How would you like to be described?
A theatre artist.
Please tell us about the first play that you saw? How old were you? What were your first impressions?
I probably saw my own mother, Bhanumati Rao, on stage for the first time. She was an actor of Malayalam theatre, particularly popular for her roles in comedy. She was an active secretary of the Kerala Club, Delhi in the 1960s and 70s. The very early plays that I can remember, I was not older than 7 or 8. I did not simply sit and watch. I wasn’t allowed to. I was like the dhaba boy who had to run around doing errands for the actors, so I often watched shows from the wings. It was a muddled mixture of awe, deep embarrassment at my mother playing the fool on stage and, of course the excitement of standing in the wings – so close to the action…. I also remember Malayalam touring companies that would come from Kerala to Delhi to perform, in full regalia – drop-down painted backdrops with every scene change, chilling sound effects, etc. The themes were mythological or heroic legends. Those were really awe-inspiring for a girl of my age... High melodrama – a fascination that has stayed with me ever since.
What was the starting point of your journey in theatre?
My mother along with some others helped found the International Centre for Kathakali in Delhi in the early 60s. Five girls were the first pupils. I was one of them. I was 7 when I started learning. Then there was Modern School – I studied there – where theatre was hugely encouraged. So I would make it a point to get a role in whatever theatre was being organized, for House functions or Annual Day Celebrations – mostly to be able to cut class officially for rehearsals, I think! I was very fortunate to have the NSD trained Om Shivpuri as a drama teacher when I was probably in the 7th or 8th class. I still remember rehearsing the Fool in scenes from King Lear, with Shivpuri sitting on my back trying to pump the magic of Shakespeare into me!
What was the nature of your first theatre work? Acting? Directorial? Production? Writing?
Amateur theatre started in my BA years in Miranda House – acting. That’s what I loved most. We did the first Hindi version of Brecht’s The Mother in the early 70s. Barry John directed us in A Dolls’ House – I think, his first play when he came to live in India around the same time. In fact I remember, in my second year of college, we took the decision that we would only do theatre in Hindi. However ‘heroic’ the decision, it was painful for me to learn long passages in Hindi since I came from an English-Malayalam speaking home.
Later I needed to wear many hats when we formed our street theatre group – Theatre Union in 1979. I was actor, writer, director, all rolled into one. Fortunately for that early experience, when I started doing professional theatre as a solo performer many years later, I could take on a combination of roles with greater ease (even though I am not at all happy doing it!).
Were there any difficulties when you began doing theatre? Professional? Family? Individual?
Not really, since my mother was a performer, I was literally ‘forced’ into the performing arts. The battle was really with myself – what kind of theatre to do? How to do it? Be an actor or a director? These questions plagued me when I started out as a professional, that is, when I decided to earn my living from theatre. Fortunately my early years as a professional gave me a wide range of experiences – I taught Political Science in a college in Delhi, then worked in some excellent educational and community theatre companies in England as ‘actor-teacher’. I came back home and, reluctantly, started teaching acting at the NSD, went back to studying and performing Kathakali fairly regularly, etc. There seemed very different practices in the beginning but while in NSD, I spent some fruitful years looking at how the principles of Kathakali can be of value to the modern actor. When I left NSD to become a director-performer that too a solo performer, the big battle was to do with the search for a form...
Please tell us about the making and doing of Om Swaha and Theatre Union.
Around 1978, when cases of dowry harassment and deaths were beginning to be reported more frequently in the newspapers, some women’s organizations approached me and asked me if I would create a street play on the issue so that it could help generate debate among people. I told them I had no company of actors so the activists themselves would need to be the players. I started work by getting them to improvise around the issue along with some acting exercises. At some point, I invited Anuradha Kapur to join us as I was the only theatre person amongst an army of women activists!! Looking back, it was a great learning experience. Improvisations would lead to heated debates about what should be said in the play, the final message, etc. The play had its premiere in Indrapastha College one cold winter morning at 9 am in 1979. It was a very charged atmosphere...
We went on to do several shows in colleges, parks, all manner of public spaces including once outside a police station where a case had been lodged and the husband had been arrested and subsequently let off. The next morning we made front page news in The Times of India – the lead story with a big photograph – something unimaginable today. From this group was born Theatre Union. Most of the players left to go back to their organizations and new lot of amateur theatre actors joined us. Vinod Dua was one of them. We went to create a street play on the law on rape in 1980, when parliament was discussing amendments to the law.
What are the creative and political challenges that face you when you direct a play or prepare a role?
I think my work is political so I won’t make the distinction between the creative and the political.
I direct myself, these days. I have been for some years now doing a variety of things in theatre – making shows, teaching theatre (off and on) in the Bachelor of Elementary Education programme, conducting workshops for amateur actors, making Theatre-in-Education programmes for schools, doing impromptu comedy, etc. They all demand a very different mix of the creative and the political. One of the challenges for me at this point is how to create regular comedy routines that are live, reflecting life and the politics around us. To be truly current means being able to make and stage theatre even as an event is playing out in the world. This means very little time, so very little rehearsing (sometimes, maybe none at all!). And to do this on a regular basis…maybe monthly to start with that would be a real challenge.
