Deepa Punjani[1]

Theatre Director and Scenographer Deepan Sivaraman
Theatre Director and Scenographer Deepan Sivaraman

Theatre is perhaps the most vibrant of art forms; it brings together a number of artistic disciplines. But ever since the time of the Greeks, theatre has been primarily about the words. Even today we often equate the success of a play with its script. How then can we begin to look at new and hybrid forms of performance through which contemporary theatre-makers want to break down the hegemony of the word to lead us to perhaps different, deeper and more provocative experiences? The answers are at best contentious, but the question is becoming increasingly urgent in theatre cultures in which the sacrosanct word has to contend with a new breed of artists seeking to move beyond it.

Award-winning theatre director Deepan Sivaraman from India is one of them. He graduated from the Central St. Martin’s college of Art and Design in London and spent several years in the UK besides showcasing his work in other European countries. Yet while abroad he was in constant touch with his roots in his native Kerala, where he has his own theatre company called Oxygen.

Currently based in Delhi, Sivaraman is Associate Professor at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University Delhi. Sivaraman prefers to describe himself as a scenographer and makes a strong case for a theatre that can be much more than the sum of its words. His work demonstrates a heightened visual sensibility. His global outlook makes him one of the contemporary theatre-makers from India to be watched for.

DEEPA PUNJANI: How would you contextualize your theatre practice within India’s larger theatre culture?

DEEPAN SIVARAMAN :I have never actually tried to look at my work in the context of Indian theatre practices. Since you have raised this question I will try to answer it. When I talk about Indian theatre history, I like to divide it into four parts: pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial and post-post-colonial. The ritualistic, traditional and folk theatre forms fall into the category of the pre-colonial. The emergence of the proscenium, the subsequent development of melodrama, and Parsi theatre (India‘s first modern commercial theatre, highly influential in the 1850s and 1930s) can be considered as colonial.

As post-colonial theatre we have had theatre of the roots movement, the emergence of the National School of Drama, political and activist theatre, and the experimentation brought in by women directors in India.

In the post post-colonial category I would categorize the work that has happened in the last decade in the new century. My own practice might be said to be located in these times. I see my work as the continuation of experiments brought in by directors Anuradha Kapur and Anamika Haksar. I consider their work as the beginnings of Indian avant-garde theatre, which among other things, challenges the word-based performance culture in India — and which questions notions of authenticity and tradition.

My work is very visual, but in the structural narrative of my work, I have always maintained a simultaneous visual and textual narrative. My recent productions have been largely influenced by the Polish avant-gardists Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski and companies like Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment and Societas Raffeaelo Sanzo.

My approach is to establish a performance language which is based on scenography and which explores space while collaborating with various art disciplines. I have been fascinated by the visual language of Richard Forman, Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage, Simon McBurney and Oskaras Korsunovas. You may place my work at the crossroads of 21st century theatre in India which has had lots of influences from across time, cultures and art disciplines. My attempt is to transcend, in our context, the strict boundaries between visual art and theatre — and to try to provide an experience beyond conventional drama.

“Ubu Roi,” an adaptation of Alfred Jarry's French classic work, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by the National School of Drama Delhi (India), April 2012 ⓒ Photo by Thyagarajan
“Ubu Roi,” an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s French classic work, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by the National School of Drama Delhi (India), April 2012 ⓒ Photo by Thyagarajan

The notion of text in your kind of work is not limited to the words only. How do you understand text?

I do believe that the written text is important, but I don’t feel restricted by it. I consider the written text as raw material from which a performance text can be evolved. Theatre is a hybrid form of art and literature certainly is part of that, but it need not be binding to be able to deliver a good theatre experience. I don’t have a problem with the word, but it tends to have supremacy over action and whatever else that may follow. It proceeds to hijack the other elements. During the play making process I always work with the text and with scenography simultaneously. The scenography and the written text should evolve together. That’s the reason why I usually don’t work with ready texts written by somebody else. I feel better to be inspired by a text which can be in any form, be it a play, novel, story or poetry.

When you decide to mount a production, what is the elementary process that you first go through?

I often start the rehearsal without any written script but only with some visual ideas for the action. To begin with, I draw these ideas out on paper, make three-dimensional models of my drawings, and make a chronology of the actions, which at some point take physical shape through the interaction and collaboration with the actors.

So my relationship with the actors and fellow designers is very crucial. When I start to create the action on the stage, I add text to it and keep reforming it in tandem with the visual ideas. I understand the text through the process of developing a scenography and similarly try to develop the scenography through the process of writing the text.

Describe a typical day of directing your actors once you are on the floor with them.

It depends on which part of the rehearsal process we are talking about. Almost until the final days I keep exploring things on the floor in terms of text, action and design. Actors with conventional training often become cautious about the outcome of this sort of process, and the main challenge is to convince them that we are on track. Initial days involve lots of exercises both physical and psychological, working with space, objects, text and movement. Usually I divide my rehearsal process into three sections.

In the first part I introduce the text to the actors and to the design team, and we start to explore it through improvisations. Improvising with actors is quite normal in the performance making process, but one may ask, How do I improvise with the design team?

