Exclusive Interview with Vidhya Nair
“We should know that the audience out there is intelligent and discerning and patrons expect value for their time. To receive a worthy compliment from the audience is GOLD.”
G Selva is a well-known media personality & theatre practitioner in Singapore. From a young age, he has performed as an actor on television and theatre. Today, he is an accomplished director & playwright of his own theatre company, Avant Theatre & Language which will be celebrating its 10th year anniversary in 2021. He is also an alumnus of Apsaras Arts since the 1990s. A tête-à-tête with him this month brought insights to his life’s journey and his varied artistic achievements and ambitions.
VN: When did your interest in the arts happen? Was this something you were exposed to in your family in your youth?
GS: There was no one involved in the arts in my family. As the only son with 4 sisters, my parents saw me blossom as a television actor from a young age. They were supportive and appreciated my talents and this led to opportunities to perform in theatre and radio. Among friends, we created a small like-minded dance group and decided that we could try something new in performance. We focused on creative movements and called ourselves “Shazeen” and in time, we started to get calls for live performances and programs at the Community Centres.
There, I met Deva Charles (featured in November 2020’s Avarthana interview) who was working at Radin Mas community centre under People’s Association and that’s how I came to meet Neila Mami. Dance and performing by then had become my every Tuesday & Thursday lifestyle. I was hooked to the arts and by the late 80s, I knew this was where I wanted to be.
VN: You had a long association with Neila Mami. What are your memories of her and do share your experiences with her?
GS: I worked with her in People’s Association shows for 10 years. I think she identified my abilities to perform early on. Perhaps it was my “Indian face” so I was cast in many significant roles in many of her productions like “Kurma Avartharam” & “Shiva Kalyanam.” I think she found that I picked up movements and showed interest easily even though it was very tough to transition to performing classical dance. But my greatest admiration for Mami was her ability to teach and her talent in “packaging.” For me, that was the key ingredient to her success. She was always mindful of the audience perspective and she invested in creating choreography that brought out the strength of characters that would have audience appeal. We have to remember that back in the 1980s-90s, embracing multiculturalism while having an international perspective (She engrossed herself in all aspects from costumes to instrumentation of her productions) yet mindfully retaining a Singapore identity in all her creations. I connected completely with her ideology. It was this grooming as a dancer by Mami that brought me to theatre.
VN: You are now entrenched in Tamil Theatre for over 20 years now. Tell us how you entered this space.
GS: Back in 1988, I was involved in the earliest work by then Ravindran Drama Group (RDG) in a play, “Kudumbatil Allaigal.” I realised that I enjoyed the attention I received on stage. Theatre appeals to me because it brings forward shades of colours, storylines, social themes and this visibility drew me to the craft and best of all, audience interactivity and immediate response. I think I’ve always been an attention seeker but I saw how theatre moulded people and that helped my transition from being an actor to a director. At the same time, I also started to host shows on television. It was a time when I was enjoying the popularity and glamor yet I was seeking to find my correct calling.
I found direction when I met my ex-wife who was pursuing her PhD in Malay theatre in Australia. We got married in 2001 and I received an NAC scholarship to pursue my degree in Media Arts & Drama from Deakin University, Melbourne. I was there till 2009, where I also taught in the same Deakin University, a course in Cultural and Global studies which incorporated theatre methodology and techniques. I also launched Avant Theatre, Australia in 2001 where we explored daring themes working with Australian artistes. My pride and joy, two beautiful daughters – Nirtha (Pure Dance gestures) and Shastra (Inscription) were also born during this time.
By 2007, I had graduated and grown restless and occasionally return to Singapore on media and theatre invitations. In 2006, I was invited as a judge for a TV show “Dhool” produced by MEGASTAR productions by Mr V Kalaichelvam which is a National level Dance Competition for TV.
A major impetus upon my return in 2007 came from Neila Mami, whom I had kept in touch with throughout my years overseas, who called me in to advice and support her magnum opus production, “Sivagami.” She was designing it as a Theatre-Dance production. I was involved in engaging the theatre director initially and finally she handed the portfolio to me to be her theatre director, as by then I knew exactly what was required for the job and this was her Cultural Medallion dream production.
