Breaking the fourth wall: The rise of experimental theatre in India
The energy is high, and very palpable. Artistes across the country are riding high with a growing fervour for experimental theatre. Discovering newer spaces physically, and metaphorically, to showcase their ideas, these young histrions are doing their bit to push the boundaries, so to speak, and lend an all-new dimension to theatre in India. We spoke with a handful of rising stars to find out how they’re redefining the dramatic arts.
Quasar Thakore Padamsee, QTP, Mumbai
Theatre followers know QTP to be one of the most ‘alive’ theatre companies around. Like its founder Quasar, or Q in friendly terms, the group is constantly in the quest for out-of-the-box content. Their recent offering, Brotherhood, the ‘hip hopera’ from Canada, validates the point. QTP is also known for its youth theatre festival, Thespo, which has hosted 18 editions to date. While productions such as So Many Socks, Khatijabai of Karmali Terrace, and A Peasant of El Salvador have consolidated QTP’s pioneering status in Indian theatre.
“I believe in the ‘liveness’ of theatre. It’s one of the few mediums of interaction left where one live person is talking to another,” says Q. Their last three plays (two by Nassim Soleimanpour — White Rabbit Red Rabbit and Blank, and a love story by Arghya Lahiri — Wild Track) evidence Q’s experimental approach. “Collaborative or experimental works aren’t mutually exclusive. We like working in both (modes) — with a series of partners, and by pushing the envelope. It may not be drastic, but it is a nudge to create something new and exciting,” he explains.
As for English language theatre, he affirms, “It has taken a while, but finally, English is a valid Indian language, as the urban lingua franca of young India. There is a lot of new work written in English — in the way we speak it, not in a posh accent. We now have a generation of exciting playwrights writing in English.”
Shiva Pathak, Sandbox Collective, Bengaluru
“The audience wants more. Theatre enthusiasts have become more open and accepting of newer forms of art, and experimentation, which is why there’s a rise in such performances,” says Shiva Pathak, co-founder of the Sandbox Collective, reflecting on the growing demand for variety and novelty in theatre.
Sandbox recently staged Queen Size, a theatrical and choreographic presentation of the physical relationship between two men. “The whole production is done on a charpoy, which is quite a unique touch. It’s an artistic reaction to Article 377, which criminalises homosexuality in India,” she explains.
Shiva also highlights the popularity of devised and physical theatre. “It has been a trend for a few years now, and shows no signs of slowing down,” says Shiva. The collective, which is over two years old, presented Blank Page last year. The production, by veteran theatre personality Sunil Shanbag, featured poems by Nissim Ezekiel, Taslima Nasreen and others, combining the forms of theatre and music — all woven together to create an interesting, immersive piece that dealt with themes such as conflicted relationships, political resistance, identity and the art of writing.
“I think art is now becoming a way to rebel against the system. Not that it wasn’t so before, but the current political and social climate has made it all the more necessary for us to make ourselves heard,” she affirms.
Neel Chaudhuri, Tadpole Repertory, Delhi
Their most recent production, This Will Only Take Several Minutes, with Tokyo’s Hanchu-Yuei group, brought to the stage stories of vulnerable citizens impacted by new-age economics and culture. Neel Chaudhuri, the group’s maverick founder and artistic director, has always experimented with ideas.
“It’s difficult to summarise our approach to theatre. As a group, we have an open pedagogy that has evolved over the years,” says Neel about his eight-year-old troupe. An advocate of collaboration and the art of storytelling, Neel admits that they have certain formal and thematic preoccupations. Yet, he asserts why it is important to discover the strangeness in what might otherwise seem ordinary. “The root of much of our work begins with the presence of the actor’s body in space. That is the most fundamental relationship in theatre,” he explains.
The play is a testimonial to Neel’s methods, where the minimal sets are enlivened by the actors’ bodies serving as performance tools, with projected graphics, animation and text. “I think the word ‘experimental’ is misused. It tends to be conflated with ‘abstract’ and ‘avant-garde’. I think we definitely experiment with our work, but we never really called ourselves an experimental group,” observes Neel, who steers away from being stereotyped. “We don’t consider ourselves an ‘English theatre’ group because, again, it seems to signify a ‘type’ of theatre as opposed to a language marker,” he asserts.
