The real heroine from Germany to Delhi to this year's Melbourne Fringe nominee, showcasing her picture recitation performance 'Why Runs the Abhisarika."
I was enthralled and excited, as my neurons had extra Dopamine to see this new fifty-five-minute audience -interactive narration about a woman who runs to meet her lover on a dark stormy night through forests infested by snakes, demons, and other motifs.
This picture recitation in English spoken-word poetry accompanied by Indian dance moves and embellished with visuals in set design, props, and costume investigates Abhisarika's psychosomatic landscape in simplified language.
Just as in murder mysteries, the storyteller tries to examine what happened the instant Abhisarika ran out of her house, questioning not only the forest trees but even the microbes in the soil. Each motif in the set design reveals a fragmented truth about its role in Abhisarika's iconography, elucidated in a song.
The audience is invited to choose the sequence of motifs to hear their songs and string the performance together.
It was evocative and provocative at the same time as thirty-nine-year-old Priyanka Jain narrated a style that combines some old Indian storytelling, not exactly Kavad Katha, but she blended in a new poetic form.
Her wit and depth of knowledge in ancient Sanskrit literature and contemporary Western sciences helped her develop her heroine, Abhisarika.
Priyanka Jain, a visual artist from India and a PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne, has developed this show as part of her practice-led research into contemporising picture recitation traditions, which were once very active in India but now survive among small groups of practitioners.
Through this performance in which she is the author, artist, director, and performer, Priyanka tries to imagine how Indian picture recitation practices would have evolved had aspects of European colonialism in India (1757-1947) not hindered their development. Her show Why Runs the Abhisarika is thus an artistic project of decolonisation through practice.
I sat with Priyanka to learn more about her. What makes her and this heroine known as the Abhisarika?
What is your inspiration behind Why Runs the Abhisarika?
Many strands of inspiration have strung together to conceive the performance "Why Runs the Abhisarika". On the one hand, there is the effort to decolonise the practice of picture recitation, described by Western scholars writing about Indian arts as "folk art" - a tag word that has caused its marginalisation and neglect.
I have been fascinated by pictorial storytellers such as the Patachitra artists of West Bengal. I have tried to think of how the tradition of picture recitation has existed since the 2nd century BC in India, which suffered from colonial relegation.
On the other hand, I was reading a lot about Dopamine, both in its role in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's' and social media addiction. But what struck me was the negative stereotype about Dopamine fuelling our risk-taking behaviours and hijacking our reward mechanisms. That is when the parallels between Abhisarika running out to meet her lover (without knowing about success or failure) and Dopamine - Krishna's sermon to Arjuna (Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana) struck me.
How long did it take for you to plan and meticulously narrate the whole show?
It has taken over a year since inception to the premiere to plan, execute and refine the show, including considerations for touring logistics.
I began looking at the miniature paintings of the Abhisarika in October 2021, reading up on neuroscience journals to analyse the iconography scientifically. In February 2022, I started writing the songs.
I memorised the songs in two weeks, and the performance with Indian dance in consultation with a classical dancer to refine my movements took two months.
The images were rendered in Adobe Illustrator and sent digitally to my printer in Surat, Western India. Every fortnight, I would receive courier packages from him with new prints of my backdrops.
With costume and jewellery finally in place, the show was ready by October 2022 but had to wait for its premiere at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity until mid-January 2023.
The logistics for bringing the set to Australia had to be planned, a luggage case was customised to carry the metal structures that make up the framework for suspending the backdrops.
How does it feel to be a finalist at this year's Melbourne's Fringe?
“Very validating! The work was done in the vacuum of the lockdowns, and I had no idea what it would be to play for global audiences.
The super-positive feedback in Australian fringe shows signifies that my hunches and critiques that had guided my practice were sound and that my two decades of artistic practice have led me somewhere.
What is next?
Currently, I am networking amongst artists, academics, and institutions, feeling the ground beneath my feet like a new migrant, understanding the whimsical weather, the grant application cycles, etc. I have a few ideas for new projects and collaborations, and I also want to tour other countries with the Abhisarika.
By Nandita Chakraborty