Classical dancers are taught to aim their gaze slightly above the audience’s line of sight. The width of this gaze makes it targeted yet impersonal – you address each viewer as an individual, yet never lock eyes long enough to forge a connection. This may work in proscenium theatres where the stage lights are blinding enough to wash out the audience. However, in a basement studio, with an audience of 30 people, smiling brilliantly at the empty space above people’s heads is rarely a solution. There are no blinding lights, and the audience is right at your feet.
How do you then define your separation from the audience?
Alternative and intimate spaces – such as converted studios, basements, parks, shopping malls and homes – have made performances accessible to newer audiences today, while creating new opportunities for artists. While these spaces come with their challenges, they have also begun to inform how work is made, allowing artists greater room to evolve new formats of making and receiving a performance.
Lost and found spaces
What is the shelf life of a performance? Until a few years ago, once a performance was ready, artists in India waited to be invited to the handful of institutional venues. A more expensive option was to rent a theatre, find sponsors, and sell tickets – with very slim chances of breaking even or turning a profit. This meant that weeks and months of rehearsal could, with some luck, result in a few shows with negligible returns. The work reached limited audiences and the rigid presentation format within a formal theatre setting meant that viewers had few opportunities to discuss the work.
While alternative spaces accommodate fewer people at a time, they allow for a deeper engagement with the artist’s process. They also prolong the shelf life of a work, almost functioning as a tour circuit with the emergence of several such spaces across India.
In many cases, the need for alternative spaces has catapulted artists into playing more active roles in such initiatives, like leading and managing venues or curating programmes for them. Manishikha Baul, a dancer based in New Delhi, felt stifled by her performances in conventional spaces. She found herself performing for a limited circle of people – fellow dancers, journalists, friends and family. “By creating an auditorium, you cut off a section of the public, just as a shopping mall does,” she said. “I found myself bothered by how art is accessed, viewed and patronised.”
This lack of stimulation led her to Lost and Found – Delhi-based theatre-maker Mallika Taneja’s initiative to bring the arts to neighbourhood spaces. Baul partnered with Taneja to programme regular performances in a few neighbourhoods across Delhi, many of them in the gazebos of public parks. This presented interesting challenges – the lack of electricity, running water and sometimes, smooth surfaces. Baul saw that artists were willing to use these limitations to trigger their imagination, finding new ways of negotiating what they sought of spaces.
Over time, the Lost and Found duo noticed that some neighbourhoods were more proactive about continuing to bring the arts to their localities by opening out community spaces to independent artists and other initiatives. Yet the first step, Baul feels, needs to be taken by the artist – one shouldn’t expect the audience to initiate such a shift.
For Nimi Ravindran of Bengaluru’s Sandbox Collective, which produces, curates and tours work, infrequent performance opportunities led to new avenues. In its early days, Sandbox programmed performances in people’s homes. Some of their audiences from this time became regular theatre-goers.
“For theatre companies, it is hard to subsist on just a few shows,” said Ravindran. “We had a show. How could we perform it? We added and removed props based on the space, and were flexible about light and sound requirements. People would invite all their neighbours to come and watch the show, and this brought us audiences who had never watched theatre earlier. Instead of leaving after the performance, they would hang out and talk to the actors about their lives.”
Spaces like parks and homes double up as alternative spaces, reverting to their original function once the performance has ended. In other cases, space is repurposed on a more permanent basis.
In Pune, Trishla Talera converted a defunct Art Deco hotel in the centre of the city into the TIFA Working Studios, a hub for contemporary art practice. TIFA runs an annual residency and offers workspaces to artists-in-residence, besides curating its own programmes. Artists have chosen to engage with the building by “retrofitting performances to the space”, as Talera puts it. While some have had audiences move through the building during the performance, others work with ambient sound, or replace the standard lighting rig with an assemblage of torches and night lamps, thus adapting performances to the architecture of the space.
In some instances, a space built for one occasion can suit another with some modifications. On some days, the Kanara Catholic Association’s building in Bandra’s Ranwar village hosts religious and festive events, including birthdays, first communions and weddings. On other days, it is home to an alternative performance venue called The Mumbai Assembly. The space has tied up with programming partners across creative disciplines, who bring in specialised knowledge and also facilitate nuanced encounters with the creative process. Through a partnership with the Shapeshift Collective, their dance curation developed into a mentorship programme, opportunities to use rehearsal space, share work-in-progress and hold regular workshops.
In performance, the challenges of turning around a functional space and making it the site of an artistic practice are exciting. Making a space financially viable is a larger concern – one that may or may not be passed on to an artist. “Every time we do a show we set up lighting rigs for it,” noted TMA co-founder Preeti Gaonkar. “It’s fun for artists to constantly think about how to engage with the audience. We don’t really make money off the space but we know that the audience has had an experience they will remember.”
Alternative spaces are everywhere – on the top floor of an office building on the busy Lalbagh Road in Bengaluru, in a bungalow in Mumbai’s Aram Nagar or in the basements of several private homes in Delhi. They mitigate the precariousness of creative work by making it possible to show work more often and at a lower cost. The audiences are smaller, but they are locals who spread the word. For the uninitiated, these spaces feel less intimidating, open to a viewer plopping down on a cushion – devoid of the pomp and ceremony of mainstream venues. The architecture and the intimacy of these spaces makes the performance experience immediate and tactile. For contemporary performance makers, often working outside frameworks of state or institutional support, these spaces posit an alternative ecology, one that is able to contextualise their particular sensibilities and approaches to form.