GANAPATI - A theatre piece presented by Veenapani Chawla  at Kulavai 2002 
by Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 

March, 2002

Kulavai -2002 was the two day theatre festival organised by "Voicing Silences" - a women's activist group. This year Kulavai was giving prominence to the women directors, their vision and work, taking into account that the very term " women director" and the concepts supporting its validity has suffered marginalisation  in the hands of mainstream theatre protagonists and needs reaffirmation and support. The seminar was followed by three productions by women directors, one of which was "Ganapati" by Veenapani Chawla. "Ganapati" has been shown in Chennai once before during the Other Festival 2001. However, even for those who have seen it , it was a delight in sound-images. 

The director's note says, "Every external expression, be it mudra or facial or physical or a netra abhinaya (expressive acting by means of eyes) is informed by a breath which is rhythmic. Similarly all inner motivation is informed by rhythm. As the breath behind the abhinaya is the physical expression of thought and emotion, in the same manner the rhythm in Koodiyattam (Sanskrit drama performed in Kerala) is behind the performer as an unwritten or unspoken text".  

The whole piece is structured around rhythm, rhythm produced by various musical instruments used in different parts of India. The main instrument is the Mizhavu, (a huge heart shaped instrument which has a narrow opening which is covered by calf's leather), used as an accompaniment in Koodiyattam.  There were four of them placed diagonally across the stage.  Behind each were the musicians - performers drumming with the palms of their hands.  Says Veenapani, "Using rhythm as a signifier, this performance is structured in a recurring motif of creation, celebration, destruction and return, which parallels the motif in the birth stories of Ganapati and 

There are, therefore two aspects to the structure, the story aspect and the abstract motif of creation, celebration, destruction and return. The story aspect is just used as a reference through the minimal verbal text. The rest is done through the inferences made through the rhythm, which resonates the abstract motif. To those who are familiar with the rhythmic patterns used for all festivals in Kerala, the creation, celebration, destruction and return motif is suggested through the ascension in the sound pattern from the low to a high and then a return to the low and commencement of the cycle once again  The motion is circular and suggests the never-ending pattern of life as seen by the Indian philosophers and thinkers. 

When Ganapati is killed by Siva and then brought to life by attaching an elephant’s head to his body, the audience see clearly two things, that there is a creation after every destruction and that every creation has in it the element of destruction. The actors say the words and act it out through gestures and movements taken from Kathakali, but it is the rhythms, which take it beyond the specific to the abstract. The stories as well as the transformation of the actor into a musician and vice versa are to Veenapani, suggestive of the creative excellence, which emanates only from hybridity.   

It is a very unusual piece of theatre in the sense that it extends the boundaries and possibilities of theatre to the maximum. The experimentation is a very conscious process, pushing the norms of theatre to its very limits and exploring new possibilities in the very idea of theater. We are forced to ask the question, "What is theatre"? The balance between the spoken and the musical aspect of sound is tilted and rhythm takes over. Another boundary that is crossed is that which exists in traditional theatre between the actor and the musician. The actor plays on the drum, the drummer moves and acts. The concept of acting also undergoes a change; the actor not only performs 
through his voice and body movements but through creation of rhythms through the musical instrument. The audience feels that they have entered into a hitherto unexplored world and feels freer to participate in the theatre process not only through watching and seeing but also through hearing at a very sophisticated level. 

Veenapani does not consciously try to address gender issues. But having seen all her productions, this writer feels that in all her themes she has addressed the issue of the feminine - the creative and intuitive aspect of the human brain.  Her search for the new or the alternative theatre is also suggestive of a new space, which the feminist theatre is looking for. Again, her own individual quest for inspiring moments in theatre is more indicative of the "personal" merging with the "public" rather than the insistence of single authorship.  Whatever be the audience reaction to her theatre, we have to accept that it explores the unknown, challenges the known and  allows intellectual and  spiritual  meanderings.    

Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject “Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala”. She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.