Backstage Pass

Backstage Pass

While theatre in Hyderabad is still in a very nascent stage, the future seems promising. This week, we take a look at how theatre has evolved in one of India’s most culturally blessed cities.

In a city with a social calendar as rich and diverse as Hyderabad’s, you’d have to be a fool to crib about having nothing to do. Between food festivals, live music performances and fashion exhibitions alone, there’s something going on every day. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find things as diverse as performing arts workshops and stand-up comedy performances. But what really stands out on the social calendar is the increasing number of plays on offer. Growing in stature and popularity, live theatre is one of Hyderabad’s newest pastimes and arguably the trendiest.

Hyderabad’s history dates back centuries to the days of Tipu Sultan and the Nizams. Through the years, the city has developed and maintained its reputation for cultural wealth. That realm has traditionally been dominated by literature (especially poetry) and music, but there’s little doubt that storytelling has played a significant role.

Today, theatre in Hyderabad still remains in its formative phase. Compared to cities like Kolkata and Mumbai, we can’t even begin to compete in terms of professional quality. The execution of productions in other cities is often top-notch. Talent is abundant, the costumes and sets are designed to look as realistic as possible, and audiences appreciate the effort that goes into a production. In Hyderabad, productions sometimes lack the je ne sais quoi that can turn an amateurish effort into a commendable one. But with the growing demand for theatre, it is imperative and inevitable that this change will find its way to Hyderabad’s greater theatre community.
 
One must admit that over the past two or three years, the production values of Hyderabad’s theatre offerings have improved drastically. The difference is considerable. But where Hyderabad does not lag behind (and never has) is in creativity. The originality of some of this city’s plays is amazing. Stories are often incredibly captivating, and character development is usually spot-on. The ongoing challenge is that acting and design sometimes don’t do justice to these excellent scripts.

Ankita Rajurkar, who’s worked with both Samahaara and Dramanon, is a former president of Nasr’s dramatic society. Involved in Hyderabad’s theatre scene since the age of 16, she feels that the craft is gaining popularity among younger people. “A lot of the older crowd is into drama, and the younger ones are joining them in patronising theatre,” she says, adding that very few people in the city have a genuine passion for it. “It’s mostly family and friends in the audience. The proportion of people who really care about theatre is quite low.”

But that’s not to say that there is an absolute dearth of quality. Several local theatre groups have been performing at a very high level for years, many of them spearheaded by men and women with ample theatrical experience and an undying passion for the art form. These people know the value of substance and prioritise high-quality scripts. But they also appreciate the importance of aesthetics and refuse to compromise when it comes to execution. Creative differences are prevalent, but that’s what makes the local scene as promising as it is.

Ask anyone immersed in Hyderabad’s theatre culture to name some of the more prominent groups and individuals associated with the craft. Chances are you’ll hear names like Mohammad Ali Baig, who heads the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation; Mala Pasha, who co-founded The Torn Curtains in the early 1970s when English theatre in Hyderabad had just taken root; and younger actors like Rahul Ghosh and Adity Roy Sinha of Dramatists Anonymous (Dramanon). There are dozens more aiding them in efforts to draw attention to a time-tested art form that is yet to strike a chord as vibrant as music and cinema, with many more talents-in-the-making waiting in the wings.

 

R.K. Shenoy, who has brought Dramanon to life as creative director, started the group in 2000 with the late Chandan Shatapathi, both of whom were professors at colleges in Manipal, Karnataka. “Theatre is therapeutic,” he says, “and has been used to treat depression and aggressive behaviour. It allows you to be someone else and get in touch with your inner self. Theatre is meditative, invigorating and extremely fulfilling when you get a great response from the audience. We started Dramanon because there was no existing theatre culture in Manipal. This was a platform to let students showcase their talent, collaborate on the craft, and channel their energies towards something positive and productive.”

Dramanon’s first play was “Cactus Flower”, a stupendous success with a packed audience of more than 750. Upon graduating, some of the group left for Bengaluru and started a chapter there in 2006. A year later, R.K. moved to Hyderabad and founded another chapter of Dramanon. Several people associated with the three branches have acted in movies, advertisements and television. With voiceover artists, musicians and graphic designers among its ranks, Dramanon has won several awards for writing, direction, production values and performance. There has never been any driving factor for the group other than the desire to create good theatre, and R.K. never envisioned that Dramanon would one day become so big.

