Interview with Chandradasan
Interviewed by Lissa Tyler Renaud
CHANDRADASAN is artistic director of Lokadharmi in Kerala, India. Chandradasan founded Lokadharmi, the Centre for Theatre Training, Research and Performance in Kerala, India in 1991 to foster theatre as an integral part of life outside the metro areas. For his productions with Lokadharmi Theatre Group, as well as with his children’s theatre group, Mazhavillu (“Rainbow”; since 2001), he has been a steady recipient of many of India’s most coveted awards in a range of state, national and international competitions, including those for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Play, Best Folk Narrative, and Outstanding Contribution to Indian Theatre, among others. In 2008, his production of Karnnabharam won the highly prestigious Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards for Best Play, Best Costume Design and Best Set Design. His directing and play translations have been seen throughout South Asia and in Europe, and in five languages:Malayalam, English, Sanskrit, Kannada and Tamil. Chandradasan is also a widely-published theatre writer and scholar, and serves as a resource for numerous universities, theatre institutes and advisory boards.
Implied in Chandradasan’s work is the question: how can theatre address the needs of my society? In answer, his Theatre Centre serves to create a culture reminiscent of an earlier village life in which theatre was an inextricable part—politically conscious, socially inclusive, inter-generational and collective. An important part of his strategy is to provide interdisciplinary training specific to his theatre’s sensibility. Chandradasan’s artistically adventurous combination of community-based, participatory folk theatre, with an international reach and insight into the Western dramatic canon, is a dynamic and unusually purposeful contribution to the theatre of today.
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world?—or to a community’s consciously or unconsciously avoiding it?
Well, perhaps the answer is: yes and no. Like anywhere else, the social situation in India is complex, and if you really want to expose the truth—especially when that truth is not so sweet, or hurts the interests of the centres of power or religious groups—it is both difficult and risky… But artists all over the world have taken that risk, and “faced the bad fiddle,” and struggled.
I can say that there is no direct censorship in my country, and that the most effective censorship is indirect and invisible. India is a country with freedom of expression, and you are “free” to address any issue on stage or in any other form of artistic expression.
But when you want to expose religious groups or institutions, clergy, or other such organised centres of power, it is not so very simple. Our society is becoming more and more fundamentalist in its religious make up, and no group—Hindu, Christian or Muslim–welcomes being exposed with a cold heart. I remember the Church protesting, with fury and vengeance, when one of the theatre groups performed a play based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. The protest took to the streets, becoming a “law and order situation,” and eventually effectively banning the play. Artists have also protested and been silenced by collective religious brutality. There was also the incident of Safdar Hashmi, who was brutally attacked and murdered by right-wing hoodlums on the streets of suburban Delhi on January 1st, 1989, while he was performing a street play named Hallabol, about the rights of industrial workers. I can also cite the recent incident of the greatest painter, M. F. Husain, who left India to seek a political haven in Qatar to avoid death threats, court cases and the like, resulting from the protest and anger of certain Hindu fundamentalists who argue that some of his paintings undermine the Hindu ethos and the sentiments of Hindu believers…
These blatant and direct attacks compel the artist to have restraint and to avoid risks unless you are empowered by social or political support, or have some other collective to shield you. Thus, many issues are avoided, or emerge as indirect allegories, or are concealed in artistic images, cleverly hidden in metaphors and the like. The result is that the theatre becomes less and less sharp in its political content and expression. Naturally, the aspiring theatre artist will shift his focus to the craft and form of expression rather than to content, and this is a general truth about the contemporary stage of India.
I could say that this is a form of indirect censorship, a kind of unspoken education given to the young theatre person—that to be successful, you have to handle more general or “universal” themes that hurt no one, orient your theatre less towards contemporary political or religious issues that may be dangerous.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
For me, the design of a play is an integral part of the meaning of the play itself. The design is slowly developing in me as my understanding and interpretation of the text are developing in me. Unless the design is revealing the meaning of the text (the meaning of the play as I see it; the relevance of the text to me, to my immediate time and space) I won’t start directing the play. Thus, I do my own designs, but I engage technicians to execute them. It is very easy to interact with set makers or designers and an art director, since the design is already crystallised in me, and is realised in concrete terms with the live actors in the blocking of the production. I am fairly fast in arriving at the basic structure or design of the space, set and artistic sense of the production.
