Mediantrop broj 13

Milena Dragićević Šešić – Diary from India: Meeting with Remarkable Women

Contemporary theater practice in India

Milena Dragićević ŠešićMilena Dragićević ŠešićFriday, January 1.

Early in the morning, around two o' clock, we arrived to the airport in New Delhi, where we were welcomed by a beautiful, smiling Sanjna Kapoor, director of the Prithvi theater in Mumbai and the initiator of the Indian theater forum, the institution that organized my trip: the research on the organization culture and the possibility of development of the Indian independent theaters. My task is to help the Indian theater forum develop the program of capacity building for the Indian theater scene at the seminar in Mumbai, which will take place at the end of the trip. Burning with excitement, she announces that my husband and I will only have a couple of hours of sleep at the International center (the institution built in the 60s, supported by the Japanese government, and within the governing politics of nonalignment and internationalization at that time), and that we are not only about to face the strenuous day, but the terribly tiresome seventeen days, as well.


Sanjna Kapoor – a catalyst

Sanjna Kapoor comes from a theatrical family on both sides. The father's side was particularly important for the Indian theater history, and cinema, as well. Her father, Shashi Kapoor, is a famous Hindu Bollywood actor, who built the Prithvi Theater in the honor of his father Prithviraj Kapoor – a true theater artist and the founder of the Prithvi Theater, as a traveling group (in 1944.) Other members of the family Sanjna KapoorSanjna Kapoorare equally renowned, giving a big contribution to the success of Bollywood, from the 1950 up to now. Her uncle Raj Kapoor was so popular in the former Soviet Union that people still remember the songs he sang in the movies. (See also a book about the Kapoor family, The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian cinema, by Madhu Jain, Penguin, Viking, 2005, but also the book written by Shashi Kapoor: The Prithviwallhas, which is dedicated at the same time to his father and his wife Jenifer – a book which in a manner of an exciting novel describes the theater on the road and the theatre nature of the family).

From the mother side of the family, Sanjna belongs to the English family lineage which built its theater career in India in English. Both her grandmother and her grandfather, Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, and later her mother, Jennifer Kapoor, born Jennifer Kendal (died of cancer at the peak of her fame at the age of 50), as well as her aunt Felicity, played in the English traveling theater cruising through India, sitting on their luggage in a small overloaded pickup truck. James Ivory made a movie in 1965, about their theater group, called Shakespeareana, under the title Shakespeare Wallahs (screenplay by Ruth Jabvala, music by Satyajit Ray). Jeffrey and Laura, as well as both of their daughters, Felicity and Jennifer, all played in the movie, along with Shashi Kapoor, who was in love in Felicity in the movie, but in the real life he fell in love with Jennifer and married her.

Sanjna, who looks Indian and has British bright eyes, is of extreme elegance, as well as energy and temper, and runs the Prithvi Theater, with competence and entrepreneur skills, passion and openness, as well as a desire that it is a pivot of the innovative and activist Indian theater. She envisions herself as a "catalyst" of changes – in the theater and cultural life of Mumbai, as well as India at large. She abandoned a career of a movie actress (right after acting in Salaam Bombay by Mira Nair) and TV host, and committed herself entirely to theater. Sanjna happily announces the details of our daily program, giving emotional reasons why it was important to her that our travel begins with exactly this program, meaning to go together to a "theatrical and political event", a traditional manifestation held at the industrial suburban area of Delhi. The event has been organized by the theater Jana Natya Manch for twenty years now – in remembrance of the day a theater activist Safdar Hashmi was murdered. Safdar was murdered by the right wing activist, who killed him on stage, together with one of the workers in the audience in 1989. This would be Sanjna's first time of taking part at the event, even though she wanted to do it for a long time and she has been working with the Janam crew (Janam, short for Jana Natya Manch) – and didn't have a chance until now – especially because January 1st is usually being a day for family gatherings, trips, etc.

 Sudhanv with Photo of SafdarSudhanv with Photo of Safdar
So, every year, on the 1st of January, in the same area, and practically at the same place, Janam performs public shows for the citizens, with a political-trade union program, and the guests, of course – the performances of amateur groups who wish to act right there, on that date and for this audience.

Performans Janam 1989.Performans Janam 1989.


Mala Hashmi – committed activist

Mala Hashmi (Moloyashree Hashmi), a theater activist and professor at the Teachers College, is coming to pick us up at the hotel. We are arriving in the industrial zone of Delhi around 10 o'clock – red flags of the leftist trade union CITU (Center of Indian Trade Unions) are all around – it is obvious that the area is prepared to welcome the actors! In the local trade union offices, where we're stopping by on our way (because these streets are hard to drive through by the car), pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin are hanging on the wall, the furniture is too modest, but tremendous will for activism and a great enthusiasm is felt everywhere.

We went to a place, which was ready for the big event – theater actors were setting up their mobile theater structure – (a combination metal-cloth) to mark a part of the field intended for the "community" gatherings – and to give it the character of a "theater in the open. Essentially, they wouldn't need it where not for the construction of a new building of the "local municipality", so it was necessary to physically separate the field of construction from the place of the "ceremony". It is necessary to point out that each "mahala" has one such field for common festivities, which is rectangular, surrounded by small walls, in the middle of the area, and is often used for weddings and other celebrations. The apartments here are usually just small rooms, often with no tap water, where it is often hard to organize even the smallest celebration. Besides, as a part of tradition, everything possible is organized out in the open.

 Street with FlagsStreet with Flags

The performances of the Janam Theater are social and political – on the scene are still the actors – militants of the first generation, Mala and Sudhanva Deshpande, today a publisher of the leftist literature (Left Word Books). The first performance deals with the core topic of the contemporary India – the fall in the prices of agricultural products and the suicide of small businessmen. Even though the audience here consists of workers – mostly unemployed, since in the neighborhood we saw the ruins or the closed down factories, so the topic is familiar to everyone – repurchase of the agricultural products is low and the food in supermarkets too expensive...Dozens of small farmers commit suicide every day...A performance similar to the style of the "agit-prop theater", which makes fun of the daily events and politician demagogy – was written by Joyoti Roy and Komita Dhanda – young members of the group, an archeologist-conservationist, and the other an editor of a publishing house. Mala has a leading role, but we also see her behind the scene, following, controlling the act, both as the stage manager and public – enjoys and trembles at the same time, frightened if they will be able to convey the desired message.

