Adishakti Theater Arts, an institution of performing arts close Pondicherry, sits on a campus covered in trees, half of which bear neither flower nor fruit. When the group settled here in 1993, the artists financed their theatrical activities by growing and selling green beans, cucumbers, radishes and pumpkins. Three years later, as their art evolved, the performers no longer wanted to look at plants from the angle of utilitarianism. The practice of bringing produce to market ceased and the fertile land was cultivated to grow a small forest.
Mud paths lead to buildings, made of earth and laterite rock, where artists live and work. It was in this isolated space that Veenapani Chawla, a pioneering theater director, created a form of theater whose sole purpose was not to entertain or inform but to understand the psychic or “space of luminous creativity “in every person. Adishakti – the name means Primordial Feminine Energy – celebrates its 40th anniversary from April 5, with a festival called “Remembering Veenapani 2022”.
In an interview with Leela Gandhi, a literary and cultural theorist, in 2011, Chawla said, “We know that our surface personality is made up of body, mind and emotional/vital being. But behind this, which is hidden from us, is what he (the spiritual master Sri Aurobindo) calls the subliminal part, which is much larger but which we do not know. Our outer personality constantly receives influences, touches and communications from this part but does not know where they come from. Hidden behind the subliminal is the psychic, the best part of us that evolves. One of the important goals of our practice is to bring this part out into the open, to become aware of it, to let ourselves be in charge of life.
Until his death in 2014 at the age of 67, Chawla sought knowledge from multiple sources and explored the self through theatre. His emblematic productions, such as Impressions of Bhima (1995), Brhannala (1998), Ganapati (2000) and The Hare and The Tortoise (2007), stem from the study of a wide variety of subjects such as ancient Indian philosophy, the incompleteness theorem of Gödel logic and the Dutch graphic designer Maurits Cornelis Escher.
Chawla’s intense legacy attracts new generations of theater makers to this day. Parshathy J Nath, 31, from Kerala, attended Adishakti’s 10-day workshop ‘Source of Performance Energy’ in 2018, where participants learned to tap into their body, breath and emotions for the primary source of energy. Now she is staying on campus on an Inlaks scholarship to develop a play on Surpanakha, the demon princess of the Ramayana. “The workshop was a very rigorous experience, an experience that I had never encountered in any other theater space before. I wanted to be part of the Adishakti experience,” she says.
Chawla was born in Mumbai in 1947, her grandparents having migrated from the part of Punjab that would become Pakistan. She attended Welham Girls School in Dehradun, where she was introduced to acting by a teacher, and watched Geoffrey Kendall’s touring group Shakespeareana. At Miranda House College, she observed Delhi’s thriving theater scene and plays by William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco. In an exhaustive study of the actor, The Theater of Veenapani Chawla (2014), theater critic and author Shanta Gokhale writes: “Her first experience of a form of traditional theater came at the Total Theater Festival in Delhi, where she had saw a Kathakali performance. Her direct stage experience was limited, even now, to standing backstage and enticing or playing ladies-in-waiting.
Since childhood, Chawla and her parents were regulars at Sri Aurobindo Ashram, sometimes staying there for up to a month. Auroville Spiritual Commune was established in 1926 by philosopher and freedom fighter Sri Aurobindo to reflect his goals of integral yoga, which is to “manifest higher consciousness here on earth by transforming human nature and all aspects of human activity”.
At 20, Chawla knew she wanted to join the commune, but was told it was not her time yet. In a letter to the philosopher, poet and linguist Nolini Kant Gupta, the oldest disciple of Sri Aurobindo, she writes: “I want to develop my mind into a beautiful instrument. I want to refine and cultivate my emotional being. I like theatre. Is it so? “He underlined it and wrote in the margin: ‘Yes, continue’. And then he gave me my name Veenapani, as a goal to achieve. It is the name of Goddess Mahasaraswati and represents the power of perfection in the world and knowledge,” Chawla told Gandhi. Her original name was Veena.
Adishakti was created in Mumbai in 1981. By this time, Chawla had established herself as a director through children’s plays such as Savitri (1975), based on Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem on the spiritual destiny of the soul, with students from Arya Vidya Mandir in Mumbai. , where she taught history and literature until 1978. She introduced young performers to meditation as part of the preparation for the play. Chawla was well known in Mumbai’s cultural circuit and attended the experimental performances emerging in the city but, according to Gokhale, was unmoved by them. “On the contrary, they convinced her that this was not the kind of theater she wanted to do,” writes Gokhale.
