Stage against the machine

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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.

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