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A stage transcended

Experience a theatre that glows in its essential simplicity, and one which director Veenapani Chawla has built for her culture company, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.


The comic space of the art experience.

INDIAN theatre has produced harvests in many languages. From ancient Sanskrit plays to living folk traditions, each genre has developed its own performance space. All of them have one thing in common. Indoors or out, such space had to be interactive — moving from the inner psychological space of the actor, to the "real" external space, and finally, the cosmic space of the art experience.

The Koothambalam in Kerala exemplifies the sophisticated aesthetics of the past. In distant Manipur the mandap was the permanent space in old family houses for community gatherings during ritual and raas performances. Bengal had its now obsolete nata mandapa. Karnataka's Yakshagana set its high platform in the fields, lit by eerie oil flares, magnifying the actors to heroic, godly proportions.

The Indian rasa theory offers an epigrammatic formula for this rasanubhava: it springs from the blend of the vibhava (characters, situations), anubhava (physical gestures and movements that evoke emotion), and vyabhicari bhava (attendant feelings that nourish the basic emotion). These components have to be transcendent (alaukika), stylised. If they were like real life (laukika) experiences, the viewer's response would become personal. As a corollary, the theatre had to create the right kind of space for the viewer to shed his ego, so that he could become one with what was happening on the stage.

Ambient space plays a major role in inducing sadharanikarana, or that delicate balance between distance and nearness, essential for objectifying emotion. The viewers had to mourn for Abhimanyu as if he were their own child, and yet know that their grief was not personal.

Surely the lack of the right kind of performance space has contributed to lean times in contemporary theatre. Proscenium boxes allow only a flat, frontal view. A "Ghashiram Kotwal" or a "Jasma Odan" had to struggle to overcome such limitations. No wonder playwright Badal Sircar created "anganmanch" in the 1970s, his own kind of space for a theatre that demanded direct participation from the viewer. But it was no permanent structure. A school hall had to be converted to suit his purpose.

With easier options in cinema and television, why would anyone choose a play if it did not promise something more, different, unique, something that can be had only with live actors in "true space", as against illusory space on the screen?


Theatre director Veenapani Chawla's long preoccupation with this problem has led to the building of a new theatre for her theatre company Adishakti, Pondicherry. Unlike manipulative cinema which allows viewers to be passive, "the theatre demands an individuality of response, an interactive engagement at an individual level," she explains. "A large crowd creates a mass mentality, reacting to collective suggestion. Therefore true space (of the theatre) fulfils its functions best when it is small."

From long shot to close up, cinema spatialises time with different kinds of visual sequencing. But live performances must create their images through the body and voice of the performer. This demands a more focussed, upclose viewership. Second, Chawla realised that theatre performances are participatory, and the viewer shares in the authorship of the piece when and while it is performed.

"The performer and the performance grow in diversified interactions, with a variety of audiences," she says. Such "sacred" space is not elitist. It is small only so that it can accommodate different groups of viewers over a period of time. Then they can respond as individuals, not en masse. The actors too do not have to "throw" their voice across distances, or exaggerate their gestures. The subtle expressions of face and body are not missed, and the voice can retain its multi-emotional texture. But where are the theatres for the actor and viewer to achieve a heightened sense of being? In Chennai, Rukmini Devi fulfilled a long-cherished dream when Appukuttan Nair built the high-roofed Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium on the Kerala Koothambalam model. In the same city, dance choreographer Chandralekha's little theatre is a seaside gem. New Delhi has a few evocative spaces for performance, while Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, has a snugness loved by actors and viewers alike. Arundhati Nag in Bangalore is engaged in building a similarly secure, care-insulated space for serious theatre. Pune University's performing arts has created a small amphitheatre, roofed, curtained and pillared by trees. In Imphal, Ratan Thiyam has designed a distinctive theatre for his Chorus Repertory Company. The Adishakti experiment "has been unconsciously inspired by the Koothambalam, and designed in a way that even the walls do not intrude." The central rectangular space "embraces" both performers and spectators. Ringed by unobtrusive pillars it becomes an oasis zone, with a sanctuary effect. The space offers scope for placing the audience in different spots within or outside the ring of pillars.

Audibility in every part is as much a concern as visibility. Laterite — fossilised mud — is the material used for construction, as in north Kerala or Karaikudi. "It comes in colours red, yellow and dark brown, combines the strength of stone and the cooling effects of mud, is aesthetically pleasing, its uneven perforated surface is good for acoustics," explains Chawla.

With the advice of librarian and acoustics scholar Professor H.V. Sharma of the National School of Drama, the roof was built by architect Srinivasan Vasthukam using the cost effective filter slab technique. Its highest point is at 30 feet, and is at 35 incline. "We have tried to minimise the need for electricity by finding ways to dispense with fans and air-conditioners," adds Chawla. Trees have been planted around the theatre to keep it cool, tranquil and beautiful. "Artiste and rasika need this agreeable environment."

A semi-circular apron in front of the theatre extends performance options. Here under a cloud-tossed, moonlit sky, the theatre's frontage becomes the backdrop for martial arts or Mohiniyattom. Adishakti has avoided over-ornamentation. The theatre glows in its essential simplicity.

Chawla and her Adhishakti group hope that the new theatre will stimulate not only their own imagination, but make others "feel free to use this space for experimental work, as also for traditional theatre, music and dance." Adds actor Vinay Kumar, "We hope that the presence of other artistes will make for stimulating exchanges, and widen our circle of creativity."

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