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In November 2010, minutes after the audience had given a roaring standing ovation to The Blue Mug, I stood up in a packed Esplanade Theatre Studio to ask the director, Atul Kumar a question.
It was the interactive session after the performance, and much of the predominantly Indian expatriate audience members were either sitting rapt in admiration of what they had seen or were breaking into regional chatter about the emotional depth of the devised theatre piece. The Blue Mug, loosely based on Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, is staged as a series of independent, fractured and introspective monologues by a stellar ensemble cast.
I asked Kumar with the feverish enthusiasm of a young theatre scholar, “What were the challenges of directing actors to play themselves on stage, and more importantly, share intimate and private memories with audiences?”
Kumar’s retort was both prompt and telling. He replied, “Don't take them too seriously, they are all Bollywood actors.”
Much like Kumar’s response, the theatre that he creates shares this ambiguous and at times problematic relationship with Bollywood.
Though Kumar shows acute awareness of the advantages of working with well-known Bollywood actors in reaching out to wider audiences, especially in the Indian diaspora, he is quick to remind readers and viewers in his interviews that most of the actors he works with were first stage actors, who eventually made their way into Bollywood cinema and became popular with audiences.
Kumar’s directorial successes, like The Blue Mug (the cast of its restaging in 2009 included Konkona Sen Sharma, Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey) and Trivial Disasters (2014) (with actors Kalki Koechlin, Purab Kohli, Richa Chadda and Cyrus Sahukar), undoubtedly pivot on the popularity of his actors who work both on stage and in Bollywood cinema or Indian television.
But in these productions, Kumar seems to challenge the actors to experiment and push boundaries of conventional notions of performance that cinema or television usually do not have scope for.
In both The Blue Mug and Trivial Disasters the actors are completely de-glamourised. Their characters are mundane, performing everyday tasks and placed in everyday situations. In recent years though, Kumar has been more interested in collaborating with artists from more diverse performative practices, including traditional and contemporary dancers and folk musicians.
A self-confessed accidental actor, Kumar was born in a Marwari (trading) family in Old Delhi.
At the age of 14, he replaced an injured actor in a school play and this marked his moment of self-discovery and the birth of his love for theatre and performance. Soon after, Kumar joined the Delhi-based theatre group Chingari and met some of his closest associates, collaborators and friends in theatre. In 1984, a 17-year-old Kumar was cast in the now-renowned independent Indian theatre and film maker Rajat Kapoor’s directorial debut The Firebugs.
Kumar went on to study French literature at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and developed a deep admiration for the theatre of the absurd, especially the works of playwrights Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett.
As a young thespian Kumar was also interested in learning traditional Indian art forms and spent three years learning kathakali1 and kalaripayattu2 under the Indian dramatist and practitioner Kavalam Narayana Panicker in Kerala.
Kumar then went on to work and collaborate with the avant-garde French puppeteer Philippe Genty followed by a stint at the Sacramento Theatre in California.
A culmination of these myriad early influences and experiences shaped Kumar’s theatrical philosophy and career trajectory when he founded The Company Theatre (TCT) in 1993 in Mumbai, upon his return to India.
There are two distinct elements in his philosophy: first, an artistic desire to interpret and adapt dramatic narratives using multiple forms, both linguistic and performative; and second, to strive for the professionalisation of Indian theatre.
Alongside being the artistic director of TCT, Kumar continued to work as an actor. Some of his most noteworthy performances were in the ‘clown trilogy’ directed by Kapoor: C for Clown (1999), Hamlet: The Clown Prince (2009) and Nothing like Lear (2012).
In a number of press interviews Kumar and his director talk about their shared love for Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and how that influenced the three productions.
The use of clowning as a form of physical expression in theatre and gibberish as theatre language in Kapoor’s productions also had a lasting impact on Kumar’s subsequent directorial strategies for TCT.
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TCT is today one of the leading contemporary theatre companies in India. Apart from creating theatre performances, it has a youth wing, Evam that engages in community outreach programmes through theatre. TCT also has an artist residency programme, The Company Theatre Workspace, based in Kamshet, near Pune, established by Kumar in 2012.
The early years of TCT saw a number of adaptations of works by Anglo-American playwrights. Michael Frayn’s 1982 farce about a group of actors staging a comedy, Noises Off, is particularly important, as it was one of the earliest commercial successes of the company. Kumar revived and restaged the production to celebrate TCT’s 20th anniversary in 2013.
