For 15 years, Aruna Ganesh Ram has been creating works of art that audiences can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear, from Re:play (2013-2014) in which audiences play traditional Indian games as part of the performance, to Stand on the Street (2018), about the compelling stories of street food vendors who rustle up mouthwatering delicacies while battling socio-economic challenges. At the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, she had premiered Memory Recipe (2016) in which olfactory impulses led audiences on a journey of food and memory. A work on gender, Coloured and Choosing, was featured in the Gender Bender Festival 2016.
Based in Bengaluru, Ram is now travelling to other cities with a piece, titled Under Pressure, which revolves around the present danger of climate change and the inevitable apocalypse. The intimate storytelling arches over an 8,000-year-old tree, extinct birds, a larger-than-life puppet, political speeches, embodied movement, heartfelt storytelling and shocking facts. It presents multiple perspectives — from policymakers to ragpickers.
Ram had started theatre as a hobby at school and began to enjoy it so much that she decided to do it all the time. A graduate in Communication and Design, specialising in photography and film, she honed her skills during her post-graduation in Advanced Theatre Practice from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, before starting her performance art company, Visual Respiration.
Art celebrates nature but rarely deals with the subject of climate change. What was your trigger?
The initial trigger was a podcast in which Amitav Ghosh asks, ‘What occupies the front and last pages of our newspapers? That is indicative of our priorities as a species.’ In that podcast, he urged artists, writers and journalists to do more work around the environment.
This made me look at my own work and the environment was not part of it. We’re all consumerists and have pushed that welcome too far. In cities, people are living their lives by clicking on apps. Stuff keeps pouring into and out of their homes. I am part of this problem too. But, what makes me want to keep buying and keep throwing? We’ve been so intelligently sold a way of life — one that we believe will make us happier and believe that we are living fulfilled lives. This rampant and, somewhat pointless, materialism around me got me thinking about Under Pressure.
How do you translate your concern into a performance?
With the message around the environment, I wanted it to be in your face because we’re seeing whales dying and turtles struggling yet we just march on, living our lives “to the fullest”. How do we build empathy for the earth? How do we learn to tread lightly? Can we co-exist within nature? These are some of the questions that helped our exploration. During research, we read that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. This was an alarming fact and got us to imagine what life would be like in 2050. The team and I went looking at how people behaved in public spaces — in malls, theatres, coffee shops, amusement parks. The vision I had was to capture our material lives into 24 actions to represent 24 hours of the day. Each action was then built into a scene — in a #2minutelife kind of fashion; so it moves quickly, just like our attention span these days.
What is the performance style and structure of Under Pressure?
Our performance is divided in three sections. The first section is ‘Earth’. Here, we try and slow time down for the audience, as we embody nature in many ways. For this, we have chosen the form of movement, poetry and personal narratives. The second section is ‘Human, The Consumerist’. Here we have chosen behavioural gesture and physical theatre as forms. The third section of the performance is about ‘Polymer’ and for this, we use puppets and props. Every audience member relates to these forms differently. While some of them enjoy conversation, the others enjoy movement. From a creation point of view, I have worked with layering each of these moments, one form after another to create what I’d like to call a sensory montage.
Whose poetry have you used?
We are using the poem Aam by Gulzar. This poem is a way to trigger nostalgia and the poet’s relationship with a tree. Another poet is of Jane Hirschfeld, whose Optimism and On the Fifth Day capture the overarching narrative of our work. I have also written some poetry in the piece around resilience.
Under Pressure comes after a well-received work, Stand on the Street. Do you see a trajectory of your development as an artist between these two pieces?
While Stand on the Street talks about human stories, Under Pressure asks questions about our choices. Stand on the Street focuses on human struggle while Under Pressure focuses on the planet’s struggle because of the human. Both these plays are very different from each other in their form, construct and aesthetics. I’m glad that every piece of mine is very different from the previous one and that constant exploration is also what keeps me doing what I do.