Ace light man Arghya Lahiri opens up about stagecraft, and all things theatre
Arghya Lahiri, one of the finest light men in the country, talks about stagecraft and more with Indulge
The illuminator, who has changed theatre viewing experience to a great extent with his sense of lighting alone, is often called Mr Theatre by his colleagues. But 40-something Arghya Lahiri, doesn’t take any compliment too seriously, and that is what pushes him further, not only as a lighting expert, but also as a thespian. One of the finest and leading light persons in India, Lahiri -- a true-blue Bengali settled in Mumbai -- recently staged Rona Munro’s Iron in Kolkata and is now busy designing the light works for a musical, Sing India Sing, to be staged in Mumbai this October. Excerpts.
You are a Bengali, but Calcutta has never been your home. How much of a Calcutta connect do you have? How much of a true Bengali are you?
I have family in Calcutta. I visit about once a year and have done since I was a school kid growing up out of the country (Kenya). I enjoy its character, its Calcutta-ness. It can't be replicated. It's a metropolitan city, but it's unhurried and it's ancient and wise. Being a Bengali is part of my fundamental identity. I don't really think about it much, apart from wishing I engaged with the literature and the culture a lot more. But I feel that about a lot of cultures. I'm a Bengali the same way I'm from Bombay, and a formerly expatriate kid, and a theatre-person and a failed right back. It's who I am.
Do you keep track of the way theatre is evolving in Bengal? Have you watched any play here? What do you think is lacking here?
I'm lucky to be involved with Thespo, a festival for theatre people under the age of twenty five, and with Literature Live!, one of Bombay's lit-fests that also showcases a lot of theatrical work. Both allow me to access work from around the country and the world.Theatre in West Bengal has the same joys and the same challenges as a lot of other places in India - exciting new work, the tussle between generations and traditions, the arrogance of youth, which is gradually superseded by an understanding of why traditions evolved in the first place. The challenges are the same everywhere - a lack of space, a lack of state-funding, censorship. But these are things people all over the world have to deal with. I remember being very affected by TinCan's Video, almost ten years ago. I thought it was a very bold piece of work - full marks for ambition.
As a director, are you more drawn to the psychological distress or stress within relationships in a family? For instance, Wildtrack dealt with a father suffering from dementia.
I just like interesting characters in difficult circumstances. Those usually involve stress. The fun is in watching people extricate themselves, or not.
You first dealt with illumination at age 11 for your school play in Kenya. Since then, how much has lighting in theatre changed, and, how much has your work process evolved?
It's for other people to say how much I've learnt. My approach changes constantly. It's a weird little side-effect of the disjointed manner in which we work - I look at a design practically every time we have a show, which is markedly different from the extended 'runs' in other countries. But that allows you to refine a design over and over. Technology has evolved - it's now possible to do so much before you actually walk into a space. Ambitions have grown. The language is being distorted, perverted, made better because people bring myriad influences and the theatre has always been able to absorb all of it. But some things haven't changed much at all: not too many people want to light, it's still not a 'glamorous' job, there's not a lot of money when you're working in the theatre, and our timelines make it very difficult for carefully phrased work in the way we'd like - it's always a rush, it's always a compromise.
You have worked with QTP and Industrial Theatre Compnay for a long time. How has that helped you grow as a light specialist?
This isn't restricted to being a light person. My time with these people has made me a better designer, a better director and a better human being. These people are my colleagues, comrades, teachers, critics, babysitters, armed guard, collaborators and my family.
You are known as Mr Theatre among your friends and colleagues. How much did your experience as a lighting expert help you to grow as a director?
I'm really not sure about the 'Mr. Theatre' tag. People are just being kind. But yes, being a lighting designer, especially for other directors and companies, has helped immeasurably - because I get to think like a director, for a variety of different approaches and texts. It's practice. As a consequence, when I direct, the lighting is always a part of that process from the word 'go' because that's just how my head is wired now.
Which theatre groups, according to you, are making a strong impact in drama, and who are your favourite budding theatre directors?
There's just too many to list - again, I'm blessed to be a part of Thespo. All over the country, there's some incredible work happening - varied, intricate, violently original. They make me feel old and unoriginal almost every day.
What more do you think needs to be done for theatre in our country to keep pace with the international works in drama?
State-support, or some form of institutionalised patronage that is not dependent on a return. Theatre needs to become part of our educational curriculum because it produces more rounded, empathetic individuals. That's true of all art. We need more performance spaces. And we need to stop hankering after international comparisons. Yes, there's a great deal to learn, particularly how things are done. But we have such a diverse set of languages and traditions and it’s enriching to pursue those, too.
Why do we see so less of you on stage as an actor despite great performances, especially as Dr Watson in Hound of Baskervilles?
I'm not really an actor, although I've been doing a little more these past few years. I was off doing other things and that fell by the wayside. It seems it may not have passed me by entirely. Which is a pleasure. Because it makes me a better director, I think and allows me to relate to actors a little bit more.
You had also worked as an assistant director in a couple of Bollywood movies. Are there any plans to make films, too?
I'd like to. But it will happen in its own time, if it is to happen.
What are the new projects that you are working on? When will they be staged?
Currently, I'm working on a musical Sing India Sing as the lighting designer. It's scheduled to open in Mumbai in October.