The story of theatre’s coming-of-age in small town India

Hindustan Times | By
Nov 28, 2018 10:22 AM IST

A quiet revolution is sweeping the hinterland—more and more theatre enthusiasts are coming together in group and performing plays regularly

Rahul Vajpayi has closeted himself in his tiny room in the theatre hostel building in Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh (UP), his home for eight years. The 26-year-old actor is rehearsing the role of Cassio in the upcoming play Othello. He has got his short beard coloured light brown for the part. “I will crack this role in no time. Just watch,” he says.

Danish Khan, a member of Rangviyanak Rangmandal theatre group in Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh) is seen rehearsing for his part in the play, Abhimanyu.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Danish Khan, a member of Rangviyanak Rangmandal theatre group in Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh) is seen rehearsing for his part in the play, Abhimanyu.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Vajpayi is a member of Coronation Arts Theatre, one of the 12 theatre groups active in Shahjahanpur doing original plays as well as adaptations.

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Vajpayi and the battery of around 400 theatre artistes in town draw inspiration from film actor-comedian Rajpal Yadav, a Shahjanpur boy, who made it big in Bollywood. “More than half the actors currently active here come from Rajpal dada’s belt,” says Vajpayi, referring to the urban villages on the outskirts of the town.

Off the national media radar, armies of theatre enthusiasts are multiplying in nondescript cities in Bihar, Punjab, UP, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. They are driven by improved facilities, exposure to theatre and a possible career in films, TV.

“This is a quiet revolution of sorts,” says Mumbai-based theatre director and acting coach Ashok Purang, who has mentored many actors from the hinterland. “Many of them pursued medicine, engineering and management to make their parents happy. But after that, they are willing to give three to five years to theatre.”

Theatre enthusiasts in Bareilly, Shahjahanpur and Rohtak (Haryana) spoke to HT about their motivations, challenges and ambitions.

It is 10pm and much of Shahjahanpur, a small town in UP, has called it a day, but 59-year-old Zareef Malik Anand is working hard, making an appeal before a local politician for better lighting facilities at Gandhi Bhavan auditorium, where Anand’s theatre team just performed the play Othello.

Dissatisfied with the infrastructure, Anand uses his baritone voice and more than two decades of theatre experience to do a delicate balancing act – thank the legislator for his presence and also tell him that his artistes work in adverse conditions (for instance, the lights were coming from the side whereas they are supposed to come from the top, hidden from the audience). The setup was far from perfect.

“Artists do their best in a conducive atmosphere,” says Anand, founding director of Coronation Arts Theatre, which he established in 1987. “What you see now is a sea change from the time when I started out. We used to perform in open arenas in schools and temples with chairs, mic, and marquee taken on rent from the neighbourhood tent house. We have come very far. But this is nowhere near decent. There is still a long way to go,” he says.

In 1980, much before Anand’s celebrated student Rajpal Yadav arrived on the scene, Anand went to Mumbai to try his luck. He returned within three years but continued with theatre. “Nashaa chadh chukaa tha (I was intoxicated by theatre and acting),” he says, recalling the formative years of his group.

Actors of Coronation Arts Theatre group in Shahjahanpur (Uttar Pradesh) perform a scene from Othello. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Actors of Coronation Arts Theatre group in Shahjahanpur (Uttar Pradesh) perform a scene from Othello. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Like the rest of the country, it was common for male theatre artistes in Shahjahanpur to cross-dress for female roles. But Anand was adamant to break this tradition. His neighbours, the Sharmas, told him that he had their support. Rachna Sharma, younger daughter of a railway employee, stirred a controversy of sorts by entering the all-male domain when she joined Anand’s group. Rachna’s father used to organise Ramleela among his colleagues, and saw nothing wrong in his daughter doing theatre. “My mother was vehemently opposed to the idea. Then came something she couldn’t imagine: Me travelling outstation with the group,” says an amused Rachna, who now runs a beauty parlour. “I also improved my vocabulary through theatre,” she says.

Anand would go crazy every time Rachna pronounced “qanoon” as “kunoon” or “development” as “dualopment”. “What else do you expect from a Punjabi,” she bursts out laughing.

This is magic,” 13-year-old Meenakshi thought to herself while watching the play Ek Nayi Shuruaat back in 2000 in Rohtak, Haryana. She had gone there with her father, a school teacher and theatre actor. On the way home, she wondered about the girls on the stage – were they not shamed for this? Didn’t they get a beating from their parents?

Almost 20 years later, Meenakshi, who goes only by first name, is one of the most successful theatre artistes in Haryana. “I realise that I cannot bring about a revolution. But every time I perform, I am creating opportunities for girls who wish to pursue the creative arts,” says Meenakshi, member of Jatan Natya Kendra theatre group.

