Seven days in December  
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 

February 15, 2006 

It is very strange that till The Other Festival, many of us were not aware that there was someone like Athira Krishnan in Chennai! That too, a child prodigy. She was the first artiste to feature on the inaugural day of Dec 1, 2005. Starting with the traditional 'Vaathaapiganapathim,' Athira finished her violin recital with the music compositions of Chennai based composer Mohan Narayanan. She is already a widely traveled performer and has even made it to the Guinness Book of Records for her 32 hr long non-stop violin concert. Now a student of Stella Maris College, we wondered how serious she is about her studies. "Music helps me through my formal education. I don't know what I will do without music!" says Athira in wonder.  

Athira Krishnan

The second act of the evening was Samudra's 'Jalam' meaning water. A near fatal drowning accident at Kerala's Varkala beach inspired the group to come up with this piece which depicts the beauty as well as dangers of water. Since 3 of the musicians were down with viral fever, recorded music was used. So, Samudra offered Surya Namaskaram as the first presentation followed by Jalam. Madhu Gopinath, choreographer and spokesman for the group, said they would not change their vocation even if they were offered high paying corporate jobs! A morning bus ride to their class, yoga, kalari, exercises, choreography - that is the simple life they like. They also train in Bharatanatyam, which Madhu says gives the strong foundation to their movement vocabulary. Being their second appearance at THE OTHER FESTIVAL, one felt that the group needed more coherence in their choreography although their energy was vivacious. 

Dec 2 saw the solo performance of Delhi based Seema Agarwal in Rabi'a, an Islamic mystic who lived in 8th century Basra (Iraq). The music track was really nice. Rather than the Bharatanatyam steps, Seema's experimental moves were more in keeping with the mood of the piece. Seema says she feels comfortable with Bharatantyam, that is her base and all movements for her come back to Bharatanatyam, and even the yoga she does seems tinged with Bharatanatyam! Whatever be the explanation, the Bharatanatyam movements lacked energy though the visual design of the work was impeccable. 

Rabi'a - Seema Agarwal 
Scene from Erendira

Before speaking about the day's performance, I must mention the terrible Chennai weather, copious rains and the immense patience of the audience! Not only did it rain like crazy that evening of Dec 3, the truck bringing the sets for Amal Allana's show arrived late because of the rains. But the viewers turned up in good number to see the play they have heard so much about and were patient enough to sit inside the beautiful Museum Theatre, and watch the stage being set till 8pm! That was an experience in itself as we watched 2 layers of thick transparent sheets spread on the stage floor, 4 red frames suspended from the roof and lamps lit inside them…then the brilliantly made up 6 female characters in their flouncy skirts and delicate shawls entered to weave a riot of colorful magic on stage. The dainty Erendira being oppressed by her wily grandmother into the flesh trade was beautifully presented. The only male in the cast, Erendira's boyfriend Ullasi was a joy to behold, with his light movements. The Rajasthani dialogues had English subtitles flashed on top without detracting from what was happening on stage. The music and movements were a blend of Spanish and Indian styles, since the play is inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story on Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother. The entire audience stayed on for the full 2 hours and left with satisfied smiles. It had been worth the wait. Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, sponsored Erendira's visit to The Other Festival. This was the very first time that the Indian Government has supported the festival. This itself is good news of sorts!  

The evening of Dec 4 started with Chennai theater personality Pritham Chakravarthy who narrated the story of Dushala, the sister of the Kauravas whose existence has been ignored in popular texts of the Mahabaratha. She made a dramatic entry among the audience, beaded strings hanging down over her shoulders, long steel chain dangling from one hand,  directing her questions at the audience members as she walked up to the stage. She has this direct way of looking and when she asks you some question with her piercing gaze, you are almost tempted to answer! She found inspiration for this piece after coming in contact with Veenapani Chawla who heads theatre group Adisakthi in Pondicherry. Energy was unquestionable but the work itself was weak. Too much of temperament and activist agendas clouded the artistic content of Dushala. Much more could have been developed and conveyed by this talented mono-actor. 

