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In August, in a college outhouse at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University, Deepan Sivaraman took on the sweltering tropical vibe of a Gabriel Garcia Márquez novella, Innocent Eréndira, and transformed it into immersive theatre as onlookers trailed actors in a darkened room, and neon lights announced the segueing of one set piece into another.

In a wordless sequence in the play titled It’s Cold In Here, Sivaraman invested his personal charisma into a torero-like persona—the quarry being the limp figurine sprawled on the ground, its rag-doll limbs trussed up with Scotch tape even as miles of cellophane evoked an evening gown.

The man performed a schmaltzy salsa-mimicking routine with this dehumanized sexual object before him. The dastardly deed done, he feverishly disfigured his own visage with layers of clay and paint with a trance-like animalism borrowed from the “body art" of French physical performer Olivier de Sagazan.

It was unsettling theatre, even borderline offensive, but significantly, the onus of rape was placed on the man—his volition placed centre stage in the narrative: something we don’t see enough of in a culture centred on victim-blaming. It is hard to say if, without physical movement, mere text could have elicited such a visceral response in the audience.

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Nimmy Raphael in ‘Nidrawathwam’, staged at the Prithivi Theatre in 2013
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Nimmy Raphael in ‘Nidrawathwam’, staged at the Prithivi Theatre in 2013

Like Sivaraman, urban theatre practitioners are increasingly looking to create a new language of performance that incorporates elements of dance stripped away from the rules and restrictions of classical forms (both Indian and Western), and interspersed with text and strong visuals for a multi-sensory experience. There have always been those whose works have been rooted in India’s age-old dance theatre practice, like stalwarts Ratan Thiyam and the late Veenapani Chawla, who harnessed traditional forms to create a contemporary performing idiom. But movement or physical theatre uses dance elements to create an altogether new form of expression.

“Sheer boredom is taking us away from the existing paradigm of placing furniture on stage and talking. There is hunger for a fresh kind of expression," says Sujay Saple, whose own inchoate works—his first, Unselfed, and now Moonfool, a devised piece that will be staged at Prithvi Theatre on 24-25 March—are perched at the confluence of theatre and dance practice.

Since 2008, Chawla’s workshops at her theatre foundry, Adishakti, introduced Indian actors to a more somatic approach to performance, so resonant in the works authored by Chawla and her cohorts—for example, Nimmy Raphael’s Nidrawathwam, has been touring India. It was an airtight performance in which two opposing boons that seem like curses in the Ramayan—Kumbhakarn’s gift of sleep and Lakshman’s wakefulness—provided a canvas for a seamless physical rendition, in which text served as comic relief.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of physicality workshops for actors, from the sprawling canvas of butoh to “touch and go" contact improvisation, to Laban techniques and commedia dell’arte routines, and the use of Michael Chekhov’s theory of psychological gestures as an acting tool nonpareil.

Many of these approaches have been part of the bouquet of skills introduced by Theatre Professionals Private Ltd (TTPL) in their annual three-week-long Intensive Drama Programs (IDP) since 2008, in which tutelage is imparted by respected names in theatre practice.

Synergetic ensemble work, an important facet of physical theatre, was evident in a new student production which opened in February—The Dragon from the Drama School in Mumbai, TTPL’s fledgling theatre institute. The result has been widespread exploration in which actors’ bodies become as much a part of the creative process as their voices or personalities.

“This could be a fad, and so many are engaging in it only superficially, but it is still a good thing," says Saple. His decade-long dabbling in physical devised work sowed the seeds for a vision of movement-based theatre, and created a collaborative atmosphere between dancers and actors (even as those lines of distinction persist) under the aegis of his group, the Shapeshift Collective, established in 2012.

Inventive examples abound in contemporary works. In Neel Chaudhuri’s Still And Still Moving, nominated this year for several Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (Meta), nimble-footed actors use observational humour to evoke the Delhi Metro’s homo-social culture—urban inter-connectedness discovered in the proximity between men in jam-packed compartments. In 2013’s She-He-Shey, Shaili Sathyu enlists Bharatanatyam exponent Hamsa Moily to create motifs of visual storytelling that unlock deeper themes in Rabindranath Tagore’s stories. Jyoti Dogra has immersed herself in the “theatre laboratory" principles introduced by Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski—working with bodily impulses rather than kowtowing to a particular form—to emerge as one of our more free-spirited performers, and Sankar Venkateswaran’s work, such as The Water Station, harnesses the fluidity of physical expression to convey complex ideas.

Artists with dance backgrounds have also gravitated towards theatre. Contemporary dancer Amey Mehta’s movement direction in QTP’s So Many Socks uses existing dance vocabulary. In the script written by Annie Zaidi, a specific instruction that spoke of a horse bursting into flames resulted in a set piece featuring actor Siddhant Karnick as a foot-stomping horse who submits himself to a stirring self-immolation bid—Karnick’s background as a hip hop dancer came in handy.

Mehta wanted to move away from technical “pointing, flexing and kicking" routines to a more real and authentic portrayal of characters—“I am driven by the power of text and working towards creating a single performing unit in which voice and body merges." Mehta has since worked with Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid on Ila, and the designation of “movement director"—someone who works holistically with the play’s material rather than just choreographing set pieces; a staple of international theatre—is being cited increasingly in credit lists.

Others who have created inter-disciplinary works recently are dancers Avantika Bahl and Venuri Perera, who were residents at the Gati Summer Dance Residency in New Delhi last year. Their solo pieces, 110048, M81 by Bahl, and Tratriot by Perera, have strong narrative elements and were part of 5olo, a miscellany put together by Bahl at the Sitara Studio in Mumbai in November. Sri Lanka-based Perera has since performed her audience-interactive piece at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala.

One of the more interesting intersectional pieces to emerge, both in terms of performance and narrative, is Helena Waldmann’s Made In Bangladesh, which began its Indian tour in January. Choreographer Vikram Iyengar—whose theatre group Ranan has long sought to demystify classical dance—breaks the streamlined essences in Kathak to create short staccato physical phrases rearranged into what can only be termed an intricate “dance symphony" involving a dozen Kathak dancers who evoke the minutiae of a sweatshop worker’s daily drudge. In the second act, Waldmann parallels this with the oppression of a dance studio full of cheery-faced hoofers who “work long hours for little pay"—the dance dazzles, the theatre not so much.

The volume of such emerging works in a short span speaks of how new influences permeate a performing space. While some ground has already been broken, this openness certainly paves the way for more nuanced innovations in the world of multidisciplinary arts.

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