Gopalan and the puppet dog (object design by Anto George) in “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by Oxygen Theatre Company (India), 2010 ⓒ Photo by Thyagarajan
Gopalan and the puppet dog (object design by Anto George) in “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by Oxygen Theatre Company (India), 2010 ⓒ Photo by Thyagarajan

Let me give you an example. While I was working on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt I thought of using the character of a devilish dog which chases Peer Gynt throughout the play. I took this idea to my object designer Anto George, and he started to improvise a puppet dog and came up with a prototype which he handed to the actors. They improvised with it for several days and handed it back to Anto asking to alter it according to the sequence they had developed. Concurrently I wrote the dialogues for the character of the Devil, closely watching the communication that had developed between the actors and the design team. In the end an important character got evolved and became the strongest image in the play. In this process it’s very important to have both performers and the design team work together from the very beginning so that they can respond to each other’s imagination.

The second part of the rehearsal begins with casting. By this time the entire team is familiar with the kind of theatre language I am exploring. There will be the questions of space, design and partial text to work on. Hence my rehearsal method also changes here. From here on I begin to focus on the structure of the play by bringing all the elements together.

In the last stage I am mainly polishing and editing the performance. Here again I give lot of attention to the design. I often choose to have an acting/speech trainer who can focus on the actors.

Student actors Lapdiang Syiem, Bandana Rawat and Bhasha Sumbli in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with direction by Anuradka Kapus, and visual design by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by the National School of Drama Delhi (India), April 2012 © Thyagarajan
Student actors Lapdiang Syiem, Bandana Rawat and Bhasha Sumbli in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with direction by Anuradka Kapus, and visual design by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by the National School of Drama Delhi (India), April 2012 © Thyagarajan

You recently collaborated with director Anuradha Kapur as a visual designer for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a production by students of the National School of Drama Delhi. This promenade piece of theatre was particularly enhanced by your design. How did you go about working on the brief given to you?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a collaborative project with Anuradha Kapur in which I had a lot of freedom to explore the scenographic language rather than just reinforcing the imagination of the director. I was able to explore and develop a visual text working along with eight design students in concurrence with the narrative structure the director was developing with the actors and the dramaturge. It was a very challenging process as we were working within National School of Drama premises, which don’t have any gothic feel to them — a concept which we wanted to explore in the design.

Neither of us wanted to construct anything heavy, but we ended up building two spaces. We had to study the existing spaces thoroughly and explored possibilities. We did not want the audience to see the play in a particular pattern, so we offered them the possibility of various ways of seeing the performance. The idea of using a truck was to solve a scenographic problem. We thought let’s take the scene to the spectators for a change, instead of them walking towards it.

You are primarily a visual artist and a scenographer. These skills I believe have greatly shaped your role as a director, too. You have directed your own productions as well as lent your expertise to other directors. Which has been more satisfying?

I am not sure whether I am primarily a visual artist or a theatre director. I started to direct plays at the same time when I started to paint and make objects. I would say that both theatre and visual art inform my work. It’s a great feeling when you have overall control of the production; you feel that you really own it, much like a painter who can claim his canvas. That is why I have my own theatre company.

Actors James, Deepan, Rajan, Anil and Prathapan in “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by Oxygen Theatre Company (India), 2010 © Thyagarajan
Actors James, Deepan, Rajan, Anil and Prathapan in “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy by Deepan Sivaraman, performed by Oxygen Theatre Company (India), 2010 © Thyagarajan

You were in London for many years before you decided to return to India. Why?

I lived in London for almost 10 years, and I was an academic mainly. My actual engagement with theatre was rather basic. Interestingly, my theatre began to blossom in India while I was living in London. I found myself leading a double life. In London I was teaching theatre, and in India I was practicing what I was teaching. It was frustrating.

My main reason to return to India is to establish an art school where I intend to develop a performance art program that is more edgy and informed by the art of the 21st century. I wish to develop a centre where students can explore performance art in relation to other disciplines of art and where borders between disciplines can be crossed.

In addition, I am very keen to develop a practice-based research program which will allow practitioners to get a doctorate through their practice instead of just knowing theory. This is already an established research method developed across Europe and in the USA. Hence when I got the offer from the Ambedkar University in Delhi, I thought it was a great opportunity to realize my plans.

Oxygen Theatre Company’s “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy
by Deepan Sivaraman (India), 2010

Let me play devil’s advocate and ask you this: Do you feel that your visual ideas might actually compromise the written word? How did you deal with a playwright like Ibsen, for instance, when you staged his Peer Gynt?

A classic text like Peer Gynt has no value unless you make it contemporary. It is pointless to tell the story of a man who lived in the mountains of Norway to the 21st century Indian audience. It just does not work. The story of Peer Gynt is certainly universal, and that’s why we call it a classic. But that universality cannot be taken for granted, because life has changed, and we have moved on from the time since Ibsen wrote the play.

