“Theatre breaks barriers”  
Text & photos: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 

February 15, 2005 

As has been said often enough, all the world’s a stage and all of us are actors. Theatre then becomes a showcase of human behavior in different situations. Aptly named, the recent 2-day festival ‘Paatra – A Role to Play’ was held in Chennai to provide an insight into role-playing as well as to provide a forum to demonstrate various methods and styles of communicating by acting.  

Echoing its founder-director Ambika Kameshwar’s motto ‘Life is theatre, theatre is life’, this festival was organized by RASA (Ramana Sunritya Alaya), an organization devoted to special people, to help fund a school building for RASA.  

The festival had (on both days) forum discussions on ‘Breaking Barriers - Sharing Work’ in the morning, and performances in the evening. The presentations were simple, the participants earnest and dedicated. The first morning saw a very interesting line-up of speakers showcasing different types of theatre – mime, THD (Theatre for Holistic Development), and Yakshagana. In mime, a movement communicates a message to the audience. I guess we all mime through life, gesticulating to catch someone’s attention, flagging a taxi, or making monkey faces when we were children (once in a while even now!).  

B V Raja Ram
After a brief introduction, B V Raja Ram presented 3 short pieces in mime by Bangalore-based Kala Gangotri. To use an upstanding cliché, actions spoke louder than words! How does one bathe in times of water scarcity? Gangavataranam brought back memories of the water scarcity in Chennai last year and had the audience, which included the special Rasa children, in splits. The Dentist, about the inept dentist and long suffering patient had vigorous tooth-pulling, picking up teeth scattered on the ground, and horror at the proverbial hefty bill presented at the end of the ordeal. The depth of observation and resultant mime was evident in Singari, which was about a lady putting make-up and dressing up for her date. 

This enjoyable presentation was followed by questions from the audience. How popular is mime in India? “There are many troupes in Bengal involved in mime, a few troupes like that of Niranjan Goswami are very well known. In Karnataka, there are lots of groups participating in mime festivals. Kala Gangotri has initiated Locality Theatre, Week End Theatre, and some theatre festivals to promote the art. But mime can only be an after office work activity as performance opportunities are few. Mime evolved a lot out of Italian Commedia dell'arte. Frenchman Marcel Marceau, who is about 81, is the greatest mime alive,” replied Raja Ram. Is it possible to use mime when working with children with special needs? “It is difficult for such people to emulate the vigorous and often exaggerated mime movements, but not impossible. Being an essential form of theater, mime is part of the training at the National School of Drama, Delhi.” Most of the people present felt theatre art, like mime, should be made part of the education syllabus, as a holistic approach would be of great benefit to young individuals.    

Ambika Kameshwar
The next presenter Ambika Kameshwar, who has pioneered the concept of Theatre for Holistic Development (THD), has used dance, drama, music, mime and crafts in its methodology for children and adults with physical, mental and socio-economic challenges, for the past 15 years. She spoke about how she has been using Theatre Arts as a medium of self-expression and learning. Ambika always believed that dance forms transcended performing arts. She had to modify her dance and music to suit each child’s mental needs. That’s how THD evolved; a special method of reaching out to special people. When Ambika moved to Chennai from Bangalore after marriage, she started Rasa as a social service organization, totally dependant on community support. No fees are charged.   

Ambika invited audience members to help demonstrate how each individual’s imagination of an action varies from the other. A group of school kids were asked to lie down and simulate their actions when they got up in the morning. Each member of another group came up with a different movement for ‘open-close,’ which became a small choreographic piece when done in succession. Next was a lesson in voice modulation with the audience echoing Ambika. “Although people have different tastes, everyone loves theatre. Rasa celebrates theatre on a daily basis, working with children with special needs,” said Ambika. Someone wanted to know how one copes with the fear of making mistakes on stage. Her answer, “Life is a stage. We all make mistakes, so there’s no need to panic. Just go on!” was greeted with enthusiasm by the youngsters in the audience.  

Srinivasa Sasthan
The third presenter Srinivasa Sashthan spoke about the very visual dance theatre form of Yakshagana, with its larger than life characters, elaborate makeup and costumes. He said many of these skills are vanishing, so sanghas like the Karnataka Kala Darshini (Bangalore) and Ramana Nritya Kala Ranga are doing their best to keep the art alive. He gave a brief background to Yakshagana and how the form evolved from the Vaishnava Bhakthi movement. A dancer demonstrated the differences in entries between the badaku (Northern) and thenku (Southern) styles. Yakshagana is a mixture of spoken word, music, drama and dance, so nritta and nrithya elements are both present, and the background percussion provided by a chenda and maddala are very integral to the performance.  

