Scenography in Indian Theatre: Sharing Aesthetics of Light and Sound

Dr. Gagandeep, Assistant Professor, Department of Drama. Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata

Abstract

In Indian theatre, Scenography may be new as a term; but surely not as a concept. The centrality of light and sound in a theatre performance has always been accepted but the unified approach has often been avoided. The paper argues for the idea of that forgotten unified approach comparing the individual aesthetics of the two important elements of performance making, light and sound. This comparison tries to underline the shared space of the aesthetics of these two elements in the process of making of a performance. Transgressing the boundaries and entering the shared space of performance making, with logical sensitivity of course; paves the way towards an enriched performance.    

Keywords

Theatre, Scenography, Light, Sound, Aesthetics, Performance

 ‘The term scenography is of Greek origin (skēnē, meaning ‘stage or scene building’; grapho, meaning ‘to describe’) originally detailed within Aristotle’s Poetics as ‘skenographia’.’[1] Etymologically, the word scenography is made up of two words – scene and graphy. ‘The origin of scene can be traced to the mid 16th century Latin word “Scena” and the Greek word “Ske’ne”, meaning “a seeing place”, while graphy simply means the act of scene documentation.’[2] In other words, scenography creates a complete visual on stage taking care of all the design elements including set, lights, makeup and costume. This holistic approach towards design has brought the scenographer in close proximity to the director as the scenographer along with the director takes verbal references from the text and transforms those into visuals for the audience to watch. According to Josef Svoboda, Scenography is “The interplay of space, time, movement and light on stage.”[3]

Recently, Indian theatre has been bombarded with newer terms each day. The process of performance making in Indian theatre has been changing rapidly; but the process of updating the terminology is not happening at the same speed. As far as Scenography is concerned; it is a recent phenomenon for Indian theatre, in terms of terminology usage as well as the process of performance making. Not many Indian designers identify themselves as scenographers. The concept of total theatre has been prevalent in India since the beginning; which is conceptually very close to scenography. Folk theatre of India is the best example for the same. But with the emergence of theatre training institutes, various units of theatre practice got recognition as separate entities; which helped in the development of these entities as specialized units and theatre as a whole on one hand, but did limit the idea of total theatre too.

Scenography, in India, may seem new as a term but surely is not new as a phenomena. The pre-colonial Indian theatre has always been arguing against the pigeon holes which actually got introduced to Indian theatre during the colonial period along with proscenium. A lot of eminent Indian theatre directors and designers have been practicing their theatre with the same concept, that is, amalgamation of these individual elements as unified entities. The works of Robin Das, Dr.Satyabrata Rout, Bansi Kaul, Ratan Thiyam, Kanhailal validate this fact. In the younger generation Dr.Abhilash Pillai, Deepan Shivraman are working on the similar lines.

Working in units or specialized work has recently been preferred more; which on one hand, enhances focussed knowledge but on the other hand, brings out the limitations of keeping units apart. Working in their personal pigeon holes, many a times, designers keep forgetting the fact that they are working for the same production. The objective of this paper is to underline a fact, known but forgotten; which is that learning various sub-units is as important as understanding the aesthetics shared by all the units of design. These shared aesthetics also create dependency within various units of design; because of which an appropriate design of one unit needs knowledge and understanding of the other. Theatre being an audio-visual medium; light and sound are two major units of design. In the present paper, the units considered are light and sound. The paper takes a peep into the process of performance making and tries to underline that how light and sound go hand in hand. This multi-dimensional relationship of these two consist dependency at times and parallel development at other. The present paper tries to identify those shared aesthetics of these otherwise quite separate entities which become the source of this unique relationship.

To understand this relationship of light and sound, and finding out the points of intersections for both these elements of design; first, both the elements of design have been analysed as different entities. Then in the controllable factors of these design elements, that is, light and sound, have been analysed and compared to find the co-relation of the aesthetics of both. Following are the steps to be taken for the same:

  1. Defining aesthetics in terms of scenography of a theatre performance
  2. Defining light and sound as separate entities in terms of theatre performance
  3. Finding correlation of the controllable factors of light and sound

While analysing the two, instances have been taken from day-to-day life as well as theatre performances.

