Words are used sparingly in Adishakti theatre's Ganapati. Perhaps this is where the performance's power lies, for the actors rely instead on rhythm and percussion. Words are woven into this fabric, rhythmic chatter - that reaches straight for the emotions of the audience. "Language itself is a translation of emotion," says Vinay Kumar, a faculty member at Adishakti, who has been with the group and its founder, Veenapani Chawla, since the beginning.
This year, as they celebrate Veenapani in the fifth year since her passing, Adishakti comes to Bengaluru with two productions - Ganapati and Brhannala. In Brhannala, the story of Arjuna, perhaps the pre-eminent hero of the Mahabharata. Through the epic, he shines, even as a child, as the epitome of virtue, grace and and as a warrior, the favourite of his teacher, Drona. The play explores his time in exile, when Arjuna goes as an ascetic to the Himalayas to prepare for the battle of Kurukshetra. In the 13th year of his exile, he becomes Brhannala, embracing the feminine powers within himself. Brhannala teaches the ladies of the court to sing and dance and acts as a playmate to the king's children, until the war breaks out and Arjuna must return to his role as the warrior.
"We are restricted by words like male and female, unfortunately," remarks Vinay, who is the sole performer in Brhannala. The transition itself lies in metaphor, in the difference between the left (male) brain and the right (feminine) brain. "The play deals with the stories woven by Brhannala, an exploration of how the right brain sees sequences, it lives in the present, while the left brain sees the past and the future as well. It's not male or female in terms of gender, but rather as capacity building." Ganapati tells a few of the countless stories behind India's much loved deity, the "hybrid" God, who is half man, half elephant. Ganapati can be seen, says Vinay, "as an assimilation of multiple points of view. We have confrontations, yes, but we embrace all those views and incorporate them into our traditions. This is brought out in the coming together of man and animal. We look at the stories of Ganapati through the concepts of creation, destruction and sustenance." And there is choice - "The baby elephant who was friends with little Ganesha willingly gave its head. It was not forced to do so. That's what made Ganapati immortal, an act of free will." The emphasis on exploring the right brain, the impact and importance of real experience, came from Veenapani herself. She had had no formal training in theatre and was school teacher in Mumbai, during which time she realised her love for the performing arts. "At that time, theatre was more inclined towards rational thought and analytical tools. Being a displaced Punjabi born in Mumbai, she was interested in the idea of identity, one that went beyond rationality," says Vinay. "She started looking at credible ways of creating an intense, emotional performance."
Adishakti was founded in 1981 and her first play, Sophocles' Oedipus, starred Naseeruddin Shah. On 1984, she began to research older art forms, looking for a language to express a contemporary performance concept that was entirely her own. She went on to study the martial arts and did research in other fields like Ayurveda. In 1993, Vinay and Veenapani felt the need to move away from the city, founding Adishakti, one of India's first theatre spaces of its kind, in Auroville, where it is even today, as a multidisciplinary space for the arts.
What: Remembering Veenapani: Adishakti presents Ganapati and Brhannala
When: Ganapati – Dec 6, 7.30 pm Dec 7, 3.30 & 7.30 pm, Brhannala – Dec 8, 3.30 pm & 7.30 pm
Where: Ranga Shankara, 36/2, 8th Main, JP Nagar, II Phase