During the initial years when TCT was still striving to find a foothold as a professional and predominantly English-language theatre company in India, Kumar used two innovative and interesting approaches that have significantly evolved over the years. First, was to extensively experiment with the idea of the performance space through something he called ‘Theatre at Home’.
In this experiment, audiences could host performances of TCT’s productions in the personal spaces of their home, cafes or other unconventional performance spaces. This solved both the problem of finding elaborate and expensive theatre spaces to perform plays, while making the productions highly adaptable to different kinds of spaces.
For example, Noises Off was written for a revolving stage where the audience could seamlessly view the ‘on stage’ and backstage action. But Kumar’s adaptation involved a portable set where the front stage is flipped over by the stage hands to reveal the backstage.
The second approach in these early years, that continued for about the first decade of TCT, was singularly focusing on delivering English-language plays (both adapted and original texts) for the growing urban middle-class youth of India and the Indian diaspora. This approach was closely tied in with Kumar’s efforts to professionalise theatre and to make it commercially viable.
Productions like Noises Off, The Blue Mug and Trivial Disasters were big commercial successes in urban India as they were when they toured internationally to venues that had large Indian expatriate audiences.
In more recent productions like Trivial Disasters (2014), Kumar is keen on working with young Indian playwrights who have an acute understanding of the changing language and nature of Indian urbanity. Written by Ajay Krishnan, Trivial Disasters is divided into eight short acts based on commonplace situations.
For young Indians, Kumar was speaking their everyday language (English) and addressing issues of urban living, lifestyles and relationships. For the diaspora audiences, the popularity of his actors and their Bollywood personas were the main draw.
One of the most successful productions of the TCT and Kumar is the 2012 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Piya Behrupiya, performed at the Globe Theatre in London, as part of the Globe to Globe Festival. The production not only catapulted Kumar to global fame as a theatre maker, but also marked a paradigm shift of his theatrical sensibilities. Amitosh Nagpal, who also played Sebastian in the production, was the adapter and translator of Shakespeare’s original play into Hindi.
Moving away from his trademark avant-garde, urban sensibilities Kumar reconceived the play as a nautanki (a rural, folk musical form from Northern India). The actors liberally use their regional accents as they sing or deliver lyrical dialogues. Piya Behrupiya in its robust use of folk music and singing reminds one of another noted Indian theatre maker, Habib Tanvir who also made use of the nautanki.
The production received accolades at the Globe to Globe Festival and was described by western scholars and reviewers as a “riot of colours” that had “infectious energy”3. The vibrant costumes, the slapstick humor and the physical comedy and musical abilities of the actors were lauded as the production continued to travel to numerous festivals and venues across the globe.
In Khwaab-Sa, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream first staged as a commissioned piece at the Kham Theatre in Taipei, in August 2016, Kumar experiments further with the possibilities of non-language and physicality of his performers, by including gibberish as the language of the actors, while the lovers of Shakespeare’s plot communicate with each other only through contemporary dance.
Both Piya Behrupiya and Khwaab-Sa also underscore Kumar’s liberal appropriation of Shakespeare texts and of cultivating a theatre aesthetic that is simultaneously identifiable as Indian as it is global or contemporary. Penny Gay analyses Kumar’s practice as, “a culmination of non-Eurocentric ways”4 of staging the plays.
Kumar’s insistence on finding an entirely new vocabulary to perform Shakespeare plays without language, aligns his practice closely with other Asian theatre makers who are similarly resisting the use of language as the dominant mode of communicating with audiences in the theatre and finding alternative avenues in music and physical expression.
1 Kathakali is a classical Indian dance drama originating in the state of Kerala. The dramatic narrative is conveyed to the audiences through intricate and codified hand and facial gestures, accompanied by traditional vocal and instrumental music. The dramatic narratives are predominantly mythological and traditionally performed only by male dancers.
2 Kalaripayattu which literally means a battleground, is an ancient martial arts form still practised in some parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Traditionally both kathakali and kalaripayattu were performed in the same compound or space.
3 Schafer, Elizabeth. "Technicolor Twelfth Night." Bennett, Susan and Christie Carson (ed). Shakespeare Beyond English: A Global Experiment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 68-71.
4 Gay, Penny. "Introduction." Dorno, Elizabeth Story (ed). Twelfth Night or What You Will. Third. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Shreyosi Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Theatre Studies programme at the National University of Singapore. She is also a research scholar and assistant editor at the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive (A|S|I|A). Her scholarly articles have appeared in academic journals including the Shakespeare Review, Confluence and a book chapter in an edited volume to be published by Palgrave Springer (forthcoming, 2018).