By Dr. G. Kumara Swamy, M.P.A, Ph.D. from University of Hyderabad who is presently Teaching Assistant at National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, Beijing, China
How I came to China?
I have had great deal of interest in china with the participation in athletic events since my childhood; moreover at the same time I was fascinated by the martial arts that must have led me to watch the action films of Bruce lee, Jackie Chan, Jet lee. During my Masters degree in performing arts (MPA Theatre Arts) at University of Hyderabad, i came across and read about Chinese opera training methods and other performing arts. Fortunately I encountered a Chinese friend in Inter Asia Summer camp at Seoul, South Korea in 2008. I never thought that this acquaintance would bring about many changes in my life. With Chinese friends advice, and several discussions with my PhD supervisor, I applied for short term Beijing Opera performer training in 2009 at National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts which was started in 1958; this is said to be the best academy in the country for giving rigorous training for the young students in traditional opera and other advanced course with scientifically developed teaching methods by the experienced faculty. Once they finish 4 years graduation (BFA) and 3 years Masters (MFA) from the academy, students would sure become professionals in the fields of Chinese opera performing, Television, Culture and film industries and other related areas. Currently, there are 3000 students studying in different departments like Performing arts, directing, dramatic writing, music, stage design and new media arts having more than 250 experienced faculties.
Differences I felt
After, I got an offer from this prestigious academy of theatre arts in China to study with the Chinese Government sponsorship about Beijing Opera Performer Training. At that moment I felt very anxious to travel to china for the first time and to experience the theatre culture. In all over world, we could easily distinguish from the available scriptures, Indian, Chinese and Greek civilizations are deep-rooted and infinite in all aspects of knowledge and culture. Being an outsider in china, I got astonished in the beginning days by watching Beijing opera performances, because of two reasons, one is The Skills of the Performers and the second is some of the elements in the performances having Similarities with Indian Performing Arts. And after some days, to my surprise, i came to know from International office that i am the first from Indian origin who is studying in this academy. Of course, it made me elated and responsible. The major differences I felt that the body Language is quite different and influence of Buddhism in their life styles and arts. The education system somewhat interesting like, where children must take an exam after elementary school to determine which middle school they will attend. This test, mostly taken at the age of ten, it can determine the destiny for life, it is highly competitive. So those at the young age Chinese children are very specific in their goals and achievements. The martial arts is other fascinating element in China, surprisingly I come to know that Kung fu martial art form inspired by Kalaripayattu of India that is a big topic to discuss here any way Chinese training for physical fitness has become an integral part of culture with which no other country can be compared. The students have myriad opportunities to study their traditional opera; they can go to any academy of their choice or other training schools even when they are in their teens or in school days. Having been trained with the systematic learning and well planned lessons, they would become naturally talented performers with maturity even at their teen age. All that matters with the scientific evolution of training system from past several decades by the influence of Mei lanfang(A legendary Performer) , who got immense popularity throughout the world with his amazing performing skills of Chinese opera. While practicing Chinese martial arts, I faced tough workouts for the Body parts with Pain, Pleasure, trying to control and command over body and breath reminded me of Indian Martial arts and also my Yoga teacher training. After successful completion of my short term programme, the academy awarded the certificate.
After keen observation of this academic structure and the ideas of integration of related subjects under one tree immediately our Sarojini Naidu School strike in my mind about how the courses like Theatre arts/Dance/Painting/Sculpture/Graphics/Communication etc., in one roof makes big difference than single individual departments. In this regard I realised the value and importance of such kind of education, in fact after I got Merit cum Means scholarship for my masters degree in 2003 at University of Hyderabad, that is even a big boost for me to overcome many obstacles surrounded me and to give perfect focus on studies in Theatre arts. During study period at Department of Theatre arts I was besieged with the methods of teaching by regular faculty and eminent guest faculties. Being hailed from family of folk arts, in the initial days it is quite easy for me to connect with the methods of teaching and theory with the practice but after some time I understood that to reach from basics to advanced stages in this field needs much research and analysis. The fundamental inputs I got at Department of Theatre arts helped me to equip skills in Performing and directing with systematic modern approach, perhaps experiencing the meaning of Unity in Diversity either in Performing arts or in campus culture , I felt naturally changed my vision. That led me to attend European symposium at Paris in 2007, Inter-Asia Summer camp/IFTR Conference in 2008 and also performed at Singapore and Malaysia then finally halted at China with long term associations. Theatre teaching and training systems in our country evolved from simple to complex because many performing styles and contexts made huge multicultural heritage of our country and at the same time influence of west made more hybridized at University academic theatre teaching and practice at this moment we may need more focus on how to integrate our unique Music styles and other regional forms of stage arts to make complete sense of Indiannes through theatre performances, especially promoting national language to outside world is in need, also need to establish National council for theatre education to monitor time to time changes and maintaining quality of education, at this moment we are progressing in different way compare with Chinese theatre arts.