“Sivagami” was an opportunity that helped me cement my own calling to consider theatre seriously. It reminded me of a piece of advice that Satyalingam Mama told me on a trip to Macau in the 90s when he said,” You are lucky because you have Mami as your Guru, she has given you a Parampara, an important lineage to follow, for you to be in the arts.” I used to enjoy watching Mami and Mama during their interactions where they could argue intellectually about artistic freedoms and creativity. They always displayed their passion & chemistry and it intrinsically came to be transported to her students, like me.
VN: Avant Theatre & Language, Singapore was formed in 2011. Now your company is almost a decade old. Tell us how theatre has developed in these years?
GS: Yes, Avant Theatre was started in Melbourne Australia in 2001 and incepted in Singapore as the First Professional Tamil Theatre Company in 2011. Time has certainly flown. At the start, the company was created in a hybrid style where interactive theatre was at play. We wanted to merge the boundaries of audience and actors where shows focused on interplay between actors and audience. I began with “Bhisma – The Grandsire” which was dedicated to Satyalingam Mama for his great teachings to me. Then we did “Romz & Julz” – our version of Romeo & Juliet which focused on Total Theatre concept where theatre techniques, narration and process without indulging into the text of the play. Six LED TV screens were set up where realistic dialogue was created between the characters and audience and each night; the roles would change. Comedy was included to give a complete theatre experience. Another work we did was “12 Angry Men,” a play about the US jury system with live audience selection. This kind of work empowers both actors and the audience and creates multiple roles to interplay and the opportunity to choose outcomes. In the work “Sakuni & Panjali”- theatre magic was used to create the play of the Dice, manipulating the audience minds. The audience experiences control of the dice through technical imagery of interplacement of characters.
I’ve always enjoyed working with well-known literary texts. The Mahabharata is my favourite of course. Over the years, I’ve used writers to engage the audience and helped build the eco-system of Tamil theatre actors and writers. Today we have a pool of talents who engage in speech & drama, music & movement and this has propelled our engagement with school students.
IN 2014, Avant Theatre hosted a Tamil Theatre Festival, Neila Mami was the Guest of Honour of the Opening Ceremony, she was elated and enthralled by the grandeur and effort that she returned for the next performance with her daughter to honour me with a Ganesha Idol and a golden Shawl and spoke in praise. That moment was unplanned and the WOW feeling in inscribed in my heat so dearly, “Guruvae Sharanam”.
VN: What has the role of language been in your work?
GS: Tamil is used to deliver for the craft. The purpose of the language is to communicate to engage and reach the audience. That is its primary purpose. It’s important to me that my shows run full house and are financially viable. I’m fully aware about the limitations of Tamil theatre. It is a competitive space and the growth is slow, gradual. Today we see visibility improving but continuing to be visible in mainstream helps to support our image and fuel the growth of theatre. Full-time serious theatre makers are rare as that requires individuals who are passionate for the craft. It is a difficult profession to sustain and today, Tamil theatre stands on its own.
VN: Compared to your generation, what do you see as trends in the younger generation?
GS: When I watch dancers today, I observe a lack of understanding of the craft. I don’t see “Sthayi bhava” [stable emotional, psychological state]. It’s clear that the dancers don’t stretch themselves to go to that extent in their execution and deep-rooted understanding of the dance piece, let alone the craft. I see much better stamina but the teaching these days is not nuanced so you don’t see the intensity and rigour in the performance. The distraction of the mobile phone is a clear hindrance to many of the youth dancers. Dance requires investment of time along with bonding with peers. It should be a lived process without compromise or short-cuts. We should know that the audience out there is intelligent and discerning and patrons expect to be valued for their time. To receive a worthy compliment from the audience is GOLD.
VN: In your opinion, what do you think is the future of Bharatanatyam and Indian classical dance? Do you see any significant trends?
GS: Today I see Bharatanatyam’s future in the contemporary state. Neo-Bharatanatyam doesn’t work and the pure traditional form is difficult to sustain because it has been codified. Instead, the contemporary style gives more space for exploration and appears to be a popular choice.