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THE FERTILE FOREST VANDI THEATRE

A tea shop drama

WazoPaulAurovilians Paul (British) and Wazo (French) have always felt a calling to perform comic theatre in the village. This ancient yearning (Paul was already playing with a toy vandi at the age of three) drove them to create the Fertile Forest Vandi Theatre, a traveling tour de force now presenting 'A tea shop drama', in villages near us. The performance is in Tamil and simple English, easily accessible to the local audiences it's intended for.

Muthu and Bapoune
Two viewings of the Vandi Theatre's production left me stunned and amazed. Ninety minutes of Tamilian Muthu (played by Paul) and French Bapoune (played by Wazo) moving rapidly over a smooth dirt ground-level stage before a laughing throng of Tamil children and their older relatives had me experiencing inner states. Sympathy, as I learned the plight of Bapoune, a Frenchman just arrived in India and struggling to stay afloat after temple monkeys relieved him of his most valued possessions, passport and money. Hilarity, as Muthu, a local farmer, adopts Bapoune with typical Tamil hospitality, and gives him work helping to build a tea shop. Whirlwind action, song and dance, sheer slapstick, and a number of costume changes flood the senses and transport the audience.Muthu teaching Bapoune how to wear a lungi ..

The story
Two gods converse, one tells the other the tale of Muthu and Bapoune. Bapoune, despondent over loss of his security, curls up in a sack and goes to sleep. Unexpectedly finding him there, Muthu listens as he's told about the monkeys and in a typically Tamil spontaneous gesture of friendship and goodwill offers Bapoune tea, food, and a place to stay, "Casu illa, passport illa? Paravailla." (No money, no passport? Doesn't matter.)
Bapoune, claiming experience in all manner of work and dance, offers his services. In a dream Muthu is shown how to make good tea, and they begin to construct a teashop to raise money for Muthu's sister's wedding. When Muthu tries to marry his sister to Bapoune, he is thwarted by his father's vehement dislike for vellakarans ('vellakaran' is the Tamil word for 'foreigner', meaning anyone from outside the Tamil region). Ultimately however, Bapoune is reunited with his lost possessions, and Muthu, having found an alternative husband for his sister, reconciles with his father and joins in the wedding festivities.

Traditional Tamil shadow-puppeteer
While the entire drama is carried out with only three actors, Muthu, Bapoune, and Muthu's sister, ingenious use is made of a shadow puppet screen placed as backdrop to the stage. The shadow puppets are manipulated by Rajappa, a traditional Tamil shadow-puppeteer. Incorporating his work into the performance allows plot development and the visual exploration of scenes difficult to stage, such as the dream, speech between the gods, the incorporation of universal characters (i.e. 'the fool'), or the image of an airplane crossing the sea to deposit Bapoune in this strange foreign land.

A dying breedMuthu preparing (a still unknowing) Bapoune for his wedding..
Rajappa remains of a dying breed. Local theatre, a venerable tradition in the south of India, has been largely supplanted by the growing access to television and cinema. The Vandi Theatre imports Rajappa for their weekly show from his village some 30 kms away. No longer in his youth, Rajappa has been doing puppet theatre all his life, but hardly finds work these days, and lives with his wife in a tiny keet hut on a small borrowed piece of temple land. He makes all his puppets himself, and each has a name, recognisable by a Tamil audience. Adept at manipulating several characters simultaneously, he changes his voice to suit the role, now growling in deep, gravelly tones, now screeching in falsetto as different puppets dance across the backlit screen. Unorganised in a western sense, he improvises as the need arises, digging through a pile of puppets heaped beside him to find the perfect one for the moment. Arriving at one performance without his puppets, he explained that the leather characters had been eaten by a dog. Paravailla.

Wazo on Bapoune
Although the performance is not biographical, Wazo underwent a similar ordeal on his first arrival in India. Monkeys vanished with his passport and money, but fortunately returned them some hours later. With a background in French street theatre, activist and humorist, he first embodied Bapoune in the early '80s in a local Tamil performance. He explains Bapoune as a universal character known to audiences worldwide; the fool, or joker, the one who tries to do things and falls down, tries to get the sweets, makes people laugh. Performing for a purely local audience, the French Bapoune has very little language at his disposal, and must rely mainly on effective physical gestures.