Personally I consider Peer Gynt to be the best of Ibsen’s plays. It never limited my imagination and instead opened the tremendous possibilities of visual exploration. I have not added anything extra to that play other than contextualizing and contemporizing the sequences which Ibsen wrote. It’s a most complex and absurd text which matches well with my kind of politics and imagination. I would have been in greater trouble if I had selected his more famous plays, like A Doll’s House, because of their realistic nature. I always choose a text which offers the possibility of letting my imagination run wild, and that’s why I have preferred to work with the texts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alfred Jarry.

Amongst the productions you have done so far, which has been your favorite and why?

Ubu Roi is the most mature work among all I have done so far. It’s a developed form of the kind of theatre I have been exploring during the last decade. Certainly I enjoyed making Spinal Cord and Peer Gynt. However, I feel that by making Ubu Roi I had managed to go one step further in exploring the visual aspects of a performance.

Oxygen Theatre Company’s “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy
by Deepan Sivaraman (India), 2010

Among your contemporaries in India, whose work have you liked? Why?

I have always very curiously looked at the works of Anamika Haksar, Anuradha Kapur and Abhilash Pillai. These directors have tried to establish a theatre language which provides an alternative to word-based narratives.

Apart from theatre, what else inspires you? Which have been your other creative influences?

The visual art scene in India and abroad is always an inspiration for me to re-look into the nature of the work I produce. I watch innovative films and update my reading; it is very important to have a good understanding of what’s happening in other disciplines.

Do you prefer to teach or to do theatre?

It’s always a challenge for an artist to become a teacher and to continue his practice simultaneously. I try to enjoy my teaching as much as I enjoy my practice. It’s a rather difficult task to teach theatre. I inspire my students through my own practice and by showing them different possibilities of theatre-making. My teaching becomes a form of continuous education for myself.

Oxygen Theatre Company’s “Peer Gynt,” by Henrik Ibsen, with direction, scenography and dramaturgy
by Deepan Sivaraman (India), 2010

Are you working on something now? Is there a new project in the offing?

I am planning to re-produce Ubu Roi. I had initially directed it for Delhi’s National School of Drama students, but now I want my own group to do it. Funding remains a problem. While I have a good team of actors and technical artists who are willing to invest a great deal of energy to produce a play, I need to make it economically viable for them. Otherwise it can be very taxing. There is hardly any mechanism in place in India which takes care of the shows once the group has finished producing it. In spite of being an award-winning play, Spinal Cord ran for 10 performances, and we were unable to take it to other cities in India. We cannot continue to produce theatre only for festivals. This is a very sad situation.

You are irked and even amused when audiences tell you that they find the “devices” in your work interesting. Do you feel that this is a constant challenge for practitioners like yourself to overcome? Do you feel isolated?

Theatre of scenography is actually more than 100 years old; it dates as far back as Alfred Jarry who shook the art world with his play Ubu Roi. But in India, as it is with also other countries like the United Kingdom, many viewers still consider theatre to be all about the written text. If audiences read an object in my play as a visual device, then they are failing to understand the language I am trying to explore and the dramaturgy I am creating through design. The very “device” they are amused with is an integral part of the dramaturgy I create. Sensibilities need to be developed. You have to enjoy the play in totality and not in isolation of its varied elements. I strongly believe that the future of Indian theatre will be based on our ability to intermingle with other art disciplines.

You have worked with a variety of material while designing your plays as well as in designing the costumes. Are there any specific materials that interest you? Apart from using these in theatre productions, have you also created any independent works of art?

The materials I use vary. There are used and found objects, and I create unconventional designs. I attempt to create a visual texture which is closer to the times we live in. I prefer to use materials which you normally don’t get to see in theatre performances. It’s rather difficult to distinguish my works as visual art and theatre separately.

I have done exhibitions in gallery and museum spaces, but they were very much related to my scenography. I have explored the possibility of shifting scenographic objects from the black-theatre space to the white space of the art gallery. I have shown my installations in Italy, England and in Poland.

Now I am planning a similar major exhibition in India in collaboration with the visual artist Anto George who has been working with me for the last 15 years. The proposed exhibition is part of my ongoing research in scenography. The key object of this exhibition is to explore the possibility of establishing scenography as a form of artistic expression independent from the parentage of theatre performance.

Through the re-formulation and creation of scenographic objects according to the spatiality of a gallery building, the aim is to transcend the spatial configuration between the objects and the viewer. Hence the viewer will take on the role of the performer. This proposed interactive exhibition will include various objects, puppets, scenographic structures, installations, drawings and videos which were initially developed as part of four of my recent productions: Spinal Cord, Peer Gynt, Ubu Roi and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

[1] Deepa Punjani is the Editor of She has an M.Phil in English Literature, and her M.Phil thesis revolves around the work of select Indian women in theatre in the context of feminism and gender representation on the Indian stage. She has acted on stage, has conducted theatre workshops and has designed theatre curricula. She has lectured on theatre at various educational institutions in Mumbai and has presented papers at various theatre conferences and seminars at home and abroad. In 2008, she formed the Indian national section of theatre critics, which is affiliated to the IATC. She currently represents this section.

Copyright © 2013 Deepa Punjani
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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“The Future of Indian Theatre Will Be Based on Our Ability to Intermingle With Other Art Disciplines”— Interview with Deepan Sivaraman, Indian Theatre Director and Scenographer