Dushala - Pritham Chakravarthy
Pedro Soler

Cultural collaborator Alliance Francaise of Chennai brought flamenco guitarist Pedro Soler to the festival. Pedro played the music from various regions of Andalusia, music about miners, music from Cuba, dance music…he remembered vividly his accompanying a flamenco dancer for many years. A smile spread across his face as he played the tune, remembering the days gone by. Pedro is very convinced about Indian influence in flamenco music. The surprise element of the evening was when Chennai violinist Padma Shankar made her appearance on stage and played a couple of improvisations with Pedro, to thunderous applause.  

Carmen Werner of Provisional Danza from Madrid, started the 5th day of the festival, with her 25 minute contemporary solo Hildebrand. It was interesting to note that the Spanish artistes preferred the stark open stage, as is usual in Europe. The back wall of the stage with its 3 doors formed the backdrop and half a dozen red colored ropes hung before it in bright contrast. The ropes took on different roles as Carmen depicted what affected her in life. For her, closeness in relationships is important, not the distant handshakes. Fortunately, Carmen had been warned about the Chennai audience and she wore the barest of material to cover her body for the work. In Spain she performs totally nude! Brave of a 55 year old to do so when all the world is celebrating youth! 

Alejandro Morata, Carmen Werner
Dushasana - M Palani

M Palani continued the rope act in his Tamil theatrical narration of how Dushasana was killed by Bhima. The flooring was a stark white sheet with a low, square wooden box in the centre filled with red colored powder. A swing was suspended from the roof with a long piece of red cloth hanging down to the floor. Palani hails from a family of ancient therukoothu performers and is a member of Koothu-P-Pattarai theatre group in Chennai. He is well versed in yoga, kalari, folk arts and is also learning Bharatanatyam. He put all to good use as he climbed up the red cloth to the roof, swung upside down - he calls it acroasana! - and delivered his dialogues, all the while changing his dramatic poses intertwined with the red cloth. He swung from side to side standing on the white swing. He jumped down into the pit and smeared himself with the red powder. Scripted by Na Muthuswamy of KPP, the play is directed by Bala (Not to be confused with film director Bala!) who answered the questions posed by the audience. What are the acrobatics about? The top level is for divine beings, the middle level is for earthly characters and the floor level for the mud from where one emerges. And Palani actually clambers up to nearly 40 feet, though at Museum theatre, the roof is not that high! Isn't this sort of Tamil play unsuitable for a 'sophisticated' audience like this? NO said everybody in agreement. "It is time people learnt to move on from the same old predictable presentations!" declared Bala to appreciative applause.  

Alejandro Morata of Provisional Danza presented his solo titled Nadie. The stage went back to its stark appearance, minus the ropes. The music for both the solos had silence in segments. Why? Silence speaks and is an integral part of their work, said Carmen. Does he worry about how well the audience can understand his work? "Whatever you understood, is what I meant to convey," responded Alejandro! What does he think of performing in the festival? "It's a small festival with a big heart. The audience was wonderful and the Museum Theatre is fabulous." It was interesting to note that Alejandro did the lights for Carmen and she did the lights for his solo! Male actors of Koothu-p-Pattarai were so impressed with his performance that an informal workshop was organized the very next day where the Spaniards shared their techniques with the Tamils! 

