The Bengali arts, theatre and cultural scene has been fortunate on account of the subtle yet groundbreaking works by Sri Badal Sircar in the 20th century, where his new yet old (folk) dimension of third theatre marked a significant movement or rather transition from the elevated platforms, i.e., the proscenium stage, to a significant identifiable plane where the audience and the other came together since British occupation. The distance and hierarchies in the so-called bhadralok theatre were not only questioned but challenged within circles of theatricians, writers and playwrights. The great divide between the artist and the audience has been shrinking in Bengal within performing arts and this is something that each of the performers and their accounts and narratives in the performances (reviewed in the later paragraphs) are pointing towards. The performers did not refer to Badal Sircar themselves, but it is my personal belief that his works formed the foundation and provided inspiration to the theatricians, playwrights, artists and actors to compose the plays and articulate the same which were not limited to the elevated platform which is associated with a stage or mancha in Bengal. In this article, I am sharing my take on five performances that I had the opportunity of witnessing within a span of roughly twenty days. Three of the five performances were held at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity on 28th of August followed by 11th September and the other two were witnessed at Doll’s theatre in Dhakuria on the 18th of September 2022. These performances immediately brought to my mind the concept of ‘musicking’. The word ‘musicking’ was coined by a musicologist Christopher Small. It implies the process of making music and dancing rather than looking at music as a mere global product or object. It was a conscious effort of looking into performing arts as an everyday practice, rather than a mere product for the audience. The performances I witnessed brought to the audience a feeling of dissolving into and becoming one with the performance itself instead of being mere observers.
The performances consisted of group theatres along with solo acts by city as well as national artists. The longest of all the performances lasted for about two hours and the shortest presentation spanned less than twenty-minutes. On one hand, there were theatrical performances like the Ravan Reloaded. The performance with its strongly intertwined narrative of an aspiring Bollywood actor’s journey from classical forms of theatre at home towards a more challenging, path-breaking set of events full of misfortunes and shortcomings revealed through the changing times, played to perfection by a bunch of ten energetic performers molded together – in my opinion – various parts of Indian classical theatre as discussed in Natyashastra. It would be incorrect to assume that all the actors in the play have read Natyashastra, but each part of the production pointed towards a more holistic expression in the play. This could have been a major contribution of the director and the intent and desire of the actors to take up the challenge of writing a play in a brief time. Second generation theatrician, Mr. Debasish Ray, trained each of the performers through the medium of an intensive ten-day long workshop held at Kolkata Centre for Creativity and through a rigorous training process and exchange, came up with the script for the play. Mr. Ray revealed at the end of the play that all the dialogues of the play could be open to improvisation and each time the group performed Ravan Reloaded, the dialogues were played with by the actors. Personally, I enjoyed the play thoroughly due to the captivating delivery of dialogues, multi-layered narrative, use of space, use of individual dreams and aspirations of the characters and most importantly, the chemistry that each of the performers on stage depicted. It almost felt like one single organism with ten parts – acting, reacting, singing, crying, performing, fighting and rising back. The ending also had a definite structure to it in the form of a real-time Déjà vu for the second generation Ravan who was one of the protagonists. There were also loosely-fitted narratives from the village life along with real problems faced before auditioning for acting in the one-track Bollywood. I won’t be shocked if each of the actors knew each other’s dialogues which they could artistically improvise and manipulate for the flow of the narrative to continue. What needs to be noted, however, is that the characters or even the depiction of ‘Ravan’ in the play has no direct reference to the Indian epic of Ramayana, whatsoever.
The play featured two Ravans, played by father and son spanning two generations. The father Ravan was a theatre person and believed that Bollywood and acting in films was not comparable to authentic acting while his son, who was also named Ravan, had completely opposing ideas about acting. The son and younger Ravan was engulfed and partially processed by the whims of new media and a life of fame in his dream path to be an actor. He had characteristics of being a narcissist and also faked his love and respect towards his father, his profession, his take on life, his superstitions about acting, and above all his father’s dedication towards theatre and Ram Leela. This play for me points towards the nepotism that has been practiced in Bollywood and other film industries in India. There is a subtle nudge by the director at the realities and socio-cultural environment which an aspiring actor faces in his initial years in the industry including the other means that these artists have to take up in order to sustain a livelihood. Multiple dialectics of deconstruction were visible throughout the narrative interwoven through distinct narratives of individual characters. Ravan Reloaded came across to me as a play within a play for two generations – between Ravan and his son and the stark contrast that both depicted through their ways of life.