After the show, there is music – singing the songs in a few Indian languages – Hindi, as well as Urdu language spoken a lot among the poor, working-class, Muslim suburbs of Delhi...This theater and trade union movement, even today in the time of the burning nationalism in India, wishes to preserve the right to difference and the equality of the different (In this sense, I think that everyone there and here should read a book Fear of small numbers by Arjun Appadurai. I talked about it a lot with the theater actors later on, during my trip). Therefore, even though very important on the local level, their performances are substantially supranational and internationally relevant. At the nearby stands, we can find the posters of Che Guevara and the literature about socialist issues from all over the world. The program is on – children are sitting on the rugs in the first row, then in the next ten rows women with small children, and then, all in the back, men are seated, sometimes with older children, as well – especially sons. They tell us – it's like that in Delhi, everyone is sitting together with their family in the villages. Here, however, first came the men and took places in the back, and then children, and finally in the last minute, women filled the space in the middle. The entire area was filled until 12 o'clock, including the roofs of the nearby houses.

Mala is not sitting idle during that time – she negotiates, approaches the trade union members, directors of different organizations and social movements – we see her setting up the new projects – performances – so we get the picture that this theater is basically a part of a certain milieu, of the community united, above all, by the idea of social change and by the adequate activist aesthetics.

 College TheaterCollege Theater

Next scheduled act in the program are the "guests", high school students with their performance set up for the competition of the schools in dramatic expression (they told me that, unfortunately, the amateur theater in high schools is motivated by the competition, and made to meet its requirements, and not the needs of this particular group of students, their interests, abilities and visions). Yet, this performance is very political, and is above all – attacking and condemning the caste system, which, in spite of the Constitution which grants the same rights to everyone, - represents a big obstacle to the integration of the Indian society even today. The name of the performance: I Am Also Human, is a story about the "untouchable" who wants to enter the temple, who wants water –all these minimal requests being denied to him. On the other hand, a poor girl from the lower caste who wants to get a job – gets raped and complains to the police – but they ignore her. (Later in the evening we will find many articles in the Indian newspapers about the case of a young woman who committed suicide because of the sexual harassment, back in 1992. but the case came to court only now.)

We're also listening to the political speeches – trying to understand if it is Hindi or Urdu. The leader of a communist party is also present, and she doesn't miss the opportunity to give her regards to Sanjna and to tell her how much she praised and honored the art of her mother. However, she doesn't speak from the stage, even though she got to it and is sitting down among at least ten "leaders" in a semicircle – out of which only four of them used the microphone.

Kids are becoming a bit impatient; they squirm and stand up – but the "monitors" -- activists with long handle flags, are pointing them up and gently placing children back on the floor...Only some little boy mischievously changes his place, and then, as soon as the monitor turns his back, stands up again and "performs" a little show for his friends.


The speeches are soon over and afterwards there is some singing again, and a new performance about the workers, who are isolated in the factory for being strikebreakers – and who spend their days and nights telling their "stories". Jana Natya Manch doesn't give up on her political activism and the narrative of this time where the workers solidarity is given up for the need to survive in the context of the global, impersonal and nameless corporate capitalism.

It is already five in the afternoon, but nobody leaves the place of the spectacle. In fact, after the politicians who left after their speech, we are the next to leave. The audience is still peacefully seated, and many of them will be here for the next ten hours. We didn't see anyone drink or eat for the whole time, and we ate previously prepared sandwiches with much discomfort. It is interesting that people don't clap a lot after the performance, even though one can assume that they liked it by their reactions during the show.

We are again going through the area of the closed down factories, and readapted small houses which now represent terrifying "buildings", next to which is an open septic tank. Red trade union flags are still flying in the streets that are full of people as when we came: barbershops on the streets, or more precisely a big wooden chair and small tools, soup kitchens, tailors – everything happens there, on the open, in front of the buildings...

Barber shopBarber shop


Saturday, January 2.

Mala is coming to bring me a cell phone - an old Nokia with worn out numbers, so I can have my "Indian number" for 1000 rupees (65 rupees equals 1 euro), and the driver takes us, to our surprise, to a luxurious part of Delhi - the headquarters of the Janam group. The address is, of course, deceiving – the group is temporarily using a shed in the yard of a villa – as a place to deposit their equipment and archive, and they are rapidly searching for a location which will enable them to work normally. Here – the meeting (which lasts for three hours) is in the open, at 8 degrees Celzius , so we're all freezing. The Indians covered their heads with woolen scarves, my husband and I put our hoods on – in spite that we are all trembling, nobody leaves. The conversation is interesting; starting with the history of the Janam Theater – a history motivated by the political struggle – everyone is still there, as well as the young, new members, the actresses who acknowledge the purpose of the social action through the work of this theater.

They will have a possibility to get a new place only if they arrange it with other organizations – through the solidarity, either renting or shopping a space together – because one quarter square is expensive in Delhi, and they as a politically activist theater, cannot, nor want to ask for a donation, neither from a corporation, nor from a state. Foreign donors are not interested in them because they are not engaged with the "innovative artistic practices", and Janam doesn't even asks them for a help, because they feel that foreign donors usually only participate in the events superficially, and don't contribute to solving the real problems and influencing the necessary cultural changes in India with their donations.

 Discussion on the openDiscussion on the open

Lunch in a modest Chinese restaurant – the bill is paid by everyone equally; we're saying our goodbyes and promise to meet again, on a seminar in Mumbai, after I'm done visiting Indian theaters.