Bullock cart theatre..?Bapoune dancing a jig before the newly built tea shop. At times the grey space at the background is transformed into a brightly lit window where the puppet show takes place.
But what is a "Vandi Theatre"? Vandi, of course, is the local name for a bullock cart. Paul built a small, single bullock vandi, and then, with some friends and a US $1000 (approx RS 47.000) grant from the USA-based Foundation of World Education (FEW), he constructed a mobile set for the performance that fits entirely in the cart. Setting up and breaking down takes only 20 - 30 minutes. The 12-volt stage lighting is powered by batteries.
Why arrive for the show in a vandi? Why not a truck or a van? As Wazo explains, "the effect is totally different. From the moment we arrive in a village the kids are there, they look, they see us. I dance, and we sing a song. They are the first to come and see what's up, then they tell the others. Later the whole crowd comes. When we arrive by vandi, that's already something they can understand. If we arrived in a Spitfire, with cool sunglasses, two vellakarans, already we create a gap." Accessories are limited to those that are readily found and understood in the local Tamil culture. Muthu and Bapoune build a teashop, with mumptis (local digging tools) and bricks, not a space rocket made of high-tech materials. Wazo points out that he conscientiously avoids using any props that carry foreign connotations, such as a guitar, in order to render the performance as locally accessible as possible.

Bapoune preparing to go shop in Pondicherry on Muthu's new bicycle..Absolutely non-political
'Issues' (such as for instance the spraying of pesticides by village farmers, an ongoing bone of contention between Auroville and Village) are not addressed in the performance. On the contrary, they are meticulously avoided, even though Paul says he's often asked by Aurovilians why they don't preach a message within the play.
"We, two vellakarans, can't go into the village and start to say, 'don't put pesticides on your cashews'. Until everything we grow and consume in Auroville is completely organic, we have no right to tell others around us what to do." Wazo has had previous experience in social activist theatre, and agrees that preaching on issues is not their aim.

Abundant response
So far what kind of contact have they had with the audiences, what kind of reactions? Judging from the two performances I saw, the audience is well pleased, and a bit wonderstruck, to see two foreigners arriving in a vandi, performing a drama in local dialect with a good dose of the Tamil film idiom. Paul points out that they instantly react to the humor, Bapoune learning to make tea..the slapstick especially, so it's easy to monitor what is effective and what isn't. The only time he says they momentarily lose contact with the viewers is during their dances. They can't hear laughter over the loud music that's playing, so the feedback they receive has to come later, from audience like myself. I assured them that the dance scenes are as integral a part of the show as they are in any popular Indian film. Wazo relates touching feedback from the Tamil audience; after their first performance one older man came up and kissed him on the forehead in thanks.

Direct communication based on feeling
"Fundamentally, the Vandi show and the Akademic Genius Brothers, and anything that we do, the Christmas Fair or anything, is all based on a fundamental feeling, no?", explains Paul. "That for me is what's interesting, trying to get that feeling across, communicate it to the village and see if there's a response. And from the responses I've had from the individuals in the village at the end of the show, I see that they come out of it with exactly the same feeling. It's a direct communication. I have a sense of this feeling, and Wazo has a sense of this feeling, and being individuals in this whole thing we're all trying to work out if we have the same feeling. By doing the Akademic Genius Brothers we have this feeling and are communicating it, and with the VandiDressed up for the marriage.. show, for me, it's the same thing. And the characters in the village that come up to me at the end, they're communicating to me as if they have exactly the same feeling. They know what you're talking about. Why do you do anything anyway? For me it's basically about trying to communicate this one feeling."

Recognition
"I think they want to see vellakarans more closely. For example, I have a carpenter in my house. After the show in Kuilapalayam he came up to me and said that one of the things he remembers from the show is when Bapoune is given a task by Muthu, waits for his 'boss' to exit, and then sits down to enjoy some free time. He says this is such a common thing, it's easy to relate to."

 

By playing on certain stereotypes, connection is made with an audience worlds removed from the western psyche. "Our purpose is to touch universal stereotypes from local situations. It's what we try to do. Again, it's not about social problems, it's more about the feeling."

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