Theatre in India has grown by leaps and bounds, especially over the last ten-fifteen years. Nevertheless, most theatre enthusiasts still hesitate to take it up as a profession, because they find it financially unviable. Nevertheless, these lovers of stage still act, direct, work backstage etc, to be in touch with something that resonates with them. Here we feature four theatre personalities from Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore who are passionate about theatre and have had the courage to pursue it as a career in spite of all the challenges they encounter…
Bangalore-based Lekha Naidu’s love affair with theatre began in 2006 during a workshop in college conducted by Bangalore based actor-writer-director, Vinod Ravindran. The workshop culminated in Lekha acting in Act III of Lorca’sBlood Wedding for the Ranga Shankara Festival as a platform performance. She reminisces, “That remains a great first memory of theatre for me.”
The theatre scene in Bangalore is burgeoning with more and more youngsters being attracted to the stage. But is theatre a viable profession? Do people opt for it as a full-time profession, as opposed to a part-time hobby? Lekha believes, “We are at the cusp of change and theatre is definitely being accepted by ‘the elders’ as a profession, albeit excruciatingly slowly, one indifferent grandparent at a time.” And to buttress her point, she adds, “The number of IT professionals giving up their ‘real jobs’ to take up theatre should be a fair but uncommon testimony.”
However, she observes, “People are finding ways of making theatre more and more viable but purely performances, in my experience, can’t keep one afloat. One does work connected to the skills one has acquired through theatre or things connected to what one really wants to do.” Lekha has chosen to work with children; she says, “I do workshops, work with art administration, photography, film and almost anything that’s related to performance and expression and that interests me. I freelance within the arts community and that seems to suit my temperament. Fortunately I’m able to get by lately. Having understanding and generous parents doesn’t hurt at all!” At 27, this young lady has packed in quite a bit!
While theatre may never draw crowds like popular cinema, Lekha believes that prospects for theatre in Bangalore are shifting – and for the better, “The scene is definitely changing. In Bangalore there seem to be newer and newer audiences with every show. That doesn’t necessarily mean a regular audience, what one would snootily call a ‘theatre educated audience’. Theatre still has to compete with films making crores by the hour and television’s no-brainer comfort and on top of that seem worth braving the traffic. But there is immense potential and hope. There definitely is more awareness and people seem to open up more readily now.”
So what challenges does she face in her pursuit of theatre? Says Lekha, “Apart from the initial resistance from my parents and just finding work to do, my lack of training I think is the biggest challenge for me. I more or less learned on the job, like a sizable number of the community here. Me not being rooted in any one tradition, either dance/movement or music or having any sort of formal training in any form of theatre bothers me. I think it has turned me into a hungry sponge, absorbing and consuming anything and everything.”
And that is what will keep her going in pursuing her passion. She recently debuted as a director and directed the controversial Vagina Monologues in February. She concludes saying, “In terms of work, I see great new work happening all the time around me, especially in the last couple of years. There are braver, newer choices being made and risks being taken. It is a good space to be in.”
Michael Muthu is quite the veteran in Chennai theatre circles, and began acting when he was in Class 5. However, it was with Loyola Theatre Society’s Black Comedy in 1988 that Mike, as he is known, discovered that theatre was a passion for him, something he wanted to follow as a career. This at a time when theatre was most certainly not a profession that one aspired for!
Mike decided that apart from acting, he loved directing too and started his own theatre company – Boardwalkers. He says, “I just wanted to do theatre my way. In those days there was only one other theatre group and to do plays that appealed to you was practically impossible unless you started your own theatre company and did them yourself. I was already directing my own plays in the late 80’s for the Loyola Theatre Society and so I knew how to run a theatre company. When I got out of college, the first thing I did was to start Boardwalkers. It was completely worth it – it’s now almost 25 years later and I have absolutely no regrets…”
The actor- director gushes, “I love theatre because it is live – spontaneous – and the response is instant. As an actor I loved the fact that I could become somebody else – say lines I would never say in real life, talk in a certain way. walk in a certain way, feel a certain way. To feel jealously, anger, sadness, joy, love, lust, rage, weakness, uncertainty, strength – to really feel them – I love that…the freedom to be someone else.”
But his passion doesn’t stop at acting; directing gives him a high too. “As a director I love the challenge – and the process of creation – the breaking down and the reassembling of the entire script. I like directing because as a director I am in control of how the production looks, sounds, and most importantly, ‘feels’.”
Nevertheless, theatre comes with its own challenges. Mike says, “The challenges remain the same – it’s always the money – there just isn’t enough. Sponsors always seem to dry up; we have to keep thinking of new ways to attract the sponsors and the audiences. It is always an uphill task but somehow we manage – I don’t know how – but we do. It really is a miracle and we have managed an average of almost four productions a year.”
But what is heartening for him is that there has been a perceptible change over the years. From when he started in theatre, when there was only one theatre group in the city, today there are around 40, which he says is ‘pretty cool’. He observes, “The audiences also have improved – with more people taking to theatre as a source of regular entertainment.”