Aesthetics in terms of scenography of a theatre performance

As defined earlier also, scenography includes every unit on stage which helps creating the atmosphere of the play like set, light, costume, makeup, sound, music, etc. So aesthetics of scenography actually include the aesthetics of all these elements. The present paper has been limited to the two elements only which are light and sound. So, the aesthetics of these two will be described in the present paper. But to understand the big picture, the term aesthetics as a whole needs to be understood. As per Oxford dictionary aesthetics can be defined as ‘A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty.’ Going by this definition,

  1. The common thread between the two needs to be underlined
  2. The set of principles concerned with nature and appreciation of the beauty of light and sound need to be defined.

First, finding out and underlining the common thread between the role of light and sound of a theatre performance, the role of light and sound in a theatre performance needs to be analysed. For the same light and sound needs elaboration as separate entities working for one theatre performance.

Light as a separate entity

While describing the history of light design in theatre, G.N.Dasgupta writes, “The idea of illuminating a theatrical performance may have occurred in the dim past as a pleasant experience consequent to having had to witness many unlit performances. The logic behind this, we may presume now, should be that light in darkness commands attention on the activity to be witnessed. It is probable that even the recognition of the need to illuminate a performance may have taken quite a long time. It is also possible that theatrical performances may have become unthinkable without illumination.”[4] But once recognized, light has become indispensable element of a stage performance as far as theatre is concerned. Also, with the advent of time, the role to be played by light or light designer grew bigger.

This herculean task though is not an independent one. Coming last in the sequence of the making, it has to follow the elements present. Though, the changing perception has changed the role as well as the process of light design. In the recent times, light has become an independent element, not just enhancing the value of other elements on stage but being an important element in itself and creating meaning. Not just illuminating the elements present, light itself has proved its capacity of being an architecture, where the rays of light do not be there to illuminate the other elements but the rays themselves create shapes having a specific meaning pertaining to the performance. This not only makes it an independent element but also ascends its position in the process of performance making.

The degree of technical and/or scientific development in the field of light directly influences its role in performing arts. As the history of light design suggests that, theatre or performance has been following the developments happening in the field of art; from earthen lamps to LEDs, lasers, etc it has gone through a long journey. Also, this journey has also been about, being the illuminator to being the contributor of the meaning of the performance. 

Sound as a separate entity

Theatre is said to be an audio-visual art form. Audience for theatre come to watch the play but equally do they come to listen it. The term sound in theatre can be used as an umbrella term for many entities such as music, sound effects, songs, dialogues, etc. All of these together create the sound for theatre. “Scholars agree that what constitutes the birth of theatre was not the logo centric, text-based drama we have later accepted as prototypical, but a ‘unity of speech, music and dance’.”[5] So, from the beginning of theatre, sound has been there along with the visual to create theatre. Work of the sound designer starts with watching the actors rehearsing, imagining the supportive music or sound effects, recording or managing those sounds live with musicians for rehearsal as well as the final performance. As has been said for the light earlier, with the advent of time, sound design for theatre has grown from being just a support to becoming a complete character in itself, communicating with the actors as well as the audience and giving another dimension of the meaning to the audience. 

Light and sound as contributors of meaning

From the given descriptions of the roles of light and sound for a theatre performance, one thing can be inferred quite clearly that making of a performance needs these units tied together as one big unit. This herculean task of tying together these elements is done by the director as well as the scenographer.  The script or the content of the performance is the thread with which all these units are tied together. So, the task of the scenographer is also to find his/her way out through this common thread. Also, following this thread i.e. the content of the performance helps scenographer create a design which not only gives visual beauty to the performance but also extends the meaning of the performance to the audience visually.

