Doyens of drama: In conversation with Akhila and Gowri Ramnarayan, the leading ladies of Chennai theatre
There are a lot of adjectives that can best describe Akhila Ramnarayan’s body of work. Out of them, versatility and variety stand out with unquestionable surety. Besides being one of the five co-founders of city-based dance institution Sahrdaya Foundation, she is also a veteran theatre artiste, having acted in plays for a number of theatre groups, most notably JustUs Repertory, founded in the year 2005 by Akhila’s mother, Gowri. Currently in a state of a rediscovery of sorts, Akhila is now involved in two other projects, the first being a return to academia after an eight-year gap, as an Associate Professor of Practice at Krea University (Divisional Chair of Literature and Arts), and as a curator of cultural programmes for Krea’s Chennai Centre. The latter looks like an exciting prospect — a rock album featuring original songs written by Akhila herself, recorded with the help of guitarist-composer Vedanth Bharadwaj, a long-time collaborator of hers, along with others like Praveen Sparsh, Shreya Devnath, Paul Jacob and Doug Carraway. “The album is a long-held dream. Also, I’m just beginning to work on a book that straddles my scholarly and creative pursuits. It’s still early days though,” she adds.
Been brought up in an environment of theatre and music, it was only a matter of time before Akhila decided to take up these fields seriously as a profession. Reminiscing the early days when Akhila showed signs of her talent, Gowri says, “Reciting poetry aloud was something that our family always did — in Tamil, Sanskrit, English, and sometimes in Hindi. We preferred poems and not devotional shlokas and brought every ounce of drama that we could while reading these poems. Akhila was particularly good at this. All of us would watch her make a drama piece out of poems, and that was certainly encouraging.”
But Akhila credits the success that she has attained so far to the freedom given to her by her parents. “They wanted both my brother and I to do whatever made us happy. But they wanted us to do it well. They still do. And, during difficult times, they’ve never interfered beyond asking how I felt on those occasions, and let me sort it out myself,” says Akhila. But did she always know what her calling was? “Frankly, I don’t know what a calling is. I find Cal Newport’s argument in his book, Deep Work, compelling, which says that if you engage in the difficult, but often lonely, frustrating, and failure-ridden process of achieving excellence or expertise in any area, you get to that point where the work is its own reward, complete with all its pains and pleasures.”
The stage is her world
Akhila has acted in a number of plays, including Flame of the Forest, Water Lilies, Dark Horse, Sarp-Sootra and many more. She has also written scripts for other productions like Don Quixote, Swadesh and others, followed by one of the biggest highlights of her career -— receiving the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar award in 2013-2014 by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. “Did you expect her to achieve so much and win laurels of this magnitude?” we ask Gowri. “No, I didn’t think about her becoming an actor,” she replies. Further adding, “But I do believe that Akhila began to love theatre at WCC where she played lead roles in two plays. Not only did she do them well but also with great enjoyment. For her, dialogues were not lines to be learnt by heart and delivered in well-modulated speeches. They had to be steeped in one’s own response to them. She had an innate love for the spoken word, and savoured its light and shade, and its nuances.” Talking about the differences and parallels between their respective journeys, Gowri reminds us that she wrote her first play when she was 49 years old. “It was a reaction to the death of a poet I admired, Arun Kolatkar. I was also doing other things in my life, as a journalist and musician. So, theatre came to me pretty late in life. As for Akhila, I guess she took up theatre because of me! But, both of us are passionate and even obsessed with theatre.”
City of dreams
With innumerable plays staged in Chennai in the past few years, the theatre scene in the city is budding with energy and talent like never before. The cherry on the cake is when foreign theatre groups and playwrights collaborate with city-based directors and organisers to showcase their scripts and productions. Despite this positive change and evolution, Akhila reminds us of certain truths, saying, “It has evolved in terms of the presence of more theatre groups and festivals. There is a decent body of work coming out of these groups but we still have miles to go in terms of professionalising theatre and creating larger crossover audiences. Tamil theatre and English theatre remain polarised even though some individuals and collectives are bridging that gap. Also, we don’t do enough to acknowledge and foster the presence of women in Chennai theatre.” With regards to the influx of productions by global theatre groups, she makes a strong case for our home-grown artistes. “Our local artistes are global too. They travel, and so do their work. It’s just that there’s not enough conversation among us. Only when the lines of communication open up across constituencies will genuine exchanges take place,” she says.
