Saturday, January 18, 2014

Reclaiming the 'folk' - a reflective essay

Reclaiming the folk
A reflective essay
By Shaili Sathyu, Artistic Director, Gillo Theatre Repertory, Mumbai, India
(Originally written for Magazine GAP (Political Arts Magazine) )
Yes, the title of this essay may sound a bit preposterous! But before I continue, I would like to say that this project is more for the individual growth of each artist involved in the production, rather than some larger service to society or reference to the politics of the arts.
For a few years now I have been thinking about what it means to be an ‘urban’ theatre practitioner. One is bombarded with accusations from within and without, regarding one’s identity, background, aesthetic core, training and traditions. Stuck between an ancient tradition and international explorations in performance, we have conditioned ourselves to look at expression and forms in tight-jacketed boxes (or genres). In India especially there is the romanticism of the folk, obsessing with the idea of tradition and not its politics, fossilising art forms against their grain.
In this background, we as a company creating performances for young audiences have been facing questions when it comes to the forms we ‘should’ use. As artistic director I was keen to explore the idea of using so-called folk forms with contemporary or newly written stories (definitely not related to ‘save the environment’ or ‘anti-AIDS’ or any other such campaigns). It would be an attempt to use a framework in which the folk forms would be used not just for their ‘museum value’ but for their timeless structures, interactive format and ability to ‘connect’ with the folk, the audience – elements that make these forms popular, accessible and ‘of the folk’.
Initial ideas
With this thought we have planned six performances for young audiences between 5 years and 14 years. Each performance will be 30 to 40 min and based on published stories written in the last 20 years by Indian authors. We feel children will be open and receptive to new stories using old forms.
This short performances project is intended to bring together different forms of performance and use these as a tool to tell our stories. But the choice of forms also depends on which guest artists we collaborate with, the traditional form they are well versed in and what they want to share with artists of our repertory.
Instead of being performances for the formal stage, these will be designed as stand-alone shows that can be performed literally anywhere, whether it is in schools, activity centres, libraries, bookstores, homes, community spaces, parks, gardens and other spaces. There shall be no requirement for a formal stage or the paraphernalia that comes with it. (And we continue to do other longer performances at more formal theatre spaces.) The design of the productions shall be flexible and shall focus more on the performance form and text.
Each story shall be performed using inspiration from performance and visual art forms from different parts of India. There shall also be a strong element of developing a visual aesthetic that is complimentary to the performance form and at the same time stimulating and interactive for children.
We want the performances to not only tell a story but also expose children to a performance idiom and an aesthetic that they may not normally engage with. But the aim is not to ‘teach’ children about the art forms. It is to bring in a certain body language in the performers, a narrative style and a manner of dialogue delivery rooted in traditional and folk forms.
Another aspect of this project is that each performance shall be made accessible for children with hearing impairment or visual impairment. For example, the performances shall be re-worked to include sign language and more movement for the hearing impaired audience. For a blind audience we shall include more sounds, songs and also add touch-based activities related to props and costumes of the play. Research and theatre lab processes shall be done in collaboration with institutions and experts working with children with special needs.
Part one - Nautanki

Dr. Devendra Sharma giving a demonstration

The journey of our first play Hanuman Ki Ramayan started not with the text, but with a workshop on nautanki[1] in Feb 2012. Dr. Devendra Sharma happened to be in India this year (he teaches at the University of California, Fresno, USA) and I heard that he had done a workshop production with students at the FTII. So I asked him if he would like to conduct a workshop for artists of Gillo and he said yes. It was an intense 2-day workshop which included lectures, demonstrations and training. All artists responded very enthusiastically and I could see that the engagement had sparked something in them. 
 Actors learning traditional nautanki verses

The 2-day workshop was an eye-opener for most of us and it also inspired us to start working on a performance using this style. We were very clear that we did not want to re-perform or re-create any of the old nautankis as they are for adults and not for children and young people – our target audience. So we set about looking for stories that could be adapted into nautanki (swaang-geet[2]).
 Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, author of ‘Hanuman Ki Ramayan’

