One of the pioneers of post-Independence theatre in India, Veenapani Chawla studied ancient myths and art forms for contemporary meanings. Ganapati, a play she directed in 1999-2000, deals with an issue that has become problematic in the years that followed — dissent. Chawla died in 2014 and her Puducherry-based group, Adishakti, is bringing the play to Delhi.
“The performance is an interpretation of the birth stories related to the myths of Ganapati, the elephant-headed god from the Puranic cycle, and Martanda, from the Vedic cycle. It is structured in a recurring cycle of creation, celebration, destruction and return. The aim is to allow its main concern, that of creations and creativity, to be interpreted at a variety of different levels,” Chawla wrote in the director’s note.
Performed by five artists, Ganapati unfolds as episodes telling separate stories. “The first part is a physical depiction of artisans working on an idol of Ganesha for the annual festival. Though they know that the life span of the idol is a few days, the artisans seek to create the perfect Ganesha,” says Vinay Kumar, lead artist of Adishakti.
The next episode revolves around the birth of Ganesha from the earth on Parvati’s body, while Shiva guards her front door. “Two thousand years ago, a story showed that man has no role and a woman single-handedly creates a life form. Shiva is alienated in this space but, despite a confrontation with tradition, the story ends harmoniously as he, Parvati and Ganesha form a unit,” says Kumar.
The conflict rises to a crescendo in the following episode. Ganapati — a symbol of hybridity, due to his human body and elephant head — sends out a sound that is picked up by a group of musicians playing the drums. One musician walks out and creates his own rhythm pattern. “There is a disagreement between the structures and rhythms but, in a few minutes, the musicians find a point of synthesis and accommodate the music of one another to create a new sound,” says Kumar, adding that Chawla believed Indian tradition was not a monolith but allowed for a variety of debates and dissent.
The performances are non-verbal, with mizhavu drums used as an alternative to spoken text. The performers spent a year learning to play the mizhavu and only then realised that the 2,000-year-old drums, which are believed to have been played by Shiva, added to the visual language of the play as well. “The pot-bellied drums look like five Ganapatis sitting on stage,” says Kumar.