In search of a hero

A review of “Impressions of Bhima”
Directed by Veenapani Chawla At British Council Division

It’s been almost ten years since Veenapani Chawla attended Eugenio Barba’s theatre laboratory. Ten years, two substantial productions and a few small pieces for local audiences in Pondicherry, where she now lives. Not much, one could assume, for the quiet girl whose passion for theatre first began while doing backstage work in college productions in Delhi’s Miranda House.

The magnitude of Veenapani Chawla’s work at her Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts Research is evident only when we see one of the few productions that occasionally make their way out of Pondicherry. A body vocabulary that is a result of her training in Mayurbhanj Chhau (which she learnt in 1983 in Orissa and Delhi), followed by extensive training in the martial art Kalarippayattu in Kerala, and recently, extended interactions and exchanges with seasoned practitioners of Kathakali and Koodiyattam. Add to that a fascination for cinema, for music, years of delving into the writings of Sri Aurobindo, and the amazing talents of lead actor Vinayakumar (who has gone through a similar process of training in Kalari-Kathakali-Koodiyattam). What you get is a theatre that expands with the body, soars with the word, explores a performance space, and inhabits every nook and corner of our minds. A work-in-progress. Growing, evolving. Where tomorrow holds the promise of new directions, new discoveries as well as the anxiety of funds drying up. A tomorrow that peeks at her from books, from music, from Arundhati Roy’s reference to “Naley” (tomorrow) in “The God of Small Things”. And despite the anxiety, the ups and downs, tomorrow is precious to Veenapani Chawla.

“Naley,” says Veenapani Chawla, meditatively, looking at an invisible point across the room. Tomorrow. A day in the future, unseen, untouched. She caresses the word lovingly, trying out various pitches. As with the characters in her plays. Lovingly, gently, drawing out their complexity, mocking their pomposity, their arrogance, and smiling at their playfulness. And with quiet determination setting them on their search for “truth”.

The metaphors come alive in “Bhima”, most recently performed by members of Chawla’s Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts Research at the British Council Division in New Delhi on March 16-17, 1998. “Traditionally, Bhima is the man of power and strength,” says Veenapani. “But in this play, he is not a real person really. It was more conceptual. I moved from the epic to creating a very sweet, childlike person. Then recreating an idealised person who becomes heroic. Let us say, that it wasn’t a character but a personal struggle to rise above small things.”
So the first image of Bhima is a sound. The sound of the suprabhatam. Of Vinayakumar’s resonant voice, emanating out of a dark stage, reciting the various names of Bhima, evoking an element of Bhakti, that Veenapani says, has been inspired by Kumar Gandharva’s singing. The next image is Vinayakumar. He is Bhima. Big, strong, the warrior, the hero. Revelling in his body, in his strength. In his first kill, a wild boar. It is a metaphor that is to surface again and again. The wild boar and “bali” or sacrifice. A sacrifice that is denied to him, because he killed his first animal outside the game of the hunt. A sacrifice that he will make much later. And of much larger magnitude.

Veenapani Chawla’s exploration of Bhima started when both Vinayakumar and she were undergoing Uzhichil or Kalari massage at a Kalari in Vattoli in Kerala. “Since we were not allowed to sleep during the day time, I spent the time translating and reading M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s book “Randamoozham” which is like an alternate Mahabharata, to Veenapani, explains Vinay. “She was fascinated, not so much by the book, but by my passion for the character of Bhima. So we started working on creating a play.”

The big question that reared its head once they delved into the myth of Bhima was: who is a hero for our time, what defines the heroic. “If we accept the myth of Bhima as it is, accept that concept of the heroic, then it naturally leads to, say, Clint Eastwood or even Terminator II,” says Veenapani. “So we deconstructed the myth of Bhima and created, instead, a hero for our times. When Bhima laments the death of Duryodhana, he tries very hard to convince himself that he has to carry on in the same vein, be Bhima the warrior, the killer. But there is a voice within him that is urging him towards a very different direction. He is torn apart, ragged with the desperate, intense need to discover the truth for himself.”