The other challenge is how to take theatre into more and more spheres of life – schools and other organizations. How to make theatre more popular as a tool to understand, come to grips with, and direct our lives better. This means designing workshops where the participants get to use theatre in a more social sense – where theatre devices become the lens through which they can look and take stock of themselves and the society they are a part of. Then there is the challenge of how to train performers so they can devise their own productions. Today most of our urban actors simply act. They are not equipped to look at life around, abstract from it, recreate it creatively and then put it on stage for an audience. I have done this for myself over many years. I am now attempting to devise workshops that can help other performers do the same.
Create more shows that reveal layers of the complexity of life by using different mediums and forms of expression. I have been using the camera for some years now. I would like to travel India over a period of time to collect stories, songs, images, different forms of expression and then finally come home and feed these experiences into future productions and theatre-based programmes for schools.
I would like to research one particular event or incident in contemporary history and then create a show that reveals bit by bit how the political, the personal, the cultural, etc. intersect in the occurrence and the fallout of the event. It could be something as ‘everyday’ as an accident on the street.
In the last few years you have virtually changed the form of your theatre incorporating live singing and live video. Please tell us about that journey.
Early on I realized that if I work solo, with myself as director, then the excitement of show-making came from giving oneself really hard challenges with each new venture. My first solo was all movement with no text. The challenge for the second piece was how to move and speak at the same time. And so I did an interpretation of Brecht’s short story The Job. The next challenge was to look for other expressive forms to weave into the production. I met up with sound designer, Ashim Ghosh and we improvised to create A Deep Fried Jam. Half-way through the rehearsals I met a film maker, Surajit Sarkar and invited him to come and improvise with us. By that time the rehearsal space had become a kind of laboratory. In fact it seemed like each new art form was helping generate a new content for our shows. That was really very exciting.
Your plays are rich in allusions and imagery both social and personal. How do you decide what to use?
A Deep Fried Jam
I don’t think I pre-decide very much. We usually go into an ‘empty space’ and start from there. I may say to myself – let’s go the comedy way, or let’s just work with the camera and see what happens... Early on, I used to take a story as a starting point. Never a script. Nowadays, anything may work as a trigger – music, objects, an item in the papers or simply an idea – something that creates amazement, something that has resonances. We improvise with them and more images get conjured up in the mind and body. The starting point could be a tiny doll blown up on the screen via a camera and projector, like what happened with Heads Are Meant for Walking Into. We once started with one word – ‘departures’. It took us into so many pockets of contemporary life where people leave home, willingly or unwillingly. I think working with the camera has got me working with political material in as up front a way as I did way back in street theatre. The treatment, of course, is completely different.
Making theatre is a fairly organic process. Since I don’t have a director, and I tend to depend on the improvisation process, I have to go a lot by what ‘feels good’ or ‘feels right’ to keep for the show.
In your opinion what is the social responsibility of theatre and theatre persons?
Heads Are Meant For Walking Into
Primarily to be true to yourself – ensure that everything you put before the audience has been thoroughly chewed upon by your heart, mind and body and then come on stage with a total sense of belief in what you do. The form can be anything – most important is that you have turned yourself inside –out to make your piece of creation, that the process has been self-questioning and TOUGH.
Theatre people need to be more self-critical. We owe it to our audiences. It’s easy enough for a group of actors to find a script and rehearse it for a show. It’s far tougher to sit down at the end of each production, take stock of the work (having made it a point to gather audience response), and then to give yourself hard challenges for the next piece.
If you are self-critical enough, then I’d say don’t give up doing theatre. There is a lot weighing against theatre practice– badly paid, negligible state support etc. But if you love it and take it seriously, then find the time somehow even while you have another job to do it. The world needs more theatre.
More dialogue within the theatre world and with the world outside is another important need. The more we talk and share with each other, constructively, the richer will be our theatre; to dialogue with the world outside on every available forum, on how critical theatre is to our lives. To dialogue with state and other organizations and convince them on the need for support to theatre, etc.
And finally, I’d say we need to broaden the definition of theatre so that it can combine with the other arts in a fuller way. Also, more importantly, discover more ways of using theatre not only as an end in itself but also as a means for richer education.
How has being a woman impacted your work?
In every possible way I suppose. I’m sure it impacts on my choices of themes, on the kind of interpretation, of expressive language...
But, on a different note, probably because I was made to specialize in the male role in Kathakali, today, in creating work, the male and female lie along a continuum for me; at least in terms of energy. I am not talking of psychological makeup or of gender as it plays out in our everyday world. Simply in terms of a creative energy. Probably that’s why I have often, quite unintentionally, though, chosen to interpret stories in terms of the male and female element that resides in all of us. For example, in Khol Do, the father’s search for his daughter is so intense; he begins to find her within himself. Or in Brecht’s The Job – the story is of a woman who leads her life as a man...
My comedies are usually about women who have some crazy obsession, and have an amazing power to make their impossible dreams come true – a power that leaves some men gasping…..!
What is it that excites you most about theatre?
That it is LIVE. There is no other art that is as close to life as theatre. Yet it has the power to transport you. The medium is the human body in its WHOLENESS – body, mind, heart, spirit – all present on stage in full element, full force... No other art has that.