Mike signs off on a positive note. “Indian English theatre in India, I feel, has a bright and promising future. India has one of the biggest English speaking populations in the world – there are new scriptwriters emerging along with trained actors, directors and technicians – with better scripts, better actors and better performances – things are definitely going to get better. And all this should logically lead to larger audiences, bigger budgets and better pay for actors and crew. A viable profession? Definitely; in about 10 to 15 years, it will happen.”
Theatre began to exert its charms on Karthik Kumar after he left school. The actor-director from Chennai recalls, “It’s been a journey that started for me in 1995, when after passing out of school I took very seriously the nascent curiosity of what a life in theatre would be like. Through my graduation and post graduation, what stayed constant was my love and perseverance in doing more and more theatre, as an actor, director, producer, stage manager and technical person as well.” He is also cofounder of the theatre group Evam along with Sunil Vishnu.
Karthik waxes eloquent when he talks about his passion and what drew him to it. He philosophically muses, “Isn’t it fascinating that something can be created by people coming together over an idea, and shared with people in the need of absorbing that idea, and then reaching resonance in a way that cannot be recreated unless re-performed, while leaving all people involved mildly changed forever. Unique and magical, like most fairy tales sound. But this one is true!” He adds, “That’s what drew me to it, and keeps me with it!”
So what prompted him to start a theatre group? “The prompt was that there was a huge lacuna in the space of entrepreneurship in the arts – too many people were easily satisfied with too little. Mining the arts meant panning for gold, with a long term unshakeable belief in striking gold – and that is exactly what the arts needed.” Today, Karthik has no regrets and is happy about Evam’s progress. “The journey has been magical – one that I could only have imagined- and many people (erroneously) think we did imagine it. Was it worth it?” He answers with an enigmatic smile!
And as always, money is an issue. He says, “The challenge always is to be self funded and self sustaining, and it’s a fair and healthy challenge to handle. Remaining viable is the greatest gift we can give to the arts, because art should never have to be mandated by external funding alone – in which case all art will become commercial and commercial alone. The arts should always strive to earn its own value through its interaction with society, and seek to be self sustaining. That is always the greatest challenge and one that can be won.”
Wearing the hats of both actor and director, Karthik nevertheless prefers directing. He reasons, “Direction is the more powerful space – although the joy as an actor is more immediate. The director’s joy is like that of a farmer – seasonal, long awaited, hard earned and sometimes least appreciated, and most often personal.” He continues in his philosophical tone, lacing it with humour, “I think the most dramatic role I have played is off the stage – donning multiple hats in the field of the performing arts. Sometimes entrepreneur; sometimes artivist; sometimes desperate cause flag bearer, and always an optimist. Quite an exacting role, I’d say!”
When we ask him whether theater is a feasible profession, he says, “Ten years ago this would have been a point of conjecture.” Today Evam employs 14 full time associates in three cities, and two countries. After dishing out the statistics, he asks us, “This question has been answered by fact, don’t you think?” Well…yes, we guess so!
Vaishali Bisht from Hyderabad felt the call of stage when she was nine-ten years old and decided then that this was what she wanted to do in life. She threw herself into theatre and tells us that she has ‘participated in all things dramatic since then’. She pursued her passion seriously, heading to the UK to study the subject. She graduated in 1996 with a BA (Hons.) in Theatre and Drama Studies from the University of Kent at Canterbury, England and returned to Hyderabad in 1997. She has been practicing theatre professionally since then.
She says, “The opportunity to explore various lives from an insider’s perspective is what drew me to theatre – every role, every play creates a world, so that in effect, one is living many lifetimes and experiences that otherwise one may not have occasion to inhabit. The theatre is a uniquely luminal space that allows one to playfully engage with questions of existence and the meaning and meaninglessness of life!”
Vaishali has donned the hats of both actor and director but connecting with an audience via acting is her preference. She explains, “Having directed before, I prefer acting since theatre is largely an actor’s medium and the directors I have worked with like Faraz Khan, Vinay Varma etc., have been extremely collaborative in their approaches to the work thus giving me great freedom to play.”
Talking about the theatre scene in Hyderabad, she says, “In the context of Hyderabad as a city, theatre has certainly grown as spaces like Lamakaan foster experimental work and audiences are exposed to new and exciting productions. The appreciation has grown but sadly the money for productions remains limited and hard to come by. Nationally, it is great to see the theatre community engaged in professionalising and collaborating as this has resulted in an environment more supportive to the growth of theatre.”
Having pursued theatre as a profession herself, she believes it is a viable option. But she elaborates, “Theatre can be a profession in India, but only if the theatre professional is as creative in earning a living as they are theatrically!” For all aspiring theatre enthusiasts, this is her advice: “You are required to be open to various roles, jobs etc. (workshops, scripting etc.) all in the general playground of theatre if you want to sustain yourself solely with theatre.”
We ask her what her favourite role has been. “I am extremely selective as an actor,” she responds. “So all the roles that I have performed have been ones I have enjoyed for a variety of reasons: either the text, or the director/ensemble, or the process of rehearsal and discovery. Hence I don’t have one favourite role,” she smiles. Nevertheless, Vaishali believes that, obstacles are stepping stones to growth. “All the challenges have been opportunities! I am blessed to be able to pursue my passion as a profession.” That is something to cheer about for sure; after all wouldn’t all of us love to do what we love and make a successful profession out of it?