Office hours are over and the workmen have gone home. A stretch of factories in an industrial district of Delhi, quickly turns quiet. On a late evening in March this year, a group of well-dressed people gathered in the driveway of an unused factory to watch a play, titled Karkhana, about the lives of employees in an office. The guests wondered if they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Suddenly, thumping music began to play.
They followed the music into the factory and came up against a billowing black curtain. Pulling it aside, they entered a room where people were sitting at desks, working away in a repetitive and perfectly synchronised choreography of office grammar — papers flying, staplers clicking, forceful stamping and violent filing. What had looked like an abandoned factory on the outside was really a hidden theatre. Kala Factory is Delhi’s newest performance venue, and one more name in the city’s growing list of eccentric spaces.
Theatre in Delhi has traditionally been presented at the famous proscenium auditoriums — Kamani, Little Theatre Group and Shri Ram Centre (SRC) — of Mandi House, a stone’s throw from India Gate. Venues such as Kala Factory are a long way off in terms of distance, aesthetics and politics from Mandi House.
“I wanted to think about the entire experience for the audience, not just what happens after the third bell. We worked in the factory for almost two months to get the details right,” says Nikhil Mehta, director of Karkhana, a postgraduate in theatre direction from Columbia University. “I am now interested in de-centralising ideas of theatre in Delhi, locationally and also with respect to narrative and performance style,” he adds. A surprisingly large number of actors and directors feels the same way.
Doors are being opened to performance spaces in basements of houses and in factories. LSD or Learn Something Different is a potter’s studio with 10 walls in different colours and textures — grey to yellow to exposed bricks. Here, Lokesh Jain will present his new solo titled Murdhaiya, based on the autobiography of Dalit writer Tulsi Ram.
Bakheda, a warehouse in Said-ul-Ajaib in south Delhi, shut down two months ago but not before hosting plays ranging from a dark tale of abuse called Saag Meat, to Something from Nothing, a non-linear, genre-free medley of scenes and conversations by London-based Vacuum Theatre. In Indirapuram, theatre clown Ashwath Bhatt is building the Humour Factory, an “intimate and dynamic” space.
And in a tony locality, there is a venue so secret — It Must Not Be Named. This is Delhi’s most vibrant underground theatre address, staging plays by local and visiting groups. “There comes a period where a subculture develops around a kind of space or performance. Many of Delhi’s new spaces wouldn’t pass muster with the authorities as they don’t have basic facilities such as toilets for the audience. In these subversive venues, however, the power lies with the artiste. A fearless kind of theatre is played out as there are about 80 seats and groups don’t have to play to the gallery,” says a well-known playwright.
In the rush to occupy the margins, a historic mainstream hall has returned to centre-stage. Akshara Theatre, lovingly crafted from four types of wood, has registered a 70 per cent increase in bookings from independent groups in the last two years. “We built this theatre in the ’70s so that people who wanted to achieve a degree of excellence could find a home. With weekend booking requests coming in for January already, we are offering special rates to encourage theatre on weekdays,” says Jalabala Vaidya, actress and co-owner of the hall.
If Akshara Theatre is a 10-minute drive from Mandi House, Studio Safdar is in a cramped, working-class neighbourhood in far west Delhi. “Studio Safdar is not a ‘hall’ in the conventional sense. It is an in-between space, where you go to after your basic rehearsals are done, and before you go to the big auditoria. We are thrilled that it is being used so much and that people who come here find in it a certain offbeat charm, precisely because of the non-gentrified setting we are in,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, actor-director of Janam that operates Studio Safdar. From object theatre to puppet theatre to clown theatre to solo theatre, Studio Safdar has attracted a cross-section of activity and a loyal following of audiences — despite not having parking space.
Studio Safdar does not charge rent; groups that use it are expected to pay the maintenance costs. Akshara Theatre has a price of around Rs 15,000 for a weekend show, and a weekday scheme in which groups don’t pay a rental but share 50 per cent of the ticket sales with the hall. Kamani auditorium, a 660-seat hall considered Delhi’s most elite space, charges Rs 65,000 for its 2 pm -10 pm slot while the 11 am-2 pm slot is for Rs 32,000. The perks? The auditorium comes equipped with the latest technology.
Two reasons have forced the rise of alternative venues, says director-actor-playwright Neel Chaudhuri. “First, independent theatre groups cannot afford Kamani or SRC. Large sponsorships are a rare thing,” he says. The second reason is that “once groups try out alternative venues, other aspects open up in terms of innovating with space and technology. Groups have to get inventive,” says Chaudhuri.
At a basement venue where Good Hands/Godspeed, comprising two monologues, was performed, Chaudhuri did away with a stage and tiered seating for the audience. “Both actors began to use voice and silences in nuanced ways. They struck an immediate relationship with the audience that was seated inches away from them. With intricate gestures and eye contact, they gave a layered performance, especially in the story of grief and loss,” he says.
“An actor should be able to perform in any space,” says Jain. In Murdhaiya, the audience will sit on bean bags, chatai and chairs as well as on staircases. If they don’t like the performance, there is much else to feast their eyes and minds on, from paintings propped on easels to LSD’s raw ceiling. Jain, who has studied Dalit literature extensively, pored over the text until the story of discrimination and exploitation resonated with him. “Only if I am moved emotionally, will I will be able to move my audience. An actor must be like an amoeba, ready to fit into the surroundings,” he says.
Jain uses a set of three lights because LSD, like many such venues, has no stage equipment. For Bhatt, the challenge was to incorporate Studio Safdar’s structure — a central pit around which the audience sits on low steps or chairs — into the storyline. “There are two pillars in the middle of the space. We turned the pillars into trees in The Zero Story, a clown play about a family of numbers in which the youngest, Zero, is bullied by the others. In Ek Mulakat Manto Se, a solo on the writer of the Partition, we suspended bottles from the ceiling to create a scenic allusion to Manto’s fondness for drink,” says Bhatt.
As artistes mould their stories to new venues, experimentation is informing their theatre. In the past few weeks, Akshara Theatre has hosted Pankaj Tiwari’s abstract adaptation of 30 Days in September, in which the trauma of childhood rape haunts a girl in the shape of a man with red-blue skin; Ruins of Mid-Air Castles, a wordless play by S Somasundaram about a Delhi family during the 1984 riots; and Bumboo by Epic Shit Entertainment, in which Hindi abuses become a language of their own.
Sometimes, generous rewards can follow a strong performance. “Groups cannot charge the audience due to legal restrictions. They pass around a box in which people pay as they like. Some put in Rs 20 but there are bigger notes, too,” says Chaudhuri.
But the evening’s collection is uncertain and groups cannot build a budget around it. However, the lack of ticketing also means that people who cannot afford a Rs 300 or Rs 500 ticket can come in for a play. “We find it balances out in the end, usually,” says Chaudhuri.
The story appeared in print with the headline The Stage is All Yours