Narthaki Online interviews
Veenapani Chawla is one of the foremost experimental theatre exponents of modern India with a multi-faceted career. She has worked as a teacher at Bombay, was a journalist with Times of India and has co-authored a book “Early Indian Political History” for Orient Longman. From 1979, she has devoted her life to theatre, acting, directing and finally founding her own company Adishakthi in 1984. A Greater Dawn, Impressions of Bhima, So What's New, Khandava Prasdha Agniahooti are some famous works directed by her. In 1997 she received a one-year grant from the IFA for the project A Dialogue Between Koodiyattam, Nangiar Koothu and Contemporary Theatre under their Arts Collaboration Programme. Brhannala was the result of the collaboration. She has presented several papers and been nominated by the Department of Culture, Govt. of India as an expert on the committee for selecting candidates for Fellowships in the field of folk, traditional and indigenous arts. Veenapani's latest production “Ganapati is the result of a collaborative work supported for a one year project by the India Foundation for the Arts and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust on “Music as a Text in Koodiyattam and Contemporary Theatre”. The aim of the collaborators was to create a theatre piece, which employed music/ percussion rhythms as a signifier of content. The Ford Foundation supported the project in its second year of research and formulation.
What do you look for when you are ready to start a new project?
When I'm ready to start a project, there's a need inside me to do something challenging. I don't really look for anything particular; the need has to come out. It could be something totally new, or an offshoot of a previous project… a need to express something left over from a previous project.. If there's nothing to say, then it's best to shut up and wait till something comes up!
Very important, as otherwise I'd have had no entry into Chennai. I would have had to do it all on my own and wouldn't have had access to show my work. The fact that it's happening along with other contemporary work gives it a frame. Already a certain kind of audience is coming to this festival. They know what they're looking for, what they're looking at. Makes it much easier.
How do you feel before the premiere of every new project?
Very nervous! Very, very uncertain because I don't know whether it's going to reach the audience, whether it will communicate. Each project so far as I have seen, takes an unexpected direction, so we really don't know if the audience is going to take it or not…or what is going to happen.
How long do you work on a project before it's ready for the stage?
My latest project 'Ganapathi' took 1-½ years. It took a year for working on the craft learning…. that is the learning of percussion and the rhythms. Then about 8 months to work around a script, to put it into a performance form. 1 year to learn the language and another 8 months to use the language in a particular way.
What's your reaction when the audience does not react as you expect?
In a sense, the audience has always so far, touch wood, been open and accepting and responded warmly. At some moment, they laugh unexpectedly… sometimes they don't when expected. The audience has different interpretations of my work and those are welcome.
How do you rate audience reaction to your presentations in India and abroad?
Very different in India and very different abroad. We have staged only 'Impressions of Bhima' abroad and they were enchanted with it. Most of them know about the Mahabharatha. But I find a deeper understanding of the finer details in India. I like the audiences in India and enjoy performing for them. Somewhere I always talk about myths, traditions, stories from the epics, we've a common area which links us. I feel personally more satisfied when I perform before an Indian audience.
Because I have not been invited to! I've presented Bhima in New York for Asia Society, University of California in LA and in Paris.
You have been supported by India Foundation for the Arts, Sir Ratan TataTrust and Ford Foundation for your projects over the years. How difficult or easy has it been for you to attain these grants?
Both the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and IFA are linked. Sir Ratan Tata Trust gives IFA the funds. They make it mandatory that whenever they give the money to IFA, recognition has to be given to them. IFA is very demanding about the kind of work they fund, they see that the projects are really worth funding. The Ford Foundation is very demanding too, to fit into the larger framework of their policy. The grants from the Ford Foundation are a result of the culmination of all the work we have done, something like a validation of all our work, a reward for being good. The result was 'Brhannala' where the work was research into the koodiyattam actor's performance technique with breath. And another work with a koodiyattam exponent, which I have not been able to take to stage beyond the first performance since she delivered a baby.
It's a popular belief that the grant recipients become lazy and content and their work suffers. These factors shouldn't be a stress on their minds as well as dampen our creativity. So we put a demand on ourselves and constantly challenge ourselves to do better and better. All funders have a policy. We have to meet their requirements. It is not easy, as all funders are equally demanding. It's a demand that we do more work and make it much larger…
May we know who this koodiyattam artiste is?
Yes, it's Usha Nangiar. I plan to work on the project again and maybe will have the opportunity to present it in The Other Festival 2001 or 2002!!
We have just performed 4 shows at the Prithvi Festival and 2 shows in Pune. The Other Festival will mark the 7th performance and then we go to Bangalore. It's been a hectic tour. We plan to work with Suresh, an Ottamthullal artiste. It's a breakaway from Koodiyattam and should make history.
Can you tell us about some of the activities of your organization 'Adishakti'?
Adishakti is very busy with our creative work. We are also very busy running the little farm that provides sustenance for us, so we work like creative artistes in residence! We do research into our forms, research into the material from which we create our texts. We plan to do residency programs from next year. By that time, we should have our infrastructure ready. We will also be inviting people from different disciplines to come and work with us. Our residency program will keep us busy along with our creative work. We have other plans also but I won't talk about them till they're about to materialize! We give workshops, lec / dems to students all over the country.
Early in your career you have worked as a journalist and even co-authored a book. Do you have any plans to write a book in future?
I 'm working on 2 books. One is an anthology of Shri Aurobindo's aesthetic vision on which I'm already working. The other book I'm planning is about the work process and aesthetics that Adishakti has developed over the years.
What have the major influences in your life been?
The Mother and Shri Aurobindo.
Your date of birth?
5th April, 1947.
With all these tensions and work demands, how do you unwind?
I love to swim!
( As told to LV )