Deepan Sivaraman, Oxygen Theatre Company, Thrissur
Theatre circles in Kerala are abuzz with the name Khasakkinte Ithihasam. The praise endowed on this stage adaptation of the late OV Vijayan’s Malayalam novel (also known as The Legends of Khasak) points to the success of the experimental elements incorporated by director Deepan Sivaraman.
“Experimental theatre for me is experiential theatre,” explains the 43-year-old founder of the Oxygen Theatre Company. “The spatially interactive scenographic language of the play—which is explored in an open-air setting—brings in elements like video, puppetry, fire and land-art,” says Deepan.
The essence of his efforts is in converging various senses, to create an aesthetic encounter rather than just a word-based narrative.
“A sensorial experience is a part of traditional ritualistic practices like theyyam, where the audience can feel the heat of the fire. The language of the play is inspired by theyyam and conveys the spirit of the art form,” explains the director, who’s currently an academician at the School of Culture & Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University.
Style of presentation apart, the text incorporates a message of togetherness. “Our nation is growing more intolerant with every passing day. In a milieu where people are being pushed aside because of their caste or religion, Vijayan’s text is nothing but contemporary,” Deepan adds.
Deepika Arwind, Independent Theatre Practitioner, Bengaluru
In 2016, she explored gender politics and biases with her production A Brief History of Your Hair. An ensemble performance that used theatre, dance, music, projected poetry and text, it approached storytelling through an interactive narrative. Veering towards a combination of forms and new media, Deepika hopes to keep reevaluating the experimental touchstone.
This year, her production No Rest In the Kingdom had many people talking even before the show premiered, thanks to an abstract publicity shoot. From garages, roads and bookstores to the restaurant Koshy’s, Deepika’s attire in contrast to the spaces gained her a fair amount of attention. “The shoot tried to mirror the idea of how absurdly people react to the other gender at regular spaces,” she offers.
Importantly, her attempt to go guerrilla with fewer props and easy-to-assemble backdrops qualified this as a truly experimental affair. Keeping things simple was a strategy, she explains. “The performance sparked conversations, and the reactions reaffirm why it’s important to perform such plays. The temperament is dark and satirical, but it’s funny and the characters are relatable,” offers Deepika. “There’s no preaching, and I’m not trying to resolve anything. It’s there to watch and introspect,” she says. Talking about the changing sensibilities of English audiences, Deepika observes, “People are still performing Shakespeare plays, but as reinterpretations. In fact, many young people are devising work that may not be reproduced exactly the same way, and that’s an interesting development,” she notes.
Sharanya Ramprakash, Dramanon, Bengaluru
Breaking barriers, that’s what Sharanya Ramprakash has been doing since 2014. As an actor, director and playwright, who co-founded Dramatist Anonymous (Dramanon), Sharanya has been active in the theatre circuit for nearly a decade. But in the last three years, she has managed to break the patriarchal tradition of yakshagana, a dance-theatre form that excludes women as participants. A student of the legendary Guru Sanjeeva Suvarna of the Udupi Yakshagana Kendra since 2014, Sharanya now performs as the only woman in all-male professional yakshagana troupes.
Akshayambara, written and directed by Sharanya, is “a reaction to the gender politics in yakshagana”, based on issues that she faced while learning, travelling and performing with the group. Sharanya presents a reversal of roles, where a man plays a woman (streevesha), the character of Draupadi, and Sharanya plays a Kaurava, from the Ramayana. “What happens when a man confronts a streevesha, and how does this work out in yakshagana? A whole lot of interaction happens. The play has offended, and in the same breath, moved the audience,” relates the artiste.
While she questions the 800-year-old tradition that formally excluded women, Sharanya asserts that such experiments ought to have happened earlier. “What disappoints me is the fact that people say, ‘oh this is something new and different,’ because it isn’t. It’s not new, and should’ve been done already. We need to find deeper and universal meaning to engage the form. It’s an inclusive art that can be watched by both rural and urban audiences, who may not share the same language,” she affirms. Sharanya lauds the rise of solo women performers in modern-day theatre. “It’s like a new movement. Women performers share the common thought that most scripts offer either weak or really short roles. For these women artistes, it’s like: if there’s no text for me, I will write my own and perform. It’s fantastic,” enthuses Sharanya.