National School of Drama – invisible Anuradha Kapur

On our way we pass by the National School of Drama (NSD) and Sanjna takes us in, to show us a potential the school has (The school for actors and directors is the largest school in India and is the only one which offers higher education, that lasts three years), and we realize that we're interrupting a preparation for the press conference for the upcoming theater festival "The Bharat Rang Mahotsav" (BRM), which will take place from January 6th to 22nd. Everybody knows Sanjna, so we get the "press passes" with no trouble. National School of Drama initiated this festival hoping to contribute to the development of theater activities in India, but over time, the festival has turned from a national to an international festival. This year, many shows on different Indian languages are invited: Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Canada, Punjabi, Marathi...and of course English; and many groups have identified themselves as multilingual - which means that their performances will include different languages without translation. Sanjna points out to me two performances of the Naja Theater, founded by Habib Tanvir. Habib, one of the most popular playwrights and directors (urdu/hindu), passed away in June 2009, and for the last few years he practically couldn't hold his performances in the cities where the JANAT Party was in power, because they would hire their militant groups to come to the theater and stop the performance at all costs, as it was considered "offensive to Hindus". Beside Habib and his theater which is connected to the Indian Theater Forum, Iyengar (Calcutta) and Jayachandran (Bangalore) are also taking part in the festival.

 Delhi academyDelhi academy

We are going to the bookstore of the University, where we find very interesting books (Community and Culture, K. Subanna, the founder of the Ninasam Theater in the remote village of Karnataka state) and the magazine Theatre India – published by NSD, especially the number (11/2005) dedicated to the meaning and importance of the national theater today. There is a permanent exhibition of the history of the Theater Academy in one of the school halls. It is given clearly, in an easy-to-fallow manner, and divided in four phases: 1) Beginning, 1962-1977 (the Consolidation phase); 2) 1978-1982 (New directions); 3) 1982-1995 (Restructuring) and 4) from 1995 until today (Expansion – new stages and audiences). The principal of the school is Dr Anuradha Kapur, but she didn't have time to meet with us (Sanjna thinks it's because of the strong opposition of the Indian Theater Forum to the monopoly of the school and its theater – the only national theater in India).

Sanjna meets her colleague, who tells her that a performance in Tamasha style takes place at the same time as the press conference, and it is performed by the students of acting – and we manage to get on time into one of the three theater halls of the School. Tamasha is one of thetraditional popular forms of marathi theater (from the state of Maharashtra) – and students started to learn it only in the second phase of the schools development (the first phase was very international: ConsolidationConsolidationEbrahim Alkazi, theater director and founder of the school, tried to keep in touch with what was going on in the avant-garde theaters in the world, during the sixties – i.e. The Women of Troy, by Jean Giraudoux was also performed in the time when India tried to build the "supranational" identity inspired by Nehru and Gandhi and promoting Hindi as common language).

It was only when Alkazi retired, which coincides with the raise in ethnic nationalisms and Hindu nationalism per se, that the school introduced traditional theatrical forms and methods in the curriculum. That is, of course, only those which had a status of "classic" in India, that is, the ones performed by the theater groups once belonging to the members of the higher castes. Kathakali, Bharatanatyam dance and Tamasha, as one of the more popular forms...But not Yakshagana, Kattu... The Ministry of Culture registered around 150 traditional theater forms for which the groups can today get a subsidy, divided in two groups: classical forms and folklore forms. Yet, only two of them are registered in the UNESCO world list of the intangible heritage – Ramlila (the traditional performance of Ramayana) and Kutiyattam (Sanskrit theater from Kerala). It seems that the Indians have a lot more job to do, regarding the preservation of their tradition, not to mention the need for developing and preserving traditional forms. India has only five protected forms of intangible heritage (the festival Novruz belonging to the common heritage of Asia), which is the same number as Mongolia with a population of 2 million inhabitants belonging to the same culture, while Korea has 8 and Japan 16 protected forms.

On my way from the performance, I read the poster on a bulletin board of the School – that attracts my attention: Žižek in India, a series of lectures from Decembar 24. to January 9.


Pooja Sood – pragmatic energy

We are arriving at Pooja Sood, my former "student", in the summer school organized by the Central European University in Budapest ("Cultural policies of the countries in transition" – the course run by Dragan Klaić and me in 2007).

These days, Pooja is starting a project with the Goethe Institute in Delhi, about teaching cultural management for gallery owners and curators, but she would also like Indian Theater Forum to take part and make a joint project. Sanjna is careful – the purpose of me coming here actually is trying to prepare a particular Indian curriculum, and not importing European or American one. She honors Pooja, her energy and ability to realize such an idea through her independent, private organization (KHOJ International Artists' Association). It should be kept in mind that Pooja has put a lot of effort during the last ten years to educate herself more about issues on cultural, and especially gallery management, but Sanjna states that we will continue with our research, followed by the preparation of the independent curriculum, based on the indigenous experiences, as well as my methodological and educational experience from all parts of the world – but before all, the work on pan-Arabic project of training for cultural managers, which later incited the training for researchers – evaluators of the cultural policy. Pooja is not puzzled by the combination of these two profiles, as she herself, after finishing the summer school for cultural management in Salzburg came to the course on cultural policy in Budapest, but that time she opted for an easier and more pragmatic alternative – training in management techniques. Pooja doesn't seem pleased with Sanjna's distance, but she has to admit that in the world of visual arts she wants to work solely "on a global level", while theater performers first have their linguistic homeland in mind, and there is so many of them in India as it is, that the tour around India is understood as a departure from one's own context into a new world which requires translation and adjustment.


During our conversation, entirely discretely and unnoticeably, two young boys are serving tea – male "service" is common in India – I feel that the boys are too young and that they should, just as Pooja's sons, be in school. Child labor is, however, still not discussed in India, and for these boys, life in Delhi represents a better opportunity than the poverty experienced at home.


Anurupa Roy – vision and responsibility

We arrive to the poor Delhi suburb around 6 p.m. – the streets through which not even our most simple car can pass. We continue by foot, an actor approaches us – actor-puppeteer of the independent puppet theater Katkatha. We climb the narrow stairs until the second floor of a private home whose owner is renting two rooms to this theater. These two rooms are also workshops, repository, as the stage for rehearsal. Moreover, that is where the tea and coffee are prepared, but they say: "our neighborhood is wonderful, since they often see us rehearsing on the roof, for we need a bigger space, and they see us work all day long, usually someone brings us lunch, as they are worried that we don't starve... They are also our first audience – first to greet our new shows".

