Stage against the machine

A young crop of theatrewallas are swashbuckling across Mumbai, says Pragya Tiwari


A DECADE AGO, theatre was a different country. The old guards ruled with an iron fist. Each group had a patriarch who could trace his lineage to a stalwart of an older generation in a quasi-gurukul system mostly descended from the Satyadev Dubey school. That oneman institution as crucial to Mumbai as the National School of Drama is to Delhi. The ruling order was usually the patriarch and some friends or family, at best. Below him was a second rung of actors who had been around long enough to receive some authority. And then there were the technical and production crews, the latter merely anonymous hands newly recruited from the struggler’s bench in Prithvi, or college kids.


This lowest rung brought tea, ironed clothes and maintained properties, rather than sharing a joke or a cigarette with the elders. Irrespective of talent, you couldn’t hope to get a role until you’d put in years of production work. Most groups didn’t get a new director for years. The only places for assertive youngsters were the rampant inter-collegiate competitions and Thespo, that mother of all youth theatre festivals, which Quasar Thakore Padamsee set up with his group QTP 11 years ago to fuel the flailing scene with young energy. But until recently, even Thespo graduates didn’t have anywhere to go.


Like it is with change, it came swashbuckling, suddenly. Perhaps it was a fallout of the new Indian mood which suddenly woke up to its ‘youth.’ In the last few years, the country of theatre was rapidly conquered by young practitioners. The centre couldn’t hold. Today, the younger order is firmly established, even if more in the Marathi and English circuits than the Gujarati and Hindi ones. New ideas and promises are emerging creatively and economically and theatre finally seems to be on the brink of its dreamt renaissance.


But beneath the neon there is still darkness that lurks. The State is cruel in its disregard. There are not enough performance spaces, rehearsal halls, training academies and funding for theatre to be viable. These youngsters are done with a complaining generation and seek practical ways to overcome handicaps. Will their ideas perish from missing infrastructure, or will they bring critical self-reliance? Or will they too turn into the old guard they replaced? While we wait for time to answer, we raise a toast to a new hope, our new country.

AKARSH KHURANA

Akarsh’s group has premiered 12 new shows and 199 performances in two years


AKARSH KHURANA WAS born into theatre. His father Akash dedicated much of his life to it, and, as a child, Akarsh found himself cast in Naseeruddin Shah’s plays simply because he was tagging along. But it was not until late 2007 that the story of his life and Mumbai English theatre converged unexpectedly


For the last two years, Akarsh’s group Akvarious has been the single largest presence on the experimental circuit, premiering 12 new shows and completing 199 cumulative performances to date. For a city where most groups don’t average more than one new play a year, and theatre is largely thought of as a dying lament, this has been nothing short of a revolution. Most of his productions are based on foreign scripts – easy on style and heavy on the narrative. His biggest commercial success has been Miro Gavran’s All About Women (directed by Hidaayat Sami), a breezy comedy that peered into female psyche. Others, like David Harrower’s Blackbird (directed by Akarsh) and David Auburn’s Proof(directed by Kashin Shetty), scored with critics as well. Most of these plays are set in a world familiar only to the urban middle class, but Khurana has tried to step across the line with Afsaneh, his tribute to nautanki artists of yesteryear and A Special Bond, his adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s stories for children.


In the beginning, it all seemed a little sudden to Akarsh – the coming together of people, opportunities, dates in major experimental venues in Mumbai – but he acted on it in a manner that would seem near reckless to many. The 29-year-old was heady with excitement, without a long-term financial plan but also not willing to compromise his vision. Asking whether or when he’d run out of steam became a popular conversation starter.


Today, Akvarious is in the red, but Akarsh is not likely to run out of steam. He is confident he can work it out by diversifying Akvarious into film and television production. Quitting is not an option: “I’m addicted to telling stories in a live medium and receiving instant feedback. That and the happiness of being a part of this spontaneous movement.” What has made a tiny legend of this happy-go-lucky young man is his incorrigible honesty to himself. Akvarious may slow down and reconsider its direction, but Akarsh has made sure there is no turning back for experimental English theatre in Mumbai.

TAHIRA NATH

‘Mostly I believe it will all work out. If it can work in Broadway, it can work here!’

TAHIRA NATH USED to spend a lot of her free time watching plays or sitting around in the Prithvi Café, wondering about life on the other side of the stage. Like most of her generation growing up in Chandigarh and armed with an influential management degree from Ahmedabad, she had taken the trodden path of joining a leading ad agency in Mumbai. But theatre was always a central pull. “It’s just like how people would rather go to the movies than come and watch a play. My own husband and relatives used to be like that. But once they come they know what they’ve been missing,” she says.


