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Performance art: A poetry written in motion

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players,” wrote poet and playwright William Shakespeare. On this grand stage called Earth, in the midst of the vast emptiness of space, we play various roles from the day we’re born until the day we depart. With time, we all grow and evolve—physically, mentally, emotionally, and eventually, spiritually. For audience unknown, we act our part as honestly as we possibly can and express ourselves to the best of our ability. Therefore, our life itself could be viewed as a form of art. Only, it is taking place in the magnificent stage of the space-time continuum.

Perhaps, that is why many of us can inherently connect with art forms—especially performance arts. Like our lives, this art-form involves the space-time continuum too—albeit on a miniature scale. It entails constant change and movement—even in the momentary stillness, a pause is more dynamic than motion. Bringing to the fore, an artiste’s innermost thoughts and emotions, performance art physically expresses the core of a person is in the purest, rawest of forms, thereby making an impact not only on the artiste but also on the audience.

As a performance artiste with over 15-years of experience, Arka Mukhopadhyay has especially been drawn towards the psycho-physical aspect of performance—how a physical gesture, posture or a mudra affects our inner status and vice-versa. He currently runs an initiative called Jyothirgamaya, which explores the idea of ‘consciousness’ through dialogues with traditional as well as contemporary art forms. In this feature, Soulveda explores the works and views of the artiste.

You work with several forms of performing art—dance, theatre, music to name a few. You are well-versed in both classical and contemporary art forms. Could you tell us about your journey so far?

There isn’t much to tell. My journey has been organic. At each step, I have sought for meaning and truth and have done what my heart told me to. I have no professional training in theatre. My only formal training has been in Kalaripayattu—for over a decade. I’ve observed Koodiyattam performers, Bauls and Qawwals, and also learnt from contemporary practitioners of dance and theatre. I’m a perpetual student. In fact, I’m not even a very good student. But I watch, I wonder, and I keep playing and experimenting, without wondering whether it is stupid or whether others would judge. And that’s how I’ve always been working—seeking answers.

You currently run a small practice called Jyotirgamaya. How did it come to be?

It is actually called Jyothirgamaya Natya Kalari, which would translate as Jyothirgamaya Theatre Laboratory. After my father’s passing in 2016, I was in Kerala. I was personally trying to emerge from darkness to light, and that’s how it came to be. Of course, by that time I had already been in the field for 13 odd years, but I wanted to start afresh. I put out a call, a few performers joined me, and we got going.  At the moment, we are working on a unique performance and educational project called ‘In Search of Amal’, based on the iconic Tagore-play, Dakghar. We’re now a unique collective of artistes, from traditional forms such as Koodiyattom and Yakhshagana, contemporary dance, mime, theatre, etc. and we have come together to explore this character called Amal—a young boy who is terminally ill. His body is dying, but his mind is unfettered. He says he wants to see everything there is to see, he travels in his imagination to the farthest end of the universe. And through our process, we ask what that means—to transcend our limitations, to look at the universe, at existence, with eyes of boundless wonder. It is not only performance but also an educational process through which we are already working with NGOs in urban and non-urban spaces, who work with children and young adults from economically weaker backgrounds. We’ll also be working with children from the autism spectrum, young people who have survived trafficking, etc.

What inspired you to connect consciousness, and the synergy between our mind and body with performing arts?

Well, the performing arts are by their very nature exactly that—the oneness of body, mind, emotions, and spirit. In other words, they are about presence, about being present. So, it doesn’t need any specific inspiration. To work with the performing arts is to explore the unison. What I’m trying to say is, when we’re on the stage, we need to be present with our whole selves. So it’s not something we separately need to connect.

‘Embodied performance technique’ for instance, teaches artistes to put their body at the centre of the creative process. Not the mind, not a written text, but the living, throbbing, pulsing body with all its beauty and imperfections—to make that the starting point. So, our senses are sharper and more alert, yet we are also in a place of deep inner stillness.

Tell us about your approach of Sahrudaya which takes an artiste to a heightened state of awareness.

Sahrudaya (literally, ‘of one heart’) refers to a performer who is in a state of radiance and grace, resonant with her/ his inner awareness, with the co-creators and with the space. It is the performer who has the courage to be vulnerable, to be spiritually naked, and to meet other human beings with this vulnerability, without pretence. This is the name chosen for the approach to performance craft developed by me, based on over 10 years of collaborative research with various artistes practising Indian performative/embodied sources (martial arts, song, ritual) as well as organic possibilities of the body and voice.

The basis of the work is the simple, everyday act of breathing, but looked at as a bridge between the inner and the outer world, and the foundation of the rhythmic, awakened body, a body alive to its own creative potential. The work draws upon elements from various forms (Kalaripayattu, Baul praxis, Kootiyattom, Butoh and others), but ultimately focuses on the human body, the organic being, as the source of creation. It challenges the body and the imagination, improving our focus, attention, precision, and presence, opening up a rich, dynamic language of the body and voice, full of deep, inner life.

Art can take us on an introspective journey. For this reason, practising an art form is, in itself, a spiritual practice. What is your take on spirituality and being spiritual?

Well, I used to think of myself as being spiritual, but of late I have changed my mind. If by spirituality we mean presence, connectedness, and awareness, then that is not something exalted or available only to a few. It is our natural state. So, there is no such thing as spirituality, only the lack of it.

Would you say performing arts can enhance our wellbeing?

Yes, they can. It is not about training everyone to be an artiste. It is something else. A space to play, to search for inner peace, to find stillness or to be in rhythm. So, it helps us feel a certain wholeness, a connection with ourselves, and a heightened sense of vitality and life. The arts work upon all the aspects of our being—body, mind, emotions, and creativity. They keep us physically fit, mentally focussed and balanced, and help connect with our emotions and creativity.

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    Arka Mukhopadhyay is a theatre performer, director and process facilitator. He seeks to explore the art of human presence, drawing from various contemporary western theatre techniques, as well as traditional Indian performing arts, yoga, and Kalaripayattu. Arka specialises in solo performances, especially based on Shakespeare, and has presented his work all across the globe. He has received several awards and recognition for his poetry.
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