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Adishakti's powerful new play, Bhoomi, opens at Ranga Shankara

A play within a play, Bhoomi explores issues of gender identity and violence through music and movement

‘Bhoomi’ is a loose adaptation of ‘Bhoomirakshasa’ by well-known Malayalam writer Sara Joseph. Photo: courtesy Adishakti Theatre Arts
‘Bhoomi’ is a loose adaptation of ‘Bhoomirakshasa’ by well-known Malayalam writer Sara Joseph. Photo: courtesy Adishakti Theatre Arts

Auroville-based Adishakti Theatre Arts last produced a play in 2018. Titled Bali, written by Nimmy Raphel, the play told the story of the events leading up to the battle between Bali and Ram in the Ramayana. Just like Bali, several other productions from the theatre’s repertoire have had their roots in the epics and have led to contemporary interpretations, from Brhannalla to Bheema, and all the way to Ganapati.

This time, they have ventured into the popular play-within-a-play format with Bhoomi. What remains constant, however, is the thundering applause that Adishakti’s productions open to. A short video on Facebook, from their opening performance at the Mysore Natana Ranga Shaale last week, is testimony to that.

On 11 December, Bhoomi opened at Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara, with another performance on the 12th, followed by Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, in January. This year also marks 40 years of Adishakti’s founding. The company will host a retrospective of some of their popular plays: Brhannalla, Impressions of Bheema, and Nidravathwam along with Bhoomi.

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“I started writing while Veenapani [experimental theatre exponent and founder of Adishakti] was still around. Following her demise in 2014, the future of Adishakti was uncertain. For the next three years, we struggled financially,” says Vinay Kumar, the artistic director of Adishakti and director of Bhoomi, in a telephone conversation ahead of the Bengaluru shows. They spent a few years finding their feet, raising money, curating festivals, and workshops, to embrace the change in artistic journey and return to their self-reliant status.

Bhoomi is a loose adaptation of Bhoomirakshasa by well-known Malayalam writer Sara Joseph, written over two decades ago. Joseph was also an early contributor to the women’s theatre movement that brewed in Kerala. Kumar, who has a personal association with the writer, read the play and found that its themes of gender identity and violence, still hold relevance in the modern world.

‘Bhoomi’ also draws from traditional art forms like therekoothu and yakshagana, Photo: Adishakti Theatre Arts
‘Bhoomi’ also draws from traditional art forms like therekoothu and yakshagana, Photo: Adishakti Theatre Arts

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“It spoke about the movements of gender rights, marginalisation, and sensitisation. But I didn’t want to use it in the same form. I wanted to adapt it to the new milieu and introduce new, timely arguments,” explains Kumar, adding that this took the longest, especially since his perspective from outside the realm of the activist. “Besides, I come from the opposite gender,” he says. It also involved reading of feminist texts and Kumar spent time poring over the works of Germaine Greer.

And yet, there was a duality at play. “Issues of gender identity, and violence, have been discussed for over 2,000 years. And yet, our response hasn’t changed much. We are still stuck in the time loop of punitive measures,” says Kumar, admitting that his is a humble attempt at addressing the trauma from an individual’s perspective without making a preachy argument.

The play, as it stands, lies between two time periods. A female director, at the start of a play (the one within), is torn about her approach. From there it travels to Dandakaranya, an episode from the Ramayana.

It exists in two parallels, moving seamlessly from one realm to another. “The narrative itself is a story of injustice and how the society fails a woman. Nature, eventually, takes its course. At this juncture, the play takes a dramatic shape,” says Kumar, giving us little insight into the story.

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As has been evident with Adishakti’s earlier productions, the focus firmly remains on its devised nature and deft use of movement, and music. Bhoomi takes a step further and is presented as a musical. From blues to rock, to jazz, Hindustani and Carnatic music, several genres and musical instruments come together, to create a whole new experience. “The performers play their own instruments, and sing. There is bass guitar, mini drum kits, clarinets, and a ukulele,” reveals Kumar.

Bhoomi also draws from traditional art forms like therekoothu and yakshagana, both of which have had a lasting influence on Kumar. He has, like other members of Adishakti, spent many years training in highly physical forms like Kerala’s kalarippayattu (a traditional martial art form). The training, he admits, forms the backbone of each of their plays.

Bhoomi, though, is more physical than any other Adishakti play. Here, you are singing along with the heavy physical movement,” he says. Veenapani Chawla famously said, ‘Anything and everything is theatre’, a sentiment Adishakti embodies in new ways each time.

In Bhoomi, it is with the use of silence. Between the music and the singing, the play has prolonged silences on stage, as a dramatic device. “The performative aspect is driven into these silences and can sometimes last five to six minutes,” reveals Kumar.

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Like their earlier production Bali, also uses humour. Prior to this, humour as a device wasn’t always visible in performances by the company. It signals the arrival of a new aesthetic following Veenapani’s untimely departure.

“From Bali, we are trying to create a language that is our own. Each of us have had further explorations from our core training with Veenapani,” explains Kumar adding, “The new language is an offshoot of what she wanted. A manifestation that uses the same aesthetic. But over time, the individual’s philosophical understanding becomes a part of it. After all, we can’t be creating carbon copies of Veenapani’s work. No institution can survive on that. It’s something Veenapani would have never wanted either”.

Bhoomi will be performed by Vinay Kumar, Nimmy Raphel, Arvind Rane, Sooraj S, Meedhu Miriyam, Ashiqa Salvan, and Abinaya R, with lights by Parshathy J Nath, at Ranga Shankara Bengaluru on 12 December 

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