CHENNAI: One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eye and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”
As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight,” she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.
VP died on November 30 2014, at the age of 67. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus.
“There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti — certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.
The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only 20 minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, bones, those pepper vines, and that soil.
I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her — an offer she made me each time I saw her doing laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible — both in its transmission and its nature.
Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30, only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz — the answers to all these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.
How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.
(The Chennai-based author writes poetry, fiction and more)