd year Knowledge students who are passing out this year decided to stay back during the holidays and participate in the programme.
After we had started rehearsing with the final script some performers suddenly dropped out because of personal reasons, so we had to find substitutes. This did cause some difficulties. But we had decided not to get disheartened by them.
We are in a strange situation now. So few students stay back in Pondicherry after finishing their studies that we cannot any more have a group of actors who by participating in a number of performances gain experience and form a ‘talent pool’ from which you can actually choose a cast. Either you can take very young and inexperienced students or you can take ex-students, teachers and other adults who are experienced but not so young. And when they are together on stage the contrast is very striking. So how do you see the future of the annual programmes? How are you going to find the participants?
The 1st December programme is actually supposed to be a programme of the School, and so students ought to participate in it. In my opinion, students should be asked to stay here during the holidays. It should be made compulsory. They can then go out after the 2nd and come back by the 15th. The School holidays were started only so that students could prepare for the 1st and 2nd December programmes. Since most of them go away every year there are some who have never watched a 1st December programme! If one has not participated in these annual programmes then one has really missed something very special in life. They are a unique feature of our Institution. Once the students pass out of the School and leave Pondy they will never get that chance again. These programmes give the students an opportunity to ‘offer’ something creative and artistic, so it would be in their interest if they could take full advantage of this.
Once upon a time people would have considered themselves lucky if they were given the role of even a soldier who did not have any lines to say. But now one has to beg and plead with people to even play the part of the hero or heroine. If they accept they make you feel as if they are doing you a great favour and you have to consider yourself very fortunate if they don’t leave the programme half way through. Why is there this lack of enthusiasm? Why have people forgotten the importance of the 1st December programme?
Not all are indifferent. There are still some who do consider it a privilege to participate. Some of them have confessed to me that when one of their classmates was chosen to participate they did feel a sting of disappointment.
It is true that things are not like before. There seems to be this wave of media culture which has taken everyone in its sweep. For children it starts much before they come to Knowledge, they are so deeply influenced by it. But I know our students also are a part of general humanity and cannot remain ‘untouched’. To be so deeply engrossed in the entertainment media that one cannot perceive the value of anything aesthetic is an alarming signal.
But I believe strongly that this is only a passing phase. The Benevolent Power which is protecting us will see to it that our students once again become aware of the difference between what is refined and what is gross and cheap. People have suggested to me that we explain to the children the importance that Mother gave to the 1st December programme. It is true. It is our responsibility. The present generation is really not informed about the significance of the 1st and 2nd December programmes.
The 1st December programme is always based on something written by Mother or Sri Aurobindo, and yet it is often very difficult to choose the theme or the text. Putting on a play by Sri Aurobindo has become nearly impossible for practical reasons. The actors are simply not available, it is a formidable task to direct a play when you have to develop characters and maintain a continuity. So increasingly directors are turning to abstract themes where only dance and recitation are involved. However this also is not something easy. The text is often lines from Savitri which are so charged with mantric power that they cannot be recited just anyhow. How do you prepare young students to be ready inwardly to express these lines on stage?
Yes, a preparation is necessary. The only way in which this can be done is to start preparing the students and other members of the cast very gently from July or August itself. Perhaps once a week they could familiarise themselves with the text on which they are going to work. They could work on a little at a time so that when they start the regular rehearsals in October they would have been sufficiently in the spirit and the mood of the lines to feel them truly.
During some rehearsals I noticed that some students would complain that they were being made to do preparatory exercises for too long. But they don’t realise that everything counts, even the time that they spend waiting, watching others work. The one hour that they spend working on Sri Aurobindo’s lines is like spending one hour in His presence.
Nowadays a lot of plays are put up during the year so we have quite a large batch of students who get some exposure on stage, but the inner preparation is something we, the directors, have to work upon; perhaps we must help the children to understand the difference between merely ‘acting’ on the stage and ‘offering’.

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