The apartment opposite the Prithvi theatre witnessed young blood exploring some creative alternative theatre during the Thespo 19 week. One of these teams was the Organised Chaos (OC) Productions, a Bangalore team, with their rendition of Draupadi. I had a long chat with Shivangi Nigam, the director of the piece, and our conversation flitted from how the play unveiled multiple Draupadis who came out of the devising process and some other things too.
Interestingly, in Thespo 18 too, a bold and insightful platform performance based on Draupadi, directed by Abhinav Grover was performed as a solo by Vaishnavi RP. Paanchavali, as the play was called, explored the fierce character of Draupadi, as a woman, as she shared how the five Pandavas were in bed.
(I managed to catch Vaishnavi after her rehearsals in the evening)
Alistar B (AB): I hope the traffic isn’t too loud for this recording (as we sat under a street light on the curb near Yari Road) How was your show? (Some smart FB stalking told me it was last month)
Vaishnavi RP (VRP): No issues. We’ve all been there. The show was good and I’m glad it got to be part of the short play festival.
(Meanwhile earlier that day, I was on a call with Shivangi)
Alistar B: Hi Shivangi! Good time?
Shivangi N(SN): Yes, I’m currently giving directions to the rickshaw wala but we can talk.
(I smile, mentally acknowledging the “directing” wordplay.)
AB (to Vaishnavi and Shivangi): What was your process? How did you distill that final product?
VRP: This piece first evolved out of my end semester project for The Drama School
Mumbai (DSM). For this performance we could collaborate, but I chose a solo as I wanted to focus on, learn about, and explore myself. At DSM we watched a documentary where one of the performances was a solo piece – Nathanhai Ananthbat by Shaoli Mitra. I spoke to Abhinav that I wanted to do a piece about a strong character that I related to. He swiftly pointed out that any character could be strong. He wrote a 60 minute script in a couple of days (of course, we were racing against time). I’m a trained Kathak dancer but I joined Abhinav at the Yakshagana Kendra in Udupi where we blended most of the mudras and postures into the piece.
SN: Our theatre teacher Arif threw us a script for Darpan.
(I find out that Darpan is an intra-collegiate theatre festival of Christ University, that acts as a prelim for inter-collegiate fests)
SN: As this class of 12 girls read it together, we realised despite it not being the best script, it inspired us to create something new along the same lines. It began with a family tree of the Mahabharata! As our first show neared, we gathered more material and strengthened our research.
AB: How many shows have you put up?
VRP: Seven. Two at DSM, a few at the Yakshagana Kendra, once at Thespo 18 and one at Overact Studios for the short play festival.
SN: Seven. A few times in college, once at the Deccan Herald festival, one at Thespo 19 and one at the 6th National Theatre Festival at Guwahati.
(Seven each. Hmm. Fascinating parallel. Thinking of parallels…)
AB: Do you think the mainstream cinema does justice to female characters?
VRP: Mainstream cinema has a commercial approach. I don’t want to protest this but rather comment on it. They don’t want us to show the female experience in a patriarchal world. It is not in line with what they’re trying to sell, which is their bottom line. This has pervaded the industry. There were roles I didn’t want simply because I didn’t believe in them. But a slow and steady change is emerging and I hope to see that one there is as big a market for the space we’re shifting into.
SN: It takes an audience for a show. Mainstream cinema takes pieces of reality and strips it of subtlety but it is hard to avoid it. Kind of like “if you don’t want no one to talk about me burn all the books.” But there is never a paucity of an audience. Draupadi didn’t have a pre-determined agenda. It built itself organically through rehearsal. I didn’t want to empower Draupadi by endowing her with a voice but rather do that for my actors. The play was a form of therapy.
(CUT TO PLAYS)
AB: How did the performance find relevance in personal narratives?
VRP: Initially I wasn’t clear on what I wanted but physicality was a priority. When I was working on the play for Thespo, I went back to Abhinav’s first draft to analyse character intentions. I haven’t read the Mahabharata closely but I wanted Draupadi to be like my version. She is multifaceted – a warrior bound by circumstances. As I understand it, she was won by Arjun, but unfortunately she became the Pandavas’ communal wife. The piece helped me describe my experiences as a woman. Abhinav helped me on this insightful quest to design the Draupadi, I would want her to have been.
SN: The idea of multiple Draupadis in our script came out of our class of twelve girls. We didn’t want to portray Draupadi in a heroic light but rather use her as our medium, to detail the narratives within the team. The experience of womanhood, sisterhood and the struggles of both created the dialogue of the play. The Draupadi of the epic was the skeleton, our stories were the flesh. After multiple shows, it became cathartic to the performers as they uncovered and resolved their conflicts themselves.
AB: How was the play received across shows? Is there corresponding evolution?
VRP: The first audience was Puja and Tushar at DSM. They found the paradigm and perspective shift interesting. We restructured the script after second show. My apprehension about Thespo was put to rest as I saw an audience who was as invested in our Draupadi as I was. It was gratifying to see the audience perceive what was beyond the sexual innuendo. The line ‘Arjun ne bahut sukh diya, lekin adhik samay ke liye nahi.’ talks about stability in a relationship in the garb of sexual commentary. The balance between good humour and subtext was a fine one.
