I have grown up with a love for performance and have cherished every minute I have spent on stage. Before I make this sound like a personal romantic note, what I’m trying to introduce here is an experience of a process; a process of engagement, enhancement and enchantment; a process called Performance. Here, I lay maximum emphasis on the progression towards a desired outcome.
So, a performance in itself begins right from the inception of the first idea. The process that follows is a composite play of roles or characters- characters that contribute to learning. This implies that the final product is an obvious outcome of a pre-planned process. It was interesting to call these elements characters, since I’m now thinking about what each character is made up of. Let us explore this further. To start with, these characters are:
Real life concepts
Context of the production
References/ connections/ intersections
Participatory Design/ Co-creation
Mritchakatika, A Little Clay Cart, an old Sanskrit play, set in the 2nd century BC, provided me with an opportunity to watch this process being conducted with a group of young kids as a part of their learning programme. The first step to the progression of this play was to understand the play ourselves and infer meaning, making possible connections with life, facts and the world. I was involved in this play from the capacity of an assistant co-director, while being a student-observer recording the pedagogy of theatre in education. I began by reading the play from two different texts, making first level observations and comments about the theme, setting and story of the play. Having made our own inferences about it, our next challenge was to introduce this play to our kids. Dipthi, the director of the play, gave a glimpse of the play in the form of a short enactment in front of the kids. In the same introductory class, we had a list of ‘Rasas’ printed out for them to get familiar with.
This being a Sanskrit play, our focus was to bring in and maintain the elements of the literary and cultural heritage of India. With the help of video clippings, references, pictures and stories, we talked about various Rasas and the first few classes were spent in building a base for our production to grow on. Also, right from the first class our focus on various elements of production such as acting, art, etc. was consistent. So, the kids were always involved in inter-subjective engagement, drawing each other’s attention towards a common direction. The initial classes involved improvisation of scenes, role plays, character sketching and brainstorming about the process and praxis of production. While we were engaged in the first level encounter with the play, we were still to go deeper into the text and understand and identify patterns and stereotypes. The themes of the play as we eventually identified were desire, marriage, gender, and the contrasting dichotomies of poverty and slavery, wealth and bankruptcy, wisdom and foolishness. Exploring these further to add more layers to the story of our play became the next subject of focus for us. This is where I see an intersection between theatre as my subject and education as my practice. While we were constantly aware about the deadlines, we were also well in light about the larger purposes behind this production, one of them being introduction of more complex concepts through artistic means.
A two day workshop at Visthar accelerated this process for us. The purpose of going to Visthar was to provide the kids with a composite experience of learning through theatre. Being completely immersed in the environment of production for two full days, where our conversations over meals were also adding to the layers of our story, brought us all together as a team, fuelling this process of co-creation.
The main events at Visthar constitute:
Introduction of the Yakshagana form of theatre to the kids
Development of the story
Relationship between the characters that formed the baseline of the story
Understanding and adding multiple layers to individual characters
Development of the music and in turn the tone of the play
The Yakshagana form of theatre is rich in its technique. Body movement in a particular fashion plays an important role in defining characters and actions of the play. The kids first went through an elaborate Yakshagana movement workshop where, under the guidance of Mr. Tunga, a popular yakshgana artist, they learnt movement specific to this form. Later this was used while we were blocking certain scenes in the play.
While we were planning our days at Visthar, we were wondering how we could develop each character further. We wanted to initiate a conversation that may lead them to making connections to the larger themes identified within the play. This is when and why we agreed upon using ‘hot seat’ as a facilitative, participatory tool towards achieving these goals. So, it was a rule that at every meal at visthar, we would play ‘hot seat’, which required each character to be on the hot seat for a stipulated time. In this time the rest of us would ask questions to the person on the seat, who has to answer all the questions, regardless of their relevance to the play, being in the character that they embody. These questions may or may not relate to the story. This was a successfully beautiful process towards character building and we realised that they not only understood and identified with their characters further, but also established a relationship between each character, which became a story in itself within our main storyline. For instance; while asking questions and managing to answer they wove a story around the childhood of all the characters. According to it, all the characters had been together in school as children and at present they have grown up to be these different people who happen to meet as the story unfolds. This added a beautiful flavour to the story and the kids began to feel a sense of belongingness towards the play.
In the meantime, the music of the play was under discussion informally and the kids came up with the idea of having character specific music, especially for the antagonist (Shakara). So, with the help of Sudebi and Mr. Tunga, we came up with a leitmotif for Shakara. This in a way set a tone for the script of the play and all the elements of the play began to interconnect and complement each other.
Since we’re talking about character building, I’d like to cite an instance from my engagement with the kids. I was working with one of the them (being discreet about the identity) on a particular scene in which she was embodying the character of a man who was constantly in conflict with his inner self. Showing that on stage within a few seconds and limited dialogues was getting difficult. She was struggling with expressing this conflict verbally and through her gestures. While I was trying to think how better can I facilitate this, I came up with a task for her. I stood behind her like her alter-ego, kept prompting her and asked her to respond to me. This helped her realise how she reacts to her inner conflict and from then, she understood the character and the role better.
Significance of participatory design.
Significance of co-creation in designing elements of productions like props, sets, backdrop, costumes and music.
Having spoken about the elements of production and the need for them to interconnect, I’d like to view the process of arriving at these elements in a little more depth.
