Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Remembering Veenapani

By Gowri Ramnarayan

What can you say when a friend dies of heart failure at age 67? An artiste with a singular aesthetic vision, intriguing creativity, amazing originality? A theatreperson whose intuitive grasp was matched by her intellectual acuity? A woman whose spiritual orientation did not distance, but sensitized her to the traumas of the material world?  Whose one-of-a-kind theatre strove not for emotional catharsis, but epiphanic wisdom?

Veenapani Chawla’s pluralistic vision came from many fields. With postgraduate degrees in history and political philosophy, courses in piano and singing, voice training in London and theatre apprenticeship in Denmark, Veenapani acquired skills in several Indian performance traditions -- Mayurbhanj Chhau, Kalaripayattu, Koodiyattam and dhrupad.

When I first met young Veenapani in old Madras, I found her glance as arresting as her tasseled choli. We exchanged giggles as only adolescents can. Decades later, when we reconnected -- as theatre personality and journalist -- we instantly slipped back into that effortless camaraderie. I saw Veenapani was engaged not merely in creating theatre “shows”, brilliant as they were, but in building a modern performance methodology steeled by traditional Asian theories and techniques.   

She told me, “Night after night, Koodiyattom maestro Ammanur Madhava Chakkiar refracted emotions with the same power and freshness. Watching him I realized that, by varying multiple patterns of breath, we can depict different shades of emotions accurately. Fear can even momentarily stop breath.  Japanese Noh drama and Koodiyattam have honed breathing techniques for centuries. If we could create a hybrid methodology from different traditions, what infallible means we shall have to texture each moment in performance!”

With the next breath, she could say, “Wow!” as she bit into a piping hot potato bonda, dipped in roasted khuskhus, fresh from the kitchen, and add with a conspiratorial smile, “Shall we watch “Kakka Kakka” (a Tamil thriller!) tonight?” All her scholarship could not dislodge her childlike joy in small, unexpected things.

I knew the journey had not been easy. Veenapani had to virtually squeeze water out of rock. Her indefatigable fundraising efforts managed to establish her Adishakti theatre commune in Pondicherry, with residential quarters for the repertory, and a gem of a theatre. She conducted workshops to exchange knowledge with diverse experts, including the yearly Ramayana symposium. She had the endearing generosity to offer her space to other needy theatre persons for developing their work. 

Veenapani’s internationally acclaimed theatre has been described as an amalgam of myth, metaphor and magic. Certainly much of her scriptwriting and directorial work reinvented myths with multidimensional meanings. Her “Impressions of Bhima” place the archetype in a subaltern landscape, with cartoon and caricature to inscape his psychical evolution. “Ganapati” reinterprets creation/creativity, by retelling primordial birth myths in a cyclical structure, from multiple perspectives. Her interactions with rhythms of many kinds, genres and folk traditions, found new narrative resonances in this play of few words.

In “Brhannala”, incomparable archer Arjuna crosses the gender divide to become a woman teacher of dance and music. Focusing on his name “Savyasachi” (ambidexterous), Veenapani melds science (Einstein), psychology (Niels Bohr), metaphysics (Sri Aurobindo) in actor Vinay Kumar’s superb movements, gestures and expressions. She shapes her own metaphors -- modern and universal -- to prove that polarities can be resolved in a startlingly new apprehension of reality.      

Veenapani belonged to the tradition of epic makers who strove to dispel darkness, discover dharma. She embraced modern technology, relished layering hybridity.  Pioneering such theatre was experimenting with truth, heightening sensuous and spiritual awareness.

Fortunately, Veenapani had the foresight to delegate responsibility, respect creativity in co-workers. Surely these legatees will find the adishakti, elemental power, to continue the quest. 

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