SN: It has been a greatly motivating journey so far – a lot of positive responses. The play has evolved organically since we began. We’ve kept dipping into our inner narratives so editing becomes hard, but necessary, keeping the audiences in mind. The play has shape-shifted a lot. Some parts are stand-alone and don’t affect the narration but are difficult to let go of because I’m very attached to the play. Watching some male audience members break down, we were satisfied that we connected across genders. Future shows look unlikely (despite some of us wanting to pursue theatre after college and a teacher’s request that we stage it at Rangashankara) because we’ve exhausted our resources.
AB: If you were to retell another epic or a character in an epic, which one would it be?
VRP: Hidimba, Bhima’s wife, also a Rakshas. Bhima married Hidimba with the intention of having Rakshas children, skilled at warfare. I would enjoy Hidimba’s view and subverting perspective again.
SN: I’ve explored mythological and abstract theatre a lot so I’m leaning towards historic plays like Alekar’s ‘Begam Barve’. Period pieces and meta-narratives are also major weaknesses.
Bhaiya yahaan par hi roko.
(I realise she is talking to the rickshaw wala but take the hint anyway and hang up with a ‘Thank You’)
– Alistar Bennis
Stage It! Project It!
One of the highlights of Thespo 19 was a young man who directed projections that designed itself into a performance space. Matthew Wasser grew up in New Jersey after which he moved to Massachusetts at the Holy Cross where he was learning Physics until the theatre department opened a major in design. While he was at Guildhall in London he met Saatvika (one of our veteran thespoans) who introduced him to Thespo.
He came to India on October 10th 2017 and shared his knowledge through a workshop – ‘Playing with Pixels’ and a fringe performance called ‘Esteban’s Village’. This performance was not only unique because of how the narration was guided by projections but also saw performers connect in the same space whilst still delivering a live performance from three different cities connected by the internet.
I managed to catch him on the phone moments before he caught his flight back home to the USA.
Alistar Bennis (AB): Matt! I hope I didn’t catch you in the middle of something. What time is your flight today?
Matthew Wasser (MW): Oh, not to worry its late midnight. I’m just doing a bit of clean up and some last minute chores.
AB: What are your plans once you land?
MW: Well once I get back to the US I have an offer that if I follow up on would take me to Brooklyn. Immediately after that depending on the funding there is also a plan to work with Station house in London. Our show is quite similar to Esteban’s Village in a way. The last time we performed we connected our theatre in London, to the one in Gaza in Palestine. I’m certainly looking forward to that since I’ve got a whole new video system that I’ve designed for this. I might also go back to my old college, Holy Cross, and help out on a few new projects.
AB: That’s quite a lot! Since you’ve been in India for around 3 months, how would you now compare India’s approach to theatre on an International scale?
MW: I’m not sure what to make of that. I’ve been speaking to some people about the Aladdin production that’s happening this year and I worked in the JBT (Jamshed Bhabha Theatre) at NCPA which is one of the nicest spaces I’ve been to including the ones I’ve worked in London and New York. Prithvi of course reminds me of my college theatre at Holy cross. The biggest element in this field are the people, you have to understand them in order to work with them efficiently. Communication is an important factor when you want to do something creative especially when it gets down to specifics, especially with regards to technology.
When we were France we had visited a town called the ‘Bush’ in order to watch this dance performance that was happening in the local theater. It was a truly a cultural event, the whole village had gathered up. Touring through France is rewarding not just because of the community support but it also attracts different specialised craftsmen who come to see your work. The community support, is something that is very similar, here in India too!
AB: Here in India, theatre is often synonymous with having a lighter wallet. Financially, how feasible is theatre in the west?
MW: That’s a worldwide thing. If you tell someone you do theatre, the immediate response is “Oh what’s your day job?” (Both of us laugh which halts at a collective sigh)
In London I work with this group called the Station house similar to QTP who are currently applying for funding . There are several government programmes that are structured to funds the arts.
In the US, academics are often the big source of the funding. I worked with the West end group that started in the 70s when the government still used to fund these theatre groups. They’ve been hoarding equipment that they had collected from around forty to fifty years ago. Unlike the other bigger groups they are quite well known internationally they are bit off well. When I collaborated on one of their pieces we were funded by the Polish government after which we were invited upstate to a college who wanted their students to be exposed to the reputed West end group. That’s how academic funding is often how theatre in the USA survives which is not very encouraging as compared to Europe.
AB: Where do we draw the line between film and theatre when we talk about how projections slowly being a part of the theatre?
MW: I’m not sure if there is particular line. Theatre has the element of a live component, it involves real time in which the people are performing. I don’t do too much film. When the audience goes to the theatre, the audience goes for the action on stage. You talk to any lighting designer, the first priority is lighting the action or the actor. The same goes for projection though it’s very easy to mess up since projections move around while being bright, dynamic and colourful. It really gives an actor a run for his money and you don’t really want to do that. I remember in the workshop how we discussed how the video should be used as a lens in order to shift perspective. In real life we don’t pretend the TV on the wall is a painting, we accept the illusion it creates.
In Berlin there was this show called the Forbidden Zone where they set up these screens above the stage. There were a few cameras that they had been set up earlier around the room which focussed on the audience in the room. This footage played alongside the live performance in real time. There are several advantages of working with a screen exclusively for things such as the ‘unseen off screen’. Good video design in my experience is when the projection is used as tool to shift perspectives.
– Alistar Bennis
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.