Of course, the details will be developing and growing as the work with the actors and the rehearsals proceed, but the seed of the basic design will be the starting point. The formation of the basic design and its maturation happen in me very quickly at times, or over a few months at other times. I won’t start working till the design resonates and clearly reflects the meaning of the text.
I find it very easy to work with art directors, property and set makers, but at times I find it a little difficult with music and lighting designers. With musicians, I feel they are a little stubborn about the “quality” of the music and its “perfect execution” in everything from rhythm to nuances, etc. For me, music is an effect that accentuates the feeling and understanding of the context and content of the play, rather than a separate aesthetic factor. A little conflict may arise here. I have also felt that many lighting technicians focus more on technique than on the effect and feel, which are more important to me.
But somehow I succeed in communicating to the technicians about the needs of my designs.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
Honestly, I enjoy all the different parts of the process of play production. I enjoy the process of preparing a production more than performing it. I enjoy working with actors, and making them into the narrative or performative form of the design. And when the mutual interaction between us succeeds in emotionally emphasising the meaning of the text, and the text opens up with new layers of meaning that are more relevant and immediate to the life of our times, I am really thrilled. The achievement of new heights of expression through the actors’ association with me is really the high point of the play production process for me.
I don’t usually come to rehearsal with a pre-conceived idea about the blocking and other details. Of course, the basic design and the positions and narrative mode of the whole play are already clear for me. I find it really thrilling and challenging to arrive at the blocking in working with the actors and it comes spontaneously and organically at that moment and phase of the live, creative process. When I find that a certain unit or idea is not working as it should, I may take a break for a day and approach it again with a totally changed mindset and a new blocking strategy, and it usually works. My approach is flexible enough to allow a totally new approach while keeping the overall design firm.
I find it irritating when the technical aspects are not finished in time. Yes, sometimes I find that time management is my problem. But I have techniques for exerting pressure to overcome these!
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
As the question implies, most critics are… run-of-the-mill. But I have come across some very sensitive reviews and analyses of my productions that have helped me go back and understand the essence of my own theatre. These have come from critics, journalists, friends, researchers and colleagues.
For example, I had thought of myself as a director who gives immense freedom to my actors—freedom to improvise, develop and find their own ways of expressing themselves. I like calling myself an actor’s director, and hope to keep my craft and myself invisible behind the craft of the actor. But once there was a French researcher, Anne Dubose, who was following the rehearsals of my adaptation of Ubu Roi, in which I thought I had given the actors immense freedom. But she told me I was actually a very rigid director. She said my designs were so strong and defined that the actors could not break through them. The freedom the actors seemed to enjoy was actually held within the framework of these strong designs. True, the design of each play demands a particular type of physicality and acting pattern from them, and that is specific and defined in each production. The only thing is that my design also leaves space for the actors to maintain their personal inclinations in creating their characters; it accommodates the strengths of each actor, and hides his limitations. So the actors naturally yield very happily to the demands of the design and the acting system or pattern or energy, since the process is physical-corporeal, organic and humane. This comment of Anne’s helped me to understand my own theatre in a new light, with more clarity.
And what is “your own theatre”?
I work with different types of texts from different sources—from classical Sanskrit, the Greeks, Shakespeare, and modern or contemporary plays written in many languages (Indian and non-Indian)—but ultimately I interpret all those texts so as to explore the contemporary reality of my time and society. My productions look into the political and cultural realities of the marginalized and the underprivileged. I see plays as a means to narrate the history of social suppression and power relationships. Theatre is an alternative form of writing “history”—the history that is not written in conventional, mainstream history books.
You also find time for a career as a professor of chemistry. Does your knowledge of chemistry inform your theatre directing?
I think yes. My training in scientific reasoning—analyses, inferences, conclusions—allows my approach to staging a play to be coherent, transparent and spontaneous.
 Lissa Tyler Renaud, a master teacher of acting and voice at InterArts Training in California, has taught throughout the U.S. and at major theatre institutions of South Korea, India, Taiwan and Singapore. A recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, among others, she is an award-winning actress and is recognized as a director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published in 2009 by Routledge. She was recently U.S. delegate to the international conference at CEUVOZ (Centro de Estudios para el Uso de la Voz), a pioneering institute for voice training in Mexico City.