Anurupa Roy, a young and energetic woman runs this theater, registered as a Foundation, starting various projects connected to different surroundings, questioning the possibilities of communication through the medium of puppetry, that is, a puppet theater.

 Puppet TheaterPuppet Theater

Anurupa gives a brief history of the puppet theater in India – saying that only five theater companies are engaged in the modern puppet theater. However, the tradition of puppetry is huge in India. Around seventeen forms of traditional puppet theaters are registered, so they can be considered as living heritage, and that is out of twenty two documented forms. Apart from that, there are also five traditional forms of Shadow Theater, typical for different parts of India.

The great variety in the range of activities of this small group proves the fact that they made performances for the tsunami victims in the three coastal villages, than a performance in Kashmir (for persons with posttraumatic stress from the village where people mutually massacred themselves in a wedding, and the only survivors were the children small enough to be hit by the gun shots on both sides), up to the show made for Linz – a cultural capital of Europe in 2009. Nowadays, they are doing performances dealing with sexual harassment – currently relevant topic among the staff of big companies, including airport firms.

They insist on the quality in everything they do – of puppets, story, and performance – and, she said: "I am sorry that, in Utar Pradesh, for example, bad puppeteers got the job of promoting literacy and fighting against malaria. They destroyed interest of population for Puppet Theater. We had an opportunity to hear that people are inviting each other to stay in their homes so they don't have to watch the "puppeteers of the government"... and later on in India, we will hear that many people refuse to attend a festival when they hear that it is organized by the Government – because they know that the program will be bad! No government plays, please!"

That is how the "state culture" became the synonym for bad quality.

They refuse to be the group that is invited to play at feasts and birthday parties, which is the most common way to make a living with this craft. They have a broad knowledge of European achievements in puppetry, from Sweden and Russia to Bulgaria and Croatia...Still, they call themselves the ones who learn from experience and suggest that in India we should develop within Indian theater forum, this form of theatrical education – whether creative or managerial through "on the job training", coaching, shadowing, internship...

Katkatha members are the founders of UNIMA India (Union Internationale de la Marionette), with 34 members, responsible for printing the newsletter as well as the magazine. Sometimes they go to Europe. We talk about their readiness to invite some interns...and about how much they cooperate with schools...

We left this theater ashamed – because no one complains nor regrets. We know that the working and educational conditions in Serbia are not great, but comparing to this – they seem terribly solid and rich. I recall the Russian group Derevo who once learned Butoh dance studying two photographs...The very richness of conditions doesn't necessarily stimulate curiosity and creative practices...It often leads to superficiality, glamour and infinitely good technical presentation, where everything is usually exhausted.


Lila Samson – woman of compromise and continuity

Monday, 4 January

Chennai – former Madras. We get up early because it's a true summer here...The British built a fortress St George near the village Madrasapattinam in 1649, and on its southern side the Tamils built a settlement Chennapatnam. These two locations are united in XVII century and the English were naming the city Madras. The local inhabitants preferred to call it Chennai, so that within the new politics of "returning back the old names" in 1996, this city went back to its "original" name. It is a beautiful, postcolonial city, full of parks, allies, monuments – as well as buildings symbolizing statehood (The Palace of Justice, University, Central Railroad Station) – since Chennai is the capital of the Tamil Nadu state.


Pravin, theater artist and painter, the Lanterna magica organization executive, comes to pick us up at the hotel. We are going to the Chennai suburb, Kalakshetra. Lila Samson, a dance school principal, is waiting for us there. We are passing by the huge property of the International Theosophical Society. "Helena Blavatsky, Madame Blavatsky..."– the words of Harald Szeemann are vaguely coming to mind as he was guiding us (the participants of the European Diploma in Cultural project Management) through his Museum in the Mount Monte Verita. He mentioned how much the theosophists enjoyed coming there, but I can't even remember the rules and principles of theosophy...


Yet, Pravin, like the majority of Madras citizens (they often, as well as the inhabitants of Mumbai, refer to themselves using the old city names), knows everything about the theosophical movement, because not only that they have an international center there, but they control a large part of the city territory (their property is open to public, but only during certain hours...). There is also a century old library preserving the handwritings on the palm tree leafs and which is open for the researchers and academics. The walls surrounding the Theosophical society "property" bother me – I don't understand the need to come to India, and then separate oneself from its society, but I don't mention it to Pravin.

We arrive to another park, Kalakshetra, separated yet by the smaller fences (the name literally means "holy place – the temple of art"). It is a state owned educational institution for dance and music nowadays, legacy of a school which was founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale in the 1930s, with a purpose to revitalize Barathanatyam – a classical Indian dance. The school of Rukmini Devi was the symbol of fight for the independence of India, for the "home rule" – a fight that necessitated not only achieving the political goals, but reviving tradition and making it applicable to the contemporary times. The school gained such an importance over time that, after the death of Rukmini Devi, the state decided to become responsible of the institution and build a monument in honor of Arundale. It was inaugurated by the president of India of that time.

 Rukmini Devi ArundaleRukmini Devi Arundale

The very institution includes three theater spaces for the performances: theater building in the style of Kuttampalams – the theater in Kerala, very particularly built with round surfaces, then a enclosed theater space with a separate scene and auditorium, and totally out in the open, a theater space under the Banyan tree – which will be soon used for the Fair of the authentic crafts. As they told us, craftsmen from different Indian states are regularly coming for such an event. Besides these performing spaces, there are also numerous small buildings with classrooms and halls for rehearsals – in all of them, groups of girls and boys with musicians and teachers – practicing the traditional songs or movements.

 Theatar KalakshetraTheatar Kalakshetra

Lila Samson is obviously a person of a compromise and continuity, not ready to change the very school much, but with the politics of cooperation and total openness towards the other performing groups, she established a reputation of the institution that all the independent theater initiatives can count on. We notice that many members of the Indian theater forum performed there under very favorable conditions – from Pravin to Kutu Theater in Kanchipuram.

