A cloud of butterflies in the corn...to the shade of a guava tree: A Journey in Theatre, by Kirtana Kumar

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A cloud of butterflies in the corn...to the shade of a guava tree: A Journey in Theatre, by Kirtana Kumar

A Journey in Theatre: A personal memoir

It’s Day 130 since this all began. The end of time or perhaps, the beginning.

I try to consider my experience of the theatre scene in Bangalore in the ’80s, and it fades into a sepia non sequitur. After a pandemic of this proportion, what logical follow-through could there possibly be? What has been so earth-shattering, so high impact in this scheme of things? It appears like nothing, really.

Only when I rephrase and personalise events, do the optics add up. Had I not been rejected by the National School of Drama, had I not studied literature with Prof TG Vaidyanathan, had I not sung with rock bands, had I not met Konarak Reddy, had I not gone to America, had I not seen the theatre-making genius of Reza Abdoh… there would be no me, as I know her, today.

Reza Abdoh
Reza Abdoh

Bangalore by the mid-’80s was living on the precipice of globalisation. Cubbon Park was the line between the pete and the Cantonment. Pre-globalisation were the halcyon days of familiarity that bred and deadeningly, a familiarity that inbred. Post-globalisation marked the genesis of the IT boom, an infusion of fresh blood into our sleepy city and the destruction of both garden city as well as pensioner’s paradise. As in all big sweeps of history, there are grand wins and losses. It is left to us to determine, as per our individual psyches, which is which.

Locked down on our farm these 130 days, I’ve learned that the ground requires preparation for seeds to take and new sprouts to appear.

Growing up on Nandidurg Road, we lived on top of a house called Kedarnath. It’s twin, Amarnath, was next door. This was a block from Khuddus Sahib graveyard. To our right lived the family of my brother’s friend Shabbir, and they grew corn in their garden out of which a cloud of butterflies emerged one year. Adjoining them was an Anglo-Indian family whose father had fought in the Pakistan war and who kept two little goats. To our right lived the Rao’s and Mrs.Iyengar. Below us lived Mr and Mrs Gupta and their daughter Pinky. In a little hut in the vast field in front of our home lived Muthu and his family. My father bought toddy from him when my mother wanted to make sannas. Saeeda-bi would come home one Sunday a month to sell my mother iddiappams. Across the field were the army training grounds where my best friend and I would have adventures in. There were the mysteries of the jam sessions my cousins attended, at St.Francis Xavier's and St.Germain’s. A good mix to nourish the topsoil, uproot cobwebs, weed out what was unnecessary.

Two serendipitous inspirations from that time come to mind.

  1. A theatre workshop facilitated by Vijay Padaki, around 1979, in the old Indian Institute of Management building on Lalbagh Road.
  2. Working with Gnatak, in the Sophia High School hall in High Grounds, through the early ’80s.

One day, out of the blue, my mother said to me - “Tara is attending a drama workshop - do you want to go too?” Wow. I had no idea that drama was serious enough to study. The plays we did in school were tomfoolery in costume and the only subjects considered worthy of the study were the 3 R’s - reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. My endless imagination had previously earned me the ire of my teachers, so it was thrilling to know there was value in play.

Thus, still in high school, I landed up in Vijay Padaki’s drama workshop where he used Badal Sircar’s Baaki Ithihas as a text framework. Nabokov’s Lolita finds itself in the crosshairs of this script; a lens through which one character, Sharad examines another - Seetanath’s suicide, and proposes an imagined scenario of rape and guilt. I was a prompt for this production and my claim to fame was that the entire audience heard me stage whisper from the wings “...COTTON FIELDS OF ALABAMA!” when I thought an actor needed prompting. The doors of perception opened more than a crack during this time, assisted by theatre study, Nabokov and dancing in the dark with interesting boys.

Shortly after this, a nun in my school - Sr.Faith - introduced me to Gracias Devaraj and Gnatak. Actually, she handed me over, in my school uniform, and said (I will never forget her words) “Now you’re in good hands”.

Original members of Gnatak
Original members of Gnatak

Gnatak was an exciting group back then, young, diverse, anti-establishment, and I began training and hanging out with them, all ears and eyes. This was the time of Gundu Rao’s capitation fee Raj and we travelled through colleges, trade unions, the telephone exchange etc. performing a street play called Lakhs in Black written by Dr Isaac Samuel from St.John’s Medical College. I played Indira Gandhi. Gnatak was unique at the time because they chose to perform alternative material - Athol Fugard, Georg Buchner, Joseph Heller - and create their own works, such as a revue called Whose Line is it anyway? and translations such as of Milan Kundera’s Jacques and his Master, rather than perform the more popular English language plays of the time. Working in the style of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, they took training seriously. Perhaps unwittingly, their pedagogy harked even further back to Grotowski’s inspiration - the Reduta, so they eschewed curtain calls and sought communion with the spectator instead. Also, music was central to the whole group. I attended the first Shakti concert straight after rehearsal when we all basically walked from Sophia’s hall to the games field where L.Shankar, Vikku Vinayakram, Zakir Hussain and Larry Coryell lifted us elsewhere. In a year or so, I was going to “Tommy’s Garage” every night, to sit with Tommy aka Prakash Aswani and listen to our then Gods - Chick Corea, Flora Purim, Mahavishnu Orchestra etc. Theatre, our common love of music and our questioning selves were entwined.

