This section lists the performative projects created by Culture Monks.
It includes theatrical, visual arts and storytelling performance projects.
A note on the Katha’koli storytelling (ākāśa ) practice
Storytelling is as old as our kitchen fires. The experience of sharing events in narrative form by the elders is probably as old as consciousness itself. Gathered heads of our early ancestors, bonded by their common struggle, anxiety, fears, belief, happiness and accomplishments gave voice to their expression through stories— and thus “helped make for themselves a magic defence against the trials of life”. Through time, the forms of stories have changed and have defined each teller’s history and identity—part of the creative impulse that made men and women consciously human. Stories don’t preach rather they present; the values nurtured by the story teller seep into the story. However, the values expressed through modern stories become more difficult to decipher. The world of words has shrunk now. The modern context of sub-language, anti-language and para-language has generated strange complexities in the art of storytelling.
Katha Koli (Word-bud) is a beginning of a new-age storytelling; a new way to generate sensual impressions that deliver the meaning of actions, events and thoughts bound in written-words. It is believed that a story is best understood when it is carried by pitch, cadence, tempo, rhythm, and aural arrangement of its sentences. Therefore, in “Katha Koli” the story teller reads the written words. Further to the reading, he adds music, video and choreography to theatricalize the scenes; it is not a mere technical necessity, and still less a shortcoming. He tries to achieve the feeling of depth hidden in the story by enacting few scenes and have left the rest for the audience to infer. The stories range from grand mythical tales to contemporary, subtle, oblique narratives.
Katha Koli: Performing Ecology, Gender and Spirituality
I was in residency at The Divine Life Society Ashram, Rishikesh, that summer of 2005. I found myself in the laps of the mystic Himalayas – the pristine foothills which have, since eternity, been a refuge for seekers of truth and otherworldliness. I was a decidedly confused inchoate with a mixed-bag of experience, dipped in rudimentary & basic knowledge of peripheral theatre and quasi-spirituality. It was a three months programme, to explicate the essential meaning of being ‘You—the true Self’. The daily regimen in the Ashram was rigorous and resembled the proverbial boot camp, which inflicted a time-tight daily schedule of lessons and activities. Apart from immersing myself into the epistemology of Vedic texts and Upanishadic philosophy, I also participated in the rituals of Yajn᷉a, Nagar Kirtana, Poojā, Satsanga, Yoga, Dhyāna and other individual and collective religious practices in the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, DLS. Coming from a liberal social milieu, where ideas of modernity implied a certain aversion to theology and ritualistic religious practices, many of my peers and friends, sensed the inflection, only to perceive it as deracinating & a submission to orthodox theology & obnoxious rituals. However, I knew I had taken the correct step. I realized that it facilitated the union of two interests of mine and consequently dealt with one of my serious existential concerns.
My affliction and intrigue with the religious realm, has been since my early years. My parents and Great Masters of religious studies have successfully stimulated my imagination and expectations of the fabulous worlds of religion and spirituality. I was always eager to know the process to inhabit a spiritual reality. My other passionate longstanding fascination was for theatre, which also provided the scope of entering & creating the world of new realities. It is only human, which could explains my interest, concerns & doubts about my existence as a human being, in relation to the society and the ecology within which it exists and the anthropocentric acts which decapitates the unity & balance, leading to catastrophic consequences. My two interests, Theatre and Spirituality, converged with my concern, Ecology, as I meditated on a single thought of me as a ‘Being’: I tried to understand the why and how of my origination, existence, and final departure. And therefore, I started to seek and discover a technique to enter and participate in a reality which would involve a search for the being that ‘I AM’. 2005 to 2015 is a long period. I used my decade long theatrical experience and my spiritual investigation, which began at Rishikesh to evolve the new method.
