When Bali was staged at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi in February, every seat was taken. Audience members lined the walls, sat on the aisle and clogged the steps. More people waited at the gate of the auditorium. Bali is the first new play to come out of Puducherry-based Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research after its founder, Veenapani Chawla, died in 2014. Chawla was one of the pioneers of experimental theatre in India and nurtured Adishakti into a sylvan commune, with its own farm, where artistes live, study and create fine productions.
Nimmy Raphel, 36, the director of Bali, says the pressure of creating a play after Veenapani's demise was not felt by her alone, but by everyone at Adishakti. "We shared an anxiety, but we felt supported by people who were close to Veenapani, which made me confident that I could execute this play."
Bali was part of last month's three-week-long annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav. The day after the show, amateur performers filled up the hall, where Raphel was a part of the forum "Meet the Director". She turned up dressed in jeans and top, accessorised with a bindi, which made her indistinguishable from the youngsters who crowded around her after the session, with questions like, "Why did you choose this subject?"
"I am at that stage in my life and theatre where I am concerned about how we take positions. I am not talking politically, except that the personal space can also be political. I am trying to find out if it is possible to see an event from every angle before coming to a conclusion. Bali's death allowed me to explore multiple perspectives," she says.
In conventional readings, the death of Bali casts Sugreeva and Ram as unethical. Raphel shows Sugreeva as being constantly subjugated by violence at home. "When there is no place for dialogue, what do you do as an inpidual? You will retaliate," says Raphel. Ram emerges as a hero burdened by his image of being a Purushottam (perfect man). Scenes from the epic alternate with vignettes of modern life - two girls fighting over knick-knacks act as a parallel for a battle over material objects. "I am constantly thinking how to say something in a play - in your face or subtly? In our productions, everything is present on stage but you need to watch carefully," she says. Thus, in a politically-pided country, where asking questions has become an act of resistance, the play has Tara, the widow of Bali, interrogating Ram.
"I like the epics because the myth and present reality are like two different times with the same content and emotions. Ramayana has doubts, feelings, jealousies and other emotions," says Raphel. In the solo, Nidrawathwam (2011), she plays Laxman, who doesn't sleep for 14 years, and Kumbhakarna, who sleeps for six months at a stretch. When the two meet on a battlefield, the story becomes about the unfortunate consequences of boons. She has explored the epics in Rama, Hanuman, Rawana (2010) in collaboration with Indonesian dancer Sardono W. Kusumo, in the plays directed by Chawla, such as Brhannala (1997), based on an episode in the Mahabharata in which Arjuna spends a year as a transgender, and in Ganapathi (2001), an interpretation of the myths revolving around the birth of Lord Ganpati.
In Raphel's plays, serious themes are underlined with humour, an influence of her childhood. "I was an uncontrollable child. My two younger sisters were quieter than I was but equally naughty. I don't remember studying at any point. We were only playing and a lot of it has come into the productions I make, especially the notion of finding joy in the simplest of things. As a child, you make up your own stories, hide in a bush and pretend you are somewhere else. In the space inside your mind, you believe in the fiction, and that is close to how you are as an actor," she says.
Nobody in Raphel's family is into art, but her parents recognised her talent when she would spend hours with the village teacher who taught dance and drama to children. A Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi dancer, she was learning dance at the Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur from 1995 to 2001, where she met Chawla. "If Veenapani found an interest, you had no escape. She was very compassionate but also very fierce. When I worked with her for the first time, in The Hare and the Tortoise (2007), I was given a line, 'That's the mystery, Hamlet'. It was a part of an interaction between Hamlet and Arjuna. I had to repeat the line for six months and I was wondering why. Because the way I was saying 'mystery' was not how she had heard the word in her mind. This kind of mentorship was necessary for me," says Raphel. Today, Raphel continues Chawla's practice of gestating a play for years. "We've an urge to lengthen the life of a production. We have to make a production that is very strong and relevant to the times we live in. We take a long time to do that, from a year to a-year-and-a-half. We don't work every day as we run a campus where we host performances and workshops and even serve food. But the play is in your subconscious and we are constantly thinking and working," she says.