It was last Sunday, I think when I had to cancel on one of the plays which I was supposed to attend in the city. And the very next morning I heard rave reviews about it and cursed myself to have missed it. This led me to a thought, well, actually a series of thoughts, around the present theatre circuit in the city and the culture around it. In the last few years, there has been a considerable growth in the number of theatres cropping up, and the number of weekend plays being played out. In this regard, I decided to approach two well-known theatre personalities in the city to collect their thoughts on this uprising culture. In this regard, allow me to introduce Ms Abhinanda (who is an integral part of the troupe, Grim Pumpkin) and Mr Surender Sahil Verma (who manages the regionally popular Rangeen Sapney). Read on as we talk about what makes these troupes click, the rekindled interest in patrons, and the citywide acclaim that has become a regular fare for well-scripted plays. Here are some things we talked about…
If you look at the Hyderabad theatre scene, as a neutral unconnected person, what are the few things which separate it from other established theatre scenarios in cities like Delhi or Kolkata?
Abhinanda: To begin with, modern Hyderabadi theatre, (particularly theatre being done at a large commercial scale) is very young, when you compare it to the theatre in Delhi or Calcutta. The craft of theatre has been in practice in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay for a really long time. However, in Hyderabad, the theatre became popular only over the last four or five years, I think. When we as a group started in 2012, the theatre was still niche, and a craft reserved for the elite cultured crowd. However, over the last few years, this has changed drastically. Theatre has become much more available, both to perform and to watch. This sudden rapid growth of Hyderabadi theatre is what I think distinguishes it from theatre scenes in other cities.
Surender Sahil Verma: Well, Delhi is gifted with NSD, and a lot of great actors come out from there, so it has that working for it. While on the other hand, Kolkata has a lot of regional theatre. Although Hyderabad is still growing, I believe the craze for cinema overshadows the essence of theatre. But, then again, since Hyderabad is evolving, it has a lot of scope for experimentation, and we see a lot of new theatre groups coming into the picture, bringing in different flavours to the theatre. Also, we have our renowned theatre groups who keep theatre alive in Hyderabad and have motivated new groups to flourish and reinvent theatre.
With multiple theatre groups making their mark, addressing various genre of things, how do you feel the theatre scene is shaping up? Specifically, in your theatre group, how have the shows been till now and how are they being received?
Abhinanda: Theater in every city is always a milieu of multiple genres and themes. You have the lighthearted comedies, and you have the tragedies, and then you have played with political agendas and plays with social messages. And you have an adaptation of classics, and experimental plays and absurd theatre. Hyderabad is also witnessing a healthy balance of all of these theatrical forms. Okay, maybe not all of them in equal amounts; but there’s a little bit of everything here. And to be honest with you, audience changes every evening. I think every
And to be honest with you, audience changes every evening. I think every theatre group has their own favourite genre of plays to perform. We, as a group, generally cater to a quirky young audience. Young, at least, at heart. And they love what they watch. And sometimes they come up to us after our shows and tell us how they think we could better the play and the performance. When we started doing theatre in Hyderabad, the audience was still very detached from the stage. But now, with every performance we see the audience getting increasingly involved in the performance. They are not as detached from the stage as they were even five years back.Hence, I think Hyderabadi theatre and Hyderabadi audience, both are shaping up well, open to experiments and new experiences every evening. And more and more people are getting involved in Hyderbadi theatre, both as performers and as the audience.
Hence, I think Hyderabadi theatre and Hyderabadi audience, both are shaping up well, open to experiments and new experiences every evening. And more and more people are getting involved in Hyderbadi theatre, both as performers and as the audience. However, I have seen a flip side of this too. A lot of people want to do theatre, want to learn theatre and perform with the long-term agenda of getting a break in cinema. See, there is nothing wrong is wanting to get a break in cinema; but that cannot be your only reason to do theatre. In my opinion, if you are not entirely committed to theatre, and your only motive to do theatre is to get noticed and get a break in short or feature films, then you are disrespecting the stage. The stage is not some actor-building machine. You cannot use the stage for your own selfish purposes. For me, at least, the stage is sacred. And I do not like people misusing it. But this is entirely my personal opinion.