Let me start with music which became a different wing in itself. It is important for any play to be coherent, with a common style, theme or flavour running between its multiple aspects. While the music needs to reflect the essence of the story, the props, sets and costumes need to speak the language of the play. The script requires a tone, which is reflected commonly in every little aspect of the play. What makes it more interesting in this context is the involvement of kids. Though there were separate teams, stating: the music team, the art team and the drama team; the final product/performance/show had to have them all look like one and I can proudly say that they did.
The concept of participatory design was applied separately within each team, where in the kids participated and engaged in designing not only their respective outcomes, but also the progression towards their desired outcomes. All the teams were together involved in co-creation of the final play, facilitated by us at various levels through conversations, interactions and feedback sessions. So, while the music team was working on the projecting the contrast between the rich yet foolish antagonist and the poor yet virtuous protagonist, the art team was trying to depict the same in the kind of materials and motifs they had chosen for the backdrop. While the dialogues were a subset to the tone of the script, the props and sets were designed using the same lens.
In the process I was also asked to define the style/feature/theme of the play visually and I made a mood board of objects and colours depicting contrasting identities; poverty and slavery vs. royalty and power. Each element of the play now was viewed accordingly. While this was going on, polishing of movement in each scene was done by Madhu Natraj, adding choreography to the aesthetic of the play. It was a delight to watch everything come together in the end. How important it is to have historical and cultural references and intersections in using performance or play production as a process.
In order for a performance to function as a cognitive process, it is imperative to mark the possibilities of its connection with real life stories through historical, cultural or traditional references. The story of the play has in itself a story to tell. Mritchakatika, for instance, is an old Sanskrit play, set in the 2nd century BC. This fact opens a whole new world of questions pertaining to the lifestyle, gender equation, ideologies, geographical location and cultural traditions of the people living in that age. Familiarizing the kids with this context in the beginning to start with and along the course of the play becomes a vital experience of learning.
Going further, the title of the play, A little clay cart, has its own character and understanding the significance of this takes us deeper into the context. The entire story of Mritchakatika revolves around four characters: Charudatta; a man who gave up all his wealth to the welfare of people and lives in the grim poverty. Vasantasena, the female protagonist, a beautiful courtesan who falls in love with charudatta. Samsthanaka, the antagonist, who is madly in love with Vasanthasena and is also a self-obsessed brother-in-law of king Palaka. And finally, the clay cart, which weaves all these characters together in a story and is also symbolic of the impoverishment of a virtuous man. While reading each of these characters within the context of this story, a number of patters and practices became visible to the kids and they began discussing about the relationship between a man and a woman, concept of love and desire, politics of power and victory of truth over deceit in those days. For instance; Charudatta’s relationship with Vasanthasena despite him being married does not attract enough attention in the story. This brought the kids instead to talk about the cultural beliefs of people, the position of man in the society and the power structure within a family.
Talking about society and the gender roles within, in one of the discussions, it was pointed out that though Charudatta is believed to be the protagonist of the story, owing to his virtuousness and sacrifice, Vasanthasena is more suitable of being considered one. Going by the characteristic features of a protagonist, Vasanthasena is the one who solves the case of the stolen jewels, frees her maid and towards the end saves Charudatta from execution. This made them ask a few important questions about the style of writing of this play.
To conclude, here’s what a few students from the play have to say about the entire process:
Alena, who played ‘Nati’ and the ‘charioteer’, says she learnt time management and organisational skills in the course of this play. She had initially signed up for being in the tech team but later ended playing a major role on stage. Yet, she was a part of the team that made the invitation cards for the play. She found dancing a little difficult, but the overall experience was memorable.
Ahalya, who played ‘Vasanthasena’, speaks about team work and space management. She says that she learnt how to adjust in different environments and different settings of the stage. The venue and practice spaces kept changing and it was challenging to cope with each space differently.
Rehan was a part of the music team and the promotion team and made invitation cards. He says being in the music team was difficult but taught him lessons on perfection as they had to be very clear and precise about what they were singing to respect the language. The challenge for him was that the verses sometimes were in Sanskrit.
For karamveer, who played ‘Aryaka’, this was his first formal performance on stage in front of a large audience and he is really happy about it. He has developed an interest in theatre through this play and wishes to act more.
Kaamil, who played ‘Charudatta’, says he enjoyed observing the backstage developments right from lights to the shadow screen to microphones. One sentence that he says he will always remember is, ‘’Oh, Poverty! My constant companion”.
Lastly Pranika, who was a part of the art team, says that it was fun stitching the fabrics together to communicate an idea. She found the experience of working in a team enriching.
Reference, Nai Talim, Mahatma Gandhi
“I hold that true education of the intellect can only come through a proper exercise and training of the bodily organs, e.g., hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, etc. In other words, an intelligent use of the bodily organs in a child provides the best and quickest way of developing his intellect. But unless the development of the mind and body goes hand in hand with a corresponding awakening of the soul, the former alone would prove to be a poor lopsided affair. “
One of my strongest beliefs, which also stems from the experience and love of performing arts, is that it is through such a process of intersection between the mind and body that the concept of education is holistically addressed. Performance, in this context, is the process of doing, making or producing. Mritchakatika, hence, is evidently presented as a case study of the same.