We returned back to the hotel to pick up my husband Ivko for the next visit. While driving, Pravin is trying to explain why he closed his own, very successful theater - Lanterna magica. This theater was his pass for the Indian theater forum! He is a director, an artist and a producer, guiding his theater group through the villages of Tamil Nadu, and he fought 20 years for establishing the contemporary theater practice in the Tamil language. It seems to be in vain! He explains how impossible it is to obtain means for a theater artistic and research project, and that it is even not possible to get a simple rehearsing room. Everything must be paid for – so, even if everyone from the company worked for free for months, and at the end, invested everything they had in order to realize the project, there comes the next obstacle – where to perform. Since everything must be paid for in advance there, as well: theater hall, marketing... "In Chennai we don't have Prithvi or Ranga Shankara...only private auditoriums". And – he didn't wait for my second question, but answered to it – "I began painting! It's an individual artistic form, and at least I don't put other people in misery!"

His artistic drive is obviously stronger than everything else, but the complexity of theater work really does require either the existence of donors, or public policies, or strong commercial system such as the one in Bombay (yet, in this commercial system there isn't much space left for art).

We dine in the half-empty hotel restaurant – poultry and lamb are on the menu (we didn't know at that point that it would be our last non-vegetarian meal there).


Chandralekha – a mythical figure – symbol of the original creativity based on tradition

"Her entire religion was her aesthetics".1

We are at the Ocean now. In the street called Eliot's beach, number 1, situated in the Quarter Besant Nagar, the most prestigious part of Chennai named after Annie Besant, an Irish woman, theosophist, a fighter for self-government and women's rights. In a space called just like that – Spaces, we enter together – my husband Ivko, Pravin and I. We are greeted by Sadanand Menon and two young girls, friends and collaborators. He starts the discussion – asking us about Serbia today, about the fall of Yugoslavia...The conversation goes on, still about Serbia, and for quite a long time I cannot understand why I'm not able to shift our talk to what is supposed to be crucial for my interlocutor – to this very Space, functioning as an open, independent, cultural center. And more importantly – free of charge!

Spaces - InteriourSpaces - Interiour          

Sadanand's questions to us are very precise, more than journalist ones, analytical, because Sadanand Menon did start his career as a journalist, but he is one of the most respectable contemporary thinker, cultural studies researcher and political analyst.

 Sadanand and PravinSadanand and Pravin

That is exactly how, as a student and a political activist, he met Chandralekha - in the end of the 60s, at the "rich people's" party, where they went as a group to ask for the money to go to the countryside and help dalits – the untouchables. While others kept quiet ashamed, Chandra took students aside and scolded them for doing something they know nothing about – that they are the urban kids who don't understand life in the countryside. From that moment, the friendship between Chandra and Sadanand was ongoing up until her death (30.12.2002). In 1975, when the state of emergency was declared which suspended the elections and citizens' freedoms (lasted for almost two years), and when Sadanand realized he couldn't work as a journalist the way he wants, Chandra offered him "refuge" in her house, because she too fought against the assertion of the state of emergency.


So the star of the conversation becomes yet another woman – a major theater personality in India – a dancer Chandralekha – long gone, but still present, because that space (Spaces) is, in fact, a cultural institution built in her honor. Her house on the coast was, even if not labeled as such, the center of the cultural life of Madras. In the dance world, Chandra is outstanding because of many things - the moments she left the dance scene and came back to it after the long breaks, the hybridization of traditional and contemporary movements, in times when it wasn't a trend, her long white hair revealing her age in the world where the vanity related to the body and looks was a dominant feature...When, during the sixties, she decided to end her brilliant career, disgusted by the simplification of the traditional dance, as well as its commercialization, no one could predict her comeback to the dance scene as a choreographer – innovator twenty years later.

Chandra ChoreographieChandra Choreographie

Working for twenty four years as a designer of books and posters, she made two digressions into dance with the projects Devadasi (1962) and Navagraha (1972). However, her real comeback to the dance scene of India was rendered possible only in 1984 by gesture of Rukmini Devi Arundale (two years before she died), sending her students to work with Chandra and realize new choreographies for the festival in Bombay East West Dance Encounter. Rukmini held that Chandra's ideas in dance and choreography were unique and original, deep and mystical. Since then, Chandra works as the main choreographer for numerous state promotional manifestations (Indian festival in Paris, and then in Moscow, Tashkent...for which she did such a complex scenes with 800 dancers from around 35 different folklore and classical Indian forms).

Chandralekha's legendary status in India lies precisely in the fact that, on one hand, she created the space for the contemporary dance research, and on the other, that she succeeded in dancing and performing her choreographies at the most prestigious festivals of contemporary dance in the world (three times in the Tokyo summer festival, two times in Hamburg Hammoniale, then in Copenhagen, Arhus, Singapore, Canada, Great Britain...). In the same time, she collaborated with the top musicians, as well as painters, so that, the famous Indian artist living in London Anish Kapoor contributed to the success of one performance – Raga. It is obvious that as the dance tradition in India is very vivid and "open", many different paths are possible, even paths into other fields (crossdisciplinary). Even the primordial myth about the birth of the dance talks about it – according to the legend, dancing Shiva was "watched" by four: Barathamuni (which later codified Natya shastra, an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts, encompassing theatre, dance and music.); by Panini who wrote Vyakarana shastra (codified the linguistic standard of Sanskrit); by Patanjali who developed Yoga sutras, and finally, by Vyaghrapada, who founded martial arts.

So, the dance tradition opens many and new paths – and Spaces wants to make that possible, giving space to everyone who does research in different fields of arts. While we were talking, visitors-friends, a father and a daughter - both painters, came in with their new works, to show it to Sadanand and discuss about it!

 Chandralekha CoreographyChandralekha Coreography

In the evening, not sure what to read or right first, I'm opening two more files, besides this journal – to put ideas for the seminar of the Indian theater forum in the first one, and the citations from the Indian theater studies and my reflections on them, in the second one... Maybe one day everything comes together in one text, but for now, it seems difficult to reconcile the demands of three different genres: a journal; a policy recommendations with already designed instruments such as trainings; and a cultural and theatrical analysis inspired by theoretical literature.


