Going off beat on an offbeat track
I think it is safe to say Abhinav Grover is cut from a different cloth. Braver, perhaps? What else can explain a 20-something spending a better part of two years in a far flung, ultra-non-millennial gurukul, with no ulterior motive except to better his craft.
Hailing from a small town a little south of Delhi, Abhinav is an engineer turned theatre actor. This is brave in itself, but what makes for an exciting tale is his uncompromising passion for traditional Indian folk theatre. Intrigued and all ears, I sit down for a nice chat to learn all I can about him. He is kind and allows me to be my nosy self.
So how does a young man from your everyday, garden-variety middle-class household find himself here?
“I have always been a performer, right from school days. My mom, a former actor herself, pushed me to participate. Growing up on a diet of Indian Laughter Challenge, I soon took up comedy and mimicry. But it was only on reaching college that I really began to explore theatre. My time with the Nukkad Naatak- Hindi Drama Team, not only inspired me to write my own work, it still keeps me going back to college theatre. There is a certain quality of brotherhood and spirit integral to the college theatre scene that I am yet to witness in professional theatre.”
Theatre-bug-bitten, our subject had his mind made up to go to drama school, a decision that looking back he feels worked out best for him. “Being an actor is a personal, life-long learning you undertake, it is only the technicalities of the craft that can be taught. It was an intensive experience that helped polish my wayward ways.” This was also where he was first introduced to the concept of Physical Acting. “When we first started, I was in for a rude awakening. Didn’t acting simply mean gaining command over your text? Evidently not. For the first couple of months, I was stuck in a loop of being caught off-guard. ‘Be an animal, they say. ‘Embody water, and fire, and air.’ I was completely disillusioned. Kya hai yeh. Isse thodi acting kehte hai.“
A more welcome awakening came in the way of traditional Indian forms. Where contemporary movement brought discomfiture, he took to traditional movement instinctively. And while this may have restored his confidence, it clearly didn’t satisfy his thirst. “Yakshagana gave me the perfect opportunity to explore physical performance further and master my weakness.”
So the love affair began. It is evident now seeing his body sub consciously engage as he talks me through the transformation of the big and strong Bhima to the small and meek Yudhistir in the change of a beat. Abhinav recounts, “In one of my very first lessons, Guruji spoke of rhythm. Tat-thai-tat-thai. Synchronizing movement to taal. Gaining mastery at this would mean synchronizing every movement to the beat of your own heart. The beauty and power of this struck me when I saw him imbibe it himself and perform to it.”
As he speaks of taal, I realize it was something he strung along when naming his own theatre company along with partner Vaishanvi RP, ‘BeTaal’. “Being called Betaal, especially at the Gurukul is being dealt with an undisguised blow. Many questioned our choice of name. But Betaal doesn’t necessarily have to have only a negative connotation. Breaking out from rhythm signifies change and dynamism and breaks the monotony, bringing about the onset of something new to look forward to.”
Quizzing him further on the beginning of this partnership and the contributing roles played by each, he says, “Vaishnavi was my junior in drama school. She comes from a strong Marathi theatre background. We connected over our shared theatre-making ideology. Our working style and capabilities complement and balance each other out. She brings the voice of reason, practicality and experience to my impulsive creativity and naïve ideals. Quite frankly, pieces we do wouldn’t see the light of day if it weren’t for her.”
In the relatively short time since its inception, BeTaal has under its belt multiple exciting productions, two of which were selected to be showcased at Thespo in the very first year they tried. Quite predictably these pieces draw heavily from folk and traditional influences. But what stands out is their undeniable relevance in contemporary times.
What goes on behind the scenes to conjure up this seemingly perfect formula? “Most of what I write comes from my own experiences, reading, and stories I hear. For instance, Chenda was born out of people I met back at the gurukul, Paanchavali stemmed from an observation of modern relationships. As for my writing being socially relevant, I suppose it comes from the vigour of youth, of wanting to make work of substance that resonates loud and clear. Many a time though, this means a lot of material that we devise and process ends up being a lot darker than what I originally intended.”
This brings me to another fascinating yet largely uncharted territory that Abhinav has ventured into. A short while back he adapted and directed Kurosawa’s Rashomon for a festival his alma mater participated at. “I was introduced to Rashomon while in Drama school and the genius of the text stayed with me. The movie itself makes vivid use of silence and beats in its narration of the subjectivity of truth. But I realized that to take the text to stage, realism wouldn’t be enough. Some form art and movement based story-telling would be required. Thus came about a marriage with Yakshagana, while also occasionally infusing it with aspects of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
With such potent experiences up his sleeve, I can’t help but wonder at what lies in store for the future. Even so, Abhinav is at a juncture that perhaps most artists find themselves at sooner or later. Idealist vs. Realist. “It is time I step out of the only learning zone and move towards application in the real world. Exciting times are ahead. Something Vivek Vijayakumaran, a Bangalore based actor trained in Kudiyattam, said to me perfectly resonates: “Ultimately we are contemporary actors who have learnt these forms, so they should help us stand out even when we are doing contemporary work. My body should speak. The rhythm should be seen. The theherav should show.” I still have a long way to achieving this.”
