Reflecting upon ‘Beyond the Proscenium’: Bansi Kaul & Astad Deboo

For me, it is the title of the book ‘Beyond the Proscenium’ itself, that sets a tone for the conversations within, where the artists attempt to break free from the formal representation of theatre. This feeling of breaking free from the conventional performance spaces has been well described by Anmol Vellani and Sunil Shanbag, as they have interviewed Bansi Kaul and Astad Deboo respectively.

From the stories narrated within the book, what becomes quite evident to me, is that most of the innovative performances turn out to be the ones in the absence of formal spaces. Formal spaces, that is, the proscenium theatre, limit the imaginations and the creativity of the performers. Though it is not just about finding an unusual space for performance, I also think that the way an existing conventional space is being used also matters. Having read about both the artists, it also becomes important to understand the way they acknowledge the audience’s perspectives. How is the audience connecting with the performance, or are they even connecting?

Astad Deboo was known for introducing ‘modern dance’ in India. It is said that when he danced on the stage, he seemed to occupy spaces conjured out of thin air, filling them, extending them, and further drawing them in. I think it was his approach of looking at a space, and then improvising the performance that made his style unique. As a performer, he was capable of creating site-specific performances, by disturbing conventional notions.

Similarly, Bansi Kaul’s idea of breaking the proscenium is about the mindset. He says that the barrier of the proscenium must be broken in the head first, and not in the physical sense. The idea of breaking the fourth wall that lies in one’s mind is what draws the audience into the performance. Hence, this also establishes a relationship between the performers and the audience. The actors must be able to cut through the space of performance to craft the space of theatre using movements and gestures. 

Even though both the artists talk about breaking the barriers, they still land on different approaches. I feel that both of them have countless experiences in performances, but still, they differ when it comes to performances as an artist/actor, from that of a dancer. Both of them have explained the space utilization accordingly, but still, they arrive at the common idea of improvising based on the type of space they are dealing with.

I felt the most engaging when the artists gave their opinions on the design of a space. It has a direct link with the performer’s approach to and understanding of the space. In a similar context, Astad Deboo himself raises the question that whether the performers are even consulted while designing performance spaces.

In a similar, yet different manner, I think that even Bansi Kaul questions the execution of such designs in the first place. According to him, Indian theatres are designed for the comfort of the audience and not the performers. It is the performer who needs to be more comfortable considering that it is the performer who is supposed to make the audience happy.

What is also interesting is that, despite both of them not happy with conventional spaces, they have had their share of successes while performing in them. They talk about bringing the spaces alive, it happens only when the space becomes the performer. It is through gesture, that the space achieves its meaning and becomes a character. This is possible only if the actor falls in love with the space whether it be a flat stage or a natural environment. It is about introducing the flexibility within a space.

It seems to me, that after reading the narrations, I have a broader vision of a performance space. Performance is not just restricted to the performer on the stage, but what the audience is connecting to, how a dead space can be brought alive by the performer, but also by the technical luxuries like lights, sounds, etc.