A carefully prepared slide show to illustrate the following points was greatly appreciated. We could trace the sequence of actions of an artiste from the makeup room to the stage. We saw a stage designed according to olden days where a square cube frame of bamboo sticks decorated with mango leaves formed the only décor. Performances were held in the illumination of big, lit torches on either side of the stage. Why were certain characters given certain color makeup? “Because there was no light those days, only the face could be seen to identify the character traits. Impression had to be created – black face for demonic character, pink and white for auspicious characters, dark blue makeup for Yama and so on. The costumes and makeup are slightly different for characters of both badaku and thenku styles, and the accessories are made of wood.”  

“Unlike other art forms, dialogues are extempore. This brings out the individual’s skills.” Srinvasa Sasthan demonstrated how a very high pitch with some exaggeration is used on stage for dramatic impact. Sometimes characters enter from the audience for effect. What about using the theatre form for contemporary narration? “The Karnataka Kala Darshini is instrumental in working with awareness themes like AIDS, National Integration, Family Planning and so on. Some say we are destroying the art, it is not advisable and so on. In my opinion, any art should go horizontally and vertically for the art to develop. The contemporary element should be there,” said Srinivasa Sashthan.  

In full Yakshagana costume, the Ramana Nritya Kala Ranga presented ‘Ramana Charitra,’ the story of Ramana Maharishi with dialogues in English and music in Kannada. Some of the Maharishi’s teachings, and his good deeds like kindness to untouchables were portrayed. The script was written by Sharada, who also played the character of Yama. Yakshagana was once the preserve of males. It was interesting to note that most of the dancers were female in this production.  

The moderator, dancer Chitra Visweswaran summed up that mime, THD and Yakshagana clearly demonstrated how they shared equations with theatre; theatre does indeed break barriers!   

The evening started with a contemporary dance-theatre presentation of ‘The Lament of the Blue Lotus,’ choreographed by Anita Ratnam and performed by the Arangham Dance Theatre. An excerpt from a full-length production ‘Utpala – a thousand petals, a thousand lives’ that premiered in December 2004, it is the story of Isis, the queen of Egypt – determined woman, devoted wife and doting parent. The story of how her husband King Osiris is hacked into 14 pieces by his own jealous brother and the scattered parts gathered by a grieving Isis and put together in one of the earliest instances of the mummification process, how she uses her special powers to turn into a giant bird and chants spells to resurrect the spirit of her dead husband forms the main story line. Isis gives birth to son Horus, sanctifies him with the Nile waters and the blue lotus blooms again. Looking resplendent as Isis in her turquoise blue costume, Anita displayed her prowess as a singer and narrator too. Using an elegant mix of Tai'chi, Kalari, Bharatanatyam and contemporary movement ideas, and aided by an amazing, specially mixed music score, the flowing movements of the dancers simulated the ever-flowing waters of the Nile. Sheets of plain newsprint paper hung in rows formed a novel backdrop and the dramatic lighting design added to the aura of the production.  
Represented by Freddy Koikaran and Anushka, Stagefright presented a short, hilarious play ‘The Universal Language,’ based on a play by David Ives, a well-known modern playwright. Freddy plays the role of a wannabe con artist, who creates a ‘new’ language to trick unsuspecting students into taking his course. Anushka is shy, diffident and has a mild stammer. She is the first student to join the class because she wants to get confidence in life. She learns the new language so well, that she even beats Freddy in his language skills! Seeing her innocent trust in him, his conscience gets to him and he comes clean, love blooms and both of them decide to take on the task of propagating this new language together. The actors reeled out the dialogues with ease, even though it was a strange mix of German, French and English, with a smattering of Italian.   
Ambika Kameshwar and troupe presented ‘The Question’ as a tribute to contemporary spiritual thought, inspired by the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharishi, a noted saint of South India. Ambika, who has also composed the music, directed and choreographed the presentation, with concept and script by Dr. Sarada. The present day ordeal of crowds in every sphere of life, be it the cinema hall, government office, ration shop, standing in line for water supplied by tankers, queue for getting a driving license – the push and shove attitude was well brought out by the many people present on stage, including the senior students of Rasa. It looked so realistic!   