One day, the 27-year-old decided to take a wild chance and audition for Thespo by directing Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virgina Woolf? Her journey gathered momentum when her Thespo mentor, Akarsh Khurana, cast her in his ambitious play about the lives of nautanki artists, Afsaneh. Soon, she found herself a part of most of Akvarious’s productions in one capacity or another. Starting with direction, moving on to acting, and then working as a backstage hand, her journey in reverse brought her into the heart of Mumbai’s stage world. A big turning point came last year when Nath chucked her job to work in theatre full-time, taking on a dream only reluctantly spoken of so far – making theatre economically viable. She prepared an edgy pitch and began marketing her group’s productions to corporates, tapping into her network of former colleagues and college mates.


She’s focussed on the larger picture. “Corporates are wary of supporting theatre. A 200- people show does not do much for their brand, and branding is important to them even when doling out CSR funds. But we’re offering many packages and the market is bound to pick up,” she says. She believes ideas like online advertising and merchandising can help theatre. You catch yourself wondering at her unrelenting enthusiasm. Any moments of doubt? She replies, “Moments, yes, but mostly I believe it will all work out. If it can work in Broadway, it can work here!”



DHANENDRA KAWADE His experience as a designer opened up new possibilities of form


A SINGULAR ABSTRACT sculpture suspended over a near bare stage is pierced by light to evoke the human horrors of famine-ridden rural India. Bodies flow in and out of yogic postures to grim chanting, manifesting formation, evolution, death and decay. The written word inManaskhor is simplistic. But director Dhanendra Kawade approaches his text with the vision of an astute designer, intent on scooping out its emotional worth.


Design has been 30-yearold Kawade’s forte ever since he arrived in Mumbai in 2004. The son of a stenographer in the forest department in Balaghat, he was bitten by the theatre bug while training in music under Dada Bangeshwar Malik. The early struggling days in the big city were the stuff of proverbial tales of a Koliwada chawl, frugal existence and patches of hard times. But already by late 2005, Kawade had taken over as the resident set and properties designer of almost every major group in the city. His unique ability is to integrate the design elements with the larger aspects of storytelling.


Kawade made his debut as director with simple children’s plays and firmly stamped his presence with follow-ups like Baramasi, Manaskhor and KT Anna. He broke ground with a selection of stories from lesser-known regional writers. His experience as a designer for English, Marathi and Gujarati theatre opened up new possibilities of form, and, for the first time in a long while, the Hindi stage was sewed up with new threads from all over the theatrical world, all tied seamlessly. Kawade consciously and carefully negotiates the line between storytelling as a form of entertainment and socio-political commentary. He often finds himself referring back to his three major influences of Thiyam, Karanth and Tanvir, but is constantly struggling not to get trapped in any one style. Currently working on the dramatisation of a novel by Amrita Pritam that he seeks to embellish with poetry Imroz wrote for her, Kawade is simultaneously dreaming of a big budget production of The Jungle Book. Now he’s waiting for the ever-ephemeral financing.


NIPUN DHARMADHIKARI ‘Every play I’ve done, I feel I’d do worse today. The trick is to retain the craziness’


AT THE 10TH annual Thespo in 2008, Natak Company, a little known group of Marathi experimental theatre from Pune, swept the awards with its musical production called Dalan.This wasn’t 22-year-old director Nipun Dharmadhikari’s first brush with unexpected fame. Already a heavyweight on the intercollegiate circuit, Nipun directed his first play, Lose Control, at the age of 18. This comedy about teenagers grappling with their sexuality was outrageous in its honesty and prime for the wrath of middlebrow morality. Instead, in what seemed almost like an accident, it turned into that rare beast – a commercial success championed by critics. Four years and a number of plays later, Dharmadhikari’s group is now an integral part of the Marathi experimental circuit even though the plays between Lose Control and Dalan were not as well received.


Five months from now, this youngest kid from a corporate family will sit for his final CA exams. He hopes to balance working as an accountant and pursuing theatre, though the latter remains his first pick. Interestingly, that’s not to say he’s reconciled to a life of modest means, as theatre folks are wont to be. “I believe I’ll find a way to make theatre profitable,” he asserts. For all his youthful eagerness, Dharmadhikari does not shy from introspection, saying, “So far I’ve never had to worry about money. I come from an affluent background. So maybe I’ll feel differently about this when I’m deeper into the real world.”

But for now, Dharmadhikari is on a roll. There is a sense of urgency to capitalize on all the support, goodwill and success coming his way, and on the “blissful ignorance of youth” that he feels is slipping away. When he directed Lose Control he didn’t think of the possible consequences of provocation. He was only concerned with honestly talking about how he and his friends felt about sex. Nipun realises that he would not perhaps be able to direct the same play today as unabashedly. “In fact all the plays I have done so far, I feel I’d do worse today,” he says about growing older. “The trick is to retain the craziness and act upon it.”



Originally published in Tehelka

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