Background

A Brief History of Adishakti

Naseeruddin Shah in Adishakti's production of Sophocles's Oedipus

Naseeruddin Shah in Adishakti’s production of Sophocles’s Oedipus

Adishakti was created in 1981 as a theatre company in Mumbai. Its main activity then was to create performances, which were already scripted. Some of these performances were Sophocles’ Oedipus (1981), Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1983), and Euripedes’ Trojan Women (1984).

In 1983 Adishakti started to include research as a part of its activities. This emerged out of its need to create a new language for contemporary performance, which would reflect a pluralistic aesthetic. The initial areas of such research were certain traditional Indian Knowledges contained in forms like Koodiyattam, Dhrupad singing, Kalaripayattu, Asanas, Pranayama, Samavedic Chanting married to voice training and other performance techniques from the West; viz; Eugenio Barba’s Odin Theatre in Holstebro Denmark and the Royal Shakespeare Company, UK.

From 1990 onwards Adishakti started creating its own texts. Thus A Greater Dawn (1992), Impressions of Bhima (1994), Khandava Prastha (1996), Brhannala (1998), Ganapati (2000), The Hare and The Tortoise (2007), Rhinoceros(2008), Nidrawathwam (2011), The Hanuman Ramayana (2011), The Tenth Head (2013). Each of these were interpretations of given traditional texts and reflected an aesthetic, which sought to build bridges between disparate ways of viewing particular themes.

In 1989 Adishakti was registered as Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research (ALTAR) Public Charitable Trust (Registration No: 50913 Date: 27.12.1989) in Delhi, so that it could function on an all-India basis, belonging to no specific region but able to root itself freely anywhere in the country.

In 1993 Adishakti shifted base to Pondicherry. And it was from this point onward that its concerns became larger. It was no longer preoccupied merely with the development of its own theatrical language and of revitalising contemporary theatre but also in offering something to the traditional artist; its partner in dialogue. In fact Adishakti’s relationship with traditional form from this time onwards was a departure from the existing practice of treating such forms as hermetically sealed, or only as the object of preservation and restoration. Adishakti started acting on the premise, that past disciplines need to be deliberately displaced from their own context in order to throw up a range of new elements within them, not formerly known or apprehended. Adishakti regarded such disciplines as constitutively incomplete, and attributed, in part, some of their fading appeal, within their own spectator-communities, not so much to the corruption (through urbanization etc.) of audience taste, but rather, to the historical attrition or paralysis of the forms themselves. Within this understanding, Adishakti’s position was that the contemporary performer was privileged as a critic whose task it was to reinterpret and, as it were, fill in the blanks within specific traditional forms. So, in its encounter with the traditional artist, Adishakti endeavoured, of course, to clarify its own formal and imaginative directions, but also, and equally, to stimulate the traditional artist to discover old forms anew. The encounter, thus, was premised upon a powerful recognition of mutual worth and capability.

Below are mentioned some of these programmes with traditional artists, which benefited their practice:

  • INTERACTIONS WITH KOODIYATTAM PERFORMER USHA NANGIAR, SUPPORTED BY THE INDIA FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS, RESULTED IN THE ACTOR REDISCOVERING HER OWN CRAFT OF BREATH FOR PERFORMANCE IN NEW WAYS.
  • KOODIYATTAM MIZHAVU PLAYER VKK HARIHARAN STARTED VIEWING RHYTHM AS A TEXT IN KOODIYATTAM, AFTER COLLABORATION WITH ADISHAKTI, ALSO SUPPORTED BY THE INDIA FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS. BOTH PERFORMERS FREELY ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THEIR INTERACTIONS WITH ADISHAKTI HAVE ENRICHED THEIR PRACTICE.
  • MORE RECENTLY OTTAN TULLAL PERFORMER SURESH KALIYATH, ATTACHED TO ADISHAKTI, HAS CREATED A CONTEMPORARY TULLAL PIECE CALLED THE HANUMAN RAMAYANA. ADDITIONALLY ADISHAKTI HAS SET UP COUNTLESS COLLABORATIONS ACROSS REGIONS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL PRACTITIONERS, THE LONGEST BEING THE ONE BETWEEN A KALRIPAYATTU PRACTITIONER FROM KERALA AND A MAYURBHANJ CHHAU DANCER, FROM ODHISHA. INITIATED IN 2000, IT CONTINUES TO FLOURISH TO THIS DAY.