Ek Nayi Shuruaat, a play on gender discrimination, was shown across the state as part of the theatre wave triggered in response to the killing of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi in January 1989.

Until then, there was a tradition of swang (folk dance) and ragni (storytelling through songs) practised by a few families.

In 1991, inspired by the success of Kerala’s total literacy movement, the Haryana government involved street theatre groups or kalaa jatthas to improve the literary rate in the state. “These were small groups of eight to 10 artistes. Around 20 such groups were active in every district. We trained local people and they further trained others. In 1995, the literacy project wound up. By then, many of those teams had developed plays that touched upon social issues in Haryana,” says Naresh Prerna, co-founder of Jatan Natya Kendra.

Members of Jatan Natya Kendra, a theatre group in Rohtak (Haryana), during rehearsals. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Members of Jatan Natya Kendra, a theatre group in Rohtak (Haryana), during rehearsals. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

For Meenakshi’s generation, the new wave of theatre offered hope, relationships and challenges. Her first struggle was to convince her mother that theatre would not bring them a bad name. “Swaang karney jaa rahi hain. Public mein naachti hai (she is going to perform swaang and dance in public),” neighbours would tell Meenakshi’s mother, and she, in turn would reprimand Meenakshi.

Theatre brought about the proverbial winds of change. Never before had people of a lower caste visited Meenakshi’s Brahmin household. Now, they were sharing the sofa, vehicles and utensils. Changes among the male members of the group were apparent. Boys either became gender sensitive or simply quit. “We were doing a play condemning honour killing. One of the boys left our group saying that he would never support inter-caste marriage,” says Meenakshi.

Most of all, she says she can never forget the time spent with the girls of the theatre group. Previously, they had not discussed marriage, abuse or patriarchy in an uninhibited manner, like they began doing. They would explore how they could use their similar experiences in plays.

Writers of plays would often add a joke or two to balance the serious content. “And the joke was always on us girls. We got that changed, along with insisting on more sensitive handling of rape scenes and also sequences which had women talking about routine discrimination,” she says.

But the battle back home is only half won. “At present, my mother does not stop me. But she isn’t happy with me doing theatre either. One day, I hope I will have her by my side,” says Meenakshi.

In a congested neighbourhood in Bareilly, two hours’ drive from Shajahanpur, a mother is having a serious conversation with her son. She asks him if he has consulted the clerics before playing Lord Ram in the Ramleela, scheduled after 10 days. “It is just a role, ammi” says 28-year-old Danish Khan, actor and production designer with the theatre group Rang Vinayak Rangmandal (RVRM).

Around 10 years ago, Khan visited an orthopaedic surgeon and theatre enthusiast Dr Brijeshwar Singh. While practising in Delhi – much before he established a hospital in Bareilly – Singh was a regular theatre-goer in the city’s Mandi House theatre circuit. Singh wanted to bring the same finesse to Bareilly. Khan had been doing theatre for four years when he met Singh. Together, they approached artistes across the city to start a theatre group.

“I knew that theatre led to films. Now I love the stage so much that I’m not sure I would want to join films or TV,” says Khan, showing us a collage of his various get-ups for roles.

Dr Singh got a state-of-the-art auditorium called Windermere constructed in Bareilly and roped in writer-director Ranjit Kapoor to conduct auditions. Theatre stalwarts such as Hema Singh, Ashvath Bhatt, Pravin Gunjan, Praveen Shekhar did productions for the group and held workshops.

The group’s productions have played extensively across north India. RVRM member Shubha Bhatt Bhasin played the wife of the boxing coach (Ravi Kishan) in Anurag Kashyap’s film Mukkabaaz; Raees Khan played Professor Ramchandra Siras’ (Manoj Vajpayee) landlord in Hansal Mehta’s critically acclaimed 2016 film Aligarh.

Danish’s mentor, Rakesh Srivastava, is a veteran Bareilly-based theatre actor-director. For him, seeing these advancements is like travelling in a time machine. “Back then, we were always short of resources. It became our habit to look for household items such as beds, chairs and sofa sets which we could use in plays. We earned a bad reputation in the locality,” says Srivastava, who works as an assistant with Life Insurance Corporation.

Even rehearsing for plays brought its share of problems. Sometime in the early 1990s, members of Mayank Natya Manch, which he co-founded, were rehearsing a play inside a house. A boy, playing a crucial female character, was supposed to scream during a scene. People in the neighbourhood mistook it for a real-life incident and gathered outside the house. “The maulvi sahab from the nearby mosque played mediator, and rescued us from the mob,” recalls Srivastava with a laugh.

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    Danish Raza is a special correspondent with the Hindustan Times. He covers gender, identity politics, human rights, conflicts and online speech.

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