Vikram Phukan*

Contemporary theatre practice in India is perennially inchoate. Catching the wind, in whichever direction it blows, is par for the course for practitioners constantly playing catch up with the shifting signposts of arts advancement elsewhere in the world, now even more accessible than ever.

The lack of a rooted experimental ethos sometimes results in the small gains chalked up by a few being wiped out with the passing of each wave of would-be visionaries. Therefore, when new trends give rise to a flurry of creativity, one hopes that early promise is not belied. For instance, recently, we witnessed the spate of performative works that channeled collective anger and guilt at the vicious gang-rape of a young girl, Jyoti Pandey, in Delhi in 2012, which led to a spring of discontent descending upon the country. There was, of course, Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya, an assemblage of blunt testimonials of sexual abuse performed by victims themselves arranged around an unsettling dramatization of Pandey’s real-life ordeal. Discreetly cremated by the Indian state in real life, Singh (as performed by singer Japjit Kaur) was afforded funeral rites in the play, scored by the ritualistic chanting of names of Indian goddesses, so revered in a country where women are as easily denigrated. Then, Mallika Taneja’s Thoda Dhyan Se placed the naked ”Indian female body” (her own) right in the midst of the patriarchal gaze. A raw and powerful piece, it picked up an award at the Zurich Theatre Spectakel last year.

Pardeep Kaushik. Image courtesy Jyoti Dogra

Deepan Sivaraman took on the sweltering tropical vibe of a Marquez novella and created It’s Cold in Here, part-installation and part-performance. In one sequence, Sivaraman is a torero-like persona—his quarry is the limp figurine sprawled on the ground, its rag-doll limbs trussed up with scotch tape even as miles of cellophane evoke an evening gown. After a schmaltzy salsa-like routine with this dehumanized sexual object, he forces himself on her. The deed done, he feverishly disfigures his own visage with layers of mud and paint—tribalism lifted from the ”body art” of French physical performer, Olivier de Sagazan. It’s offensive, but appears to place the onus of rape on the man, something we don’t see enough of in a culture centered on victimhood.

The sense of outrage that marks these works certainly gets the conversation on gender inequities going, yet, changes on the ground take place at such a glacial pace that these ventures register as little more than blips. As Lyn Gardner writes in The Guardian, of Nirbhaya, “It gives us the tools to empathise, but not the tools to take action . . . (veering) dangerously close to well-meaning theatrical misery memoir.” As if taking her comments on board, for the limited Indian tour, the play included post-show discussions with audiences that were heated, emotional affairs.

Debina Rakshit. Image courtesy Jyoti Dogra

In many of these pieces, the more visceral responses are effected not by spoken text, but by more physical representations. Herein we see another trend that is revitalizing the theatre scene. Urban theatre practitioners are increasingly looking to create new languages of performance, incorporating movement with text and strong visuals, to create multi-sensory experiences, even if ”physical theatre” is not yet an active stream in itself. Of course, the Indian Nāṭya Śāstra was a treatise that encompassed all performing arts—theatre, dance and music—harking back to a time when the confluence of forms was the norm unlike today’s parallel cultures. In theatre, there are those whose works are rooted in India’s age-old dance theatre practice, like stalwarts Ratan Thiyam and the late Veenapani Chawla, who have run their own oases of arts experimentation for decades, in which traditional forms are harnessed to create contemporary performing idioms. In recent years, the concept of ”breath, body and space” is no longer just a byword and there has been widespread exploration in which actors’ bodies become as much a part of the creative process, as their voices or personalities. The volume of such emerging works in a relatively short span speaks of how new influences permeate a performing space open to change.

