It’s an incredibly hot day for February, and as I look across the vast grounds of Lady Willingdon College that sits opposite Chennai’s Marina beach, my eyes glaze over. In the middle of the ground is a blue-and-white tent. Some 20 people, about half of them in wheelchairs, are gathered there. They are being taught dance movements by members of the U.K.-based Graeae Theatre that works almost exclusively with disabled artists and has staged large-scale productions, many to critical acclaim. On Saturday, the group will stage a massive production called Aruna and the Raging Sun that involves about a hundred Chennai-based artists with disabilities, a 20-meter-tall puppet, astonishing aerial performances, and collaborations with a Spanish theatre group and various local partners. It is the group’s first performance in India and I met Amit Sharma, associate director of Graeae Theatre, ahead of the show. Sharma is upbeat and excited to be here despite the raging sun. “I’m happy. I will take this heat over London’s damp cold any day,” he says, half on and off a bicycle that he is using to get around the college campus. (And I thought I could get away without weather coming up in a conversation with a Brit.) Excerpts:
What has gone into a production as massive as this?
So much has gone into it. The preparations, in terms of the groundwork — identifying a location, identifying partners to collaborate with — began way back in 2015, when the producer, Patrick Collier, and I visited Chennai. Prakriti Foundation introduced us to some amazing people here who assisted us in this production. We have worked with the Spanish group, La Fura dels Baus, before, and a lot of the infrastructure was theirs. We had a large crew, about 400 people, working on site; that’s almost like a film set.
In terms of rehearsal, we started a week ago. It’s a short rehearsal period simply because the scale of it requires us to be very economical with time. Rehearsals are tough, and fast, and we have to make sure the performers are at their optimum when rehearsing and they get enough rest. What’s amazing about this production is that it’s a mixture of persons with disability: we have the hearing impaired performing alongside the mobility impaired and wheelchair users. It’s how humanity is. We want to showcase that, present a production where disabled people work together. Hopefully, that will change attitudes the non-disabled have about this community.
You’ve been with Graeae a very long time. How did you get involved in theatre?
I passionately believe that culture has a role to play in life. I was born in Delhi, and moved to the U.K. at a very young age. So, the aspect of culture, be it religion or celebrating festivals, is very imbued in the Indian being. I was an actor before, and I got into directing and theatre because I wanted to create work that has meaning, in a way that can shift and change people’s lives for good, and I think that’s what culture does. It’s really important that wherever we are in the world, we hold on to the idea that we don’t lose culture and don’t stop investing in culture because culture can surprise us, and change us.
Theatre is not a very lucrative option, at least not in India. How do you think theatre can change the lives of persons with disability?
The important thing about theatre is that it is between an audience member and the performer. There are no retakes, no cuts; you create a piece of work and present it, and hopefully, the people who are watching will be moved to laughter, to tears, to anger, to passion, and you can do those things very, very immediately. Theatre is about that instant connection. [Dance has that aspect to it too.] I suppose in some ways I’ve been very fortunate to be in the U.K. where the idea of lucrativeness isn’t about money or corporatization of culture. For me, it’s about being supported by the U.K. Arts Council and the British Council and other funding organizations that allow us to invest in areas like the disability arts. If it was solely about the money, people wouldn’t necessarily think about culturally giving the opportunity of theatre and arts to disabled people, and you know, we’re not going anywhere, we’re fundamentally part of society. So, if we can participate in a more active kind of way in society, then society can only benefit.
Do you think a theatrical production like his can help attract the attention of policymakers to the needs of the disabled?
I really hope so. We live in a system where things cost money and sometimes the support of disabled people costs money, but that’s okay, because once you provide that support, financial and otherwise, what you get in return from that individual is completely unique, their expression is unique, and that individualism is something money cannot buy. During our rehearsals this week, autorickshaw drivers stopped to watch. And that’s what this is about in terms of the audience. Who are they watching? People they would never think of watching, and that’s why the “spectacle” is so important.
In a 2015 interview, shortly after the U.K. government closed down the Independent Living Fund (ILF), you said that Graeae could shut in a few years in the absence of state support.
Yes, it’s quite tough at the moment. The ILF helped people with disabilities move out of care homes and into the community. There was a form of support for people like me, who find it difficult to get around, mobility-wise. The system is completely changing, and there are parameters now; a minimum and maximum cap on assistance. A kind of invisibility of disabled people is happening. Access to work, which is what it says on the tin, means extra financial support, and also non-financial, for disabled people to be able to work. But now, they have to choose: which meetings to attend, with an interpreter, but “hearing people” don’t have to choose that way. So, when we talk about equality, what are we talking about? When I spoke of Graeae shutting down, people went, “No, but really?” Yes, really! Because Graeae is about being disabled-led, so if there are no disabled people to lead the company, what future does the company have? It is over to Chennai now to support its performers because they are wonderful performers, and they can be international artists. The quality of performers here is no different from that in the U.K.
Tell me more about the theme.
We have reimagined a story from the Puranas, the story of the prematurely-born Aruna. So, in our version, there is Mother Earth who has created this paradise of a planet, but then human beings pollute the planet and there is climate change. So, Mother Earth calls on the sun to scorch the earth and destroy everything so she can start anew. But then, humanity is regretful and sad. They pray to Mother Earth and promise to look after the planet. She relents and asks the sun to stop but once the sun starts, it cannot stop. So, Aruna is born. Aruna goes to the sun, and defeats him, not by fighting but by respecting him. Sun calms down and then the next generation of human beings is created — and they are disabled, non-disabled, the deaf and the hearing, a mixture of all. So, that’s how we have recast the story to make it modern and relevant to our times.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.