‘In contemporary aesthetics this question is especially important also because, as we have already pointed out, meaning or significance is today regarded as a more essential feature of art than beauty. A work can very well be good as art without being beautiful or good to look at, but it cannot claim any artistic excellence if it does not “say” something, or is otherwise significant, say, by way of lifting us above our everyday concerns for a while; by giving us some insight, maybe, into the life of feeling; or by simply teasing or refining our perception. So an important question of philosophical aesthetics is that of artistic meaning.’[6]

So, here iterating ‘shared aesthetics’ not only points towards developing a design having visual harmony but it also says a lot about the harmonious presence of ‘meaning’ in all the units of design involved.   

An example from the work of eminent Bengali light designer Tapas Sen may enrich this thought further. ‘Angaar’ is one of the historic plays in the history of Bengali theatre, which is known for its light design too, done by Tapas Sen. Rescue scene of the play ‘Angaar’ was designed by Tapas Sen with not only lights but also with the sound. An old and broken metal stencil of the words EXIT was used by the designer to plan his lights; which created the atmosphere for the scene aptly. But only designing the lights did not satisfy him. He then started working the sound of the same. He explains, “I started crushing a celophin paper in front of the microphone at different speeds, at times fast and at times slow. Then to create the sound of water, I took a big pot of water and started moving my hand inside that.”[7] Usually designers work being behind the lines drawn for them. But whenever the boundaries are crossed and the designer has interacted with the other units of the design; it enriches the performance; of course, with the condition of a logical and meaningful interaction.  

Second, the set of principles concerned with nature and appreciation of the beauty of light and sound need to be defined. Here, the controllable factors of these two elements are considered the defining factors of these units. So the controllable factors of the two are discussed here separately.

Controllable factors of light

When a light designer works for a theatre performance, he/she has to limit her creativity to the factors which can be controlled on stage. The factors of light instruments which can be controlled are – Intensity, angle, position, colour, shape and visual texture to a certain extent. To understand all these factors, it is necessary to know these terms in relation to light instruments used in theatre.

  1. Intensity: ‘Light intensity refers to the strength or amount of light produced by a specific lamp source. It is the measure of the wavelength-weighted power emitted by a light source.’[8] To increase or decrease the intensity of the light, the instrument is attached to dimmer.
  2. Angle: The light instrument can be tilted up, down or can be moved from right, left. While changing the position of the instrument, the angle of the light can be controlled to create the required effect of light. Also the presence and the length of the shadow of the object or actor can also be changed by changing the angle of the instrument. Usually, the angles of the light instruments used are top angle, diagonal, foot, etc. 
  3. Shape: Not all the light instruments support this feature though but Profile light having mask and cutters help changing the shape of the light being emitted through the instrument.
  4. Texture: Though the tactile texture of the light is impossible to change but the visual texture can be changed through the use of gobo.

Controllable factors of sound

  1. Volume: Intensity of the sound produced can be said the volume of that specific sound. 
  2. Pitch: As per the definition of Oxford dictionary, ‘It is the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it; the degree of highness or lowness of a tone.’
  3. Rhythm: A repeated pattern of any sound can be described as rhythm. In a theatre performance, there may be a pattern of sound through musical effects, song, dialogues, etc.
  4. Texture: Again, in a non-tangible way, the quality of a particular sound can be controlled. “In music, texture is how the tempo, melodic and harmonic materials are combined in a composition, thus determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece.”[9]

Finding correlations of the controllable factors of light and sound

Sounds of darkness are different from sounds of light. From birds to animals to human beings, all change their sound patterns according to sunrise or sunset. Lightening will never be so frightening if it does not follow the sound with it. This simple law of nature is followed while working for a stage performance. So, illuminating a performance is all about, illuminating the sound patterns involved. These may be dialogues, music or any kind of sounds. Rather, if done meticulously, these two elements together create the performance. 