A chance meeting with entrepreneur Kapil Viswanathan, a key member of Krea’s Governing Council, led to a series of meetings between Akhila and Krea’s Vice Chancellor, Sunder Ramaswamy. “I was impressed with their vision and unique mandate on interwoven learning based on the liberal arts model,” she says. Having been a part of the committee that selected Krea’s very first cohort of students, she adds, “We have collaboratively devised the entire core and skills curriculum, and worked together on designing the majors. This trimester, I’m hugely enjoying teaching writing and oral communication after ages. Further down the road, I’m looking forward to interdisciplinary courses with environmental studies or cognitive science components.”
Besides her work at the university, Akhila is also trying to instil some awareness about global issues in her own foundation. While the international discussion on climate change is still fresh from the ripples caused by teenage environmentalist activist Greta Thunberg, Akhila is doing her bit for the movement through Sahrdaya. She shares, “Something that I’ve been thinking long and hard about lately is about how artistes can join forces with thought leaders in every sphere to tackle the biggest, most pressing problem of the 21st century — climate change. How do we catalyse action through awareness? Our planet is in peril. There’s no point in envisioning the Sahrdaya Foundation of the future if there isn’t a future for the Earth.”
No time for ‘no time’
Having so many things to do simultaneously comes with its own set of challenges. For Akhila, it’s no different; it’s always a matter of time. She laments, saying “I feel like I don’t have enough hours in a day to finish tasks that are often unrelated to each other — grading assignments, making flyers, giving talks, attending meetings, scripting commissioned projects, curating events, organising social media campaigns, learning lines and slogging it out in rehearsals. I have to also remember to make time for my own creative work, whether writing, composing music, or singing.”
However, Akhila does her bit to stay fit and be prepared for her daily routine by following a strict fitness regimen. Her followers on Instagram need no reminder of this, as she posts frequent updates about her runs and workout sessions on the platform. “I’m obsessive about my physical regimen, which consists of yoga, strength training, and kalaripayattu. That’s the challenge — to ensure that I eat right, sleep, relax, and workout at least five times a week. I do it simply by prioritising my wellness. Nothing is worth giving that up for,” she says.
If you are still dumbfounded about how she manages to do all that she does, she has the answer to that as well — “I’ve learned that multitasking is actually uni-tasking. When you’re doing one thing, you have to switch off from a thousand other things that are screaming for your attention. Being fully there in the now is the key. Also, having coaches and mentors who are on your side and are reminding you of these priorities is also critical. I’m lucky to have them.”
Mom’s the best
Talking about the nuances that she has picked up from her mother with regards to her art, Akhila says, “Her focus — aided by concentration, intensity, attention to detail, utter and total absorption in the task at hand — is formidable. She will see the same actors work through the same scenes time and time again, while relentlessly sharing feedback. She is also marvellous at taking feedback and turning a production or piece of writing completely around on the basis of external inputs.” Adding that the main way they bond is through work, she points out that there is a thin line between their professional and personal time. “My mother was also my first teacher, not just in theatre but in music and literature as well. Whatever I love, I have learned from her (except maybe playing pool/billiards!). Work is the umbilical cord that still connects us.”
It’s fair to say that the artistes at Gowri’s JustUs Repertory are blessed to have the opportunity to work with Akhila. Gowri agrees when asked about how much her daughter’s theatrical contribution has elevated the group’s body of work. She says, “Greatly I’d say. Firstly, because she has prioritised working in JustUs Repertory with commitment and discipline. She is involved not only in acting but also in matters of production, stage management, etc. Even in a play where she does not act, she is ready to do audio projection, make announcements, give lighting cues, do backstage assistance, sing a song in the background, design posters and do social media publicity. And she has also fleshed out a character that’s very dear to me — Chandni, the Mogiya tribal woman, in my play Night’s End — with fierce commitment. It’s not easy for a Tamil woman from a privileged background to play a tribal woman from an elusive nomadic tribe, somewhere in the vicinity of Rajasthan. You have to create not just a different mind but a whole new body to do that. But, she did it and continues to maintain a strict physical routine for her body, in readiness for a full range of movement and other physical possibilities in theatre. She gets inspired by working hard and doing something over and over until she nails it.”