Day 6 featured contemporary dance by Nimrod Freed and the Tami Dance Theater Company. The members who are each choreographers in their own right, presented 2 pieces, A Hole in the View and Waltz behind the Fence, in a combination of dance, music and acting. The music Nimrod uses for his choreography are the popular numbers one hears on the radio. He and his family live near the border with Palestine and one day as he was sitting on his house terrace and watching the view, his son came running and pointed to a fire in the distance. It created a hole in his view and that's what inspired the first piece. The second piece has a reference to the border between Israel and Palestine. There may be political boundaries but art has no boundaries, so does Nimrod have collaborations across the border? Yes, he's working with Arabic musicians and hopes to make a production featuring Arabic musicians and Israeli dancers.  ICCR was instrumental in bringing Provisional Danza and the Tami Dance Theater Company to the festival. All work from Israel has an edge that other work from Europe lacks. Maybe because they live daily with death staring at them. Maybe they represent what art is all about - living and dying at the same instance!  

Nimrod Freed and the Tami Dance Theater Company
3 Sakina Manzil - Suruchi Aulakh and Jaimini Pathak

The crowning glory of the eighth edition of The Park's The Other Festival, was undoubtedly "3 Sakina Manzil", A Working Title production. A simple set, brilliant script by Ramu Ramanathan and powerful acting by Suruchi Aulakh and actor/director Jaimini Pathak, brought alive the memories of Sashiji and Sashi Kumar. Laced with humour, the first half of the play depicted the playful interaction and blossoming love between the two and the audience smiled along with them. The second half brought alive the trauma of fire, death and destruction when the British ship, S S Fort Stikine exploded on 14th April 1944, at Bombay harbour. That was the day Sashi and Sashi should have met after a brief lapse of time at 3, Sakina Manzil, the old apartment building near the docks…The audience sat stunned by the picture of suffering. It was so beautiful that people had no questions to ask at the end of the play…they wanted to stay with the mood.  

"Why can't Tamil standards of theater be this good?" remarked a journalist after the play. Jaimini Pathak returns for the third time to the festival. Theatre is his passion and he has worked under doyens Satyadev Dubey and Naseeruddin Shah, and with Ramu Ramanathan (writer and editor of Prithvi Theatre newsletter). His one person play Mahadevbhai that he presented in 2002 for The Other Festival, was so captivating that it was the talk of the town for days after. Jaimini was gracious to come in at the last minute since the artiste of the originally scheduled performance was suddenly indisposed.  

The Park Hotel, My TVS, Evoluzione, Amara Furnishings, Cookieman, Red E Food Court, Amethyst, and Mehta Jewellery supported the eighth edition of The Other Festival. Anita Ratnam dazzled the audience every evening wearing a wonderfully crafted set from Mehta Jewellery, each more beautiful than the other. Yet another 'other' for The Other Festival!   

Ranvir Shah and Anita Ratnam (co-curators of The Other Festival) took turns in welcoming the audience over the week. Victor Paulraj and his team worked day and night to ensure smooth functioning of the technical requirements. Special mention must be made of the patient and appreciative audience who graced the festival on all the days. It is no wonder that every artiste loved performing at The Other Festival!  

But for the organizers, it has been an uphill task. Says Anita Ratnam, "After struggling for the first 3 years from 1998, the festival managed to break even from 2001. For the next four years until 2004 the festival actually made a small amount of money but this year has been very difficult. In spite of growing good will and national acclaim for having created the only platform in the entire country for experimental and alternative arts, The Other Festival lost money this year. A small amount but still a loss. In the larger scenario where college fests like IIT's SAARANG attracts upto 75 lakhs of money with no effort, it seems almost  inhuman that serious efforts like The Other Festival which does not need to explain itself has to struggle for money. The total festival budget for the entire week is only 15 lakh rupees. While the new Bangalore Habba coasts along with more than one crore rupees as budget, this jewel of a cultural week in Chennai has major sponsors questioning its audience demographics and demanding more "zippier and entertaining fare" for monetary support. No wonder that this year, the list of private supporters has grown to collectively contribute upto 10 % of the total festival budget. Writers too seem bent on criticizing the festival, including well known names like Geeta Doctor and Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan. Discuss the programming and the performances but please do not place one sponsor above the other in the light of "prestige." Whoever donates and supports the serious and experimental in the arts is deserving of applause these days."