Surender Sahil Verma: As I mentioned earlier, Hyderabad is an emerging city of art, which somewhere deep down was always there, but is getting the much-awaited recognition in recent times. I have been in theatre for almost 18 years, but as a director and an artist, I’m amazed at the kind of talent I get to witness. It feels great to see so many theatre groups coming up with distinct performances and being received so well by the audience. I would only suggest that knowing Hyderabad does not bear a lot of actors, the directors should also look at preparing and grooming the artists before putting them up on stage.
Coming to Rangeen Sapney Theatre Group, it has always been blessed in this aspect. My plays talk about nitty-gritty issues that weigh our country down, but this is nicely packed around with campy humour and is always a receiver of applauses. We have enough problems in the world to bog us down, my group just tries to lighten it all up with a few laughs, and when we do get them, it is mission accomplished.
In South India, plays and theatres were regularly done till the late 60’s, but got replaced with movies thereafter.. it is only now that stage culture is again picking up. Why do you think that is? Why do you think people are suddenly interested in attending theatre performances?
Abhinanda: It is not entirely true that after the 60s the theatre scene was dead in South India. In Hyderabad itself, there was Qadir Ali Baig’s group and Torn Curtains ran by Mala Pasha performing every now and then. And then there was Telugu theatre happening here. Yes, theatre happened on a much smaller scale back then. Theatre was reserved for a niche audience and was not a popular medium, or a mass medium like it is now. You did not have places like Lamakaan. Theatre was performed in big auditoriums or in private clubs. Lamakaan did play a very very important role in making Hyderabadi theatre grow actually. You can say without Lamakaan, the amateur Hyderabadi theatre would have never grown to this extent. Lamakaan made it possible for groups like us to stage shows on a very tight budget.
We have had days when the audience turnout was low, and the Lamakaan management did not charge a paisa from us. This sudden influx of Hyderabadi theatre you see right now, would not have been possible without Lamakaan. I mean how many groups have the kind of money to perform in a hall like Ravindra Bharati? I think with the emergence of Lamakaan and the mass migration of people from all over the country to Hyderabad (due to the central universities and the IT sector boom) theatre in Hyderabad found a new life. Now you have affordable performance areas and a larger diverse audience.
Surender Sahil Verma: Well, in late 60’s entertainment sources were limited and now although there are so many avenues for entertainment, in how many ways can you tell a story? People are exploring new channels of entertainment and are encouraging theatre, which in turn inspires an artist to present substantial work. So, now it is working like a cycle, with one pushing the other. Also, we have a mixed crowd now from different parts of India, who bring in their experience of theatre. Additionally, I think Social media also plays a big part in spreading the word. Also, local youth is getting encouraged to come forward and pursue their dreams as more and more theatre and literary festivals are happening around the city.
Continuing with the above discussion, how do you take care to keep the art intact within your group. In there a specific genre you pick up? How do you ensure that the topics you perform are always relevant and enriching?
Abhinanda: I think, the theatre is a called a play for a reason; you are meant to go up on the stage and ‘play’ with your co-actors and props and set and sounds and lights, and even your audience. We do not do theatre to enrich anyone. We, as a group, like ‘play’ing on stage. Our director and one of our founders, Sishir Challa, he loves experimenting with plays. We always have some element of surprise for our audience. Sishir loves trying out new things. Not only in terms of script but also in terms of set and lights and sound and props. He even writes really interesting and quirky plays. (‘Work in Progress’ a short play written by Sishir and myself, won the best script award in the well-known theatre competition, SKitS, organised by Dramanon). Sishir also loves playing around with different theatrical devices. I think this is very important because to keep any art form alive, you have to be flexible with it. An art form can be kept alive only when it goes through continuous growth and change. Otherwise, art dies away.