Symbols accumulate one upon another. Bhima goes in search for his uncle Vidura, who is a symbol of wisdom and truth. Further and further into the jungle (historically seen as a life-affirming space, says Veenpani), in never-ending circles seemingly leading nowhere, at the peak of his despair, he comes to a clearing (“which represents the soul”), where, against one solitary tree, stands a naked Vidura. Bhima steps forward, Vidura embraces him, and Bhima faints. Unable to bear the shock of receiving all that Vidura has given him: all the knowledge he possesses, knowledge of the truth of the universe, of himself. Explains Veenapani, “Bhima is looking for a state of moksha on this earth itself. Which is why, towards the end, he says he will not go on the mahaprasthanam, or the final journey, because he is not ready. He has finally learnt that he must grapple with the wild boar within himself — the incapacity, death, desire, all that limits man to realise his utter potentiality, and focus his energy to undo those little knots, and not just cut them.”

Veenapani makes this complex philosophical statement, gently, and with humour, using a body vocabulary that she has been developing over the past decade. Vinayakumar’s solo performance in “Bhima” is the meeting point for diverse performing traditions — the body language of the martial art Kalarippayattu, the drama of Kathakali and the principles of breath from Koodiyattam as well as Tai-tchi, and the imagery of cinema.

“What the actor says is not the most important,” explains Veenapani. “What is left unsaid is imaged by the actor’s body, by the music which acts as a subtext, as a bridge between one character and another, between one time and another, one mood and another, one space and another. It punctuates, it is a character on stage.”

If music is the subtext, the body forms the key text in Veenapani’s work. And it is in actor Vinayakumar that one sees what can only be called, the “Veenapani vocabulary”. There are no stolen fragments of Kalarippayattu, no snatches of Koodiyattam. Instead, one sees a body that is able to charge the theatre space with its presence alone, flow from laughter to tears with a change of breath, and crumple up to look like the oldest man alive and suddenly rise to be a man of brute strength; big, so big that he seems to stretch towards eternity itself. From the old and shaky Yudhishtira to the mighty Bhima, Vinayakumar’s performance is charged with the most powerful elements of some of the grandest performing traditions.

“To develop this vocabulary, I’ve taken that element which is “informing” a medium and incorporating it into the theatrical performance,” says Veenapani. So, while Kalari helps break down the rigid way in which one uses the body, breath control comes from Koodiyattam. “In Koodiyattam, they take the breath and concentrate it on various predefined psychological points. Their concept is that you get into the physical state and the emotion will follow.”
The principle extends itself to text as well, though words are kept at a minimum in Veenapani’s productions. “Since breath is the physical extension of thought and emotion, I started thinking what would happen if one controlled text with breath,” she says.

“It is like a palette with a brush and paint,” adds Vinayakumar. “Once you know how to create an emotion physically, through breath, the possibilities are endless. One can spend a lifetime exploring the nine bhavas laid down in Koodiyattam.”

Cinema too has been a recent, and powerful, influence in developing her vocabulary. “In cinema, text is minimal and the visual is the strongest statement. The audience today is getting used to faster and faster images, so what do we do in theatre? Do we have words and words and words? Or can we somehow take that vital element from cinema — not clone it — but take that one element which makes it such a powerful medium, and transform theatre with that? asks Veenapani.

It is just such a transformed theatre that one sees in Veenapani’s productions. A process that is continuous and never-ending. “Many of the principles that we’ve begun to work with in “Bhima” take shape in the new productions “Brhhanala”, which is based on episodes in the Mahabharata where, during exile, Arjuna takes on the guise of Brhhanala, a female dance and music teacher, and “Khandavaparastha”, based, again, on an episode from the Mahabharata where Arjuna and Krishna burn the forest to feed Agni)” So, while Vinay takes a long leap from Bhima to become Brhhanala, “Khandavaparastha” has Koodiyattam exponent Usha as the key performer.
Why this recent fascination for the Mahabharata? “I really don’t know,” shrugs Veenapani. “I’m just letting it happen and going along with it. We’re constantly growing, learning, transforming. Which is why it takes almost two years to arrive at one performance. We have to constantly go back to first principles, be sure why we’re doing what we’re doing. If we arrive, we’re finished. Then we’ll just be churning out one performance after another.”

A review of “Impressions of Bhima” directed by Veenapani Chawla At British Council Division, New Delhi. March 16-17, 1998

Photographs © Ajay Jaiman. Text © Arti Jaiman.

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