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Critical reflections in the work of Abhishek Thapar


Abhishek Thapar is a theatre maker, performer, puppeteer and teacher from India. In this conversation, we talk about his latest performance Cow is a Cow is a Cow, his background, his inspirations and the critical reflections in his work.

By Merel Eigenhuis

It has been quite a journey for you, professionally as well as personally, to build a career as a theatre maker in the Netherlands. What motivated you to become a theatre maker?

I’ve always had a desire to create, since childhood, and went from being an actor/performer during my bachelor’s degree to working professionally as a theatre director, writer, puppeteer, and performer in various projects. I was fascinated by the creation process, which led me to study ‘creating theatre and performance’ at London International School of Performing Arts, a physical theatre programme based on Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogical tools and methods. Since then, I have been trying to develop concepts and formulate ideas, to actualize them in time and space, and share them with an audience.
I moved to the Netherlands in 2015 to pursue a master’s programme at DAS Theatre, Amsterdam. I already had 7 – 8 years of experience in making theatre and performances in India and wanted to take some time away from the production process to examine my tools and fascinations and redefine my voice as an artist. I wanted to examine the role and function of theatre in today’s rapidly changing society. I believe a theatrical space has the power to move mountains, and to move the spectators present inside that space. But it also has the power to shift micro thoughts, momentary perceptions, to offer the experience of something unfathomable.
My work dives into the complexity of narratives. It ruptures pre-conceived notions of identity politics, historical narratives, religious-political ideologies, migration discourse and environmental issues. As a theatre/performance maker, I engage my audience into a critical discourse on current issues in our globalized world. Through my work I seek to create a state of ‘uncertainty’, from which newer thoughts or other perspectives can emerge. It is my way of enabling the audience to re-engage with the world through a different lens.

What inspired you to create the performance Cow is a Cow is a Cow?

It started in 2007, when I was pursuing a postgraduate programme in marketing and entrepreneurship at a business school in Pune, India. I had the idea of starting a business in cow-based products. Although I never pursued it, the thought stayed in my peripheral thinking. That was the seed. But also, I felt I had to deal with the way the political and social landscape has emerged in the last decade or so, as an artist and as an entrepreneur.

The performance deals with the economic value of the cow, which in India is seen as a sacred animal. What would be the Dutch equivalent of the holy cow – what is seen as ‘holy’ here?

Today, I happened to stumble across a video from the Rijksmuseum on the internet titled ‘The Holy Cow’ (with the hashtag: #Rijksmuseumunlocked). October 4 was world animal day and the Rijksmuseum did a video tour with a special focus on cows in 16th – 18th century painting. During the tour, the curator kept repeating: ‘The cow is perhaps not only a symbol of The Netherlands, it more or less becomes the Netherlands’. Although I would disagree with the phrase and question the title of the video, it got me thinking about what ‘holy’ stands for, and its association with cows. It seems to surpass a specific geographical landscape and perhaps has a wider universal resonance. Is it the abundance of resources from the cow that gives it its status of holiness? Have cows always been holy? Or is it just an expression (Holy Cow!)?

If I were to think about what is holy here, many different associations come up. Once I cycled on the Afsluitdijk, and that was when I experienced the sacredness of the ‘dijken’. I realised how important they are in protecting the Netherlands from the sea.

Would you like to perform this show to Indian audiences/in an Indian context? Why (not)?

I would, absolutely. I believe it digs into certain narratives and ideological discourses which are crucial to the political and social landscape emerging in India at the moment. I’d like to reach out to the Indian diasporic community here in the Netherlands and create a space for open discussions and critical reflections through my work.

What is the role of food in the performance?

That’s a surprise!

Thanks, Abhishek!

Cow is a Cow is a Cow will be playing on 17 and 18 December, 18:00 at Stadsschouwburg Utrecht. Click here for tickets.

Image credit: Karin van de Wiel


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