“As a performer I need to ground somewhere. I need to know my audience, or my community. I’ve been out of my community for almost fifteen years now. During the lockdown this truth came out. All the people who lived in a strong community survived. All of us who are out of the community couldn’t survive. The sadness I felt during the lockdown came out of loneliness, because I didn’t have a human being around to share grief, anguish or happiness.”
Like so many artists, the global pandemic and the lockdown forced the Indian actor Vasanth Selvam to reassess his way of working. The actor had to quit the play he was directing when the lockdown was announced in March. There was no telling when he could perform again. He was locked up, alone in his apartment. Looking back Vasanth realizes that the initial depression he experienced in solitude, eventually made way for epiphanies about his function as an artist.
September 2019 – ten months earlier
‘Procreation starts. Universe will flow out of me; Mountains, rivers, birds, stars, humans. But now nothing will happen. I can’t even create a drop of water.’
I met Vasanth for the first time when I heard him speak these words in the Constellations Camp in Turkey, an event organized in the summer of 2019 by the Open Program, a theatre ensemble that’s part of the Grotowski Workcenter. The text is part of his performance ‘Unknown Waters’: a monologue about water shortage, that he performed during the camp. During this presentation Vasanth caught my attention. His acting struck me as remarkable: in a genuine, seemingly effortless way he positioned himself in direct fearless contact with the audience.
It took me little time to find out that two of the people who were part of the camp performed in a theatre work I saw a year before in Amsterdam directed by the legendary Peter Brook named: the Prisoner. Vasanth as well as Omar Silva from Mexico both played roles in the haunting production of a man who commits an unspeakable crime and is punished by having to sit on a hill, to watch a prison for decades. During the camp I spoke to Vasanth Selvam about acting, his work with Peter Brook, and his journey as an artist. Months later I phoned him again for another lengthy conversation about how he dealt with Corona and the lockdown.
A natural accident
Vasanth was born and raised in a small town in the southern Indian state Tamil Nadu. He remembers his childhood as ‘blooming with life, festivities and holidays’. “The life you have as a kid in a proper countryside”, he mesmerizes. “When I was fifteen or sixteen, slowly a kind of change happened, culturally, and in education. That is the moment where our country started creating a lot of engineers. I’m the first engineering graduate in my family.” Where in western societies an artistic education is considered to be a valid option for young adults, in the world in which Vasanth grew up, performing or doing theatre, was an unknown element. “My family wanted me to study, and in India the only options which most people have is either engineering or medicine. I wouldn’t even say my parents went against my options – there just weren’t any such options.”
“The moment you start seeking, opportunities open up”
How Vasanth ended up in theatre is by what he calls ‘a natural accident’. He saw a performance in school when he was twelve years old. At that moment he knew he wanted to act. “There was a mythical character in it, with a lot of elaborate ornaments, and my eyes twinkled. It stayed inside of me. I wanted to do the same thing when I got the opportunity.” Nevertheless he followed the paved roads, and got a job in a software company as an engineer. But even this road led him back to theatre: in the company he became part of a gathering of people who were interested in culture, and performing arts. When he was 23 he saw a performance that made his eyes twinkle again. He thought of making a change, but realized he would have to train to achieve this.
“The moment you start seeking, opportunities open up”, he stated. His opportunity came in the form of meeting his director and mentor, whom he founded a theatre company with. Back then he was still working as an engineer. After two years of acting with his mentor he realized how difficult it was to continue both works together. So at the age of 24 he quit his job. “I knew I needed to make a decision. I didn’t decide then that I wanted to be an actor for the rest of my life. So I tried for one year, thinking that I might go back to the old. A few years later I knew: I’m not going back. It took a lot of time to assume the choice I made to follow theatre as an actor. Only in the very recent years when people asked me what I am, I started saying: ‘I’m an actor.’”
Working with Peter Brook
An important step in calling himself an actor with confidence, came a couple of years back when a dream became reality for Vasanth; he became part of one of director Peter Brooks productions. Brook, who is well in his nineties, has a career that spans over more than 70 years. He is considered one of the most influential directors of the twentieth century western theatre, for his renowned theatre productions King Lear (1962) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1971), and his nine-hour epic Mahabharata (1989). In 2015 Brook readapted portions of Mahabharata in collaboration with directors Jean-Claude Carrière and Marie-Hélène Estienne. Part of this project is the Prisoner, a play that’s inspired by an encounter during Brook’s travels in Afghanistan, 40 years earlier. It’s about a man who is punished for an unspeakable crime. He is sentenced not to serve time inside – but outside a jail – having to face the building for years and years.
