A play that feels like a workshop
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“I’m not sure I would call it a performance, but it is a piece,” we’re told perhaps some 15 minutes into Koogu, a play with no exact beginning or end. Written, acted and directed by Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner Anish Victor, with added movement choreographed by French dancer Michel Casanovas, Koogu has been popping up in the least obvious spaces across Mumbai and Pune: galleries, homes, restaurants and alternative performance venues.
Koogu doesn’t quite begin like the plays or performances you’re used to. You walk into a venue to find Victor sitting in the audience, casually chatting with people as they enter, helping them find a seat. The performance space is brightly lit and remains that way through the performance. If you’re late, it doesn’t matter; he welcomes you in mid-conversation, gives you some context and continues like this was all planned. You wonder if you’ve walked into a theatre workshop instead of a performance.
Before you realize it, the conversation segues into performance as Victor begins talking about his grandmother who grew up in the Kolar Gold Fields, in Karnataka. He recounts how, despite hating “the whiteys” for their no dogs and no Indians rules, and finding dancing cheap, she would scale the clubhouse walls to watch them dance through ventilation slats. He shares the nostalgia of wanting to run faster than his best friend, a childhood dream he juxtaposes with the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) ambitious but unsuccessful Special Area Games Programme. Victor calls it the SAI’s dream, but it’s really the story of racism, and a stunning lack of foresight that dashed the dreams of the many young Siddis (a community of African-origin people that lives in Gujarat and Kartataka) inducted into this programme that he’d like you to consider. Another juxtaposition—a word most writers eschew but Victor embraces as one of the functions of the arts—places the hangings of Bhagat Singh and Co. next to the swift and silent execution of Afzal Guru’s death penalty. At another point, happy childhood memories of singing in a church choir are placed around a quick note about the erstwhile castrati, male singers castrated before puberty to retain the high female quality of their voice (since women were not allowed to sing then). Then there is the stunning reveal at the end of what starts out feeling like a campfire sing-a-long; it makes you reconsider the entire piece and breaks your heart just that little bit more.
Through it all, Koogu is infused with humour, interaction and, most of all, movement with a complex, contemporary musicality rarely seen in India unless you’ve spent quality time watching contemporary dance videos on YouTube. The constant, elegant movement is a strange thing to see in a city such as Mumbai, which demands its residents live constricted lives and insists they expand and grow vertically if they must. It’s empowering to watch Victor move in ways we assume are reserved for lithe and highly toned bodies, and reminds you to think of your own. Casanovas choreographs Victor’s body to perform multiple functions: as punctuation, as a tool to jog certain parts of the audience’s collective memory, as a device for withdrawal, but most strikingly to convey the narrator’s constant internal disquiet at his own stories, a disquiet the narration itself often belies. Victor tightens the performance by interacting with his audience, right from deliberately walking up to an audience member for no reason (if you’re lucky, this moment will be alchemy in action, as it was for us) to engaging them in conversation mid-performance.
So perhaps Victor is right when he tells us this isn’t a performance, but it is a piece. You feel the excitement of experimentation, the frayed comfort of a support group, the constant feedback of a workshop and the delight of carefully constructed movement, all designed to pull at the audience’s conscience.
22 June: Drama School Mumbai, Charni Road, 7 PM
26 June: Brewbot, Lokhandwala, 7.30 PM