In regards to Chinese theatre teaching/training, even though bit influenced by Japanese invasion Chinese art and culture still unique and special. It evolved from complex to simple, China also more or less in the same situation where huge number of religious rituals is main reasons for evolution of Chinese traditional theatre (Xiqu), it is gradually developed and evolved continuously and is still strong today. It is comprehensive art by integrating many artistic elements. So they started systematic training for each artistic element like singing,Ryhms, acrobatics, makeup, poetry, acting, costumes, we can say that its primary feature is combination of various forms of stage arts. Now with this we could see that the National Academies established by Central Government reflecting the Chinese culture in all arts related courses, curriculum and performances. At present there is Modern approach with the goal of reaching more audience in the west, it is said that one cannot understand Chinese culture without some knowledge of traditional Chinese theatre. In fact China promoting language, art and Culture to outside world by using Chinese Opera performances indirectly the other reason for economical ties with European countries. There are many varieties in Chinese theatre opera styles among them Beijing opera recognised as National Opera.
After getting Doctoral degree from Dept of Theatre arts, University of Hyderabad in 2011-2012 I have decided to do Post-Doctoral programme in China, part of that I came here on research visit in 2011 gave some Guest lectures at the same academy and met Professors at School of Arts, Peking University but there is one condition on Chinese language for doing research, so then this year also I dedicated for Pre-Research work and the best sources to fulfill my ambition, at the same time working in professional theatre groups and doing a free lance teaching assistant jobs at same academy and also other colleges in Beijing.
Many people asked me why you have chosen China, when there are many countries having better opportunities but I know people have become more materialistic and run after money in this modern world. But I want to face challenges in life and prove that there are many more things to experience than just earning money. I have had a wonderful time here; I found lots of love and good hearted people in China; in fact my life took turn after my first visit to China in 2009. My first notice in Beijing was “ONE WORLD ONE DREAM”, a slogan for 2008 Olympics. My mind is still lingering with this phrase, how to achieve this? What is my role in this? My supervisor Dr. Joly Puthussery encouraged me a lot to come here and explore Chinese theatre arts and more than 390 varieties of Opera Cultures. I readily accepted and said that i am really happy to know, explore and integrate new way of performances. Another striking fortune that knocked my door was my meeting with Joseph Graves who is the artistic director at Peking University Institute of World Theatre and Films; after auditions, He cast me for the Shakespeare’s Play MID SUMMER NIGHTS DREAM, I have played THESEUS role who is a king, I never imagined that I will do this role in China, i felt awesome coordinating and acting with Chinese actors in the play. English accent is quite different to understand in the beginning days, but later i used to sense and even the same with my Chinese actor’s friends to understand my Indian accent. But after some days of continuous rehearsal we became closer and understood each other.
I feel blessed being born in folk theatre family (Oggukatha) , because, the knowledge of traditional art form helped me in understanding the roots of the theatre art form. After exploring Chinese theatre culture at basic levels I developed passion about acting on different stages especially in Chinese theatre. While I am learning language lessons at National academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, in an occasion, I met the Director Joseph Graves who had already directed more than 30 major English productions in China. He is also heading other institute to promote English language skills of Chinese students and artists by doing Shakespeare and other theatre plays. There are many adaptations to Chinese language from English and many of his students by his inspiration went to US and UK for pursuing theatre studies in different specializations and some of them came back to china and performing excellently on Chinese theatre field. Some of them adapted Chinese play scripts into English and played even in New York and other international theatre festivals and got many awards. The working style of Joseph graves is more musical and arithmetic and tempo/work on each dialogue expression/after every composition or blocking of the sub scenes; all actors must note down their movements and expressions in detail in their working book.
