Of lights, tours, board games and Sri Lanka

Chandigarh-based lighting designer, Gyandev Singh, brings to life his experience of touring Parama Padam through cities and the sights and sounds of Sri Lanka

Parama Padam The game of Snakes and Ladders- Touring Sri lanka- The pearl of Indian Ocean

Since its premier back in 2019 in Singapore, the performance of Parama Padam has had many successful shows. This thematic production gives an insight into the ideas behind the Vaishnavites game of the same name which teaches the core moral values of human life. Copied later by the British (naming it snakes and ladders), this board game has a hundred squares which are replete with snakes and ladders. The ladders in the game represent good virtues and the snakes indicate vices. Ladders take you up as the good deeds take us to heaven, while the snakes bring you down as a cycle of rebirths. The final goal is to reach Vaikuntha or heaven.

My collaboration with Apsaras Arts – Mohanapriyan and Aravinth ji – was particularly interesting because it was a play between technology and the human body. The intersection between the dynamics of the body having a dialogue with lights and both parties intruding into each other’s spaces, creating a dance of its own kind, bordering between chaos and harmony. Between the spontaneous and the computed. It was an experiment to empower the digital, the computed to find its own spontaneity and intuitiveness and become an independent co-player in the performance.

We were very excited to take Parama Padam to Sri Lanka because of two reasons. First, it is the country of birth for both Aravinth ji and Mohanapriyan. And secondly, we wanted to see how the production would do in smaller less equipped auditoriums. And to break the general misconception that this production was tech heavy and could not be done in less equipped auditoriums. In our minds, it was important to share this theme with people of Sri Lanka, even if it meant we had to alter and redesign a few parts.

The tour first started in Jaffna, north of Sri Lanka. Being an area torn apart during the bloody civil war, the audiences resonated with the theme of the production, which was, how to escape the snakes of deceit, greed and ego to reach the 100th block, the place of moksha. We performed at the NCOMS auditorium, which has been a center of Tamil art and culture in Sri Lanka for decades. What was really heartfelt was that this performance was organised by the dance teaching community of Jaffna. All the ladies came to watch the performance in beautiful sarees. I remember, during the performance the electricity went away but none of the audience moved out of the auditorium. They were transfixed, almost as if they were dancing with Mohanapriyan themselves.It was really fulfilling to receive all the love and appreciation from the audience.

After that we were invited to perform at the opening of the Jaffna Cultural Centre. This center is a state of the art eleven storey building interestingly funded by the Indian government. I was happy that India was contributing to the development of art and culture in Jaffna. The performance was attended by many distinguished guests from India and Sri Lanka like the Indian foreign minister, and many Sri Lankan Cabinet ministers. It was an honour for all of us at Apsaras Arts to be performing at the opening of such a grand and prestigious arts center.

The next performance was at the Jaffna University. Mohanpriyan even conducted a workshop on dance and I gave a talk on lighting design in classical dance. It was so refreshing to have young energies to come and participate in these interactions. The performance was held at the university hall which was a rather small stage with no lighting bars at all.

I spent an evening redesigning the lights. We hung some lights on the projector screen, some on side stands made out of isles from the art department and some on the floor. At the back I put some lights vertically on four stands. This surprisingly gave a beautiful effect for the climax of the show. Many Students of dance, theatre and the arts came to watch. All faculty members of the University were also present including the Viceroy. It is always satisfying to have a full house and they all loved the performance. We got a standing ovation for about seven minutes. They all loved Mohanapriyan who was absolutely fabulous with his energy and soulful abhinaya.

Then we travelled to Colombo, the country’s capital. Our performance was going to happen at the Lionel Wendt theatre. A theatre with a very distinct old world charm about it. A 600 seater hall with great acoustics and amazing sight lines. It had wooden chairs with cane mesh. Not the plastic ones, but an actual cane mesh. Also, The place looked like it was run and maintained by passionate people who were genuinely interested in promoting the arts. I saw the country’s first lighting dimmer which was the size of an almirah!

A few days before the performance, we got to know that there would be a curfew in the city. This was because of the protests against the economic crisis that the country was facing. It was inspiring to see even women and children, joining in the protest saying, enough is enough!, things would have to change now. But we, along with our colleagues at the Lionel Wendt Centre decided that we will not leave without performing here. During a collective crisis like this one, art is the only thing that grounds the people and reminds them about their innate human nature of love and understanding. We wanted to do our bit too.

We decided to postpone our show for two days till things settle down. The people who had already bought tickets were informed about the shift and were given the option of either watching the performance two days later, or to ask for a refund. And to our joy and surprise, none of the audience wanted a refund. They were happy to wait. It was reassuring to see that. As artists, more than money, it is this love and passion shown by the audiences that drives us.

The performance happened, and what a glorious performance it was. Not only dance enthusiasts but also theatre people came to watch this thematic production. We had the Indian consulate attending the show, also many distinguished artists and politicians from Sri Lanka.

After the performance we had a few days free before our next show. So the whole team went to the beautiful beach town of Galle. It was a much needed break after our performances at Jaffna and Colombo. We got to truly slow down and be with the scenic nature of beautiful Galle.

In the last leg of the tour we performed at the hometown of Mohanapriyan and Aravinth ji- Batticaloa. A small picturesque town sitting in the lap of nature. With happy faces and the best seafood I have ever eaten. We performed at Rajadurai Auditorium. The whole art community of the town was there. Dance teachers, students, artistes, even family and friends. The warmth and affection in the hall towards us was so palpable and alive. Even though Mohanapriyan was the star of the evening, we all were made to feel at home. Even me, the turbaned guy who couldn’t understand the language. It was a celebration of art and artists in the true sense.

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Devata: Guardians of Dance

BLK D Goodman Arts Centre

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