Ideas don’t always translate well. The small campus that theatre director Veenapani Chawla has built near Puducherry for her theatre commune, Adishakti, is a striking exception. Chawla and Adishakti are known for having developed a contemporary theatrical expression that draws inspiration from history and culture. The hybrid nature of Chawla’s work and habitat is exemplified in the Adishakti campus. The theatre, which was built three years ago, reveals that the hybrid can sometimes have the intensity one usually associates with pure states.
The theatre, named Sir Ratan Tata Koothu Kovil, is the centrepiece of the almost three-acre, tree-filled campus that also has a guest house, an older rehearsal space and residential areas. Chawla and Sreenivasan Vasthukam, a civil engineer practising as an architect in Kerala, collaborated on the design.
It was a serendipitous story. Chawla came to stay near the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry in 1993, after years of acclaimed work in theatre all over the country. She was joined by actor Vinay Kumar, and theatre work began once again after a gap. There was no money, but Chawla had an actor to work with. Their work soon caught the interest of a Danish gentleman, who suggested that Chawla should start a theatre laboratory. He went so far as to buy and gift her the plot on which the campus stands today.
“I was in shock,” says Chawla, with a chuckle. “There was no money to build anything. Vinay and I grew vegetables on the plot to pay for the gardener and the watchman.” The Danish benefactor was, of course, not about to give up—he came back and had a borewell installed. Soon, Chawla’s niece came forward with some money, which went towards building the cottage that she lives in today. The guest house and the theatre were built later, with the help of grants and contributions. Now, the guest house helps generate revenue while the theatre space acts as a catalyst for Adishakti’s work.
From outside, the theatre could be mistaken for a church with a difference. The church feeling continues inside, into the darkness. Lofty, intimate, dark and glowing, the hybrid space has a special personality. Conceived mainly as a space where Adishakti’s works are created and rehearsed, it functions equally well for very different kinds of performances including experimental theatre, traditional Indian art forms as well as Western classical music.
“A visiting German chamber music group performed Mozart here and thought this was the best space they had performed in,” says Chawla.
The space owes its flexible and engaging nature to the simplicity of the design, and the use of natural material such as laterite. These also help calm the awkward visual overtones that the unintended cross between a church and a traditional theatre could have created.
There is some uneasiness in the external form of the building—the walls are a bit too high for the suggested intimacy of the traditional theatre and the porch columns on pedestals too weak for the majestic mass above. But this is compensated for by the confident stance of the interior space.
Unlike the norm, this theatre is one large hall with an expansive central platform, 30X40ft, raised one step higher than the aisle that wraps around it on three sides. The space over this wooden platform, is raised higher than the one over the aisle, which is similar to an enclosed veranda. Even more unlike the usual theatres, columns punctuate the periphery of the platform, occasional interruptions to the ‘sight line’ joining audience and actor. Usually, the platform is used as a stage, with the audience spread out on three sides, but there are no strict rules about that.
There is an external jali wall with a pattern of perforations in the stone. The perforations stand in for windows that Adishakti could not afford, for reasons of cost and maintenance. But they also let in the breeze during the day and create intriguing light patterns, opening up unusual lighting possibilities during evening performances.
The perforated external wall also allows an intermingling of everyday life outside with what goes on inside. For many theatre practitioners, their performances work only when completely secluded from life outside the auditorium, but Chawla differs.
“For us, the sacredness is only in our approach to work, not in the inviolability of the performance. I quite like our more relaxed South Asian approach to audience-performer relationships, where people walk in and out of all-night Kathakali performances, or sleep through parts. Children waving at actors or going to the far end of the stage to see a performance from unusual angles is all right with us,” she says.
Chawla’s own life has been a template for this open-window approach. Born a few months before Independence into a Punjabi family in Mumbai, she studied and taught history in New Delhi, was a lapsed Marxist by the late 1960s, learnt Western classical music, worked briefly with European theatre master Eugenio Barba in Denmark, was the artistic director of Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai for a few years, acquired training in traditional Indian art forms such as Dhrupad, Chhau and Kalaripayattu, and finally put down roots in a village on the outskirts of Auroville in Puducherry. The work she produces here is seen by local villagers, Aurovilleans of different nationalities, and on tour, by people in the metros as well as audiences in Europe and America.
The flat floor of the theatre space acknowledges the varied nature of the local audience. Village audiences feel at home sitting down on the floor to watch performances, and the more urban or foreign viewers from Auroville and Puducherry happily adjust. Chawla is thankful she did not have the money to build a stepped auditorium similar to Prithvi’s.
“That might have been a terrible mistake,” she says, “because the village audience may not have felt totally comfortable with that.”
Not surprisingly, Chawla thinks of her work as a bridge bearing cultural traffic between east and west, city and village. The bridge is not of any one side. Belonging to both banks, it is unique in itself.
It has its sacred (and provisionally) stable centre. Who knows, then, there may well be a sacred centre at the heart of every hybrid?
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