Underlining the relationship of sound with light, B.V. Karanth, noted director of Indian theatre explains, “I use songs to bring fluidity…..continuity in action. I do not want to use ‘Blackout’ after the scene ends, but with sound….song…..” According to Karanth, “Music, like a film strip, has two tracks – sound track and visual track. This means that apart from the audio-music there is music to be seen on the stage; the music of sounds and pauses. I do not believe in the well orchestrated music – Sargam – the music using too many notes. There may be a sudden punctuation by the sound of a bell at regular intervals on the Pancham note. And the pause; the sound of footsteps, noises, of a street or the rustling of leaves in a forest or sound of insects and birds and the elements.”[10]

  1. Intensity versus Volume

Intensity of the light can be compared to the volume of the sound. In our daily life also, there are several instances which can help us understand this comparison. For example, whisper seems more logical when the intensity of the light is low. In terms of theatre performance, when the volume of the sound is higher, usually the brighter light is used. So, one can say that there is a direct relationship between these two; higher the volume, brighter the light.

  • Texture

For both light and sound, texture is an intangible property. As gobo is used for changing the texture of the light, various resonators can be used to control the texture of a sound. The roughness of the texture of the sound calls for a change in the texture of the light.

  • Rhythm

As Meyerhold says, “Theatre lighting should touch the spectators as does music. Light must have its own rhythm; the score of light can be composed on the same principle as that of the sonata.”[11] No doubt, Adolphe Appia, father of modern stage lighting was a great musician too. Flickering of lights on a dance floor lay a very basic but good example of this property of the two where the light keeps changing its intensity or colour with the changing rhythm of the music. The movement of light on stage or its entry and exit on stage, that is, fade in and fade out of these lights on stage depends on the sound used in that particular performance.

Light as colour and its relationship to sound

One factor, which is not, covered in the above controllable factors of light are the inclusion of colour in light. Issac Newton, a pioneer in the field of colour invented colour-wheel in 1666 and proved that there exist seven colours in the visibly white light. So, understanding light is not about the brightness or dimness of white light but understanding the seven colours it is made up of. James C Cranwell in his ‘Chords Theory’ explains how seven colours of the rainbow relate to the seven notes of music and how all the primary colours are the major chords of music.

Primary Colours are Major Chords[12]

Kandinsky, known as the painter of sound and vision believed in breaking the barriers of arts. “Both Kandinsky and Schoenberg were seeking to create music dramas in which colour would be perceived on the same level as sound and action. And this before the invention of modern lighting.”[13]

The experiment: ‘Validating the co-relation of colour and sound’

To validate what Kandinsky said about primary colours as Major chords, a brief experiment was done. Details of this experiment are as follows.

Process of the experiment

All the people involved in this experiment were made to listen sound of Chord C for a minute and as per their feelings after listening, were asked to choose one colour out of the options shown to them. The image of colours which was shown to them was as follows:

Sample Size

There is no limit to the universe of this experiment. So the technique of Random sampling was done for the same. Because of the limitation of time the sample size of this experiment as quite small though but the people from various age groups were taken into consideration for this experiment. Following table shows the data retrieved during the experiment: 

Sr. No.Age Group (In Years)Size of Group (In Number of People)Choice of colourChoice of Red (In %)
115-2510Red – 8 Blue – 280
225-4510Red – 7 Blue- 2 Green- 170
345-6510Red- 6 Blue- 3 Purple- 160
Total Percentage for Red 70                                                                                     

The analysis of the above data validates the statements given by Kandinsky as the sound which the people listened was Chord C which was given the primary colour red by him. In the above experiment 70% of the people chose the same colour.

Conclusion

Sharing is all about coming out of the set boundaries and giving away some properties or controllable factor in the case of light and sound to each other to create one big picture harmoniously. Having a common meaning of the content of performance as a purpose to be fulfilled, the two elements behave in the same manner. Though, the two have their own processes and techniques of working but the fundamental principles for both do match. In the works of the renowned designers, this has been seen that all of them have come out of their respective zones, not to disturb the zone of other, but to share the zone of work with each other. Be it eminent light designer Tapas Sen using sounds to authenticate his light design or sound designers working harmoniously with the light designers.