Chawla’s first production with adults, Oedipus (1981), with Naseeruddin Shah, shows that she seemed less interested in the collective messages of society and more about working with the self. In Oedipus, she saw not the tragedy of a king who blinded himself as punishment for heinous acts, but an aspirant shutting down outer distractions and developing an inner gaze. What did Mumbai audiences think of the radical take on a classic? Gokhale writes, “Oedipus succeeded beyond the wildest imagination of Chawla and his cast. They expected to do five shows, but did 25, each to resounding applause. Shah returned, as Hamlet, in the next performance of Adishakti, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1983). Gokhale writes: “Chowla called the spirit during rehearsals a ‘state of controlled anarchy’. The play delivered on its promise. It sparked spirit and great performance.
The land where Adishakti is located in Auroville was offered to Chawla by an admirer of her theatre. Symbolically, it is on the outskirts of Tamil Nadu and the Aurobindo Ashram which is the spiritual source. The surrounding villages are rich in the subaltern practices and rituals of the Draupadi cult, with temples dedicated to the heroine of the Mahabharata, who is not a cult figure in traditional India. A short drive from Adishakti is the village of Koovagam in Villupuram, which hosts an annual 18-day festival of the transgender community. The various forms of artistic practice would provide a rich palette for Adishakti’s later works.
“I first met her at a martial arts institute where I was training. I saw someone in their 40s who had the dedication of someone in their 20s. There was an enthusiasm to liberate the body from its social conditioning. Later on, young performers like me had no excuse because no matter how problematic a movement was, she was rushing into it,” says Vinay Kumar KJ, the artistic director of Adishakti. The body and its actions, especially the breath, are central to the Adishakti process.Chawla’s questioning of her body has led her to such folk performance forms as Chhau, Kalaripayattu and Koodiyattam.
When he joined Chawla, Vinay realized how much a person’s body is conditioned by social influences and their behavior built by the people around them. “Our personal behavior is not really us, and that can create all sorts of contradictions after adolescence. Unlearning is important and difficult,” he says.
Vinay, 52, is one of the strongest performers in the country and an integral part of Chawla’s oeuvre. If she was the philosopher, he was the body on stage. Their first collaboration, Impressions of Bhima, had a rough start. Chawla and Vinay worked for three years to liberate her body and activate different facets of it. “The training was so rigorous that even now I feel like Bhima changed my body,” he says.
Had Chawla applied Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy directly on stage or used traditional gestures to speak to current concerns, she would have created mundane works. She studied to form an opinion and searched within herself and her actor. The impressions of Bhima and other myths that formed the core of his later works were chosen because “with modernity we assume we have a more fashionable physiological and psychological understanding of the world, but our ethical dilemmas do not haven’t changed from the mythical stories of the ages. there is,” Vinay says.
Bhima started as an exploration to show two Bhima, one strong and the other a child, in a flash of a second. Vinay is on stage, knuckles planted on the ground and the light illuminating only the tense muscles of his back. Then, only her hands unclench, and as her head spins, the audience sees a baby face. Bhima is an example of how Chawla and Vinay created subsequent works such as Brhannala, which traces the concept of ardhanarishwar in terms of gender fluidity – male and female energies in the same body; and Ganapati, inspired by the koodiyattam, and how the mathematical progressions of a rhythmic structure reflect a basic human emotion.
Bali (2018), Adishakti’s first production after Chawla’s death, was directed by 39-year-old Nimmy Raphel, a lead actor in the group. It maintains Chawla’s methodology – a months-long gestation process, no linear storytelling, with each actor playing multiple roles and stories threading into each other. “Our idea is that the actor expresses the bhava and the audience gets the rasa,” explains Vinay.
Theater students find that at Adishakti, the heart of every production is to work on the breath. “Our ideas of happiness depend on social constructs (jobs, home, and money), which respond to four main impulses: greed, desire, lust, gluttony. We see this when we look at the breath philosophically,” says- he. The adishakti theatrical path is complex, it requires confronting one’s strengths and fears. There is a lot to learn and unlearn. “In Adishakti, there is no property, we are only guardians. We let’s enrich the space and the method and transfer to the next generation of artists,” says Vinay.