One of Vasanth’s friends was already part of the team that worked on The Prisoner. When an actor left the team, they started looking for a replacement. Vasanth sent his profile and audition tapes, and ended up being in the play. He only rehearsed with Brook for a few weeks, but it left a deep impact on him. “Peter Brook is a person who’s been doing theatre since he was twenty years old. So he’s doing this work for 75 years. It’s enough just to cross paths with people like that. If you’re open enough, you will carry on their flame. Then it’s up to the substance you have, whether this little flame grows to be a fire – or fades away.” It’s hard for him to specify what it exactly is that he calls Brook’s flame. An important part of it is Brooks subtle way of telling a story. “Consider a child at the point of falling asleep. Brook will tell a story in such a way that he will not make the child go to sleep – but he won’t disturb it and wake it up either. It’s in that state where a story is effortlessly received. Telling a story in this way is very difficult for actors. They will always talk loud, and scare the child.”
“When we try to create a scene on stage, we try to create drama. We act it out. There we become artificial. Everyone has that habit. The point is how you become aware of it, and how you’re working on it.”
When asked about the meaning of The Prisoner, Vasanth refers to one the greatest crimes a human can commit: murder. “A young man kills his father, at an early age. He also has an incestuous relationship with his sister. Now the rest of his life awaits him. The crime is part of him, like having a new arm on his body. Will he be able to live after that, and how?”
The prison and the prisoner
Who saw the work of Brook, will be struck by the complexity and the deep layers of meaning in his performances – and at the same time the utter simplicity by which it is shown on stage. Nothing is grotesque or overly dramatic. A good example of Brooks style is a prison cell in The Prisoner, that is forged just by four sticks placed on the ground in a square form. “If you see theatre as a medium for telling stories – then tell a story”, Vasanth explains when asked about Brooks straight forward way of telling a story. “Go to the purpose, directly. It’s like cooking a dish. You need the basic ingredients to cook it. All the toppings you put on it are nice. But you can’t create a dish with toppings.” What goes for the scenery, also goes for the acting. The actors are dressed in a sober way, and talk in a normal tone. “When we try to create a scene on stage, we try to create drama. We act it out. There we become artificial. Everyone has that habit. The point is how you become aware of it, and how you’re working on it. It’s a work you should do as an actor. An active work.”
Trailer of The Prisoner – Vasanth doesn’t perform in this version
Creating a new path
Back to the ‘natural accident’ that caused Vasanth to become an artist. To understand the meaning of this euphemism, and the journey he took to become an artist, it’s essential to understand the structures of the Indian society, with it’s strong family systems. “The parents take care of you, of your education, until you finish your college when you are 21 or 22. If you want to go for a higher education it will take you two more years, and you’ll be 23. Then you go to work, and you take care of your family. It’s like the agrarian societies, when you grow up, you take over your fathers farm. In India people don’t have medical insurances. They don’t have a retirement scheme or a pension. The parents envision their life with children – when they grow old, their children stay part of their life.”
“In India you need to sacrifice your family structure to do this. You have to sacrifice the family you have, which I have done many times.”
Besides the challenge of choosing an unsafe road, there was the challenge of convincing society. “First of all we don’t know what this profession is, we don’t have a clear idea of what it is we’re doing. People asked me: what is the work you do? And what is the use of your work? And do you get any money? It doesn’t produce the money that a software engineer is getting, so why did you chose it? As a young artist you don’t have answers. Consider if it’s difficult to convince my parents, how difficult it is for them to face the society. At this point I have the courage to re-enter the society, and to convince people of what I’m doing. But before I didn’t. Something had to grow, and I had to position myself.”
It sounds like ever since you started out, every step has been a step into the unknown.
Exactly. A lot of sacrifice is needed. And you have to be strong in order to do so.
Do you have an example of this sacrifice?
In all the senses. And I’m not saying that to scare people. But it’s like that. In India you need to sacrifice your family structure to do this. You have to sacrifice the family you have, which I have done many times. I have a good relationship with my parents, but not in a traditional way. You can imagine what the life for a person is like choosing a thing like this, to put yourself in a position where you can’t take care of your family. You should be able to handle that. The second thing is your personal life. You have little time for that. The profession I chose doesn’t give much money back. It doesn’t give the privilege of an activated social life. Having to sacrifice is quite normal if you wish to travel deeply inside something, and not to stay on the surface. We are the cursed souls I would say. Always looking for something beyond. Looking to keep opening doors. For us it’s difficult to continue the journey with someone else – be it your family, friends, or your master.
Is it a lonely journey?
I would say an individual journey, not a lonely one. It’s up to you to find out what you’re looking for.
You speak of sacrifice. What’s the biggest sacrifice you had to make in order to do this?
I haven’t done that yet. It’s difficult. That would be the sacrifice of myself. Which I won’t be able to do for the next thirty years for sure. Maybe after that – if that’s the point where I land – I might do that. It’s up to the people who listen to this to determine what this statement means. In any event I know I’m not ready yet.
Do you also sacrifice the possibility of a family of your own?
