What is the nature of an art practice that integrates into life instead of isolating itself from it? What spaces does this art occupy and how are they designed? Which audience does it reach and who is involved in making it? How can it sustain itself and stay firm in opposing a system and its institutions that seem to hinder rather than encourage precisely such an attitude? Questions like these have accompanied Sankar Venkateswaran and Satoko Tsurudome in recent years while they were planning, constructing, and operating an (in)dependent theater “at the end of the world,” as they themselves say. In their article for V/A, the theater duo describes how they found a place in the Attappadi region in Kerala, India, following the traces of wild elephants and the accidents, coincidences, and fortunes they encountered while building their Sahyande Theater. The practice and philosophy of Kubikukuri Takuzo shaped and accompanied them on their way. The text is, in part, an homage to this performer from Tokyo who ran a theater in his backyard there – but his spirit also continues to be present in the place operated by Venkateswaran and Tsurudome in the Indian jungle.
The Hanging Man
A crowded evening in front of a theater in Kerala. An aged man unexpectedly draws the attention of everyone around him by slowing down his movements, almost to a near stillness. He looks fragile, but his gaze is sharp, peering, and taking in the details of all that meets his eyes. His focus shifts from the grains of sand in front of him to the stems of plants around him and to the leaves of trees above him, extending to the horizon, the clouds, all the way to the afternoon sun. People gather around him in a circle and watch him attentively as he moves almost involuntarily towards a big mango tree, slowly, at times walking on his feet, then crawling on his knees. The gaze that scanned everything around him is now turned inward, as if recollecting a specific moment from the past. Next to him a shallow circular pit has been dug out. A low stool is kept nearby. A noose hangs suspended from a branch of the tree. Drawn to it, he slowly gets on the stool and gently holds the noose with both hands. He looks at the noose, the rope, and the sky above as if for the last time. He swallows a gulp of saliva before placing the noose on his chin and around his neck, closes his eyes and leans forward to leave the stool. Suspended on the rope, he oscillates like a pendulum above the ground for about five minutes, which feels like forever, before coming to a standstill. After a moment of silence, we see small movements in his body, almost like a dance. The hanging man raises his leg as if to walk the wind. He gyrates his hips subtly and playfully unbuttons his shirt while swinging. At some point he slowly raises his arms and grasps the rope above his head and, pulling his weight upwards, he releases the noose from around his neck and chin. Abruptly he lets go of the rope and lands inside the pit below with a bounce or two. After a moment, he walks out of the pit, avoiding eye contact with the people watching him, and disappears into the crowd.
The scene above describes an impromptu performance by Japanese artist Kubikukuri Takuzo, aka Hangman Takuzo, at the International Theater Festival of Kerala in 2016. Impromptu because Takuzo just happened to be in India during the festival and readily accepted the last-minute invitation. Takuzo could do this at a short notice because the act is something he has been doing for most of his life. Innumerable times, each day, come rain or shine or even snow. The same thing, over and over, for four decades. Although he repeated it thousands and thousands of times, every time he did, it was as if he was doing it for the first and the last time, always new and different. On his way to the noose, he never returned his gaze nor retraced his steps; he approached it as if it was not an act, without the possibility of going back. He calls himself an ‘actionist,’ and this was his ‘action.’ It was integral to his life.
Takuzo was a special artist. For him, art and life were synonymous, interchangeable. He lived in a run-down hut in the posh residential area of Kunitachi, Tokyo. He called it Niwa Gekijo, meaning backyard theater, as it basically was his backyard: less than three meters by four meters. He hung his noose on an otome camellia tree, dug a pit on the ground beneath it, and kept an anvil next to it on which he stood to approach the noose. A few improvised benches of varying heights were arranged facing the playing area, offering seating for a few people. His theater was open to the public for a number of days every month, regardless of whether there was an audience or not. The performance usually lasted for about 20 minutes to an hour. It was followed by drinks, dinner, and discussions with the audience squeezed inside his tiny house. Watching his action was not disturbing or scary. It was peaceful and Zen-like. We saw him first in Kerala and then in Japan on a couple of occasions. We made a point of visiting him whenever circumstances permitted us to. As much as we were excited by Takuzo and his art, he was thrilled to learn about our theater. We dreamt that he would come to our place and perform.