Padmini Chettur – the lonely innovator

In spite of Pravin's depressive thoughts, it seems that Tamil Nadu is a state of film and dance! That was our impression while reading Chennai Times during breakfast. The whole supplement for culture is related to the film and dance! The dancer Meenakshi Chitharanjan suggests to her compatriots to stop complaining and accusing one another and that young people should freely come to the scene, which is the only way to render visible their talent. A few dance "recitals" are announced, and another page is entirely dedicated to dancing as therapy – to Ambika Kameshwar, a pioneer in this sphere (this is obviously a field being recently developed with the help of the British Council), as well as a dancer Vyshnavie, who is creating a hybrid style by mixing Bharatanatyam with the Odissi dance.

 Padmini ChetturPadmini Chettur

However, Padmini Chettur, Chandra's student, at the beginning didn't want a face-to-face conversation. From the phone call that Pravin had with her I realized that she thinks it was enough that she had sent a questionnaire with her answers to me. Yes, she has stated there that she was tired of artistic life; and since she didn't want to work anymore, to continue with her own company, she thought that it made no sense to further discuss the organizational development and strategic plan with us. I announce to Pravin that I am particularly interested in "exit" strategies, because they are very rare in the cultural field. Usually the end occurs suddenly, because of the political or economic reasons, but almost never does the "owner" make a decision to shut down the arts organization in six months...That is why I really want to talk to Padmini Chettur!


Padmini still tries to avoid this conversation and "blame it" on the rehearsal. This is a bad excuse, as this give me a chance to say, with even more enthusiasm, to explain that it gives us one more reason to see her, as, in that case, we will have the chance to meet at least a part of the team, as well as to see the rehearsal! In short – to see the conditions in which the top Indian choreographers and dancers are working. I have already heard a lot about Padmini Chettur yesterday, as she was a student – dancer who worked with Chandra for ten years, and her photos are in the Chandralekha's monography that I got from Sanadand.

What else I knew was that she is a guest star on numerous festivals around Europe, and that, as well – great choreographers such as Sasha Waltz did a lot for her European recognition – and that is everything I know about her, based on the questionnaire which was obviously filled in unwillingly.

Padmini CoreographyPadmini CoreographyWe have finally set a meeting, and she invites us to come a bit before the end of the rehearsal. So we have time to go through Chennai and make a small tour around the city – two temples (Kapaleeswarar and Parthasarathy, the Pallavi dynasty temples from the 8th century), the church of St Tom, St George's fortress, the old and new railroad stations...

Padmini Chettur rents the rehearsal rooms in the very center of the city, in a residence whose basement is adjusted for this purpose. Still, the windows are too small, and the conditions are far from ideal. She says that she tried everything – but she is sick of having to go touring around Europe for two or three months in order to earn a year worth living in India (since they pay the rent even when they are touring). They also tried to earn money by organizing commercial courses – she shows me the group led by Preethy, Pravin's wife, a dancer. Nevertheless, even though the course lasts for a couple of months already, nobody has paid yet – because, those who want to take dancing classes don't have the means for it. So there is also only work there, and no income! Still, Padmini insists, this voluntary type of work is necessary, because it is the way to expand the group, to recruit potential new dancers. "You know", says Padmini, "I used to dance for ten years for Chandra's group - for free, of course! But I wasn't paying her for what I was taught! So, that is the "economy" of the dance – pure exchange, the investment of ourselves". Yet, after the long conversation, with sadness and a lot of humor, she acknowledges that she will come to the seminar in Bombay – this conversation with my stories of entrepreneurial endeveors in the independent performing arts scene around the world, and the very fact that the most active part of the Indian independent theater scene will meet in Bombay seminar, have reactivated her desire. The same goes for Pravin and his wife, on our way back – they said: " Now, we have decided - we have just to realize Pravin's exhibition, and then we have to try once again to form a company, theater group, to work again" – even though, for the moment they don't see how! "But, as always, we will find some solution!"


The Mother (Mirra Alfassa)

The road takes us again to the south of Chennai, we are passing nearby Kalakshetra – so we are using this opportunity to take pictures of the whole campus, after which we continue directly to Pondicherry. We are hoping to visit on this road one more cultural and educational institution we heard a lot about - Dakshina Chitra - the museum with the specific educational, even university programs. The objective of this institution is to preserve the "living heritage" of Indian arts and architecture – especially in the "southern states" – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala (Dravidian heritage).

Pravin had some doubts if it will be open, but we thought that at least we can take a look at the boards of the school (especially about newly created Art Management program), but unfortunately, at the gate we confirm what we already knew – that everything is closed on Tuesday – and there is no possibility of walk on the campus...

We are driving further south. The site is picturesque, partly along the coast, and then we traverse to the new highway, incredibly clean and orderly. We are drinking tea in a bar along the road – they can't stop wondering why we want our tea with no milk or sugar. Here they always serve a previously prepared "package" – they don't let the individuals decide how much sugar or milk to put in, not to mention the intensity of the flavor.

The driver who came to pick us up is from Pondicherry. At the poster beside the wheel a picture of the old lady, covered in white sari. Ivko calls out "Our driver holds his mother's picture, she must have died recently". I'm embarrassed to ask, but I also think it's his mother. The respect toward family is part of Indian culture.

We finally arrive to Pondicherry late in the evening – the directress of the theater is standing at the entrance into the Adishakti complex (It will be only later on, in Bangalore, that I will realize that this was the custom here - the driver made a phone call after estimating that we would arrive in about ten minutes, and thus our hosts always were on time, waiting for us in front of the gate).

The directress is taking us to the restaurant and to our room. The room is in a guest house – in a real "villa", built for the guests of the theater, but also for more commercial projects (like art residences). Moreover, in that complex of buildings, besides the theater and the special constructions for rehearsals, there are also an open kitchen/dining room (topped of course), then numerous houses-villas for actors, and bigger houses with guest rooms, as well.

 Guest house AdishaktiGuest house Adishakti

Suddenly, a familiar face was looking at us from everywhere– that was the face of our driver's "mother", but this time often with another person – we realize that this was Shri Aurobindo and "a mother" – whom everyone does call The Mother!