As for his own laurels, R.K. has directed eight plays in Manipal and 16 in Hyderabad. In 2012, he started a short play competition called SKitS’ (So Keep it Short), which has been a roaring success. Last year, they had Rajat Kapur and Shernaz Patel as the finals judges. The day after, the pair performed their hit play “Love Letters” in the city. R.K. has also conducted nearly two dozen workshops for adults, children, students and corporate employees. Under his stewardship, Dramanon won the award for best play at Ayna two years in a row, and honours at the 2013 Short & Sweet Theatre Festival.

I asked R.K. what he thought of the burgeoning theatre scene in Hyderabad, and whether it faces any dangers. “Many theatre groups are emerging, and my only request to them is to get trained and mentored before venturing out on their own. It took me eight years of exploring theatre before I started my own group,” he says.

“Eventually, it’s the audience that decides who will survive and who will close shop. Theatre culture is fostered by quality plays, not by making your friends and family buy obligatory tickets to ensure a full house. In the past month alone, Dramanon has done five productions and nine shows, six of them full houses with over 900 people in attendance. Most were repeat audience members who like what we do. If you do good work, people will come to you. Audience members are wise people who value every rupee you charge them. Nonetheless, I think that every drop in this cultural ocean is a small contribution that will make waves over time. Quantity will eventually lead to quality.”

But there is still a long way to go. R.K. feels that certain things are lacking in Hyderabad, especially infrastructure. “What we desperately need is an outstanding venue with the required infrastructure for the performing arts. As an architect, I’ve designed auditoriums in the past and would very much like to create one for Hyderabad. I’ve been pursuing this cause of mine, to get a 300-seater auditorium that will not require microphones thanks to acoustics, and with lighting facilities already in place. Each seat will have a good view of the stage without anything in the way. The benchmarks for this would be the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and the Rangashankara in Bengaluru.”

Another popular group in Hyderabad, Samahaara, was co-founded by Anjali Parvati Koda, the daughter of filmmaker Mohan Koda. “I had finished 12th grade and wanted to drop out to work with my family, but theatre was a happy compromise. My family later pushed me to finish my graduate and post-graduate degrees, for which I’m grateful to them,” she says.

Samahaara started with four theatre professionals who all went on to get academic jobs and four amateurs, all touring a play on mathematics in schools and colleges. “I was the only girl on the team of ‘Crest of the Peacock’, and I was doing the music and a small classical dance. From 50 shows of that, we now have 300 actors on the team, both amateurs and professionals working in theatre, movies and television,” Anjali says, pointing out for the record that the girls now outnumber the guys. The group’s dream was not just to do theatre, but for other groups to come alive and flourish. Today, not a single week goes by in Hyderabad without a play or performance.

Anjali wrote her first play at 18, almost nine years ago, and though the reception and reviews were positive, the turnout was not. Today, any play by Samahaara nearly always has a full house, whether it’s the first show or the eighth, an original or a classic. For artists, that is most encouraging. For the theatre culture of the city, it’s uplifting.

“I’ve since written two more plays, ‘Dominic Wesley’ and ‘Gregor Samsa’, and co-written the adaptation of an American play called ‘The Last Wish Baby’,” says Anjali, who co-organises the Samahaara Hyderabad Theatre Festival with her team, involving groups from Hyderabad for a total of 23 shows in auditoriums across the city. “We started the Samahaara Comedy Night series last year, with four short plays and stand-up comedy, something I only ever did for a closed audience before that. I acted in two plays, one a reading performance of ‘Hamlet’, and the other Anton Chekov’s ‘The Bear’. I also organised more than 50 Samahaara workshops for schools, colleges, companies and the public. My first play, ‘Purushotham, He – The Victim of Spiders and Pressure Cookers’, is now part of the syllabus for the MFA and BFA courses at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Some of these were carefully planned, and some of them just happened.”

Coming from a family steeped in the performing arts, theatre was but a natural course of progression for Anjali, who assisted her father even when she was in school, sometimes taking weeks off. In addition, her mother is a costume designer and her brother a screenwriter, co-writing films like Panjaa and Anaganaga O Dheerudu). When she assisted her father on a made-for-TV film that went on to win a Nandi, Anjali knew she wanted to write and direct. Told that she needed to understand the actor’s psyche to do so, she made her way into theatre and met Rathna Shekar Reddy, her Samahaara co-founder, who had just returned from the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York.

