Past meets present in contemporary culture, as seen with these performers. Plus, a course that interprets ancient techniques
Experiments by dancers Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya or other fusion performances like pianist Anil Srinivasan’s jugalbandhi with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia are seeing packed houses. The same applies to global festival brand, Short+Sweet Festival, which was brought to the city by Ranvir Shah’s Prakriti Foundation four years ago. Featuring original, local scripts and experimental productions like the impressive Death of Drona directed by Meera Sitaraman this year, it proves that Tamil language scripts have found a comfortable idiom and co-exist on the same stage as English theatre. Artistes in Chennai are delving into history, bringing something new to today’s cultural palette. Be it Subramanya Bharathi’s lines in rock music or age old arts like Silambattam being given new mediums — the old has become the new.
Dancer and actor Swarnamalya Ganesh’s tryst with history began in 2007, when she spent nearly six and a half years digging into facets of Bharatanatyam for her doctoral thesis. It resulted in a dance production, a lecture and an exhibition (From The Attic) that focusses on the influence of the Nayak era on Bharatanatyam as we know it today. Ganesh’s recent DVD and book release was about a 2005 dance production, based on one of Tamil’s greatest literary works, the Silappadhikaram. “When I read Silappadhikaram, I was drawn to the character of Madhavi, a dancer,” says the Fulbright scholar about her production, Nammai Marantharai Naam Marakkamattom (NMNM). Currently teaching at UCLA’s World Arts Cultures/Dance department, Ganesh says, “The idea was to temper NMNM and create a rounded product that would benefit the connoisseur, first-time reader, Tamil aficionado and everyone alike.” With plans of doing up to three performances in December, in the city, she also shares that From The Attic and NMNM will be touring. “Academically, I am working on my next book, focusing on the Nayak era, dance history and its continuum through the voice and body of the devadasis,” she signs off.
Last year, they experimented with a traditional martial art (Silambattam) in their play, My Name Is Cinema. This year, at the 2014 Short+Sweet Festival, their performing art of choice was Thappattam, for Carpouram, while for their upcoming Kaaka Sutta Vadai, Stray Factory has picked the fast-fading art of Tholpavai Koothu or leather puppetry. The theatre group organised a five-day workshop for artistes this September, with a long-time practitioner of leather puppetry, Selvaraj. “His first lesson was on how to modulate our voices. That leather puppetry had such a rigorous voice aspect didn’t even strike us,” says Pooja Devariya, the director of the play. “I’ve been travelling extensively and have seen people use their traditional craft in many ways. Especially in South Korea, where I had the opportunity to stay and learn theatre. And they’re so proud of it too,” she shares. “In Kaaka Sutta Vadai we’re using puppetry as a storytelling device within the play,” Devariya elaborates.
Poetic head banging
Even poet Subramanya Bharathi could not have envisioned the adaptation of his Acham Illai, set to some blistering head bang-worthy rock. According to Jhanu Chanther, his first-time audience did not expect it either. Though they’ve been around for a little over three years, rock band Jhanu is only now hitting it off in their hometown, Chennai. “Using poetic Tamil was not a conscious decision,” begins composer-guitarist Chanther, before explaining, “Our front-man Lawrence is a hardcore Tamil fanatic.” Despite the language barrier, Jhanu has become popular in Kerala. “Especially in Thiruvan-anthapuram. They seem to receive our music really well,” says Chanther. Of their 14 compositions till date, the two that frequently come up in requests are Arakkan and Thangamalare. The former has an interesting mix of mythology and re-incarnation themes woven in. While Chanther’s band gears up for a couple of still unconfirmed gigs in Malaysia, he says that they are also working on their début album, “and a bunch of concerts.”
The art of management
Following a tie-up with Kalakshetra three years ago, DakshinaChitra’s Arts Management course now has an unlikely sponsor — Louis Vuitton. The luxury brand offers six scholarships to graduates, to help them put their craft to good use and maybe even turn entrepreneurs. “The course is a window into the past for everybody — musicians, artists, dancers,” says DakshinaChitra’s creative director, Meenakshi Thirukode. “Those who sign up for the course are given an option to apply for the scholarship,” she says. An alliance with Kalakshetra led to the course, started in 2011, being converted into a Master’s degree. “It helps artisans learn how to effectively manage their craft and turn it into a profitable business. For others, it teaches them how to preserve their culture and quite possibly turn arts into a career. You become a cultural entrepreneur, reviving all that is lost,” Thirukode offers. A graduate from any stream can apply for the course, though Thirukode insists that one needs to have an active interest in the world of arts to get accepted. The course introduces you to areas like Natyashastra, western art history, museum curation and even a bit of marketing and human resources.
Reality in mythology
Indianostrum Theatre’s Koumarane Valavane has been writing and directing plays that have their origin in mythology — be it Greek, Roman or Indian — since the troupe’s inception in 1997, in France. From Kunti and Kali to Clytemnestra and Medea, Valavane has never run out of muses to write his dark dramas around, as their recent Karuppu (three months ago) proves. “The play shows the progression of the world’s turn towards the dark side, through mythological characters,” says Valavane, who moved Indianostrum to Chennai in 2007 and eventually to Pondicherry two years later. Their earlier plays like Kunti-Karna (2012) and Land of Ashes (2009) have their roots in mythology, too. “Mythology exists in our lives. Even without us knowing,” Valavane believes. Testament to that line of thinking is Land of Ashes, a play that sets out to understand the Sri Lankan war through the frames of Mahabharata and Greek mythology. “Interpretations and rewritten plays are widely prevalent in western countries. But somehow, that doesn’t happen much to Indian mythology because we hold the characters sacred,” adds the director and playwright, who plans to bring Karuppu back to Pondicherry and Chennai in November.
The story of a straightforward government officer who tries to get his son a job in his own office, with some hilarious results and some tragedy, was first staged in 1978. The hugely successful play, Paritchaikku Neramachu, starring the late Y Gee Parthasarathy, went on to become a hugely successful movie of the same name, starring Sivaji Ganesan. Three decades later, the play is back with several changes to suit the times we live in and a surprise ending. The man behind it all is theatre and film actor Y Gee Mahendra and his drama troupe, UAA. “Paritchaikku Neramachu is one of our best plays. I took it up again because I wanted to go back to that time when classic values ruled. I wanted to show youngsters the emotions and social mores that once used to exist,” says the actor. Incidentally, YGM plays the role his father played in the original and Sivaji played in the movie — that of the father. This isn’t the first time YGM has adapted an old play, though. They also successfully staged an adaptation of Vietnam Veedu, one of Sivaji Ganesan’s 1970s blockbuster movies, three years ago.
By Janane Venkatraman