I suggested to Dr. Sharma to write and direct a short play in nautanki, based on a story. Out of 3 stories he selected Hanuman Ki Ramayan by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Tulika Books. Dr. Sharma had never written or directed a nautanki especially for children. So he was quite excited about the collaboration. But when he went back home to Delhi, his father Pt. Ram Dayal Sharma (a well-known exponent of nautanki) was so touched by the story that he decided to write the script himself. I think that has been a boon for us because he brings so much experience to the whole production and has used a range of verses and compositions, capturing the essence of nautanki in this short 40 minute piece!
Gillo team with Dr. Devendra Sharma, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, Pt. Ram Dayal Sharma and Shama Zaidi
The training and rehearsals were structured by Dr. Sharma and as Artistic Director I would observe and give feedback as and when I felt was necessary. My role was more as a pedagogue making connections between the performance and the perspective of a young audience. The entire rehearsal process lasted for 12 days and over the last 3 days we called some children to watch rehearsals. This completely changed the body language of the performers and the director. Now the rehearsal performance had the context of a live audience and helped a lot in shaping the final performance.
Valmik (Sharvari Deshpande) and Narad (Harshad Tambe) at a platform performance at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai
The visual design was more challenging because we were working with characters like Hanuman, Narad[3] and other gods and goddesses. There is no dearth of traditional ways of representing these characters, whether by way of masks, costumes or face painting. Yet, we chose to give all performers similar generic costumes - dhoti and baagalbandi (type of kurta[4]). And Hanuman does not have a monkey face or a tail. Narad does not have a mukut[5] or jewels. And so on.
We also used male and female performers irrespective of the character. So, we have Sharvari Deshpande playing Valmiki[6] and Narad has been played by male (Harshad Tambe and Ghanshyam Tiwari) and female (Vinati Makijany) artists. Gender of the performer was not a concern while casting for a role. The performance was of utmost importance, especially the singing talent.
Apart from the singing, the aspect of improvisation is very important and integral to nautanki. But I asked the performers and the director to refrain from too much add-lib and improvisation. This was deliberately so because I wanted to keep the crispness of the written text and also ensure that the performers focused on the new form they have just learnt. I didn’t want them to get distracted or carried away. Each form has its own grammar of improvisation and I feel as a company we don’t have enough understanding to improvise in nautanki. It would only land up being a caricature and I did not want that to happen. Sometimes things are better just as they are. Adding things need not necessarily improve a performance.
In retrospect
A show in the garden of an apartment complex in Mumbai
Over the past year we have performed Hanuman Ki Ramayan in a range of spaces like courtyards, living rooms in homes, gardens, an indoor badminton court and schools. The audience has ranged from young children to senior citizens and the play has moved each one in a different way. Parents were happy to share this experience with their children. Adults were moved by the sacrifice of Hanuman, while children have been enthralled by the antics of Narad. Sometimes we have seen adults and grandparents weep through the play, while children have been laughing away at the actions and interactions between characters. The contrasting responses have been most humbling for us as performers.
Riyaz (rehearsal) before a show
Looking back, this experience has been most enriching for each and every person in the company, even those who are not in the production. The form has given us the space and opportunity to explore our own self as artists and extend beyond our supposed realm. Artists have definitely raised their performing skills through the process and feel they are doing something they had not thought themselves capable of. Do remember that most of them have no singing background and those who do, have a different schooling in music. Nautanki requires a different singing quality and each one has had to extend themselves in aspects like pitch, diction, acting with singing, etc. The operatic nature of the form has been challenging and inspiring at the same time. It has instilled belief in the artists that they can explore and go beyond. And they are now more eager to learn new things.
This entire journey seems like an experiment, not in the form but more an experiment on the artists.  Swaang-geet has helped us extend ourselves as performers and understand the unique grammar of an operatic form. Words in a song and words in operatic verse work so very differently. It would probably have taken us years to realise this, had it not been for this engagement with nautanki. I am sure this will influence our approach to text, especially verse.
Our young audience
Traditionally children have been a secondary audience during nautanki performances (as well as most traditional performance forms in India). In our play children become the primary audience and adults ‘tag-along’. It is our sincere effort to share with urban audiences the ‘ras’[7] of theatre without any labels. For us it is as contemporary as any other performance form. Not folk or traditional or fossilised, but alive and vibrant... something with huge value to us as performers and our audience as ‘rasiks’[8].
Hindi Swang-Nautanki / 40 min
For children and adults

Original Author - Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik
Nautanki Adaptation & Music - Pt. Ram Dayal Sharma
Direction & Hindi Translation – Dr. Devendra Sharma
Costume design – Shama Zaidi
Illustration – Anagh Banerjee
Musicians – Ravindra Belbansi, Janit Temkar
Actors – Sharvari Deshpande, Hetal Varia, Prasad Dagare, Harshad Tambe, Ghanshyam Tiwari, Ishita Dave, Vinati Makijany, Sahil Gangurde, Vighnesh Sinkar.

About the play
Valmiki has barely put his pen down after completing his magnificent creation, the epic Ramayan, when he realises he has competition. The sage Narad tells him that there is a better Ramayan, written by Hanuman. Valmiki is devastated! And when Hanuman sees Valmiki so upset, what does he do?
Hanuman Ki Ramayan is based on a short story by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Tulika Books. In this specially commissioned piece we have adapted the story in nautanki form (swaangeet). It is a part of our series of short plays for young audiences, using various theatrical forms.
What is ‘Nautanki’?
Nautanki performances are operas (dramatic works set to music) based on popular folk themes from tales of romance and valour, mythology, or biographies of local heroes.
Nautanki’s origins lie in ancient Indian performance traditions like Saangeet or Swang, as well as other performance traditions like Bhagat and Raasleela of Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, and Khayal of Rajasthan.
Nautanki reached its pinnacle in the early 20th century when numerous Nautanki troupes, known as mandalis came into existence. Nautanki mandalis were also called akharas because this form of singing requires a lot of physical power and full-throated singing in high pitches. There was a sport-like rivalry among various Nautanki mandalis to out-perform each other. The Nautankis staged by these mandalis or akharas became the main source of entertainment in the towns and villages of Northern India, and remained so until the coming of television and cinema.
The pleasure of Nautanki lies in the intense melodic exchanges between the performers. Performances are often punctuated with individual songs, dances and skits, which serve as breaks and comic relief for audiences.
Nautanki performances can take place in any open space available in or around a village that can accommodate audiences in hundreds or thousands. Sometimes this space is made available by the village chaupal; at other times the playground of the local school becomes the performance site. Traditional Nautankis usually start late at night, often around 10 p.m. or so, and go on all night until sunrise!
Nautanki still holds a strong influence over people’s imagination in northern parts of India, and even after the spread of mass media like TV and radio, a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 shows up for a Nautanki performance.
Dr. Devendra Sharma

[1] A is a traditional operatic form of performance from India
[2] A form which gave birth to nautanki as we know it today
[3] Narad is a sage who prominently features in texts like the Ramayan
[4] An upper garment worn in India
[5] Crown
[6] Author of the Ramayan
[7] Literally means juice, but in an artistic context means essence
[8] A connoisseur

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