I asked Anjali about her opinion of theatre in Hyderabad, which she feels is stronger than ever. “When we started Samahaara, there were mostly older groups doing the rare play and a few people bringing performances from outside the city. That’s fine, but what about theatre and artists from Hyderabad? Since we were a young team (I was 17), we got lot of the new crowd to be part of things both on stage and in the audience. It was a lot of amateur work, and we were keen to take things to the next level. We started the Hyderabad Theatre Festival to give local groups a bigger platform, bringing directors like David Zinder from Romania and Stu Denison from London to the city. One thing that made a big difference was the availability of places like LaMakaan and the National Institute of Fashion Technology’s auditorium, both the right size for theatre.”

Bhushan Tiwari’s first project was “Tamilian Mismatch and the Marital Twist”, which he wrote and co-directed with his friend Vicky Jain for SKitS 2013. Being selected from 24 scripts helped them get on track, and they formed the group Rang Manch to put on a performance that remains both memorable and popular.

“I dove deeper into writing after getting acknowledged for ‘Tamilian Mismatch’, writing another script called ‘Phantom Vibrations’ for Short & Sweet, which unfortunately didn’t work out. I’m currently making a short film version of ‘Tamilian Mismatch’. Once I wrap that up, I’ll focus on some interesting script ideas and thoughts. And there’s SKitS 2014 to look forward to, where we plan to perform once again and make a mark,” he says.

Bhushan believes that Hyderabad has a good foundation for theatre. All that’s lacking is that extra push. “We need some of the bigwigs like QABTF and Samahaara to step in and encourage talent in the city. If they pave the path by organising competitions and festivals, they’ll certainly find gems. One such group that takes an encouraging approach to theatre is Dramanon. R.K. has always been keen on promoting theatre artists to come up with their best performances. Theatre must also be encouraged by the Telugu film industry,” he opines.

Bullish on the future of theatre in the city, he says, “Earlier this year, a group of theatre artists organised a festival. The initiative was taken by Krishna Shukla and Sneha Mukherjee. We expected a lot of support, and though some art lovers were kind, we still lacked the kind of sponsorship we needed. The festival was successful, but it could have been even more so if there had been more support from the media and theatre groups.”

Theatre veteran Pranava Singhal is thrilled that the Dramatic Circle of Hyderabad is celebrating its golden jubilee this year. He joined some three decades ago in 1981, acting in a production of “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. “It’s been a lot of fun and hectic activity! I’ve been directing for DCH since 1983, doing over 30 productions till date. Each and every one has been an individual dream with its own challenges. A director’s satisfaction lies in the end product that is created, in terms of audience impact given the resources available for that production,” he says. “I’ve done a range of work – serious plays like Peter Shaffer’s ‘Equus’, William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ as a twin bill with Arnold Wesker’s version ‘The Merchant’, and William Mastrosimone’s brilliant ‘Extremities’; as well as many comedies  and farces including works by Neil Simon, Bill Manhoff and Abe Burrows. A few years ago, we premiered ‘Bollox’, a stage adaptation of Farrukh Dhondy’s delightful short story, for the Hindu Theatre Festival.”

I spoke with Pranava about the future of Hyderabadi theatre and whether it faces any risks. “On the contrary, I don’t think it is in danger at all. In fact, it’s looking very healthy! When I first became involved with theatre in Hyderabad in the early 1980s, there were just two groups performing English plays – us and The Torn Curtains. If neither of us were doing anything, nothing happened! Today, there are a lot of youngsters involved with a host of groups, some of them very good. On most weekends, you have some theatre activity in the city. And while there has been very positive growth in informal acting spaces, the main constraint is the paucity of premium spaces – a good, technically equipped auditorium at prices affordable to theatre groups. There is only Ravindra Bharathi, the availability of which is always shrouded in bureaucratic opacity!”

The good thing, Pranava says, is that the future is in good hands. “Theatre is alive and kicking, despite the bogey of cinema and TV. As a live form of the performing arts, it has its own magic for both the audience and performers.             This is difficult to replace.”             – Ashwin