After my completion of the course in Yoga Vedanta Academy, I came back to Calcutta. OGLAM (Organization to Give Life A Meaning), a theatre group, established by myself in the year 1997, was a meandering stream with very few active members. We had although by then, produced a number of experimental, path breaking performances before 2005, which intuitively dealt with the tripartite issues of ecology, gender and spirituality. We did Gunter Grass’s The Flounder: Ekti Aitihāsik Bhūl based on his novel Der Butt. The play explored the ubiquitous power play of Genders. Gunter provided an urban narrative of power drift from matriarchy to patriarchy, where a Flounder (a big fish) played the role of a pimp. The symbolic mother from prehistoric era losing her third and the most potent breast was the metaphorical loss of power in the play. The Kolkata Goethe Institute produced the play and facilitated radio broadcasting from Duechewelle, Berlin. Our second production was Ha Radhe, Let Me Be As She Was; It was roughly based on Vais̕ñava Rāgānurāga Bhakti and Rilke’s Duino Elegies. The play explored the unrequited love of Rādhā expressed through Sri Caitanya’s Gopi Bhāva. Rilke’s poem reflected the same emotion from an urban post-modern perspective. The third in the series was Ek Je Chilo Brikkho based on the poem The Giving Tree by Shell Sylverstine. This play – a love story, had an undertone of ecological subtext. The plants rebelled against the consumerist civilization and surreptitiously hid in a young woman’s womb. Apart from these three plays with almost a common philosophic meta text, we had done some other popular plays till 2015, like Hayavadana: The Head and Tale of it, Khela- the Game, Kanchan Ranga, Moni Kanchan, Lal Bhoot, Pratibimbo, He Ram, Kolkata Ekdin, Krishna Pakkha, Phir Ek Naya Janamdin, Bhool Rāsta and many more. We experimented with the text and space in various possible ways to develop a niche for our performance. We performed in auditoriums, open courtyards, market place, gallery spaces, cafeteria, coal mines, libraries, intimate spaces, etc. Though we were able to find a unique aesthetic form, we yet felt the void, created in the process- for a concrete philosophical basis for our work – to revivify & to make it universal.
And then, finally, in recent past, the need of a world view started to haunt me and I was desperately searching for an opportunity to create, offer and render a coherent philosophic perspective for my performances in OGLAM. I reflected on the three selected performances mentioned earlier to extract and brew a philosophical ideology. I also thought of using the ancient performance genre of storytelling to voice the lately developed philosophic and aesthetic impatience.
Therefore, I started investigating various storytelling methods and simultaneously tried to employ modern technical idioms in the process of storytelling to give shape to my new-age performatives. I applied multimedia presentation, compositional acting and a definite theoretical base to my storytelling method. Sudipta Dawn, a connoisseur and curator of performing arts introduced me to the philosophical concepts of eco-feminism and shared his vision to give a more tangible shape to my ideas.
And hence, we were able to create supposedly a new form of storytelling, named Katha Koli (Word-Buds); a performance process that would aim to address the three philosophical aspects mentioned earlier: Ecology, Gender and Spirituality and would engage modern storytelling technique as the performing-tool to explore them.
The Form: Katha Koli
Katha Koli is a new storytelling art that would combine the classical elements of the fairy tale with contemporary art, and would yearn to inhabit the urban and quasi-urban linguistic space. The extremely rapid growth of modern communication technology, which is ensnaring humankind, would be relieved by a simple, direct communication of feeling through stories. No other art form can have such a direct effect on the audience as narration—it is a very intimate, personal exchange between two individuals; even in a full packed auditorium. We aim to create a grand experience of human expression; “it is the godly to which we must always look up” (Tegetthoff 181). Katha Koli would try to generate a symbiotic relationship between the act of listening and the act of narration. As Walter Benjamin says, “It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the marks of the storyteller as much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter’s hand” (147).
Through Katha Koli, I wish to plunge into Indian myths and rituals and surface again with stories that would communicate the wisdom gathered to the contemporary others (listeners). The narration irrespective of its form would prefer to generate a conversation between the narrator and the listener through words, images, sound, and action. Katha Koli would aim to create a strong awareness among the audience and finally craft an active process, which would call forth our collective intellect, imagination and creativity.
