She could take rough raw material and chip away at their preconcieved notions of theatre and song till the real artist shone forth.
She could invest all her life's savings in a barren, bramble and rubble filled piece of land and craft it over the years into a space that vibrated with the sound of birds, the swish of fragrant and fruit bearing trees, and resonated with the music of instruments and voices articulating lines of prose and song.
Veenapani Chawla, who died on Sunday at the age of 67, drew others to her with the sheer force of her passion for her art.
Chawla's mission took her from being a school teacher who did kiddie plays to being foyer manager of Mumbai's newly set up Prithvi Theatre, which fired the resolve to direct her own play. It would be Sophocles' Oedipus, in 1981, in which she directed Naseeruddin Shah. It won her the attention of critics and audience alike and spurred her on to direct two more plays, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1983 and Euripedes' The Trojan Women the next year.
Linking voice and movement
Already she was seeking new expressions to say what actors had said countless times before. Trojan Women, in which I was part of the Chorus, made use of the dance form of mayurbanj chau from Odisha to help the body express what the text wanted to say. I was too much of a novice to realise it then, but Chawla was already well on her way to finding a way to link the body and its movements with the voice.
It was with A Greater Dawn in 1992, a play she adapted from Sri Aurobindo's epic poem, Savitri, that Chawla found the path that would lead her onward. Eight years after she started work on the poem that spanned 12 books to create a 45-minute performance text from it, Chawla set to work on the production. Taking inspiration from Sri Aurobindo's philosophy, and her own rigourous training in various theatre skills, including the use, modulation and control of voice and in Kalaripyattu that she learnt in Kerala, Chawla put her actors to work.
Her quest was to find how their bodies could help shape vocal expression, and how breath energy could affect emotion. It's a concept that I, as one of her untrained actors, grasped only when she made me recite my lines after making me run in circles till I was out of breath.
A Greater Dawn, during which an actor named Vinay Kumar joined her group to take on the main role in later stagings of the production, was the first step towards a collaboration between director and actor that would result in productions like Impressions of Bhima (1994), Brhanala (1998), and a series of path-breaking productions that followed her move from Mumbai to Pondicherry in 1993, and the establishment of the Adishakti Complex, as a laboratory for theatre and research.
Sound and music
Ganapati (2000), where sound and music formed the core of the performance, The Hare and the Tortoise (2007) which was a metaphysical reading of the simple Aesop Fable but peopled by Eklavya, Arjuna, Hamlet, as well as the hare and the tortoise followed, each marking significant steps in her own growth.
Often while a play was being blocked, I would find myself in Pondicherry, and would be drawn into a discussion of what worked and what did not. Never content with her first drafts, Chawla was known to restructure, change a play in form and texture even after the first few performances, till all criticism was countered and corrected to her satsifaction.
And satisfaction rested in taking her work closer to Sri Aurobindo's philosophy and The Mother's vision. Whether it was in the administration of the estate that was now the Adishakti complex, complete with guest house, work spaces, theatre, swimming pool for voice exercises and with access to a Kalari for body training, or the crafting of her own text and its performance, Chawla brought to it all a gentle but firm guiding hand and voice that seemed itself to be guided from above.
A yearning spirit
Even as she worried about preparing her actors so they could take forward the work she had started and become teachers in their own right, she also worried about her spiritual evolution, asking often of others in the know, if she was sure to reach where her spirit yearned to go.
Her life was always a work in progress. Every play a brick in the edifice she was building that would lead her to the core of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's philosophy. Every workshop, festival, and visiting student a conduit to sharing, and enlarging knowledge for herself as much as for all concerned. As a friend pointed out when we were discussing Chawla's mist vital qualities: She seemed to do small and big things with great love, something, she said, she learnt from The Mother, who was a huge influence on her life. It became unique to her and drew people to her side.
Of course, the work will continue. Veenapani Chawla's vast universe of untrained students like me, the numerous actors and theatre people who have attended the varied series of workshops that she spearheaded, as well as the closely knit community of actors, performers and lay helpers who helpedmake her vision of Adishakti come true, will ensure the work in progress is not left half way. Veenapani's guidance is a driving force that will continue to show the way.