If a column could be written in tears, it would be this. I mourn the passing away on Sunday of a beloved and irreplaceable friend, Veenapani Chawla; but in this public space, I mourn the sudden extinction of a life that had been a rare and quietly influential presence in a larger world than mine, the world of theatre.

Although Veenapani began her theatrical career in Mumbai, her spiritual centre lay in Puducherry. There she went bag and baggage in 1991, to design and develop a most extraordinary campus for the learning, teaching and practising of theatre. This was the Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research that she had dreamt of. Spread over a large tract of land near Auroville, donated to her by an admirer of her work, it was at first no more than red earth sparsely dotted with scrub and bush. But soon she had transformed it into a lushly verdant environment with living and rehearsal spaces that allowed her to do the kind of theatre she believed in.

Veenapani’s theatre was tough, time-consuming. It began with a skeletal script which gradually evolved in tandem with improvisations and arduous rehearsals into the final performance piece. But final was always the wrong word to use. The staged production was only the beginning of more rehearsals in the course of which the play was tightened, fine-tuned, even rewritten in parts, till Veenapani and her actors Vinay Kumar, Arvind Rane, Nimmy Raphel and Suresh Kaliyath were fully satisfied. Even otherwise, the actors followed a daily regime of exercise that enabled them to go beyond themselves when required. Veenapani believed that inspiration wasn’t something that came from outside, but from within; from a potential of ourselves that we were not conscious of, but which would come into play if we worked hard enough to reach it.

Veenapani’s theatre was pluralistic; or, to use her favourite word, hybrid. She saw it as a reflection of a society that was itself hybrid. When independence gave this country the opportunity to define itself, theatre faced three divergent paths. The first was modern theatre as defined by the west and inherited by us through the colonial presence; the second was a throwback to a supposedly pure and unadulterated past; and the third was modern in so far as it incorporated all that India had experienced, thought and created through its long history, while using textual sources and forms of expression that were native to us. Veenapani chose, or rather broke, the third path, turning to Kerala, the great repository of traditional performance arts, for the means to evolve her language of theatre.

This language was a rich blend of sparse speech, rigorously choreographed movement based largely on kalaripayattu, percussion that took its inspiration from Koodiyattam and visual elements that came from both yesterday and today. Yesterday broke into Veenapani’s The Hare and the Tortoise with shadow puppets which the actors had learned to manipulate from an old village practitioner who had been invited to live on the campus. The contemporary entered Vinay Kumar’s The Tenth Head with Ravana’s heads projected on screens in computerised animation.

Equally heterogeneous were the sources from which Veenapani drew her references-- the epics, Shakespeare, physics and mathematics -- all anchored in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of engagement with, not detachment from life. Theatrical hierarchies were happily dismantled as actors slid from the formal stylisation of natyadharmi to the relaxed story-telling of lokadharmi. Humour, visual, verbal, and ribald, brought laughter, but also added other perspectives from which to view the theme of the play. Willy-nilly the audience was shaken out of its customary expectations of single narratives and pure forms to respond to this theatre that unsettled them all.

Veenapani’s contribution to theatre was publicly acknowledged when she received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award three years ago. But the citation said nothing about how deeply she had touched the lives of those she had worked and collaborated with, those she had shared her ideas for future scripts with, those she had looked to for constructive suggestions and those in her ever-widening circle of friends who had been drawn by her gentleness, generous love, infectious laughter, deeply ingrained spirit of democracy and unfailing optimism in the face of odds. Sadly, many came her way, financial and otherwise.

Impossible as it has been to accept Veenapani’s going away, it is a solace to know that she has left behind a committed group of actors at Adishakti, ready to take her vision forward.

Published On : 03-12-2014