Takuzo’s theater in the middle of Tokyo completely went against the logic of capitalism. For him, art did not mean work, like it does for most of us. He did part-time work on construction sites during night shifts. He was critical of all art that pretends to question the capitalist order while spending millions in production costs. Instead, he resisted the power of capital. Culture, for him, was something to live in, interwoven with life, hence inseparable and impossible to commodify and to be consumed. The philosophical foundations of Takuzo’s art was as solid as his anvil.
The Elephant Project
The questions of self-sufficiency and autonomy in one’s art practice has been our quest since we began our theater collective in 2007. Our stated aims are to explore alternate approaches to theater practice and to develop new audiences. We are committed to the idea that our ensemble always includes artists from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. We believe that it is possible to reimagine theater when artists seek each other across cultures, interact, and encounter one another in the theater space with a genuine intention to create.
We started our activities in New Delhi and later shifted them to Thrissur, a mofussil town in Kerala. Eventually, we found our permanent base in the tropical jungle of Attappadi, Kerala. Our practice extends in different geographical, cultural, and socio-economic directions. While one is rooted in the local sphere of Attappadi, another vector extends to the urban centers and the global context. We first came to Attappadi in 2008 to rehearse a new creation titled Sahaynde Makan – The Elephant Project. Sahaynde Makan is a Malayalam poem which means “Son of Western Mountains.” Attappadi came as a natural choice for us for practical reasons: we were looking for an affordable place in which we could stay and rehearse. And we wanted to be close to wild elephants as they were the subject of our creation.
As our work progressed, we found that our cross-cultural and collaborative approach to theater resonated well with the cultural landscape of Attappadi. Attappadi is a secluded mountain valley, spreading across 745 square kilometres bordering the South Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is home to over 70,000 people which include three indigenous communities, and two groups of migrant settlers speaking different languages from the bordering states. There are 10,000 families living in 192 villages scattered around the region. Without adequate public transport or sometimes even roads, most of these villages remain isolated. In the absence of civic infrastructures in any meaningful sense in the region, our ‘theater,’ which was nothing more than a patch of open ground on a mountain slope where we were squatting and rehearsing, soon became a common space for people of different communities to gather, watch, reflect, and engage in conversations. This was a momentous incident in our journey. It was the moment when we felt the strongest sense of conviction in what we were doing.
Over the course of our rehearsals, we did indeed get close to wild elephants. And we got closer to the people and the place as well. Until then, as visitors to Attappadi, it was fine for us to sleep in a car or pitch a tent by the river while running open rehearsals and organising workshops, but soon we came to a point where we felt the need to live here permanently and to deepen our engagement. We don’t have any corpus funds or consistent institutional or governmental support to run our activities. We hop from project to project and depend on the tours and performances that we give in urban and international venues to subsist and to support our initiatives in Attappadi. Our creative productions organically started getting informed by the grassroots work we did in Attappadi. The two contexts of our practice formed a symbiotic relationship, both artistically and financially. For the next two years, we saved up all our resources, borrowed from friends and relatives and eventually found a patch of land on a hill slope in Attappadi.
We then began making a half-kilometer stretch of road to get to the site. Electricity and drinking water followed. We put together a crude tree house on site with the help of nearby villagers and started living there permanently. We were nearly exhausted by then, with nothing much done and without any clue or any resources to speak of. We tried repeatedly but only failed to convince funding bodies in India to support our initiative, across state and central government as well as the private sector. Cultural policies of the state in India prioritise tradition over contemporary art. Policy makers want material that can substantiate their claims of India as a land of ‘rich cultural heritage’ that serves the nationalistic identity of post-independent India they want to establish. In contrast, we were engaging with the awkwardness of our existence. Similarly, the private sector seemed to have its own obscure agenda for funding. They fund the art they want to see and not the art you want to do. In this predicament we defiantly insisted on doing theater on our own terms.
When pious people are in trouble, they read prayers. During some of our most difficult days, we read Henrik Ibsen. In the light of our life with the people in Attappadi, we conceived a project drawing from Ibsen’s worldview and applied for the Ibsen Scholarships. We were awarded the scholarship, which came as a lifeline for us with which we gradually developed our engagements with people in remote villages through forums and workshops. We developed creative pieces collaboratively with members of indigenous communities, and toured them in metropolitan cities. This project took us through many realizations. Some of them shook the very foundations of our assumptions of theater. It was as if our ideas of theater were getting beaten with Ibsen’s hammer against Takuzo’s anvil. We began questioning ourselves. What does it mean for indigenous people to perform in black boxes and proscenium theaters in cities for an urban audience? What does it mean to produce, tour, and present when the intentions of our collaborations were never to cater to the cultural consumption of people who are removed from the lives and realities of the performers? Can we find more tolerant ways to function as a theater so that it may make a difference to the cultural lives of people?