Around this time, Adishakti’s performance praxis, work on which it had initiated in 1983, reached maturity. And there emerged a clear vision of Theatre as a synaesthesis of other arts; or a summative art. And Adishakti’s theatre productions now consciously used the other arts as signifiers of meaning rather than merely as decorative elements. For Adishakti believes that if live performance has to remain valid as an art form, it must reflect the protean nature of the contemporary perception of truth and reality in its form and in its content. It must try to bring out the simultaneity of its multiple-sightedness, its tangled dynamism, through the very form and structure of the expression. It believes this can best be done by employing as many modes of expression as possible to act as texts or as signifiers of content within a totality that would be a formal metaphor.

This aesthetic pluralism, which gives sovereignty to all the modes of expression – the word, the image, the sound, etc., is a reflection of the pluralism of the contemporary world, its multiple sightedness. For the contemporary mind can take in more viewpoints than one – even contrary ones – at the same time. It can see the same thing from all angles and distances.

In 2000 Adishakti relocated itself to the outskirts of Pondicherry. From this year Adishakti extended its research activity into disciplines such as old construction technologies, traditional medicine, environment protection for a healthy eco system and instrument building. It was the pragmatic needs of the hour, (that of creating the infrastructure on its campus) which compelled the company to undertake these investigations and they merely reinforced Adishakti’s growing awareness that knowledge creation is a crucial exercise for new creativity.

Till 2003 Adishakti had focused largely on what one might call “vertical” interactions, viz.; those linking different historical times (e.g.; traditional-contemporary) for the creation of new knowledge. After 2003 Adishakti wanted to enhance its “horizontal” connections, viz.; those, which are not chronologically divided. In a word, to create a bridge with other seminal spaces not only across time but also space and genre.

In 2003 this impulse for building “horizontal” connections, found expression in Adishakti’s Winter Workshop. This programme brought together a Koodiyattam performer, a Noh performer, poets, musicians, cultural psychologists, philosophers, film makers, actors – so as to investigate how each of these, views or uses, ‘breath’ as a source of expression. And continuing this impulse Adishakti from 2008 onwards has started creating the opportunity at its campus, for new and imaginative exchanges between epic texts and contemporary interpreters like historians, cultural psychologists, sociologists and performance; between film and live performance; between live performance, painting and music.

Indeed a rich outcome of the exchange between Epic Texts (The Ramayana) and contemporary and traditional performers, thinkers, opinion makers was a three-year festival and conference on the Ramayana, to which came notable performers and thinkers such as Bharati Sivaji, Sattriya monks from Majauli, Indonesian Dancer Sardono Kusomo, Aruna Sairam, Channulal Mishra, Shadow Puppeteers/ Ravana Chaaya , Romilla Thapar, Asish Nandy, Edin Khoo to name a few.

The objective of this three-year programme was to:

A) Provide the traditional / folk/ contemporary performer with a new approach to an old text and thereby compel her to recreate her performance language, making it aesthetically accessible to a contemporary world.

B) Release new knowledge and rescue an old cultural symbol from being suffocated by “purism”.

Today from out of this programme have emerged three Adishakti Productions: Nidrawathwam, The Hanuman Ramayana, and The Tenth Head. Two others, Sita and Luv & Kush are still in the pipeline.

Source of Performance Energy Workshop, January 2008

Participants learn breath and emotion techniques with Vinay Kumar at one of Adishakti’s first Source of Performance Energy workshops, conducted in January 2008

In 2008 Adishakti launched its training workshops. Over the years the performance craft evolved under the leadership of Veenapani Chawla, had matured into an alternative methodology of performance. The performers at Adishakti started teaching young and mid-career professionals from across the country and around the world through these ten-day sessions. Today Adishakti conducts six such workshops annually.

 

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