Following this, it felt like I worked with almost everyone in Bangalore. Playing Agnes in John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God alongside Arundhati Raja and Janet Lord, directed by Jagdish Raja. Singing Kyrie Eleison in the alcoves of Guru Nanak Bhavan. Travelling to Coorg and Coonoor with a huge team of actors including Ashok Mandana, Kumar Iyengar, KT Abraham, Darius Taraporevala, Arundhati Nag and others to perform Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water. Learning thang-ta at a workshop organised by B.Jayashree at the National High School grounds. Playing Grizabella in CATS directed by Kevin Oliver and produced by Prasad Bidapa. Falling in love a million times. With people, ideas, songs, places.

CATS
CATS

The ground was prepared. Then came the explosion that blew my mind right into the stratosphere.

Konarak Reddy and I lived in Los Angeles between 1989 and 1993. One day, haplessly floating through the corridors of the LA County Museum, I caught sight of a long-haired brown man. Who could this maverick South Asian be? Turned out he was from Mombasa, his name was Shishir Kurup and he was the director of the Asian-American Theatre Project. He invited me to come and audition. Bam. That was how, in 1990, I found myself learning Butoh from Shishir (himself trained by Tadashi Suzuki) and performing with the Asian-American Theater Project in the beautiful old premises of the LA Theater Center. During rehearsals for his play, Skeleton Dance, I heard some rumblings in the building. People were talking about a young director called Reza Abdoh. Part Iranian, they said. He had a made a trilogy, two of which were Hip Hop Waltz of Eurydice and Minamata. The third - Bogeyman - would soon play in one of the LATC venues. He was HIV positive, they said. He was shocking, they said. I acquired one ticket to Bogeyman.

Bogeyman
Bogeyman

Bogeyman
Bogeyman

Sitting in the darkened theatre and looking at the three-storey brownstone that was the set, I had no premonition of what would come. Then the play began and has never stopped in my head. Text, projections, speculations, whirling dervishes, psychotropic dreams, costume, mayhem, pierced and modified dancers from the S & M Club Fuck! and the relentless peeling off of layers of the brownstone, layers of our hypocrisies and cluelessness. The late ’80s were the heydays of fears of contagion. Much like our present paranoia, except HIV was associated with issues of morality. It wasn’t unusual for artists to own their narrative with jackets emblazoned with - Infected Faggot. Both performers and performances at Club Fuck! were innately transgressive, the piercings and scarrings cocked a snoot at the establishment’s terror of blood. But beyond spectacle was an important story being told. Of alienation. Whether poor, immigrant, non-heteronormative, coloured or HIV positive, alienation was that gift of capitalism, the gift that never stopped giving.

Coming back to India, I carved my own way for better or worse. One evening, sitting beneath a guava tree with some friends, talk turned to this and that and we discovered that we had each, male and female, had some experience of sexual abuse as children. This began an exciting period of driven experimentation, creativity and collaboration. Little Jasmine Film & Theatre Project was born in 1994. I facilitated a writing workshop for my actors to harvest text from the group. A local NGO, Samvada, had undertaken the first-ever Indian survey on Child Sexual Abuse and gave us the material to work with. Dr Shekar Sheshadri from NIMHANS came in to speak with us. We began improvising and building a small theatre in our old house. It was much like Grotowski’s Theatre of 13 Rows, a 50 seater. The actors hung bars, lights, curtains, placed platforms loaned to us by B. Jayashree and Anand Raju and a theatre emerged in our dining room. We opened the play - My Children Who Should Be Running Thru Vast Open Spaces… to solid appreciation and continued a long run here before moving the production to Yavanika. Then Madhyam Communications asked if we would make a film of the play to extend our reach and we did. This was followed by Guhya, Namma Cinema Talkies, Chandri and so on; a series of documentary films that came out of that first theatrical impulse beneath a guava tree.

A still from My Children Who Should be Running Thru vast Open Spaces
A still from My Children Who Should be Running Thru vast Open Spaces

A still from My Children Who Should be Running Thru vast Open Spaces
A still from My Children Who Should be Running Thru vast Open Spaces

There is a thread that connects serendipity with vision. Those early theatre workshops, Gnatak, my encounter with Reza Abdoh led me to, for instance, Magnet Theatre work with sex-workers and men having sex with men (MSM) communities. Working with men who transformed in the evening, from vendors, pharmacists, bank clerks, into sparkling, beautifully coiffed “ladies” of the night and made their way to the public gardens to pick up other men - it was Bogeyman all over again. I made two friends and collaborators during this period - Priya from Hyderabad and Chandini from Belgaum. Both worked with me, as actors and trainers, on our play - The Wedding Party.

A still from The Wedding Party
A still from The Wedding Party

A still from The Wedding Party
A still from The Wedding Party

130 days. Ample time to introspect on liminality, politics and aesthetics. Now I’ve turned my attention to a 13” stage, creating an aural theatre series called In the hour of God . A good time to embrace my tribe of actors-sans-stage. A good time to create encounters between the actor’s voice and a text about Life and Death. To edit these against the painted sceneries of our world under lockdown. The migrant crisis, the masks, the fear, the yearning of the heart for home, for love. Listening carefully to these voices, hearing the history of people, their take on love, their fragilities. What to hide, what to reveal is the actor’s vocal weapon.

The ’80s brought me love as well. Also, a father-in-law who was an ocean of wisdom and shared these words with me:

“Our imperfection towards perfection toils,

The body is the chrysalis of a soul:

The infinite holds the finite in its arms,

Time travels towards revealed eternity.”

***

I wish you well, I wish you wonder.

Kirtana Kumar
Kirtana Kumar

***

Kirtana Kumar is an actor, director, and filmmaker based out of Bangalore. With her company, Little Jasmine Theatre Project, she has created 15 original works of contemporary Indian theatre. During this lockdown, she has begun working long hours on her farm.

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