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A Complicated Quest

Anuradha Kapur

Edited by Shanta Gokhale
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 352, Rs. 895.00


The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla: Theory Practice Performance is a timely book in more ways than one. It is tragically timely in that it appeared just a few months before Veenapani’s sudden death shocked us all in late 2014. Veenapani Chawla’s practice has, it seems to me, remained almost neglected. Affecting because Veenapani was a dear friend and colleague whose three decade long practice in the theatre sometimes corresponded and sometimes entirely differed from the journeys of many of her contemporaries, of whom I am one. Veenapani Chawla’s work brings to the fore the many contradictions that have beset our generation. The national and the international; the universal and the particular; the cosmopolitan and the global are in vexed relationships with each other and have had to be described and navigated in our practice. Exhilarating because it focuses our attention on what is to my mind one of the most extraordinary quests in contemporary Indian theatre practice. Veenapani schooled herself in many grammars and vocabularies. As Shanta Gokhale’s introduction maps, she taught herself through arduous apprenticeship, Kudiattam, Kalari Chau; trained her voice with Patsy Rodenberg; followed leads, met people, had gurus, was a disciple, and had disciples. It is a complicated and strenuous journey which does not always arrive at an answer; or acquire a comprehensive lexicon. Even in terms of what it sees as its quest there’s no accelerating path leading to a revelatory point in the future. Quests also change, fade and morph. They accommodate and respond to moments in time and need not necessarily have what we call in theatre, a through-line. In a brilliantly written foreword, Mahesh Elkunchwar talks of oeuvre, of borrowings, of robbery. Robbery is an acknowledgement of desire and focused need; we might rob as it were, exactly what we require to make our work particularly our own; without the burden of originality. The book is rich because it has many voices and points of view. It has essays written over time—by writers, critics, academics, talking about Veenapani’s earliest works to her later explorations. In an exchange of letters between Alaknanda Samarth and Veenapani we read about tiny epiphanies embedded in the quotidian and the unremarkable. It has interviews, especially one with Leela Gandhi, Veenapani’s niece and a close reader of her work, which opens up questions of teaching and learning, pedagogy and method. We come ...

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