Surender Sahil Verma: It is a cumulative effort, the onus isn’t just on one person, and why would it be? We all do this for the love of art and it is alive inside us every minute, waiting for an opportunity to peep out and perform. From my side, I only make it a point to frequently bring in new plays every now and then, and introduce new people to the love of being an artist by giving them the platform to perform on the stage with me. The World is evolving every second, and just like you find a new bulletin in your daily newspaper, topics of our plays do too. We use comedy as our tool to paint a picture for the audience with strokes of social issues nicely camouflaged under humour.
Describe your theatre group. What makes the theatre group click and what makes it different from others? Where do you usually perform and which plays have come to define you?
Abhinanda: When we (Sishir, another friend of ours and myself) started Grim Pumpkin Theater in 2012, we did not have the vision to back up our enthusiasm. We just knew that we liked doing theatre. We were young, we did not have any money or experience. Nobody knew us as such. We thought theatre is as simple as picking up a script and learning line and performing it on stage with lights, sound, props and sets. We did not understand the nuances of theatre- the emotions, the expressions, the modulation of body and voice, the generation of lines- we had no clue about any of this. But, over the years, by working with veteran theatre groups in the city, by reading various plays and books on theatre and by watching others perform, we learnt the nitty-gritty of the craft. All of us, our whole group grew together and learnt to deal with success and failure on stage. We do not care about the number of audiences or the amount of money we make that evening. if people come up to us after the show and tell us that they enjoyed, we are happy.
We, as a group, did one of the earliest improv theatre shows for the first time in Hyderabad in 2013 April. Like I said earlier, our director loves trying out new things, and that is how we came to perform improv theatre way before most people even knew what improv is. And surprisingly, the audience loved it; they love the idea of us performing short scenes at the drop of a hat, based on suggestions given by them on the spot. Improv works because the audience feels like a part of the performance. Because they are not alienated away from the stage. So obviously they enjoy it more and they feel involved. Improv is something we have been doing every now and then, and our audience loves our improv performances. Apart from improv, another thing that defines us is our shows of absurd short plays written by the Australian playwright, Alex Broun. We performed his plays for the first time in 2012. Since then, we have done multiple shows of plays written by him. We call these shows, ‘A Night of the Absurd’.
Apart from this, our director generally loves absurd plays. Two of our most successful performances, both at the SKitS competition organised by Dramanon in 2014 and 2015, were two absurd short plays, written by us (‘Beep Education’ in 2014 and ‘Work in Progress’ in 2015). We won several awards for both the plays at the competition in those years. These are plays we love doing. But we do keep our options open all the time. We have performed a range of plays over the years; from Vijay Tendulkar’s ‘Silence: the Court is in Session’, to an adaptation of Girish Karnad’s ‘Nagamandala’, adaptation of short stories written by Sadaat Hasan Manto, adaptation of short stories and poems written by Edgar Allan Poe, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, monologues based on classics written by PB Shelley and Dostoevsky and Shakespeare- you name it. Though we have our preferences and favourites, we never restrict ourselves from experimenting and trying out new things. I think that is what really makes us stand out.
Surender Sahil Verma: Rangeen Sapne Theatre Group, like the name, is for the people who dare to dream and have the courage to follow them. I have been doing theatre since I was six, and have learnt theatre like Gurukul, and I ensure to reflect the same discipline and rules in my group and my work as well. My plays are synonymous with satire and entertainment, and that is how we are recognised too. I would not say that comedy is the only genre we do, but we take pride in spreading smiles and it feels great when an entire family comes to witness my plays like Sasural Chand Par and Andher Nagri Chopat Raja and take back home a happy feeling that stays with them. Lamakaan is a home to many artists, and that is where you will find us performing most of the times. Recently our new performance place is Phoenix Arena.
So that’s how the stage culture is set in the city. In this regard, we would like to thank our friend from the theatre circuit, Ms Shailja Chaturvedi in helping us ideating and drafting this wonderful article.