Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An extravagant non-functional energy

Living Tradition. An interview with Veenapani Chawla
From time to time we make it a point to meet someone who, though not an ex-student, is part of the larger Aurobindonian family and has done significant work in his or her field. "Our Guest" this time is Veenapani Chawla, a renowned theatre personality who has researched traditional Indian performance arts and used them in her plays, which include A Greater Dawn(Savitri)(1992), Impressions of Bhima (1994), Khandava Prastha (1998), Brhannala (1998) and Ganapati (2000). She is known as someone who has always experimented, as someone who extends the boundaries and possibilities of theatre to the maximum. We met her at Adishakti, the theatre space and research centre she has created not far from Pondicherry.
A visit to Adishakti is in itself a revelation. The compound looks almost like a farm — there are many trees (those that help replenish ground-water were specifically chosen), there is a vegetable and flower patch, there are a couple of cows standing peacefully — and that is because the land itself helps sustain the members of Adishakti. The four or five buildings which are spread around the campus are strikingly beautiful and remind one vaguely of Kerala. Natural and traditional building materials have been used as far as possible: blocks of laterite or fossilized mud from Kerala for the walls of the theatre, finely finished varnished mud walls for the guest house, coconut shells in the ceiling of Veenapani’s home. Everywhere one sees the intelligent use of appropriate traditional technologies to create something contemporary, elegant and practical. After having gone around the Adishakti campus we settle down to have a chat...
THE SPIRIT AND PURPOSE OF THEATRE MAY 2005 The Golden Chain What are the failings of the conventional realistic form of theatre? Why the urge to experiment and create a different language?
The realistic or representational form of theatre comes to us from the West. It is not our convention. I don’t want to reject it as such, but it loses ground in the age of cinema. In fact theatre is losing its validity today because cinema can do everything that representational theatre does and much better.
Theatre therefore has to reinvent itself and reinforce its validity. It can do that because it has an edge over cinema. While cinema can accommodate every other reality, it lacks the reality of the actor. On the other hand Presence is the only reality in theatre. Theatre’s forte therefore, its inimitable strength, is the live, sensorial presence of the performer, which elevates the audience through a contagion of consciousness/energy. And it is around this strength that theatre must try to re-invent itself. It must try to evolve a performance language, which enhances this presence. This will ensure its continuing validity in the times of cinema.
Hence any performance language that we try to develop must be one which enhances the performer’s energy and consciousness to the largest degree. The performance language perforce will have to be one which does not use the language of daily behaviour, but one which employs an extravagant non-functional energy. There is in our tradition the distinction between natya and lok dharmi; the behaviour of performance and the behaviour of daily life. Natya dharmi uses non-functional energy [as you see in all our dance and performance forms], lok dharmi uses functional and therefore little energy.
The problem with daily, functional behaviour is that the use of the body occurs without reflection or choice. It is stereotyped and executed unconsciously. The more our actions are carried out spontaneously, without the least difficulty, the more can attention be directed to something else. But this spontaneity is a conditioned reflex and it does not encourage the performer to be present in every detail of her action when in performance.
If however one wants to free oneself from reflexive response, which is what natya dharmi demands, one must fight against the spontaneous and the natural in the body. One must initiate a process, which undermines automatisms, by using the body in a different way: by re-learning how to stand, by using a different balance axis, by moving according to rules which deny those of daily behaviour. This will call for a constant awareness in the body. Only by using the body in this non-functional way, is the consciousness in the body stimulated to take on a more active role, thus displacing automatisms.
This is what is demanded from performance behaviour, which aims at enhancing the presence of the performer so as to lead an audience into an elevated experience. I believe that our traditional forms employ these very methods too.

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