The thematic aspects governing our stories would basically skip the perfection of full myth or a closed and tight linear story; rather, it would horrify and move us (the speaker and the listener) through a labyrinth of linked up diversities to an unclassifiable transience. Out of that non-linear impermanence the narrator and the listener would distill voices, shapes and images based on ecology, gender and spirituality. And finally the experience would push us to a virgin place—similar to having a second birth. And we would be reborn to live a better life.
The Theme: Ecology, Gender and Spirituality
Sudipta, while defining Ecofeminism said that there is no single definition of ecofeminism, and there are various conflicting ideas on ecofeminism provided by the ecofeminists themselves. Hence, I prefer to select a few core principles of ecofeminism that would help me begin my journey with Katha -Koli. “Ecofeminists agree that the domination of women and the domination of nature are fundamentally connected and that environmental efforts are therefore integral with work to overcome the oppression of women” (Plant 10). And further, the scholars state that Ecofeminists do not seek equality with men as such, but aim for a liberation of women as women.
Therefore, the way ecofeminists deal with the power relations between the genders, and between culture and nature, they provide a new perspective to my stories that explores human relationships, identity and our association with nature. Their view point facilitates a total rejection of hierarchy in my narrative. The most intriguing aspect of ecofeminism is that it believes that men have as much potential as women to adopt a deeper environmental awareness, and they have to work harder to fully embrace those values. A revaluing of nature, creation and our relationships is a priority. As Starhawk states, “I find it more useful to think of the whole range of human possibilities – aggression, nurture, compassion, cruelty, creativity, passivity, etc. – as available to us all, not divided by gender, neither inner nor outer” (Starhawk 215). So, man and humanity as a whole has to create a new bond with nature and consequently with a woman as well. Some ecofeminists feel that we can learn about this new bonding from the pre-patriarchal societies whose underpinning base was cooperation and not competition. This major quality of non-linear, non-rational, emotional understanding of ecofeminism facilitates the possible interaction of the core elements of spirituality and ecofeminism. I mean the spiritual philosophy which considers God to be a transcendent being and provide an equal platform to both the male and the female (Shiva-Shakti, Radha-Krishna) can interplay with ecofeminism.
Tantra and the Vais̕ñava Rāgānugā Bhakti are the two Indian religious schools which offer a liberal space to accommodate ecofeminism in its praxis and theory. The emphasis on worshipping woman as a God is a special feature of Tantra; no such references are found in the Vedas or Puranas. This may have been the origin of the Viracara form of Tantrik practice, in which wine and women play an important part. Woman as Goddess is expected to be treated with respect and reverence in Tantra. Gradually woman was symbolized as the manifestation of energy, Shakti, into creation, survival and destruction (i.e. Nature). Thus worshipping Shakti came into vogue. Tantra considers Nirguna Brahman to be similar to its saguna Shakti. Similarly, Vais̕ñava Rāgānugā Bhakti also gives importance to women, especially Gopis. In Rāgānugā bhakti the motivation of the devotee shifts from mere following of advice or injunction to an inner longing—an intense desire to merge with Krishna. In Rāgānuga Bhakti sādhana, the devotee replaces the patriarchal advice by matriarchal devotion, wherein the devotee copies or enacts the life of a Ragātmikā Bhakta from the transcendent Vraja lilā. To achieve this state of Rāgātmika Bhakti the devotee has to mentally, emotionally and spiritually adopt a mystical body (Siddha Deha) which is fairly similar to performing gender as mentioned by Judith Butler in her seminal book on Performative Acts. Sri Rūpa Gosvāmi, a devotee of Caitanya has adopted dramatic models from Bharat Nātya Śāstra to discuss the methodology of Rāgānugā Bhakti, which includes bhāva and prema Bhakti. According to Swami Tapasyananda mādhurya bhāva or the perfected mode of loving devotion, mahābhāva of the Gopis specially Rādhā is the best practice (Tapasyananada 341).