In Kerala, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) regularly programs contemporary dance. The 2014 edition, for which Sivaraman was the artistic director, had a rich itinerary of physical theatre with European troupes such as Derevo, the Debris Company and Studio Matejka, as well as de Sagazan, all in attendance. This year’s theme was ”the body politic” and the opening performance was Chandralekha’s once infamous Sharira — Fire and Desire, an erotically charged physical piece that was first performed in 2001, but is still as potent as ever in its portrayal of how a woman’s kundalini energies can be released to their full power. For a country still shackled by an antiquated morality and parochial attitudes towards women, nothing is more provocative than the juggernaut of female sexuality, which has long fed experimental works. This time, ITFoK also featured a unique dance exploration on masculinity, intriguingly titled A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae, from Delhi-based choreographer, Mandeep Raikhy. His Gati Dance Forum is an autonomous arts initiative, founded in 2007, that seeks to create a sustainable environment for the development of contemporary dance practice in the country. This is Raikhy’s second full-length piece, and premiered in 2013, although it has only toured over the past year.

Beant Singh Butter and Gurnam Kaiharba. Image courtesy Jyoti Dogra

It is a piece whose expansive design could scarcely fit into the proscenium at the K T Muhammed Theatre in Thrissur where it was performed. On both sides of a squarish arena, are large scaffold-like grids, with light fixtures on either side working akin to flickering Venetian blinds, creating pathways and intersections on the ground, and the diffused liminal spaces in which the play’s themes are likely to be negotiated. The seven-strong ensemble consists of six men and one woman, perhaps to create a spectrum that ranges from the hypermasculine to the innately female. They patrol the stage along right angles to a metallic industrial-style score by Yasuhiro Morinaga, kitted out in only underwear. At first there is a workman-like quality to their sauntering, an ant-like progression across the turf. Later they strut across imagined ramps, and show off their assets. The woman accentuates her breasts, as the men do their ”packages.” The seduction is no longer veiled. When they stop mid-stride, the performers look outward probingly (as Taneja does in her piece), trying to draw the onlooker/voyeur in. So, while the piece is ostensibly a meditation on masculinity, a secondary narrative that emerges very strongly is closely linked with alternative male sexuality, in a way that is primarily a comment on the urban gay world. In the shadows, a couple of dancers who wear long black socks, seem like male Venus de Milo figures, suspended in midair. This fetishization appears to represent a superficial idealization of masculinity. This is particularly true for a gay microcosm. The men are the various ”bare bodies” one may encounter if one were to log onto a gay dating online portal, where an obsession with physical beauty is almost an affliction of human nature.

Even if Victorian-era laws outlawing homosexuality persist in the country, the queer scene, dominated by men, thrives in urban pockets, and is, perhaps not too dissimilar from similar cultures elsewhere. The pieces of the puzzle then represent facets of an underground culture, some of which takes place very much in the open. They will, perhaps, be much more easily discernible to queer viewers who may recognize their lives in this exploration, yet, there are just enough clues to open up this world even to those insulated from it. Much of the choreography is slickly executed, even if the set-pieces are not constructed to showcase technique as much as to represent a functional universe. The movements have an observational quality, and the contemporary idiom employed seems organic to the characterization of these men.

Rahul Goswami, Parinay Mehra and Manju Sharma.
Photograph by Soumita Bhattacharya

The ”straight antennae,” perhaps, is the conditioning that is part of every conforming man’s rites of passage, but particularly oppressive to those with embedded feminine psyches that must be purged from within. Diniz Sanchez, the only dancer with an ”average” body, must bear the baggage of being such an effeminate man. A martial Raikhy is at hand to correct his gait, and steady his posture, and ensure his hands flop about him appropriately, sounding a stentorian roar each time Sanchez falls back to his feminine bearings. At one time, this onslaught of prescriptive behavior gets too much for him, leading to an explosion of indignation in the form of an operatic strain in a falsetto voice. Moments of levity such as this enliven the piece. In another amusing set-piece, a wonderfully orchestrated power play of ”mine is larger than yours” is taken to absurd lengths, and performed to a comic score. It underscores how we borrow from each other to make ourselves whole, trading in the chip on our shoulder for the chink on another’s armor.

The daily drudge that converts men into clockwork automatons is affectingly rendered, and Parinay Mehra embodies this stoicism well, with an impassive countenance on a body that springs to life with short bursts of vitality. Yet, even if the dancers fleetingly evoke the hidden costs of masculinity, it is never in any real sense. No tough questions are asked. Many of these set-pieces operate only on the surface as if merely representing a sub-culture in itself is enough. Some of the sequences seem indulgently prolonged. Raikhy appears to be engaged with constantly translating queer experiences. From a very striking beginning, the lighting devolves into something more generic, except in one interlude, where the cast performs in silhouettes, which literally examines a combative form of interaction between dancers. The gym, the playground, the roads, the buses, the dark alleyways, are all sites where men negotiate territory and identity. Yet, the true diversity of male experience proves elusive through the medium of these decidedly urbane male dancers.

