A demure powerhouse


My best time at Prithvi

Theatre was when, as a 15-year-old, I saw its first festival in 1983. It celebrated five years of the theatre, and it was there I got to know Veenapani Chawla.

She was part of the core team working with my mother on the festival. Soft spoken and demure, but with a naughty twinkle in her beauti­ful kohl-lined eyes, Veenapani was a tremendous force of energy. And, as the years rolled on, her energy and commitment to theatre grew and touched many, many lives.

Just the other day, I happened to find my old diary from 1983.1 had written in amazement about a “weird dance” that Veenapani and a group of actors were doing in the Prithvi The­atre foyer every day. The dance was Chhau and Veenapani was conduct­ing a workshop for her actors, as she wanted to use the base of this dance form in her next production of The Trojan Women.

I was fortunate to have had several lessons of Chhau with Veenapani in her tiny room in Santacruz. Hav­ing learnt Chhau recently, she had to evolve ways of understanding her own physical limitations and yet attain perfection. This learning enabled her to teach this amazing dance, based on martial arts, to a completely uninitiated body such as mine.

Veenapani was an amazing teacher, period. Having been a his­tory teacher for years at a leading school in Mumbai, she has a large following of students whose life she touched in many ways.

Apart from being a wonderful
teacher, she was a true explorer. Her curiosity to find a training methodol­ogy that would work for the Indian actor led her into years of research and exploration, from voice training with British specialists to learning Vedic chanting and kalaripayat. What do all these disparate things have in common with voice training? Simple. For Veenpani, it was the breath. And her attempt was to find and evolve an indigenous method of voice training that took into account our physi­ological differences from western actors—the way we use our tongue, or throat, or the rhythm and sounds of our language all impact the way we use breath and thereby our voice. And so it was not possible for us to simply import the western method of voice training.

Veenapani was not one to shy away from challenges and courageously dived into plays like Oedipus, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilden- stern Are Dead, The Trojan Women and an adaptation of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. All this before she commit­ted herself completely to creating her world of theatre at Adishakti. It became a home, a laboratory and a crucible, not only for her search for an Indian idiom of contemporary the­
atre steeped in our roots, but also a space for other groups and perform­ers to create, to share, to learn and just simply be.

Veenapani’s enormous sense of generosity is what created this intimate yet welcoming space in Puducherry. And together with her wonderfully dedicated and talented team, Adishakti grew to be recog­nised as one of India’s leading theatre groups.

It is one of my favourite theatre | stories, which exemplifies both the | wonderful seriousness of the Adis­hakti artistes towards their work and the enormous playfulness of their approach. They were performing at the Kennedy Center festival in New York a few years ago. The first show went well but with a very poor audi­ence. The second day the house was full as news had spread about this fabulously “exotic” Indian theatre actor (Vinay Kumar) in his loincloth! At the post-show Q & A, one of the eager audience members earnestly | asked Vinay what his inspiration for the part was. It was hugely unsettling for the unfortunate questioner when Vinay replied, in all sincerity, that his inspiration was Tom and Jerry. Veenapani, with her gorgeous starched saris and large bindi, will always inspire, and her warmth, generosity and whacky sense of humour, hidden behind the diminutive powerhouse of energy that she was, will stay with us forever. Rest in peace Veenapani.

The writer is a theatre personality and co-founder of Junoon. www.junoontheatre.org

You Unusual. That is the key­word that presents itself in most of Kallat’s works. It transforms the mundane nature of everyday things by placing them in unusual settings. Like debris and urban clutter growing on the head of a few Mumbai boys (his Eclipse series),You enter a room, the walls of which are plas­tered with pho­tographs depicting the waxing and waning of the moon. Look closer, and you realise that the moons are, in fact, progressively eaten rotis. The installa­tion, which requires you to navigate the various twists and turns in the room, takes you through 22,400 such rot!:moons. Jitish Kallat’s Epilogue is a journey that mirrors his father’s life told through

the various moons he saw in his 62 years. The view­er sets out on this journey along with the artist and unknowingly becomes part of a story that binds the celestial and the com­mon in an unusual way.

or the series of skeletal vehicles built from incin­erated cars and bikes he saw in the images of vari­ous riots in the country (Collindonthus), or wheat- grass sprouting from the bodies of sleeping dogs (.Prosody of a Pulse Rate). Or his much-acclaimed Public Notice series, in which he recreates historic speeches of Gandhi, Nehru and Swami Vivekananda, sometimes in bone-like alphabets, sometimes as letters forming on a film of mist and sometimes as
multi-coloured LED writ­ings on staircases.

The thought is simple, sometimes too familiar even, and it all lies in the details. It is as if Kallat— who is curating the lat­est edition of the Kochi- Muziris Biennale—is play­ing mind games with his audience. You cannot walk away from his work with just one glance as it lends itself to many interpreta­tions at closer inspection.

Ever so polite and affa­ble, Kallat smiles warmly in response to my amateur

People work on artist Madhusudanan’s exhibit
Briging to light:

reading of his works. It is amusing, he says, to listen to what his work means to different people. “Just this morning, someone told me that they noticed a running theme of time in all my works,” says the 40-year- old. “I think themes of time, our mortality, the skies and the historical moment are all things I go back to. All of these intervene and inter­link through my work.”

A fine arts graduate from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, Kallat has worked with everything from resin
to lead to create paintings, sculptures, video projec­tions and installations. French art dealer Daniel Templon, who has repre­sented some of the world’s biggest artists, from Andy Warhol to Willem de Kooning, said in a recent interview that Kallat was one of the “very few artists in the world who work in so many different directions… and all the directions are so strong and assured”. Sahej Rahal, who won this year’s Forbes Award for debut solo show, agrees: “What I find most enigmatic about Jitish’s work is that he deploys an amazing preci­sion that flows from the intimate to the cosmologi­cal, while constantly ring­ing back home to the city of Bombay.” Compliments such as these bring out the “middle-class Malayali boy” in Kallat. Despite being brought up in fast- paced Mumbai and having travelled the world with his work, there is still an inher­
ent awkwardness on being praised.

The theme of simplicity that runs through Kallat’s creative pursuits seems to spill over into his sartorial choices. Dressed in a plain, black, full-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, he speaks slowly and clearly, pausing after every few words to make sure that you are on the same page. There are no huge words, long-winding sentences or pretentious pauses. Confident, yet soft- spoken, Kallat is the classic antithesis of the popular image of the artist—flam­boyant, careless and self- obsessed.

The founders of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, artists Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari, were on the lookout for such an exotic mix of immense international exposure and a sense of rooted­ness in one’s own culture and history. “That is the whole theme of the bien­nale,” says Komu, direc­
tor of programmes, KMB. “We wanted to continue the legacy of keeping the biennale an artist-curated project. And we were con­fident that Jitish would be capable of curating an innovative and experiential biennale as he has sound theoretical knowledge about contemporary art and the backing of a diverse yet meticulous approach to his own practice.”

From the little boy who was enamoured by the j sprawling billboards in Mumbai to being the first contemporary Indian artist to have a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kallat’s journey has been nothing short of phenome­nal. At art school, he turned to fine arts notbychoicebut by accident, as he couldn’t make the cut for his desired field—applied arts. The numerous biology sketches he drew for his older sister and her friends, in what he calls “domestic outsourc­ing”, could be the reason.


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