I believe Abhinav Grover is a through and through student of life. Being enchanted by the road less taken is not uncommon. But by staying true to it, Abhinav paints a refreshing picture. What he recalls as a moment of shining glory, underscores this further.
“It was early on in my Yakshagana training. I was fascinated by the highly coveted role of Ravana. I have no clue how or why, but I bagged it and was set to perform with the troupe, including Guruji, who played Surpanakha. The performance was utter magic. Seeing how Guruji came alive on stage, caught me off-guard for a moment. Not once during rehearsals had I seen this vigor. But boy was it infectious! Feeding off of him and learning from him, I was filled with a new found energy and calm. These were pure, unadulterated moments of performance. And ones that will continue to inspire my art.”
Pick a Play and Run!
Yugandhar Deshpande is a delightful young Marathi playwright from Pandharpur, a tiny pilgrimage town in Solapur District, Maharashtra. At just 25 years of age, he’s already writer six plays, been in a writer’s workshop with the Shafaat Khan, Pradeep Mulye and Jayant Pawar. He’s had plays open at Thespo, Kala Ghoda and the NCPA’s Centerstage Festival. For those you having visited the Hive, he was also one of the people responsible for it becoming an alternative venue for the performing arts.
Of course, none of this was visible in his demeanor when I sat down with him to talk about his penchant for certain geometrical shapes in his narratives, and his obsession with the idea of ABSOLUTE.
Gaurangi Dang (GD): You grew up in a small town. What was home like and how did you end up in Mumbai?
Yugandhar Deshpande (YD): At home there is Mom and Dad, and I have five older sisters. My dad was a bank officer in Bank of Maharashtra and mother is a housewife. I was in Pandharpur till my tenth grade, and by then three of my sisters had already gotten married. After that I went to Pune to study.
I took admission at an engineering college in Pune, but left it midway though my first year because I wanted to study the arts. My father wanted me to finish my degree so the next year I took admission at DMCE, which is an engineering college in Navi Mumbai. I did three years of that and got really frustrated, so I refused to go to college in my final year.
GD: So how did you get involved with theatre?
YD: It started at my engineering college SSPMS in Pune. I didn’t want to go to class and I had heard that there was this session happening where people were jamming together, so I went for it. Then I started helping with backstage and production and kind of just stuck around.Then when I came to college in Mumbai, a bunch of us got together and started doing theatre just to keep us occupied. It was all very random, but by then I knew that I enjoyed doing theatre more than I did attending class. So we registered for an inter-college competition and I wrote my first play CHAUKATH AANI PATANG.
GD: How did you start working with Awishkar?
YD: I had heard that they were conducting a writer’s workshop. There was an audition process for which you had to send in a script. . I sent in AVYAKT, which was selected for Thespo Fringe the previous year Then we had an interview, and about six of us made it through that into the us made it through that into the workshop, which went on intermittently for about a year. It was through this process that BAIL MELAY (Bull is Dead) was created. The play is about a small town couple that moves to Mumbai amd their struggle to understand and achieve modernity l the while grappling with their insecurity of the voice of tradition in their heads. Bail is symbolic of what they have chosen to leave behind.
GD: What came after BAIL MELAY?
YD: After that was AGDICH SHUNYA (Absolutely Zero) at Kala Godha and ABSOLUTE at Centrestage 2016. Agdich Shunya is the story of two drinking buddies that start off at the same place and how one moves forward but the other doesn’t.
ABSOLUTE is about people who are in search of their respective ultimate realities. I think I wrote it at a time when I as a person, was having trouble connecting with the people around me. I loved them and I also knew that they loved me and I desperately wanted to connect with them, but I just couldn’t.
GD: Is that what led you to curating? To help people connect with something?
YD: It all started when I heard about The Hive from a friend of mine. Back then there weren’t a lot of spaces like that in Mumbai. I fell in love with the space and ended up spending a lot of my time there. There I met Sudeep and he told me that he wanted to do theatre at The Hive. I knew people that did theatre. So I got involved and that’s how I started curating different kinds of work.
After working at The Hive for a year, I realized that there were so many small-scale productions that were looking for venues to perform. When Hive opened, there weren’t a lot of alternative spaces like it, but now you have spaces like Tamaasha, DSM, and many cafes and bars. My objective was to get the play across to as many audience members as possible.
Since then Anuja and I have started our own company called Theatre Across and we now curate work for The Drama School, Sitara Studios and Afterclap in Thane. We pick a play and try and give at least a run of five to six shows at different kinds of venues across the city.