The question ‘Who am I?’ is one everyone asks of oneself. A woman like Ambika has many roles to play in daily life – ‘She’ is mother, wife, sister, daughter, boss, friend, teacher, singer and dancer. Ambika the musician sang about “I’m a singer by profession, I’m a dancer by mission, with a serious ambition to bring success to my vision.” She is pulled in different directions by all these roles. Ambika, the theatre personality depicted the conflict through dialogue and theatre. What about her feelings, discriminations, sensations, expectations, emotions…Ambika, the dancer portrayed the navarasa. ‘I’ creates conflict between a person’s various emotions/roles – can one exist without the other? The query ‘Will I be able to see the light?’ was answered by the narration of the story of crabs and a lobster. The cast comprising of a group of young students, being given experience as professional artistes for the first time, wore placards round their necks signifying the attributes of ‘She’, the various roles or emotions accordingly. Through song, dance and dialogue, the production took the audience through a thought-provoking journey, but it is better suited as a guidance to the present younger generation who are exposed to all of the above conflicts of self in daily life, than as a serious piece of theatre.   

Na Muthuswamy & Hans Kaushik 
How a traditional play like Prahlada Charitram could be interpreted in totally different ways was the theme of the second day’s morning session. Why this play in particular? It has all modern day issues, like father-son conflicts, power play and sycophancy to name a few! The performers for both versions were modern actors of Koothu-P-Pattarai repertory theatre. Na Muthuswamy founded his own theatre group, Koothu-P-Pattarai in 1977 and works with a background of traditional theatre, while trying to bring a touch of modernity. Koothu is a regional variation of Indian theatre.  

Na Muthuswamy gave a brief introduction to the theatrical piece. This version of Prahlada Charitram has been revived and developed through a workshop process, from the original version by Kannappa Thambiran. The play was originally done as an all night ritualistic theatre but with encouragement from the Koothu-P-Pattarai, it is now being done as a normal theatre presentation. Different koothu styles from North Arcot, Thanjavur, South Arcot and Dharmapuri have different scripts and regional dialects. All scripts are existent, only dialogues are improvised accordingly. In the Bhagavatamela tradition of Tamilnadu, even ragas are prescribed for midnight and early morning as the plays would start late at night and go on till the wee hours of the morning.  

Actor Raja Ravi Varma conducted workshops and worked in the koothu styles of North Arcot and Thanjavur in Tamilnadu. Both styles of koothu have been incorporated in this piece. The script by Ravi Varma is close to the N Arcot script, and refined for the stage by Na Muthuswamy.   

The presentation in traditional form was full of powerful, dramatic dialogues, an energetic Hiranyakashipu (played by Palani) stomping on stage and threatening dire consequences to all who did not obey him implicitly, the long suffering wife Leelavathi, the defiant son Prahlada who stands by his convictions that Narayana is the supreme God and not Hiranya. In the end, the irreverent Hiranya is vanquished by the irate Lord Narasimha, wearing the traditional mask (and restrained by 2 people) – a triumph of good over evil. Musicians seated on the left of the stage, provided accompaniment. The performance was followed by an interactive session between the audience and Na Muthuswamy.   

When did the transformation of modern script from traditional happen? “When koothu artistes interact with other forms, influences are bound to happen, but when we do traditional theatre, we do not tamper with it. The koothu version of the ‘Caucasian Circle’ did not go down well in the villages, but themes like Soorpanaka Vadham is doing well. In 6 months we did 100 shows of Vaali Vadham, because there’s a lot of dramatic element.” Does koothu enjoy funding and support? “Earlier, villagers were involved in agriculture and performances took place only during season. Now they are performing throughout the year. The Ministry is also supporting the artistic ventures. Ten years back, a Ford Foundation grant made it possible for us to spread the merits of folk forms in schools. One needs lots of funds to undertake such ventures. To include koothu in schools and colleges will be good for development of individuals and also make it popular from that level.”  

Can theatre be used for holistic development, and not only for entertainment? “There’s less audience for theatre nowadays and performances are few, and an actor will get bored. An actor’s work is not over with his work on stage. He has to see things in totality. He has to learn everything about theatre work including making props, operating lights and doing the stage décor. He must also clean the stage. Voice has power - the actor has to sing and narrate dialogues. He has to dance and do vigorous movements, so there’s a physical fitness regimen. That apart, there are workshops and training in different idioms like yoga and vipaasana through the year - it is more like a spiritual journey, to see life in the right perspective.”   

Can koothu be adapted to non-koothu people without performance orientation? “We experiment constantly, introducing traditional techniques in a contemporary framework to an audience not exposed to it before. These are relevant not only in theatre where an actor looks at himself or a character, but also in daily life. Management experts attend workshops for about 10 days. There are situations at work places where people do not know how to communicate certain things. We teach them how to open out.”   

 In contrast to the traditional version, all the actors in the Zen theatre version of Prahlada Charitram, directed by Gil Alon, wore a uniform black outfit. Gil is a Zen Buddhist teacher, poet, singer and a theatre director from Israel who has been working with Koothu-P-Pattarai for the last 3 years. Dance was essential in the traditional form, while Gil’s version was complete without it.   