I experienced this and found that this way would be advantageous as it would give more command for actors to understand the very minute details of the each movement and expressions, stage movements. The other thing is when one actor is delivering his dialogue; the audience must focus only on that particular actor, so other actors need not to take any movement which would naturally distract audience attention from the delivering actors. Actually director cast multiple actors for each role, but finally, I was chosen for the role of Theseus for four shows, because, I perceived the character and improvised by using Indian and Chinese gestures and expressions may be the reason for the directors’ decision to keep me for four shows. He appreciated my skills in acting and offered me good remuneration for 4 shows in Beijing. Honestly speaking, I expected any minor role because the entire Shakespeare play Mid summer nights dream is having huge cast around (30 artists in); naturally, all are Chinese and 2 to 3 are half Chinese and am the only one from India, the director is from UK born, US Based. We started the rehearsals from March 20th 2013 every day from 6pm to 9.30pm at Peking University. I learned basic physical movement skills of Beijing opera in 2009 at National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, and I have used those skills to bring out the Theseus character for Chinese context. And finally it worked out very well. For four shows, the audience applauded a lot and especially when we utter particular dialogues, and for some facial expressions, with the physical movement combinations. I was amazed at the response when one of my Chinese actor friends told me that there are many likes and comments on Chinese twitter’s like (Weibo, wexin,Ren Ren) web sites where Chinese friends uploaded play pictures and videos. In my opinion my English dialect/slang and my body culture made them to like my acting with different styles of gestures from both Indian and Chinese theatre cultures.
When we started rehearsals of the play, sometimes I was not able to get what they are speaking, because the Chinese way of speaking English is quite different from us. Of course, it would be same for them about my English accent, as the days passed on, we understood each other and the director facilitated and taught us to follow the Shakespeare style of English. That is really great experience for me to explore new ways in performing with original Shakespearean director from England. I felt amazing during the shows, there are no words to explain such great feeling.
I used many elements from both Indian and Chinese theatres like: eye movements in our classical forms, and hand movements of Chinese opera and facial expressions of both Chinese opera and Indian classical theatre, also imparted physical movements.
I can say that it’s an attempt being a first Indian actor in China, I proclaim that we could create wonders if we could blend the skills of Chinese and Indian artistic theatre along with production designs, scripts etc. as it is well known fact, that India-china have got many similarities in many aspects of art and culture. First we need to promote Hindi and Chinese more to make things easier. In fact we could notice that Tai chi and Yoga already swapped in both ways and influencing the aspects of actor training methods.
Biggest admiring comment:
On the completion of our fourth show, one Chinese women (about 50 years old) applauded loudly in the auditorium and appreciated me…it’s a great moment for me as she spoke pure Hindi language. When I interacted with her she told me she lived long time in Kolkata (India)…I felt this coordination of cultures is evident since ages; as the emotions are universal, theatre could sure bridge and build good relations between India and china.
My other teaching tasks in different contexts:
Apart from the above some of the other important teaching tasks completed with different contexts like In June 2013 I was one of the teachers for kid’s summer camp by Beijing Play house academy of Performing Arts, I taught them acting and choreography. Working with kids in china amazing and adventures because of godly minded sweet hearts and then on the invitation of Prof.Zhao zhiyang from Central Academy of Drama in July-August 2013, I have conducted theatre workshops for Beijing Rural women Cultural NGO, I taught them theatre games, acting techniques, voice culture, dance moves and basic yoga. In the same month, also I gave series of five lectures on storytelling and performing arts for Chinese students at Hong Hu College. I experienced that the Chinese young students are very much positive in life and they are very clear in their life goals, enthusiastic to know about Indian classical theatre and other aspects of Indian culture, most memorable for me to work with them on short compositions of improvised movements. Also Worked with few other Major productions in different capacities (Directing/Acting), currently finalizing other major theatre musical.