On the other hand was a dance-drama performance by Ms. Shruti Ghosh where she embodied Saddat Hasan Manto’s Khol Do, depicting intersections of global, personal and post-partition realities of a land, its people and the families who were divided on the basis of religion and not birth right. It was a literal bridge between literature and theatre along with pre-choreographed dance movements and minute nuances depicted with ghungru. It also underlined the brutal realities that women faced and were thrown into in the name of a secured safe space after partition. Her movements had repetitions at every stage of the unfolding narrative, which came across as a choreographic tool to stress upon distinct events in Khol Do. Of all the performers, Ms. Ghosh’s articulate movements and captivating, frozen and stiff use of complex narrative was a clear indicator of her association with dance, drama and even theatre for a longer period of time among the other performers discussed here. Since she depicted different characters from both the genders all by herself, it was necessary to switch between varied rhythm and pace while narrating the dialogues, reacting and even looking at the audience with broad open eyes. Miss Ghosh’s performance reminded me of what dance philosopher and dancer Ms. Aili Bresnahan accounts as ‘improvisational artistry’ on the part of the dancer during the course of live dance performance. According to Bresnahan, the dancer is not free to just do anything, but has a repertoire of learned and instinctual movements from which to choose that affects his or her dance performance in artistically relevant ways (2014). In attempting to define and expand the idea of “dance improvisation”, Bresnahan further explains the meaning of ‘agency’ in dance, “as the control and intention the dance performer has to move in a certain way, whether cognized specifically or not. Agency would include almost everything pertaining to a dance performer’s intentional movement, including neuromuscular awareness and responses” (2014, p. 86). It would be crucial to know and understand not only the threats that linger in the peripheries of a land divided by religion but the insecurities, brutal narratives encompassing the human mind and the body of women who had suffered loss and near insanity in the midst of the partition of India. Even though Ms. Ghosh depicted a time that is long gone, the narrative, movement and performance assembled together the relevance that still exists in our present times and its people. This performance occurred in Doll’s Theatre and the characteristics of this place was unimaginable for me. It was a three-storied house with tenants along with a wooden gallery created in the second floor for seating and the rest of the space was dedicated for the performances to take place. This use of a personal space and transforming into a place for performance came across as an excellent idea for me.
Another performance by city-based dancer, choreographer and movement artist, Ms. Srijaa Kundu called Into the Light, where she was accompanied by Kolkata based Guitar whizz by the name Subhagata Singha, popularly known as Rivu had a suspense-filled plentitude of the not-quite-known that gave the live performance its unique brilliance. In the words of Susan Leigh Foster, the special kind of agency in ‘dance improvisation’ resembles what she calls “the middle voice”. Further she says, “when a dancer follows the middle voice, he/she is neither leading nor following but moving with either another dancer or with the flow of the dance” (Foster 2003, p. 8), and here with the sound waves created LIVE by Rivu which incorporated structured beats and minimal motifs played on a bass guitar. This performance (Into the Light) was the duo’s third take on this plot. The first two times were performed in two completely different kinds of settings. As an onlooker, I believed that this was choreographed for an open-space or gallery kind of setting. Ms. Kundu used tools like spotlight along with animated graphics projected on one of the walls which was programmed by visual-artist Ms. Angana Kundu from Kolkata. According to Ms. Srijaa, along with another co-artist by the name Jeet Sundor, they looked at the performance space as a shrinking entity and worked out the choreography and positioning as well as programming of the lights for the performance. The gallery space in Kolkata Centre for Creativity, in my opinion, extended the performers ‘middle voice’, and in the third segment of the performance the distance between the performer and audience in a so-called classical setting was broken when a male dancer from within the audience joined Ms. Srijaa in her ongoing performance. Immediately, the rest of the audience felt a sense of connectedness, re-assurance of some kind with the performance and the performers. In Ms. Srijaa’s words, “Into the Light investigates temporal and spatial lived experiences and locates the implications of it in the female body.” Ms. Srijaa also added that, “each time the piece has been performed, it has been a new work – not only because of the repetitive vocabulary that we use differently, but because the work has been adapted from a dance studio, to an auditorium stage and to an exhibition space” (In an interview on 20th of September 2022). According to Victor Turner, “embodiment can be a transitory, temporary, and partial experience or it can necessitate a psychophysical transformation that generates a level of cognitive understanding and bodily knowing derived from intense experience that constitutes embodied knowledge” (2015, p.59). “The physical vicinity of the viewer, who sits on a crowded bench in a room, watching and experiencing the actors running, talking sweating, looking the viewer in the eye from very close up, creates an intimacy not experienced in a larger venue or on an elevated stage”, writes Julianna Faludi in Open innovation in the performing arts. Examples from contemporary dance and theatre production, (2015, p.p. 57).