Therefore, in Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana role-playing, acting, and imitation become the primary means of achieving salvation. David Haberman in this context mentions that “the ability of dramatic role-taking to transform identity, and thus to carry the actor in the world of that role, has been thoroughly explored by Russian director and philosopher Constantin Stanislavski” (9). Haberman uses the theatrical paradigm based on the acting theory of Constantin Stanislavski as a distant parallel to the devotional practice of Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana. Haberman states that the Holy actor incarnates the role of the paradigmatic individual through the discipline of imitation, which is the “real core of the Rāgānuga Bhakti Sādhana” (152). The actors have to concentrate on the physical actions of the character and then through the physical actions the actors have to move to the inner life of the character. It is termed as “re incarnation” by Stanislavski (68). The other schools, which promote the imitation of the divine as a religious sādhana are Theravāda Buddhists of Cambodia, Shingon Buddhists of Japan, Cistercian monks, Penitentes of New Mexico, etc.
The Practice: Our Progress
In Katha Koli, we select stories based on such revolutionary world views that empower humanity by addressing the complicated issues of gender and ecology. We also research and integrate indigenous classical ideas (Such as tenets from Tantric, Buddhist, and Vais̕ñava schools of thoughts) into our stories to forge an egalitarian society sans gender discrimination and ecological indifference. We pool resources with various artists and performers.
As the process itself is of as much of importance, if not more, as the final destination, eco-feminism offers the philosophical anchor in “modifying each in light of the other” (Val Plumwood). We feel that that journey for artists and participants in course of their association with Katha – Koli, will create a communicative process which will help them to question, modify, dismantle and recreate equilibrium, which will prove beneficial for our ecology.
We have already launched our first story, The Otherness of Being (a brief note on the performance is attached) and are presently working on a new story based on the unrequited love in collaboration with our friend & young singer, actor/performer, Maham Suhail from Pakistan, who is also on a journey into sufi practices and philosophy.
David L. Acting As A Way Of Salvation: A Study of Raganuga Bhakti Sadhana. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1988.
Barba, Eugenio and Nicola Savarese. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology. London: Routledge, 1991.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1968.
Galvez, Alyshia. Performing Religion in the Americas. London: Seagull Books, 2007.
Griffith, R. Marie and Savage, Barbara Dianne. Women and Religion in the African Diaspora Knowledge, Power, and Performance. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Hawley, Stratton and Wulff, Donna Marie. Divine Consort. Delhi: Motilal Benarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1995.
Kapalo, James Alexander. Text, Context and Performance Gagauz Folk Religion in Discourse and Boston: Brill, 2011.
Katyal, Anjum. Sacred to Profane. London: Seagull Books, 2013.
Lidova, Natalia. Drama and Ritual of Early Hinduism. Delhi: Motilal Benarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1996.
Mason, David V. Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Michaels, Axel and Wulf, Christoph. Emotions in Rituals and Performances. London
Wallace, Corey. “Developing an Ecofeminist Ethics Within a Hindu Tradition.” Crestomethy Volume 5 2006.
 J. L. Austin states, “The term “performative “ is derived, of course, from “perform”… It indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action… The uttering of the words is, indeed, usually a, or even the, leading incident in the performance of the act (Austin 6-8).
 Swami Madhavananda in his essay “The Tantrik Mode of Worship” writes, “Another specialty of the tantras is that they preach the motherhood of God, and simultaneously with it, a glorification of the woman. Neither in the Vedas nor in the Puranas do we come across this idea, which is only to be met in the Tantras” (2).
 Stanislavski says, “ Our type of creativeness is the conception and birth of a new being—the person in the part. It is a natural act similar to the birth of a human being” (312 CS).