Rajan Rathore. Photograph by Soumita Bhattacharya

Raikhy is the piece’s anchor, and provides an almost nurturing stewardship to the others; touching, holding, guiding with his eyes. A public encounter between two men segues into a love sequence that is refreshingly devoid of power dynamics. The men find equivalence in one another, and the slumber of bodies that fit well into each other leads to a lyrical pas de deux, where one man holds the other as he swings around, pivoting on the other’s body, giving us a sense of bodies folding in and folding out. Queer sexuality isn’t ever talked about in such deeply felt terms. Ultimately, the piece represents a fondness for the very masculinity that is shown to disfigure our psyches. This is why the lone female dancer (the otherwise efficient Manju Sharma) comes across as a token figure, single-handedly expected to provide counterpoints that are not germane to this exploration. The piece should therefore not be taken as a nuanced take on masculinity, but a mirror to a world that Raikhy is only too familiar with, but which remains obscured from the mainstream, for better or for worse.

Back at Delhi, the Gati Dance Forum’s Delhi headquarters recently played host to Jyoti Dogra’s new performance piece, Toye (A Sanskrit word for water). A prime mover in the world of experimental theatre, Dogra has immersed herself into the ”theatre laboratory” principles introduced by Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski—working with bodily impulses rather than kowtowing to a particular form—to emerge as one of our more free-spirited performers. Here, she directs an ensemble of young actors, fresh out of drama school, and gives us another take on human sexuality, this time set in the classical era. She is harnessing a classic tale full of elemental passions, made famous by playwright Girish Karnad in his play The Fire and The Rain. She employs the tenor of classical Hindi theatre, because the text is such that it demands declamation of the sort, but the corporeal elements emphasize larger emotions and residual meanings. The language of performance is thus contemporary, beginning with the slow churn of bodies on the stage, accompanied by low humming by the actors. The rhythms thus released bring in a quality of solemnity, and coupled with the earthy tones used for the costumes and the sparse production design, aids the illusion of us stepping into another realm and another time. The play deals with an episode from the Mahabharata, in which the children of two competing sages get embroiled in a saga of retribution and redemption. The actors take on multiple, and overlapping, identities. The Brahmin, Arvasu, is in love with a tribal girl, Nittilai, while his brother, Parvasu is married to the tempestuous Vishaka. Vishaka’s seduction by Yavakri, the son of her father-in-law’s rival and once her paramour, lends itself to a central set-piece.

Dance ensemble of the Gati Dance Forum. Photograph by Soumita Bhattacharya

Arranged at the corners of the performing space are four tables, each devoted to a pair of actors, their bodies carefully entwined even if intercourse is not yet a given. The slow, measured interplay of bodies depict the erotic desire of two people, once betrothed to one another, but also the negotiation of consent with all its ambiguities that modern eyes may find unsettling. One half of each pair (including a same-sex pairing) embodies Vishaka, and her body appears to give in, even if her own sense of propriety holds off Yavakri’s advances. Yavikri has returned from a stint in the forest, where his years of deep meditation has resulted in the God Indra granting him enlightenment, yet, the irony of his proprietorial gaze upon a woman eludes him. This episode’s various tellings over the years suffer from a Rashomon effect, with varying accounts of Yavakri’s belligerence and Vishaka’s complaisance. The long text written by Karnad for this exchange is allotted to each actor in parts, and because of this apportioning, for several minutes during the sequence, each couple is essentially silent and free to expand corporeally upon notions of longing, desire, complicity, and communion. The text then begins to feel almost trite, because the silent interaction between actors causes the unlocking of alternative narratives even if they are not played out completely, and the scene itself suffers from pacing issues. Most of Dogra’s young actors come from remote parts of mofussil India, and have possibly overcome their own scruples to throw themselves so handily into a purely physical exploration, yet, the sensation of touch is strangely absent in a play where touch is everything. It was in December, at the remote outpost of Indri, in Haryana’s Karnal district, that the scratch team of Toye assembled at a verdant primary school built on the site of a garbage dump. The first performance took place at the school, ingeniously using the space in its entirety, with the corridors, terraces and trees providing the perfect ambience to an epic tale of sexual politics. For four hours that evening, load-shedding, otherwise routine in the area, was suspended. The organisers had feared reprisals against the permissive content from Hindu groups, but the performance took place with a modicum of security detail, and the audience was quiet and respectful. The eroticism between brothers, between father and son, between father-in-law and daughter-in-law are layers of transgression Dogra adds. Yet, in this showing, the play never feels provocative enough.