At this point, it would be important to remind ourselves about the infinite gamut of arts and specifically performing arts. For instance, dance styles from different origins, forms and backgrounds have always had strong gendered obligations, limitations and pre-existing gender roles and further offers information regarding gender through movements. In a 2012 article called Gendered Discourses in American Ballet at Mid-Century: Ruth Page on Periphery, Andrea Harris deals with the monopoly and nature of under-representation of choreographers in Ballet tradition in American history of performing arts. Her article pointed towards the steps taken up by critics who employed gender as a way to create generic and aesthetic oppositions in post war American ballet. Harris, through the article, perched light on the pre-existing hierarchies in the history of Ballet choreographers and little to no representation of women choreographers in the study books or other ballet discourses. In another article by Bryant Henderson called Intertextuality and Dance; An Approach to Understanding Embodied Performance of Gender in Dance Discourses, he discusses that “dance artists construct their embodied performances of gender consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously through their immersion in and evaluation of the interrelationships of all their social and cultural occurrences” (i.e., texts). Further, he goes on to write,
Despite continuous and unavoidable exposure to social and cultural artifacts and experiences, I argue that dance artists navigate through their abundance of textual information by comparing and relating texts to one another to establish an existing, yet versatile, embodied performance of gender. However, dance artists not only acquire and re-create notions of gender through bodily performance, but also simultaneously contribute to the ever-fluctuating pool of gendered texts (2018, p.p. 1-9).
My motive behind sharing these excerpts on the ongoing research worldwide on performance and gender and gender in performance is to discuss another dance-drama-musical that I had the opportunity to witness by a group by the name TAKHT and their performance was called Uttiyo. This performance was followed by Srijaa Kundu’s performance at Kolkata centre for Creativity on the 28th of August 2022.
According to the performers, Uttiyo is a reinterpretation of Rabindranath Tagore’s celebrated dance-drama by the name Shyama. The performance by the group pushed the gendered nuances and was successful in creating a new version of the old dance-drama while pushing away the limitations and gender specific roles of the central characters of Shyama, Bojrosen and Uttiyo by bringing in elements of gender-fluidity, queerness, and a thorough re-interpretation of the old. With the advent of a new wave of gender awareness breaking away from the gender-binary as represented in theatre and plays from the early 18th century till at present. The use of colour black in the costumes also came across as a kind of protest against the prejudices of representation of the piece of literature/dance-drama by Rabindranath Tagore. This performance in comparison to Ravan Reloaded, had emphasis on singularity of gender rather than individual gender roles and approaches. The pre-recorded songs were no doubt very captivating, but could have had a better impact, if they were sung by the participants themselves. The chemistry between the actors was strong though it depicted at least two characters who have had a longer journey in performing arts and theatre as veterans and the remaining were either younger or even late comers into theatre. In one instance one of the actors left the performing space and walked through the midst of the audience and exited, which was a noticeable stance of extending the performance space and the prescribed area for the performer’s mobility. I chose these particular pictures to refer to this performance also because it depicts for me the effort Takht as a collective had assigned to break-free from the limitations and the existing form of re-interpretation of literature in theatre and further the gender chauvinism attached to them. All the individual performers were immersed in embodying the personal while being in a group and yet not shadowing, or syncing movements with others, occasioning it into a more dynamic and original performance.
I want to shed light on new historicism in the context of theatre productions which are adapted from texts and literature from a different era and cultural setting. New Historicism is a literary theory that stands on the knowledge that literature should be studied and elucidated within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the observer, pundit, expert, authority, arbiter, interpreter, exponent, writer, dancer, speaker and ultimately the critic. New Historicism acknowledges not only that a work of literature is influenced by its author’s times and circumstances, but that the critic’s response to that work is also influenced by his environment, beliefs, and prejudices.
