LET'S face it. Connoisseurs of conventional theatre don't much care for pantomime. It's of classical origin all right but it's not rigidly grammar-bound. Nor is it a huge crowd-puller. Not surprising at all in a part of the world where Mumbai masala holds undisputed sway over the minds of the masses. But that's no deterrent for Niranjan Goswami, mime artiste and theorist. His Calcutta-based Indian Mime Theatre (IMT) is organising a week-long National Mime Festival at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, from September 19. The first-ever event of its kind in India, the festival will showcase the range of our mime talent through a series of performances, seminars and workshops.
"The National Mime Festival is a leap of faith," says the 50-year-old Goswami. Indeed. Never before has a single event brought together so many stars of mime—Assam's Moinul Haque, Andhra Pradesh's K. Kaladhar, Rajasthan's Vilas Janve, Orissa's Dilip Pani, Manipur's Y. Sadananda Singh, Goswami himself. That's not all. Besides a series of intensive workshops, the festival will feature two seminars attended by Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh, theatre director J.N. Kaushal, puppeteer Dadi Padumjee and mime maestro Jogesh Dutta, among others. "This festival," says Goswami, "will hopefully turn the spotlight on a form that hasn't got its due."
Neither perhaps has the IMT repertory. Not for want of trying, though. IMT has pushed form's boundaries into creative terrains it had never seen before. It has guided mime away from the rarefied confines of small theatres and parked it in the midst of the community it springs from. For Goswami, mime is not just the bedrock of histrionics, it's the fount of all life. Hence he's now using it to bring to life the 2,500-year-old Natyashastra, the foundation on which India's theatrical tradition rests, and record it for posterity.
"All we've ever had are bare texts to help our understanding of the Natyashastra. So I am trying to visually document all the bhavas, rasas and drishtis encoded in this timeless encyclopaedia of the performing arts," says the actor who has, since the mid-'70s, employed his often-misunderstood medium to stage a variety of complex plays, including Badal Sircar's Beej and Girish Karnad's Nagamandal.
But why would a treatise of Natyashastra's antiquity, a work that has survived for aeons in classical dance forms like Kudiyattam and Kathakali, and without the aid of any external intervention, suddenly require a mime artiste's helping hand? In order to prevent distortions and dilution, problems that tend to plague all classical modes of expression, replies Goswami. "The need today is for a clear visual documentation of the forms and expressions enumerated in the Natyashastra, keeping their purity intact," he says.
Goswami's collaborator in this ambitious long-term project is Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based Sangeet Natak Akademi photographer. The initial output of their joint effort was unveiled in June last year at an exhibition in Calcutta's Academy of Fine Arts. That was only the first, tentative stop in a voyage of rediscovery. When complete, the project will assume the form of a liberally illustrated glossy which, says Goswami, "will be a useful reference tome for actors, dancers and management students." Management students? "Yes," says Goswami, a visiting lecturer at the National School of Drama (NSD). "Bhavas, rasas and mudras are central to the art of management. "
The mime guru's life-long research into the theory and practice of acting has had him tapping unusual and not-so-unusual sources of information: from Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair—"I asked him about the technique of contracting one's eyes and then incorporated what he told me in IMT's training regimen"—to a neurosurgeon who's helped with suggestions on the use of facial and other muscles in the craft of acting. "More than theatre, it's dance that uses Natyashastra," says Goswami. Hence his constant interaction with the Kerala Kalamandalam and the dance forms it promotes—Kathakali, Kudiyattam, Krishnanatyam.
It is mime's universality that most fascinates Goswami. "Mime transcends regional differences. It is a language that everybody can understand," says the prolific pantomimist who frequently organises national integration camps and children's theatre workshops where he uses mime to break down barriers between hearts and minds. And now with the proposed visual rendition of the Natyashastra, he hopes to conquer time as well by putting mime's indelible stamp on a timeless classical work.
THE Natyashastra project, given its magnitude, can do with all the financial help it can get. But Goswami's work in the field of mime has been virtually single-handed, although he himself is the first to question that assumption. Says Malabika Bose, classical danseuse and a regular member of the IMT repertory: "Goswami's experiments have given mime a whole new dimension. We perform full plays through mime."
"Jogesh Dutta was the pioneer, an inspiration for us all. Goswami has carried the form further in search of a larger audience. Though the search hasn't really ended, many people are making a living out of the medium today," says mime artiste Chanchal Dasgupta. As Goswami himself says, for years people had blindly aped Jogesh Dutta without possessing a fraction of his talent. "As a result, there was no experimentation at all."
Mime performances were once fillers between larger theatrical presentations, done by figures in black dresses, their faces painted white, recreating mundane scenes from daily life. Today, thanks to Goswami, mime has an identity of its own. "In India," says he, "storytelling is a must. If mime is abstract, people don't understand." But he and his IMT students—one of whom, the national award-winning deaf mute Kalpataru Guha, will stage a special play at the upcoming mime festival—have never followed the straight and narrow narrative path. In one play, Goswami used the flashback, a technique borrowed from cinema. "We actually write our scripts in the manner of a screenplay: one sequence, then another, then the next, meaning conveyed through expressions and gestures."
Goswami's experiments began in 1976, the year he set up the IMT because there was no formal training facility available for aspiring mime artistes. Though not exactly flush with funds, IMT has grown in size and scope over the years: besides a 15-member repertory, it has a research and documentation wing. But the annual mime festival he launched in Calcutta in 1984 had to be discontinued after 1993. Reason: lack of funds. "People are still not sure what mime is. It's often confused with mimicry," laments Goswami. But he is not one to give up simply because his audience isn't ready yet. A master of eloquent silences who uses his marvellously mobile face and wonderfully expressive eyes to tell stories that never fail to touch the soul of truth, Goswami is determined to go where no one has gone before. Without uttering a word, of course.