Working in performing arts with a truly inter-disciplinary focus is one of my ambitions as I belong to the traditional folk performer’s family from a rural community. So I have developed the attitude of Learning the different performances and practicing traditions from my childhood. This encouraged me in pursuing academic studies in theatre along with practicing different genres of Performance. My interaction with Prof.Earl Jackson from National University of Arts, South Korea and Dona Rane, from National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, Beijing made me to learn the different perspectives of learning other Arts and cultures in the context of preparing teaching tools, later by my instigation both were invited to our University to give lectures.
I have my dreams and vision to amalgamate Indian and Chinese theatre elements and do major theatre shows in China as well in India. I am discussing this with some of my Chinese artist friends; so soon we will be doing an Intercultural Theatre production with Both Indian and Chinese actors together. We may chose Monkey King (China) and Hanuman God (India) epics because of more similar characteristics and translate into both Chinese and Indian languages while Chinese and Indian actors performing in one production. I strongly feel this is the way where people can understand each other more cultural and customs and other aspects of life styles through either way epic stories or other literature by using theatre as a best medium of communication. This makes people to give and take more respect either ways. For this we have already approached both side Officials and other organization to sponsor it. To introduce systematic and focused interdisciplinary courses in performing arts/Theatre Arts focusing on Asian Theatre cultures in academics is other objective.
Compare with Chinese Theatre Education our progress is quite different not because of British influence on education system, but may be because of moderate thinking in all aspects, we can see that the structure of Chinese education system is very
unique with their own ideology, In focus especially Teaching and training of Arts given so much importance in Chinese culture and Education. The central government directly investing on many academies and centres with very specific specialisations for example traditional theatre play writing, new media arts, traditional music etc., Our investments on Arts and Culture also can be grown in terms of indirect advantage for economical growth as well contribution for flourishing of Indian arts and culture by using Theatre as a tool.
Being born in family of Folk arts, it’s natural fascination for me to choose Theatre arts as my profession. Hence I decided to study Theatre arts academically and in consequence equipped with knowledge and experience in academic teaching. The practice of theatre and teaching have really widened my perspective and inspired me to contribute my skills (theory and practice) for the growth of performing arts research and development in our country.
As the globalization has taken place, India with rich traditional culture is gradually losing its traditional values and getting westernized day by day. This transformation has influenced the theatre to adopt new techniques to survive and meet the global audience. In this context I felt our Department of Theatre Arts is more eligible to take membership in Asian Theatre Education Centre (ATEC) which is operated from Central Academy of Drama, Beijing to avail the access to Academic theatre developmental structures and policies by other Asian countries for making Understandings to initiate mutual exchanges within Asia for attainment of true meaning of “Theatre as a Knowledge domain”.
With all these experiences in China, I found that Chinese people are warm hearted and open minded to invite the people from all the corners of the world; that’s why I always admire the way they propagated during the 2008 Olympics slogan(One world One Dream). This is really inspiration for me to go further with the attitude of world harmony and peace for the mankind by using Theatre arts as a powerful tool. I made very good friends here and I don’t know I would never imagine leaving this wonderful land; I would some cry when I imagine leaving this country. Even though I have so many personal experiences in terms of food, Travel, customs, and friends, currently I am just focusing on my major field of Theatre arts experiences. Now I am gradually acquiring Chinese language skills to understand the nuances of great Opera arts and culture, also practicing voice and physical techniques of Opera to perform monkey king character in Chinese…ohh…I know it’s a herculean task but I am determined and will try my best.
First and foremost, my first heartfelt thanks goes to Department of Theatre Arts, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad for providing me platforms to explore theory into practice and also I got all moral support during my PhD days and while Contributing for Telangana statehood movement by using Theatre as a tool. I always adore the faculty for transforming my career and life from Indian Traditional Folk Theatre form to Academic theatre as well Chinese/World Theatre and then greetings to National Academy of Chinese Theatre arts, Beijing, China which offered me this great opportunity to explore Theatre cultures in China.
I conclude this with a quote in our scriptures “ vasudaika kutumbum” … that does mean “ the whole world is a small family”. Which is also may be inspiration for China’s 2008 Olympics slogan “One World One Dream”. I strongly believe, with this faith we could build a better society and could stand by Performing arts as powerful tools on the way to achieve this, not only in India and China but all over the world.
Dr.G.Kumara Swamy can be contacted at: 0086-13161887431