The mother was born as Mirra Alfasa in Paris, 1878. She was educated to become an artist, she was writing, playing music, but yet, she got interested in the spiritual development and in 1914, she went to Pondicherry, then a French colony in India, to meet Shri Aurbindo. She settles in Pondicherry in 1920, and since 1926, when Aurobindo founded an ashram there, she took over its management in the next fifty years. Ashram developed in several directions, so that the Aurobindo International Educational Center was founded in 1952. (It is still active today, and even organizes postgraduate studies), and in 1968, she founded an international project of the universal city – Auroville. Alfasa died in 1973 but all of the institutions are continually developing. Tomorrow we will of course visit Auroville (that night we still weren't aware that we are actually on the outskirts of Auroville – an ideal universal city – the city without institutional religion or police).

 The MotherThe Mother

To be honest, I heard about Auroville only in December, when I told my colleagues at the congress in Berlin that I would be going to India and briefly named some key places that I would visit. Then a program director in the House of the Culture of the World told me I had to go to Auroville because it was very close to Pondicherry – and we were situated right there. However, looking at the website – I was imagining something entirely different to what we are experiencing now). I pictured a city – ville, but we found a park with wooden houses in Adishakti and a park with somewhat bigger villas in Auroville...

We eat dinner in a big, open, topped dining room, the meals are placed in the corner, and everyone coming – comes in different time and serves himself, and then we join a group in the courtyard – the actors, but also some members of the International Writers' Workshop. This literary residence program, currently going on in Adishakti, was organized by Sangham house from Bangalore. It lasts for two months during December and January, and it is organized with the help of the publishing houses and foreign embassies. The free interaction of actors and writers is provided...Adishakti Theater gets additional means through the realization of this program. (Guestrooms are providing a substantial part of income to this theater, especially during the year, when they are working on a new project and there is no income from touring or from their box-office).

The actor Arjun is leading the conversation. People in India don't drink and mostly don't smoke, usually they are not intrusive and pretentious when in company – however, he has all these "vices", but also an incredible charm which ensures that nobody leaves the table...

 Around the tableAround the table

When he heard the reason we came, he shifted from his previous story about his brother who is member of the group who is protecting animals against violence (given through many interesting examples: how he was saving a young owl and teaching it to fly when time came; how he was giving a health treatment to a crow and then attempting to teach it not to still food from the fridge; and finally, a story about a special and very expensive Latin American parrot who was taken away from his rich owner because he was kept parrot in a too small cage! However, this last story had an unexpected end – the association had to give back the parrot because the owner habituated the bird to the very expensive food, so that it nearly died in the asylum from "hunger strike".

In the other part of the evening, Arjun went to the stories about the world of theater – about his personal experiences of growing up in Ranga Shankara in Bangalore (where he worked as a host, cleaner...everything they needed, just to be able to see the shows); his education in Ninasam (Heggodu), all previous to his arrival here, to Adishakti, an experimental, "hybrid" theater. He speaks the least about his present work, and I'm not really keen to ask, because I don't want to make it look like a management inquiry... I will speak with Veenapani tomorrow about it.

A guest of the literary colony engages in the conversation – the writer Manav Kaul – who presents himself as a playwright and the founder of the theater group aRanyaGroup3 (Bombay), whose play is currently performed in Ranga Shankara Theater in Bangalore. Another play he also directed partakes at the festival organized by the NSD, and it will be performed in Prithvi Theater in Bombay, in January...

Thus, I realized that the organizations brought together by the Indian Theater Forum, are basically the ones representing the only platform, a possibility for small, independent theater companies in India to perform, to at least gain some visibility.

We are discussing the purpose of the theater festivals in India. Unfortunately, Manav, as well as Arjun, don't see in them anything other than just the possibility to present a play – as other possibilities for performing, other than the two aforementioned, (Ranga Shankara in Bangalore and Prithvi in Bombay) don't exist... In other cities, a group who makes a play, has to rent the "auditorium" under the very commercial price – and most probably won't be able to earn it back with the ticket price. In the whole India, only Ranga Shankara is working as the real "open stage", charging insignificantly (2 500 rupees for the electricity). Thus, festivals are the only option to perform. Since it is known that most of the festivals are state-organized – it is clear that the chances for the new, young groups' to be invited, are minimal.

It is still hard for me to understand the theatrical landscape of India – where there is so many theater groups, and so little "public spaces". That is what makes the efforts of the Indian Theater Forum even more create a network of solidarity and mutual respect...In this first few meetings we already realized that the innovative theater space in India is actually very small – in a few gatherings the same map occurred: Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pondicherry (Adishakti), Chennai, Ninasam...and few places we won't visit: Bhopal and Calcutta, Manipur (a state in the very east of India) and Kerala (because of the theater of the pure traditional forms).


Veenapani Chawla – daring and calmness – intertextuallity and hybridization

Wednesday, 6 January – Adishakti

Veenapani Chawla is a follower of the cult of the Mother... That is one of the reasons she linked her artistic project to Pondicherry and Auroville. I started the conversation asking about the cultural politics in India. I'm interested to find out how is it possible to get the regular funds and other means for her independent organisation, big enough to build not only the theater, but also the whole complex of houses – from a kitchen and rehearsal rooms to the houses for actors.

Veenapani ChawlaVeenapani ChawlaAdishakti Company was founded in Bombay in 1981. The famous performances of that time are: Sophocles' Oedipus 1982, Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead 1983, Euripides' Trojan women 1984.

During the 90's, they moved to Auroville where they stopped working on plays, and shifted to artistic-research methods. The actors come to Adishakti from different educational and theater traditions: from National Drama School in Delhi and Ninasam College in Karnataka to University of Calicut School of Drama in Trisur (Kerala)... That openness provides a better research method, freedom to experiment, and "hybridization". The productions are created slowly, but they are long remembered and studied. Adishakti theater archive is entirely available on the Internet – and is highly popular (22 000 visits to this web site).

As one of the most highly recognized theater directors she regularly gets the resources from the Committee for theaters of the "Academy" of the State. She herself was a member of the committee, and she knows how these things function. She points out that there is no political influence of the State on the decisions of the committee and gives example of her own participation in the submitted projects evaluation, quoting an example where she would expect the State reaction. "Among those who applied was a young man connected to the terrorist movement. However, we, the Committee gave him the scholarship – because he had a good project – which proves that the jury decided freely, and the state bureaucrat – the committee secretary, even encouraged us to do so."

