Reality is never far from the stage when Kuljeet Singh is in charge. The Delhi-based director and actor’s production, Project Antigone, explores the power of dissent, and is a contemporary take on the Greek tragedy. His group, Atelier Repertory Company, has previously adapted Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories, Bu, Thanda Gosht, Dhuan and Kaali Shalwar, in the play Kuchh Afsaney, which recalls post-Independence conflicts as well as the present fears.
Singh will travel to Pune for the Vibrancy Festival, a two-day diversity and inclusion event organised by the Center for Creative Transformation, on the occasion of World Mental Health Day, and speak on “plurality and heterogeneity in Indian theatre”. “In the idea called India, nothing is complete without the essence of ‘multi’. India is multi and multi is Indian. By nature of our existence, everything is plural and the arts are a reflection of or response to our existence. If this postulation stands correct, then shall we not look at the myriad threads theatre offers to us in different hues and shapes? Let’s celebrate those hues and shapes,” he says.
His group Atelier Theatre has a long experience of working with students and amateurs, and Singh will use that expertise to create improvs with actors. “Improvs will explore the plurality within the social fabric of our existence. The actors or participants would be given tasks to improvise with a set of props in a given space, using their bodies to create short performances,” he says.
Singh started practising theatre in the late ’90s at the University of Delhi in a college theatre group. In 2000, he formed Atelier Theatre to create a body of work that is socially meaningful and sustainable. “As far as reason for doing theatre is concerned, it is multi-layered. I strongly feel that all art forms are therapeutic and live experience like theatre is no exception. Theatre enables and directs our course of action in life. I feel this is good enough reason to practise it, even if the funds are low. Funds are important but not the lifeline of doing something one feels strongly about,” he says.
One of Atelier’s formidable works was Seekh Kabab, written and enacted by Singh, which revolves around the 1984 pogrom in Delhi. Singh had also presented an intense play from the US on the massacre, titled Kultar’s Mime, in the Capital. The plays were in response to Singh’s earliest understanding of the politics of the Sikh identity. “During operation Blue Star, I was studying in a school in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. My class teacher used the word ‘aatankwaadi’ (terrorist) for Sikh students. I was too young to understand the meaning of the word then. It was a few years later, when I moved to Delhi, I created Seekh Kabab based on the 1984 riots, as a response to the trauma I faced during my school years as a ‘terrorist’,” he says.
Like many theatre enthusiasts, he started as an actor. In due course of time, he began to feel he was better with ideation and conceptualisation, which led him to try his hands in writing and direction. “It was a pleasant exploration, working with new and experienced actors, and creating action that seems unimaginable while reading,” he says.
Currently, Kuljeet is working on two productions — Heer Shakespeer based on 18th century Punjabi text by Waaris Shah and Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The second one is Eidgaah Ke Jinnaat by Abhishek Majumdar. Additionally, Kuchh Afsaney based on banned stories of Manto and a few other productions by Atelier Repertory Company are travelling India and abroad on a regular basis, he adds. There is also his new cafe-cum-performance space in Delhi that welcomes all artists from across India. “I did what people said is impossible, all my life, from theatre to starting a repertory company to having a performance cafe. Atelier, as a cultural organisation, emerged out of this gestation of people negating and not believing in dreams. I feel I am a dreamer and I am happy to be the one,” he says.