Yes. I’m 35 and people start to ask me why I didn’t get married. And if I’m not married, then why am I not with a girlfriend? Now I’m putting myself in a situation where it’s live or die. I’m in a drought and the immediate natural instinct is to survive. I’m finding ways to survive. Of course we’re doing it together: there are other people who I travel with. But to build a personal life: it should happen naturally. I can’t force it.
It seems you’re so one with your work that it leaves little room for anything else.
True, but what I also understand is that as an actor you can’t come out of the social life completely. An actor cannot function like that. You should be with the society, linked with the society. But getting married is something that at this point I can’t do. Therefore I shouldn’t force it to happen.
The post-corona artist
When I speak to Vasanth again, it’s in a videocall with a faltering connection. Vasanth is back in India, and I’m in the Netherlands. Almost needless to point out, his world changed dramatically in the short period of time between our conversations: there seems to be a life before and after Covid. Before the pandemic Vasanth was directing a play. During the lockdown he was forced to quit. There was no possibility of planning something new, because there was no telling when it would be possible again. Even though he could manage financially, it was an extremely difficult time for him. “It created a lot of depression. So I stopped planning things until I could know for sure that people can come.”
“I was so busy with my work, running and running. Even though I said I was practicing art, my lifestyle was no different than an engineer.”
At this point India is one of the countries that has been hit the hardest by the virus. Since March more than seven million people got Covid, and more than a hundred thousand people died. The restrictions were lifted in June; not because the numbers went down, but to prevent further catastrophic economic consequences. When the lockdown was announced in March a huge migration took place. Lots of workers who were in the cities started walking back home thousands of kilometers. “Suddenly I found myself worrying about them. I’ve been working for thirteen years. And in this period I never made an effort to reach out to them. I was so busy with my work, running and running. Even though I said I was practicing art, my lifestyle was no different than an engineer. The things I’m running after are the same, except I don’t create software but plays. When I didn’t care about the homeless workers when I was making my work – how can I expect the government will take care of them?”
From that epiphany came another one. “Suddenly something struck me: why can’t I make a radio play? We have a big radio culture in India: there was a tradition before where we would take the audio of popular films and play it on the radio. Instead of reading my play on the radio I started to make a play for radio.” The radio performance that’s in the making, will be directed by Vasanth, and stars two other actors.
In our first conversation you spoke of your individual journey. Is this a step towards making your journey less individual, and more embedded in the community?
Absolutely. In the last year I’ve started working on many projects. One is knowledge sharing in theatre. Reaching out to the younger generation, so that something can grow. Now the first project is going to happen: we’re going to launch a theatre journal in the original Tamil language. It’s a journal to hear our voices – a platform to get in touch with artists in your community.
“As artists we constantly try to prove our existence, when we feel that we’re not needed we go online, and try to perform there. I say ‘no’ to that: let’s accept that we are not needed now.”
In that conversation you also spoke of the sacrifice of oneself. Back then you seemed to be unclear about what this meant exactly. How do you reflect on this now, taking all the events of the last ten months into consideration?
During the lockdown I stumbled upon a book about yoga. Reading this made me realize that the biggest sacrifice is sacrificing oneself, not in the form of the life and the body, but the ‘I’, the ego. The biggest geniuses I know are not stuck to their ego, they are the most generous people, because they give. They work for humanity. That’s why they’re thoughts and words have value. Being alone in my house, that thought liberated me. Art has a value for me, and a value for you and the society. The work of an artist is not a selfish act – it shouldn’t be. It is a social act, though it comes from a very personal work on an intimate level. But in the end it is for the society.
You mentioned the difficulty of calling yourself an actor. What is at this point your understanding of being one?
(long silence) It is a choice you make in your life at some point. After that you need to assume it. And live with it. During this emergency, actors and artists became non-existent. We were not needed anymore. People started calling it a war: and in the frontline of a war there is no time to play, you need to fight. As artists we constantly try to prove our existence, when we feel that we’re not needed we go online, and try to perform there. I say ‘no’ to that: let’s accept that we are not needed now. And observe what is happening around. Naturally an action will come out of you. When the lockdown started I told myself: ‘Ok you don’t need to do anything, but every day I wake up I still wake up as an actor.’ I need to allow for a natural thing to come out and find my place in this difficult situation, without overemphasising my presence.
As long as our bad internet connection allows us to, we continue speaking about the difficulties of being with oneself, the hidden blessings of the pandemic, and the meaning of loneliness. Vasanth describes loneliness as: ‘a person refusing to be with other humans’. “If you’re involved in theatre you cannot be lonely. Because if you’re lonely you can talk only about yourself. About all the problems you have. And all the work until you die is about yourself. If a person is sixty and still talking about himself we know: we need to help him out. He’s lonely.” Vasanth laughs: “I don’t want to be like that.”
You can find Aadii, the theatre journal in Tamil, here: www.aadii.in
November 2020, Words: Jelle Talsma