The actors spoke of how Prahlada Charitram was done in olden days in the form of a kathakalakshepam or as puppet theatre. “Many people attended to watch the triumph of good over evil. Nobody comes anymore. The belief is gone.” An actor enters bearing a huge stone on his head. “It symbolizes the burden of culture, burden of history which we carry from the past, making it a museum instead of developing it. One should learn from it, not copy it weakly and use it as a tool to control, instead of using it as inspiration,” explains Gil during the interactive session at the foyer.   

Gil was inspired by Na Muthuswamy’s version. He asked the actors to look into the characteristics in one’s own person and interpret accordingly. Thirdly, the story deals with conflict between father and son and a person’s urge to control others - these are daily problems and relevant today. “We are surrounded by lots of Hiranyas, who are only interested in controlling others. Such people are show-offs but actually weak inside. Once power is attained, a man shows it by not doing anything by himself, but having others do things for him.” So, Gil’s Hiranya does not walk on stage, he is always carried, everything has to be done for him, he is selfish and full of himself.   

A few contemporary dialogues were mixed with traditional dialogues. When Leelavathi gives birth to Prahlada, she recites the traditional text. Gil was shocked because there’s nothing happy about giving birth in this dialogue, so it’s a monologue minus the music.  

Gil Alon and Hans Kaushik-extreme rt
Na Muthuswamy-seated on chair
How did he deal with a traditional play not familiar to him? “For me to replicate tradition is not interesting. I am not from this tradition. So, I found how others viewed it in villages, how the actors viewed the characters and interpreted accordingly. One must take inspiration from tradition and continue it in our understanding, only then it’s alive. To keep tradition exactly as it is, spells death for it. I could identify myself with the profound teachings of the play. Prahlada is an example of someone who follows his heart, against the tradition, against his family, against his father. It could also be viewed as for the tradition. Both are for the sake of provocation, not for the sake of art. The interpretation is open – as I see it, as the actors see it, as the audience sees it.”   

Why do Prahlada and Hiranya both die together in the end? “Questions are more important than answers in Zen Buddhism,” says Gil. “Nothing should be received and taken for granted. So I try to create a process of discovery and investigation. That’s my means of approach. What do we achieve by all this domination? We are already in heaven, but we are making it a hell for ourselves. So father and son go down together in the end.”   

Moderator, sculptor and actor Hans Kaushik of Magic Lantern summed up the morning: “Theatre embodies and encapsules myth, history and legend and makes it possible for everyone to be a part of it. Theatre embodies all aspects of life.”   

The grand finale of the festival was dance theatre Kashinama (in Hindi) by Usha Ganguli and her group Rangakarmee that she has been spearheading for over 28 years in Kolkata. The story is by Dr. Kashinath Singh with script, music, design and direction by Usha Ganguli. A nearly 40-member cast, including children, bring alive the decadence of a nation, where politics, religion and culture make a mockery of ancient Indian values. Full of wit and humour, Kashinama is set in the city of Varanasi against the flowing Ganges, where the fishermen cast their nets, the dhobis go about their work, and touts try to sell boat rides to unwary tourists; where fake sadhus compete to predict futures and real ones are lost in meditation. This is what is happening in modern day Varanasi. Rampant and aggressive globalisation has robbed common life of its simplicity and given birth to perverse greed and wild hypocrisy.  

The tout propagates the myth that tourists have money to burn. He is slick, always here and there, fixing things. The impatient Sanskrit teacher has a big family and can barely make ends meet. The tout manages to lure a French tourist to learn Sanskrit from him and also become a paying guest at his house, with promise of rich monetary rewards, much to the annoyance of the teacher’s suspicious, long suffering wife played by Usha Ganguli. The teacher is not really convinced, but he needs the money to pay his debts and support his family. His wife objects but a new sari elevates her spirits and she supports the invasion of the family privacy by the tourist. But the tout goes too far when he suggests that the pooja room be converted into a western style toilet. Shiva does a thandav in the teacher’s dream and opens his eyes to the follies of such a move. The play ends with a grand pooja procession and great fanfare.  

The audience gave a standing ovation and thus ended the first edition of Paatra, which was coordinated with the help of Anita Ratnam and Indira Jayakrishnan of Arangham Trust. C P Satyajit handled the lights and sound and Student Concepts provided support at the venue. Rasa plans to make Paatra an annual feature.   

(Paatra took place on Feb 5th and 6th at the Chinmaya Heritage Centre, Chennai). 
Lalitha Venkat is the editor of