By now we had developed an audience in Attappadi itself. What we needed was a place to gather: a theater. The thought of a theater in Attappadi had been on our minds since the day we set foot in the valley. Now it seemed like the most logical progression in our journey.
An architect is someone who sets people into motion and into action. It was a coincidence that one of the members in our ensemble happened to be the architect of our theater (we also have a physician and various other professionals in our ensemble). Kavita Srinivasan studied architecture and city planning at MIT. She also is an actor and theater-maker who shares our spirit of experimentation and collaboration. We began conversing about the design of a theater. She asked us hundreds of questions, and each of our answers was met with further questions. A lot of thought was given to size, shape, functionally, energy efficiency, openness, ecology etc. As for the size of the theater, we agreed that the scales and dimensions of the building should match the proportions of the human body. As an actor, Kavita was aware of the possibilities and limitations of an actor on stage. Larger theaters always require actors to put in more effort into their playing, which tends to become either too loud for the audience sitting close to the stage or inaudible for those sitting far away. When a performance fails to achieve the desired effect, most of the time people blame the acting, staging, or the writing. Seldom do we see critiques of the inherent challenges posed by the architecture of the space as interfering with the experience of theater. Most governmental theaters in India are designed and built by people who never use these spaces for the reasons for which they exist. Square-headed people come with square sheets of paper and draw squares and rectangles for theaters, whereas the most organic way for people to come together to watch something is through forming circles.
Our architect put these thoughts and discussions into several drawings. Many of them were strange-looking theaters. One day she sent us a sketch and sounded definite about it. She had taken inspiration for the shape of the theater from ougi (扇), the fan used by Noh theater actors. The ougi, in a skilled actor’s hand, can transform into a sword, a shield, a broom, an oar, and many other things. In its half open form, the Japanese fan is a combination of a quarter of a circle and a right angle, and this shape allows for multiple viewing configurations and transformations of the theater space. She conceived it as a theater-dwelling that can house an ensemble, with a rehearsal studio and a rooftop amphitheater.
Now we needed an engineer to actualize the drawings and transform it from spirit to matter. Unfortunately we did not have one in our ensemble. The ‘professional’ we thought we would hire didn’t seem to understand our vision, so we waited. Eventually we met our engineer, quite literally, by accident. Anas Siddique was just out of engineering school, working as a supervisor on a roadside construction site. It was there he saw Sankar crashing his motorcycle into an autorickshaw. The kind-hearted young man rushed to the spot and took Sankar to the hospital. After his recovery, we visited Anas on the same construction site he was still working. That’s when we found out he was an engineer. Instead of thanking him, we asked him another favor: to help us build our theater.
With help from a local construction team, we saw our theater grow brick by brick. As it took shape, more and more people got involved, and in 2016 while still in progress, it started functioning as a theater. We named it Sahyande Theater, after its location in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats). It is here we rehearse, develop, and show our works, or conduct residential workshops, host artists who regularly visit us from around the world, and initiate informal creative interactions. Using theater as a tool, we continue to create common spaces for people of diverse backgrounds to gather and share imaginary experiences. Sahyande Theater plays an instrumental role in facilitating dialogue and reflection in and between us, the local communities, as well as art practitioners from around the world.
Acts of Defiance
Our dream to have Kubikukuri Takuzo perform in our theater didn’t materialize. He passed away in 2018. Niwa Gekijo in Kunitachi is now empty, waiting to be demolished for a new, pretty-looking house. On 31 March 2019, the first anniversary of his death, his ashes were laid to rest at Sahyande Theater. Niwa Gekijo transcended space and time. It now stands in the middle of this jungle with Takuzo’s signature pit, anvil, and a stone engraved with the letter “庭” (Niwa).
Two years later, we faced the pandemic finding ourselves without much choice. The design of our theater follows the principles of open theater architecture, which was prophetic and is ideal for doing theater safely during this health crisis. But regulations and the politics of isolation prevent people from coming together and doing theater these days. For now, the scope of theater is beyond plays and performances on stage. But we strongly hold on to theater as an awareness with which we will negotiate the system and continue to question the established hierarchies. Once the pandemic is over, we will start again: Here, in this theater, at the end of the world.