She believes that continuity is extremely important in her work – the freedom to explore and rehears as much as the group finds necessary. She talks a lot about the changes inside her own theater organization. Her goals in management are to "support flexibility and avoid bureaucracy". There is a certain kind of self-management in the organization – an agreement – even though, there is no doubt her authority is such that she is respected as a person, above all.

 Theater building AdishaktiTheater building Adishakti

She sees the education of the employees as her primary assignment – meaning the establishment of educational processes as segments of artistic research processes. "We don't believe that the knowledge we need is only that in relation to the liberal arts, it is very important to be acquainted with science, and esoteric sciences, as well...One needs to be able to listen and think, from rational knowledge to intuition, searching for your own identities..."

Interdisciplinary interactions are the essence of this theater's work, so they see their place in the Indian Theater Forum in a similar way – as a space for exchange and further research. She emphasizes: "We as theater performers need a lot more platforms, opportunities to play, like the way we perform in the Prithvi Theater, where we guest starred recently with even four pieces". Yet, what exists throughout India doesn't provide the payable tours (too expensive auditoriums), so that every performance demands the additional fundraising. Only the travel costs for the entire groups are 75 000 rupees, so that we must have dotation from public funds and corporative sponsorship, as well. The problem is that the "presenter" and the tour manager professions don't exist in India. Only the traditional, folklore and classical theater forms have their parallel system and already established of showing and guest starring.

Veenapani4 offers us to take her car and visit Pondicherry and Auroville after lunch. Pondicherry, a French colony for many years, now has a special status. The alcohol is the cheapest there, and somewhat more accessible. The city is a tourist destination, with a different architecture and atmosphere. Sri Aurobindo went there long ago, to escape the persecution of the English colonial rule (as a Bengali nationalist), yet he becomes a spiritual man there and meets Mirra, with whom he will create a new spiritual movement...The fundamental belief of this movement is that the man is a "transitional" being.

 Auroville CupoleAuroville Cupole

All that seems very unfamiliar to us, but it is interesting that the theosophists and many other Europeans and Americans who were striving for self-knowledge and some new relations in the global society – also came to Tamil Nadu – either to Madras (Chennai) or in Pondicherry, to establish their institutions and their teachings in this part of India.

So we first went to Auroville, a city built to contribute to the "progress of mankind and bring together all the people of good will and positive aspirations". The project of building a new city was also supported by the Indian state, as well as UNESCO, so that the official representatives of 124 states came to the inauguration. That is when Mother's vision about the integral living in Auroville expressed in four arguments was presented:

  1. Auroville doesn't belong to anyone in particular, but to the mankind as a whole. Yet, in order to live here, every individual has to serve the Divine consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be a place of permanent education, progress and youth that will never grow old.
  3. Auroville wants to be a bridge between the past and the present, using all internal and external discoveries.
  4. Auroville will be the graph of material and spiritual research which will contribute to the realization of the real human unity.

Still, out of all of that, we saw only the city in the park, with a center where a museum and a sort of a sophisticated shopping mall are situated. Europeans, usually on bicycles or motorcycles are circling around this huge space that we couldn't entirely perceive. We couldn't even "experience" the entire city structure because we were going without the real guide that afternoon, with a driver, who obviously didn't believe in this idea of supreme consciousness or the universal city. Opposed to the driver who drove us to Pondicherry, and who had Mother's picture in his car, this guy who will be taking us around Auroville and Pondicherry – doesn't want to go with us neither in Ashram, nor to the "welcoming center" in Auroville. To our question what to expect when we walk into Ashram, he answers he doesn't know because he never went there.

In the afternoon in Pondicherry we are talking to the students at the shore...The streets still have French names, and the city spirit is different from Chennai, even though there are similarities in geographical position, as well as the city structure.

In the evening, long conversations with the writers again. They are reciting famous witty, vulgar limericks, the Irish folk poetry in five verses. Klaus is reciting his limericks in Danish. They are all interested in swearwords from all over the world – they like ours as well – very interested in the concrete expressions and the possibilities of their adequate translation...

Arwind, the copywriter and a playwright of the theater, arrives on his motorcycle, covered in red shawl. Ivko comments – as if Bruno Ganz appeared in one of Venders' movies...As he was approaching, Arwind starts to speak in German - only he knows why...We laugh – his German is equally bad as Ivko's, and Klaus doesn't speak any better either, so we go back to speaking English and drinking fenny – the only Indian brandy (of Portuguese origin). The talk is about theater, so because Klaus is present, I mention what to me is the most significant in Danish theater. Coincidentally, I now notice that the discussion was only about women – Hotel Pro forma, worldwide known phenomena, as well as Kathrine Winkelhorn, who is continuously collaborating with the Balkan states since 1999. Also about our Lady Ambassador in Danemark, Vida Ognjenović, theater director and writer – who not only participated in the scientific conference about the nationalism in culture two months ago in Copenhagen, but also organized the reception in the residence for all the participants. ..

I'm explaining to Klaus that this is an excellent example – it is not cultural diplomacy, not the systemic state cultural policy towards foreign countries, and our Embassies are often not even informed about the conferences and other gatherings where our representatives have notable respect. Neither artists nor cultural workers, inform embassies when they are travelling. Now, for this trip, I didn't inform the embassy in Delhi about my arrival and program, as well. They would maybe find it interesting, or maybe not. Anyway, Sanjna knew the former embassy couple – but she didn't get the chance to meet the new ones, yet...


Prof. Dr. Milena Dragićević Šešić
University of Arts, Belgrade

Translation from Serbian to English: Milica Šešić


2 aRANYA was started in 2004 by a group of friends who, in all honesty, wanted nothing more or less than to tell their own stories.  Anyone who has a story to tell is welcome inside the forest!
3 "Adishakti's production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead at the Prithvi is a triumph." The Sunday Observer, Mumbai, 5.6.1983.
4 "Undoubtedly Veenapani Chawla's Ganapti is a radical breakthrough in the history of modern Indian theater", NFSC Journal, 4.7.2001.