A New Historicist looks at literature in a wider historical context, examining both how the writer’s times affected the work and how the work reflects the writer’s times, in turn recognizing that current cultural contexts colour that critic’s conclusions. But here, I want the readers to understand that when a playwright or a director is often adapting from a play that was written at least a few decades ago, he/she/they/them are already critiquing that piece of literature. So, when a person like me is witnessing these kinds of performances and writing about them, we are able to look into the text from two distinct perspectives, i.e., the standpoint of the classical writer and also the contemporary director who has modified, trans-created a new form from the old. The relevance of these written plays and novels and other forms of literature which has inspired artists and thespians and shares and continues to communicate with the audience after almost a century makes these performances far more breath-taking and immortal. Drawing from new historicism and embodiment from the field a researcher, dancer, performer and ethnographer often finds himself/herself, I would want to put light on a Bharatanatyam dancer and performers performance called Bahota where Ms. Sophia Sar embodies the flow of the river from where it originates in the Himalayas and eventually merges with the sea or ocean. The dancer Ms. Sar had divided the performance into three to four parts and each of these stages were embodied with dance movements, gestures, pauses and leaps to express the experiences that the river faced after originating, flowing down the elevated highlands and eventually reaching the plains, where polluted waste drains find their way out into the river and eventually how it reaches the mighty sea or ocean. I believe the idea of the performance had multi-disciplinary approaches and was not limited to the classical form of Bharatanatyam but was able to encompass ecological factors and threats of global warming, water pollution and how the nature withstands the man made factors but nevertheless continues in its path till it reaches the estuaries . Ms. Sar through her performance borrowed from classical form and style of Bharatanatyam and as the narration unfolded through her embodiment of the flowing river, she broke away from the original style and improvised and literally moved away from the form and incorporated contemporary movements from other dance forms leading back to the original style depicting the true nature of things and the consistency that is prevalent in the so called eco-system or natural environment. Her performance depicted emotions like riti (delight), hasya (laughter), shoka (sorrow), krodha (anger), utsaha (heroism), bhaya (fear), jugupusa (disgust)and vismaya (wonder). In Bharata’s Natyashastra, these eight fundamental feeling or mental states are referred as Sthayibhavas (in Sanskrit). Ms. Sar not only performed a classical dance form and style but was able to incorporate issues like water pollution, global warming, habits by city dwellers and relation they share with rivers in India even after considering the water to be sacred, holy and a medium of connection with the supreme in Hindu religion. This performance with indirect but engaging threats to the water resources through the medium of classical dance form Bharatanatyam can be performed in a much bigger stage or platform as it deserves to be witnessed, understood and inspire not only theatre and dance lovers but common citizens and urban dwellers.
While attending all of these performances that I discussed above, there were similar, overlapping questions that emerged. I recalled what Laura Jenemann in her article exclaimed; “Are dance and theatre merging into a new art form? Or is there a need to view and describe both dance and theatre in a new way?” (2016, pp. 239). My suggestion to the writers and critics would be absolutely positive and to always be aware of the contemporary movements and waves and awareness emerging through embodiment of complex emotions in dance and theatre not only in our country India but across the globe. Each of the performances here are borrowed from multiple disciplines and forms of performing arts. Artists touched upon topics from environmental pollution, inadequate drainage system, torture and subjugation of women in our society, questioned the prejudices attached to dance as a so-called safe space, gender implications and limitations in art, literature, theatre leading to a film career in Mumbai. All the performances discussed above were able to break out of the existing prejudices prevalent in performing arts practices in our country and not just limited to the state of West Bengal. I would like to thank the Kolkata Centre for Creativity for not only opening and extending spaces for creative workshops for theatre, poetry, music, art and dance but also for being a medium or agency to push the boundaries and limitations of performing artists in West Bengal. Newer venues for performance like KCC and Doll’s theatre, have no doubt decreased the amount of work that goes on for a theatre production team and has created a kind of shared performance space where artists are invited to perform and rest of the factors like publicity, awareness and funding for the performers are taken into account by the space providers leading to a community effort for performing arts of a new kind. Lastly, Kolkata Centre for Creativity is like a middle-space or rather a bridge radiating awareness about the infinite prevailing realities, eco-systems of performers, cultural knowledge-systems of different Adivasi and indigenous communities from around the region and country and helping the citizens to approach, understand and relate to performance in a refreshing new light.
*Feature image from Ravan Reloaded
*Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Articulate and Kolkata Centre for Creativity.
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Purab Riddhi Chaudhuri is an ethnomusicologist, musician and an independent documentary film-maker from India. He is also a multi-instrumentalist. Purab Riddhi grew up in and around Northeast India and is a polyglot. He currently lives with his wife Jasodhara and two cats in Hridaypur, located in the North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. His first MA in Comparative Literature in 2017 was followed by another in Ethnomusicology in 2019 from the Irish World Academy under University of Limerick in Ireland. He is currently beginning his Doctoral degree under the Department of Music in University College Cork in Ireland. His area of interest is branched out on to a myriad of disciplines, including but not limited to language groups, music and dance in transition, indigenous songs and lullabies, songs of protest, and the infinite arrays of performing practices around India and the world.