• Image courtesy of the British Council

    Aruna and the Raging Sun

  • Image courtesy of the British Council

    Aruna and the Raging Sun

  • Image courtesy of the British Council

    Aruna and the Raging Sun

  • Image courtesy of the British Council

    Aruna and the Raging Sun

  • Image courtesy of the British Council

    Aruna and the Raging Sun

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Aruna and the Raging Sun was a large scale outdoor performance which took place in Chennai, India in February 2018 to crowds of more than 6000. The project was an international collaboration between the UK’s Graeae Theatre Company, Spain’s La Fura dels Baus, Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation and a host of other local organisations including: Vidya Sagar, Krupa, Devasitham Charitable Foundation, Artspire, Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India and MGR Janaki College. Graeae’s Amit Sharma and representatives of some of the local partners reflect on the project.

Firework display over a large-scale outdoor performance

Graeae Theatre Company and La Fura dels Bau’s ‘Prometheus Awakes’ at the 2012 Greenwich+Docklands Festival. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin

Graeae are one of the UK’s foremost disabled-led theatre companies and La Fura dels Baus are known for their daring urban productions. Their first collaboration ‘Prometheus Awakes’ was a showstopper which opened the Greenwich+Docklands festival in June 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. But there was unfinished business, as Graeae’s Associate Director, Amit Sharma explains:

“We always wanted to work together again. The lead producer had for some time wanted to do a production in India and I have my own personal connection to the country, so I’m extremely delighted to say that our dream became a reality.”

Aruna and the Raging Sun came about as part of Re:Imagine India and the UK-India Year of Culture (2017), with both initiatives being heavily supported by both Arts Council England and the British Council. The production was a reimagining of the Indian legend of Aruna – the personification of the sun’s aura – retold with from a disability perspective. It featured as many as 100 disabled performers, predominantly volunteers, with various impairments. A true spectacle, the show incorporated a giant 8-metre puppet, choreography, and lots of aerial performances.

Vidya Sagar, a local organisation providing services for disabled people including education, training and employment opportunities had some of their students taking part in Aruna and the Raging Sun. Vidya Sagar’s Principal, Kalpano Rao reflects on the experience for the students:

“It was a unique project and the first of its kind. The students enjoyed every minute of the performance. The self-esteem of the students was up and they are willing to try new things now. The exposure the students and staff have got while working with international organisers helped them to understand the demands and standards of working at this level.”

Large crowd gathered in front of an empty stage

The Crowd Gather for Aruna and the Raging Sun

ArtSpire is a Chennai-based arts management company who assisted with the production of Aruna and the Raging Sun. Its Founder and Director Ramya Rajaraman explains why the collaborative approach was so important, and how the project has facilitated change at the organisation:

“Aruna and the Raging Sun was one of the most ground-breaking projects that India has seen in the disability arts space. Collaborations are fantastic opportunities for new ideas and perspectives to emerge. In today’s highly-connected world, artistic work cannot live in isolation.  International collaborations are imperative as they bring a myriad of cultural nuances into play, which provide a platform for dialogue, learning and reflection. This has the potential to facilitate a deeper exchange of views and transformation of perspectives.

We’ve always believed in the ability of arts organisations to bring together diverse people and communities. As the local producer of this project, we were able to challenge ourselves, push boundaries to present this unique production. In that process we have understood the need for inclusive communities and the need to build a culture of inclusion across the work we do, be it with an artistic production, the partners we work with and accessibility for audiences. We are confident of taking with us these perspectives and learnings and implementing them in our future work.”

A large group of men in shirts pose for the camera

A group of participants from Aruna and the Raging Sun

The production received significant press attention and Sharma believes they we’re keen on the idea of such a large-scale spectacle had disability at its core. Coverage has included features in The Times of India, The Hindu and Times Now, all newspapers of national profile. The difference in language around disability surprised Sharma, but he is philosophical about it:

“One thing that I hadn’t quite anticipated was terms of language. Using ‘disabled’ and D/deaf’ are quite regular and standard here but in India some found these those words offensive and preferred ‘Differently Abled’ and ‘Hard of hearing’. We had a chat at Graeae about it and my feeling was that we need to respect the culture we’re going into as well as explaining why we’re using the language we are. It did get me thinking about whether the language we’re using is progressive as well as how confusing it must be for anyone who is coming to the idea of self-identification, whether disabled or not. Language evolves as do ideas.”

The performance was the culmination of months of work for Graeae. Sharma has hopes that this marks a beginning, rather than an end:

“We’ve been working in India for the last two years and so we’ve shown you can work with D/deaf and disabled performers, particularly in an outdoor setting. We’re in discussions with the British Council to go back and reflect on Aruna and keep the momentum to push change. I’d love for us to go to other parts of the country with this production as India is vast and there’s nothing like landing in a place and doing something that has a wow factor and challenges people’s ideas of what D/deaf and disabled people can do. It’s an exciting time for India and it’s important everyone can fully participate.”