Sharing aesthetics include sharing this sense of beauty which is used by various designers to design the performance and take along other elements of design as well. As discussed above, the new definition of aesthetics is not only about setting principles of beauty but creating meaning. So, the two elements light and sound, being contributors of the meaning, work hand in hand to create a meaningful visual of the performance.

The malleability of the units of design used in a theatre performance and the ability with which these can merge with each-other and become one makes these units more significant for the performance; iterating the meaning of that performance strongly. The possibility of this depends on the understanding of the fundamental knowledge of aesthetics applied to all the units of design. Practicing with various design units certainly increases the scope of this understanding. Therefore, it is necessary to have a fundamental knowledge of the subject before delving deep into any specialization.

It is true that this is an age of specializations. It is surely important to have in-depth knowledge of one specific subject but equally true is the fact that knowing other disciplines and the inter-relationships of these is also important to have a meaningful big picture. So, rather than creating separate pigeon holes, looking at the total visual and working in coherence should be the idea. Understanding the inter-relationship as well as intra relationships of the subject is the need of the day. So the training institutes, especially those giving specialized training, should keep this fact in mind and should make it a point to train their students not only in their specialized subject but also the inter-relationships of their subjects with the other partner subjects. Only that will create a visual which is complete and meaningful.   

Bibliography

“Spaces in Places of Theatre Performance.” In Fireworks for a Lighting Aesthetician: Essays and Tributes in Honour of Duro Oni @60, by and Duro Oni “Spaces in Places of Theatre Performance.” Fireworks for a Lighting Aesthetician: Essays and Tribu Sunday Enessi. Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization, 2012.

Chekov, Michael. “Each Art Constantly Strives to Resemble Music .” In To The Actor, by Michael Chekov. San Francisco: Muriwai Books, 2017.

G.N.Dasgupta. Guide to Stage Lighting. New Delhi: Annapurna Dasgupta, 1986.

Goswami, Ashish. In Tapas Sen. Kolkata: Pashchimbang Natya Academy, 2007.

Howard, Pamela. What is Scenography. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Kaur, Rani Balbir. “Kaur, Rani Balbir. 2006. Music In Traditional Indian Theatre Ch-8 Use of Music by Indian Directors and Playwrights”.” In Music In Traditional Indian Theatre. Gurgaon: Shubhi, 2006.

Ododo, Sunday Enessi, ed. Fireworks for a Lighting Aesthetician. Lagos, UK: Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization CBAAC, 2012.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar. “Aesthetics Today (Chapter-1).” In Aesthetics. New Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 2010.

Wikipedia. “Scenography .” 12/02/2020.


[1]  (Wikipedia 12/02/2020)

[2](“Spaces in Places of Theatre Performance.” Fireworks for a Lighting Aesthetician: Essays and Tribu Sunday Enessi 2012)     

[3]  (Howard 2009)

[4]  (G.N.Dasgupta 1986)

[5]  (Chekov 2017)

[6]  (Saxena 2010)

[7]  (Goswami 2007)

[8] Maximumyield, “What Is Light Intensity? – Definition From “, accessed January 2020.

   http://www.maximumyield.com/definition/2036/light-intensity.

[9] http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texture_(music), accessed February 15, 2020

[10]  (Kaur 2006)

[11]  Antohin, Anatoly, “Theatre Biomechanics With Anatoly — Meyer, Meyerhold     Pages”. Biomechanics.Vtheatre.Net Accessed January 2020. http://biomechanics.vtheatre.net/meyer.html.

[12] Cranwell, James C. 2004. “The Mysterious Correlation Of Light And Sound”. Gootar. Accessed February 2020  

     http://www.gootar.com/theory.php.

[13] McBurney, Gerard.2006. “Wassily Kandinsky: The Painter Of Sound And Vision”. The Guardian. Accessed February 2020    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/jun/24/art.art.

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