She has managed to extract a commendable level of physical commitment from her actors. Of course, in scenes that have been fleshed out dramatically through text, they perform with a flourish that comes more easily. Unlike Raikhy’s dancers who were decidedly poker-faced, the actors here seem compelled to amplify emotions on their faces even while struggling with the intent of their gazes. Some scenes veer into melodrama. Phrases of text are sometimes explored bodily, to excavate more meanings than what is simply obvious. It isn’t evident if the physical representation itself annihilates the need for speech, but it cannot be denied that the story moves forward even in vast tracts of text from the original has been excised from this rendition. Sometimes these choices seem superfluous, yet, when a singular line or word uttered repeatedly becomes an extended moment with its own subtext, actors can truly transform into larger-than-life paragons. Debina Rakshit’s Vishaka recalls the shifting qualities of feminine indignation, then scorn, then outrage, then outright anger, then a lover’s soothing touch. It is yet another archetypal if competent depiction of the woman as conscience keeper. Tarun Dang’s stoicism belies Parvasu’s canniness, but suffuses the play with an uncertain gravitas, whereas Tushar Narang’s externalizing of his father’s ugliness of soul feels overbaked in comparison. Suman Jha is a revelation as Arvasu, a character called upon to perform the funeral rites for his slain father, the murdered Yavikri who lies on the ground like a wounded deer, and his own Nittilai, a lifeless form that is carried away from him. These iterations of grief and mourning in Jha’s performance becomes a powerful expression of the play’s pacifism. He is an embittered and fragile man torn apart by his filial affiliations. What is at first a labored performance dissolves into something much more elemental, almost like a harrowing rites of passage. Even at the close of play, Jha cannot bring himself to break character.

In the end, the play returns to the slow churn of bodies, this time the chanting in low timbre evoking a quality of escape and obliviousness. This matches with the cyclical patterns seen in A Male Ant has Straight Antennae, where the dancers are as expediently restored to the insects’ crawl they began with. Although strikingly different, in many ways both Raikhy’s and Dogra’s works seem complementary in nature, even symbiotic, given the current direction in which contemporary theatre seems to be heading. This is a teetering eco-system with very thinly distributed infrastructure, in which arts funding is almost a misnomer, and the temperament for innovation and introspection remains elusive, and sometimes even actively resisted. Around us, there continue to thrive performing cultures that are more stubbornly obdurate, either wedded to the risk-averse mainstream or to ages-old traditions, for which oblivion is still a world away. In between, hierarchies emerge, and the meagre legacies of a select few are embalmed for posterity. The continuum of history, if not of practice, is provided for. We have our share of busts on the wall. Yet, the wisdom of centuries eludes us. But it is this very sense of having to reinvent the wheel each time that keeps the scene exciting and fresh.


*Vikram Phukan is a Mumbai-based playwright and stage critic. He is the theatre columnist for India’s national newspaper, The Hindu, and his writings on theatre have also appeared in several other publications. His is a Working Committee member of the Indian branch of the IATC. His work as playwright includes Stories in a Song, Limbo, an Indian adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Price, The Gentlemen’s Club and an upcoming play based on Begum Akhtar. His directorial debut, Those Left Behind Things, a play he has written on Iranian asylum seekers, is slated to open in 2016. He also runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions.

Copyright © 2016 Vikram Phukan
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae