The first day of the Remembering Veenapani festival left audiences disappointed with the lack of imagination in the performances

In Puducherrys Remembering Veenapani theatre festival bodies thrill but ideas fall flat
Features Theatre festival Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 17:02

When Veenapani Chawla, the extraordinary cultural force who built Adishakti, an even more extraordinary theatrical space outside Auroville, suddenly died on November 30, 2014, her legatees realised that she’d left them with almost no money to keep Adishakti going. Like all visionaries, she lived with no economic good sense. Like all charismatic geniuses, she managed to raise money whenever Adishakti needed it.

None of her inheritors are a patch on her, but the two people who run it share her vision and her spirit in trying to keep things going. They are Vinay — the son of Malayali writer Sarah Joseph — and Nimmy Raphel, one of the most stunning modern performers we have. For two years now, they have had to struggle to keep Adishakti going and they do this through various means. But they also try not to lose focus of the fact that Adishakti is basically a space for theatrical experimentation.

In keeping the latter alive, they organise the Remembering Veenapani festival every year. The first day of the 2016 edition of the festival had three performances by women. The first was a graphic wall display by Malavika PC, re-working the Sita story from the Ramayana.

It was a truly sad beginning to the festival as the work was unexciting and unoriginal. It added nothing to the story and was hardly a re-interpretation (unless you call mud in the bum a reinterpretation) and left one deeply uninspired.

A walk around the stunning Adishakti campus cheered one up as one headed to Kalairaani’s interpretation of Ugandan poet Otok P’Bitek’s iconic poem ‘Song for Lowino’. This project began as a collaboration between her and Hartman D’Souza of Khel in Goa.

Once again, Kalairaan’s re-interpretation was not one at all. The rank sexism and elemental stupidity of the poem were not re-worked at all and her use of space or the breathing technique she learnt from Veenapani Chawla was unimaginative and unexciting.

Her musical performers who had rehearsed with her only hours before the performance must be commended for a fantastic job.

One looked for the evening to be saved by the redoubtable Nimmy Raphel and her, by now, well-known solo performance ‘Nidravatwam,’ a re-telling of the stories of Lakshmana and Kumbhakarana, being performed for the first time on home turf. The juxtaposing of these two men, the trope of sleep and their differing relations to it, opened up wonderful spaces in the audience’s imagination.

Raphel has one of the supplest bodies in the theatrical business and the pyrotechnics were on display, but perhaps a little too much.

The theme of sleep demanded some more slowness, some heft and psychological introspection but she was all dazzle and sparks, all over the stage. Perhaps she needs to re-think the grammar of this piece.

One of the problems with Adishakti is the overt focus on the body and the lack of attention to the psyche, despite Veenapani Chawla’s clear focus on re-arranging the psychic and her emphasis on psychological expression.

Performances as part of the festival continue on all weekends until May 1.

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