veenapani_01Article in AurovilleToday‘s latest issue:

Passing: Veenapani Chawla

Theatre artist Veenapani Chawla, one of Auroville’s most dynamic neighbours, passed away on November 30 after suffering a heart attack following a pulmonary embolism. She was only 67 years old.

Veenapani was the founder, artistic director and managing trustee of the Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts & Research (ALTAR), a trust that owns and runs the Adishakti campus opposite Auro-Orchard. It has artists’ residences, a guest house and a small theatre, which is well-known to many Aurovilians.

Veenapani created Adishakti in 1981 as a theatre company in Mumbai. Its main activity then was to create performances that were already scripted. But that did not satisfy. In 1983, she started including research as a part of Adishakti’s activities, out of a need to create a new language for contemporary

performance. It became the driving force. “We are not interested in performing in the traditional ways. Instead, we attempt to learn from India’s rich theatre tradition and, with different effect, create our own contemporary language,” she said. It came to include other disciplines, such as cinema, martial arts, dance and music, and even extended to the study of sciences such as new physics to better understand traditional Indian figures such as Shiva’s ‘Ardhanarishvara ’ half man and half woman form. The objective was to create an integrated piece of art where the boundaries of theatre are fading into something else. Veenapani called this ‘the synaesthesia of art forms’, leading to what she believed to be the most definitive art. Her artists, all of whom had followed a traditional career, enthusiastically embraced this new phase of their development in plays such as Impressions of Bhima (1994), Brhannala (1998), The Hanuman Ramayana (2011), and, recently, The Tenth Head (2013). Veenapani directed most of them. Many of her works also toured India and were performed in Europe and the USA.

In 1993, Adishakti shifted base to a plot of land near Auroville. With the help of many grants, slowly a campus took shape, with a small theatre as centre piece. Adishakti became a research centre for performance arts, hosting residency programmes, retreats and workshops for artists from all over the world.

A close interaction with Auroville followed, with all of Adishakti’s productions premiered at Bharat Nivas. “Auroville,” she once said, “is Adishakti’s ‘testing ground’. The Auroville audience, critical as it is, is an essential first test for anything new I have to offer. And I benefit from all the experiments going on in Auroville.” But Adishakti was also open to many other art forms and Aurovilians would regularly be invited to unique performances of highly qualified dancers, musicians and theatre artists, all free of charge. For though administratively separate, Veenapani always felt inwardly to be part of Auroville. She had met The Mother in 1969, a meeting which she described as “falling in love forever”. The reason for not joining Auroville, she said, was that she did not want to be part of an institution and give up her freedom.

“Veenapani’s demise won’t affect the functioning of Adishakti,” says Vinay Kumar, one of the resident artists and trustees of ALTAR, “for she had organized the second and third tier management some time ago in case something would happen to her. Adishakti will continue giving workshops and retreats and the tradition of premiering new productions at Bharat Nivas will be maintained. For, like Veenapani, all resident artists of Adishakti feel inwardly they belong to Auroville.”

Veenapani received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puruskar for Theatre Director in 2011. Her work has been documented in the book India: The Theatre of Veenapani Chawla – Theory, Practice and Performance, edited by Shanta Gokhale and published by Oxford University Press this year.