Towards a Theatre of Possibility~ Sakhi Upadhyaya

When Sanyukta and I walked into a “capacity-building” workshop organised by Junoon Theatre in Mumbai, I did not know what to expect. It was my first “professional engagement” as a member of Aagaaz. I was jittery, nervous even. What capacities were we attempting to build? What actually awaited us was two days of deliberation, not so much as building but breaking apart what we understood ‘theatre’ to be. “Theatre for children” to be more specific: What did the assembling of these words in this specific order entail?

Theatre, drawing from my interpretation of the haphazard combination of flowcharts and notes from those two days, could be anything one wanted it to be. Especially so with children, toddlers and young adults. A language, a space, an exploration, an activity. Theatre was social, it was political. It was relational, contextual. It was imagination and assertion. However, for me, theatre was always ‘in the making’. It was powerful, but a power that was malleable and subject to destruction or creation as one saw fit. What I mean is that in my limited experience of being a theatre practitioner in Delhi, the edifice of what we called ‘theatre’ was always being broken down and built back up; not by self-professed practitioners like me, but by its encounters with the public at large. Who best to tear something apart and build it back up, refashion it and give it new life, than children?

Theatre was, and in my experience with Aagaaz, has never been a “struggle” to perfect that performance, or to become an expert in this form. The Junoon workshop was an appropriate beginning, of thinking about the possibilities enclosed within what parades as ‘theatre’ and myself. “So let us proceed.” I thought to myself, “Let me allow things in my narrow worldview to fall apart and fall back together.” And that is exactly what I know August will bring, as my journey with Aagaaz “formally” begins. The possibility of many stories, many failures and many creations. Before we left for Mumbai, Sanyukta and I were talking over the phone. “You know, I’m not jittery in the ‘scared’ way, just jittery in the excited, there-are-so-many-things-to-do-and-discover kind of way. Get what I mean?” I told her. And I could hear her subtle acknowledgement in the giddy laughter she replied with.

Khirki mein Drama – Theatre and Music at the Khirki Festival ~ Sanyukta

Khirki looked like it was celebrating Diwali or multiple weddings for five days in the month of December. The month of December kept all of us on our toes. The entire studio was abuzz with workshops, exhibitions, food stalls, events – people of varied ethnicities and age groups running up and down the stairs, laughing and talking in the otherwise serene environs of S-17, Khirki. KHOJ International Artist’s Studio on its 20th year of being, celebrated through a festival in collaboration with the local community and artists/arts organisations. Aagaaz led three element that were a part of the celebrations – the Khirki Music Ensemble, two plays based with children from the Community Library Project and 4 Kisse Connections.

The Khirki Music Ensemble came together in August last year – Romeo and Zoom – two young musicians from Congo, Kumud, a prodigious 15 year old with no formal training in music but awe inspiring, her mother Leela who never did realise her dreams of singing publicly, Shahid – one of the core group members of Aagaaz who has been getting trained in vocals from Manzil. This motley crew was led by Baan – our Managing Trustee and the co-founder of Dastaan Live, a pathbreaking music ensemble. They jammed through many a hot and rainy day, with the one common language of music bringing them all together. Re-arranging known songs and mash-ups of a few others – their hour long set list left the audience at the Jamunwala park enthralled.

The audience was a fair sample of the diversity that Khirki epitomises – and for once they were sharing an experience that was beyond the everyday. Through the performance though we battled the energies of the group of children from the tongewalla community that we work with through Ajab Gajab. There efforts to be up on the stage and join the performance were endearing and frightening (for the sake of the musicians and their hardwork) all at the same time. Bigger were the fears about the performances by the children from The Community Library Project scheduled for the next day. Most of our young actors were going to be on stage for the first time – what if they were intimidated by these younger children?

Safdar Hashmi has been an inspiration for us. His works for children used in drama workshops, beautifully allow for conversations with children to open up. The Community Library Project shares our desire to create spaces for children to be curious, think, and ask questions. It is an ideal collaboration. We worked with two groups of children over a period of two months. One of the groups had already created a performance of Duniya Sabki – we did a movement based workshop with them and used Hashmi’s Kitabein as a thread to explore the notion of stories. We explored the stories that they had read and relooked at these narratives from the perspective of a lesser know character, or a changed decision, or a parallel ending. The final show had new versions of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and the age old fabe of the Lazy Caterpiller, while looking at Mahasweta Devi’s Kyun Kyun Ladki in the context of one of the participant’s life. The new group of children dipped into Duniya Sabki and explored prejudice based on the colour of skin and gender discrimination – simply explored from the perspective of the participants. Our core group members were a joy through the process – they have visibly grown in their abilities work with young children using drama.

We approached the the day of the performance with great caution – what with the experience we had during the show by the Khirki Music Ensemble. We spent the morning talking to the Ajab Gajab gang, clearly demarcating stage space, collecting volunteers to guard our young performers. Once the show started, however, we experienced the unexpected. Everyone in the audience, specially the little ones – watched, rapt in awe. They watched as children, only slightly older than them, from their neighbourhood captivated an entire audience – despite all the distractions that performances in public spaces right next to a busy main road and opposite a big mall can bring. After the show, the performers looked ecstatic with a furtive look that I have grown to associate with young people who have suddenly stumbled upon the addiction that theatre can be. The Ajab Gajab gang accosted us and demanded to be put on stage too – and of course we would comply – they have since done two short presentations for their immediate community and are prepping for a bigger show in the end of June. The play will be based on a book by Tulika – A Kite Called Korika. Do read Priiya’s article about the presentations by this group in December and January.

The Kisse Connection sessions during the festival were special – for we experimented with our format. Other than the regular format of exploring personal memories, this time around we also did a session in collaboration with the wonderful Khoj Canteen led by Devika Menon. We explored stories around food and to talk about our experience would need another feature and more space, so do wait for our next issue.

As with most festivals, we worked in a state of intense momentum and breathed a collective sigh of relief as it drew to a conclusion – however, unlike most such times, we didn’t dip into a state of post rigour ennui and instead continued all our engagements with a steady pace and renewed vigour. Watch this space for all that followed and is planned. Much excitement!

Nafrat ke Khilaaf, Aagaaz ki Awaaz! By Sakhi Upadhyaya

21730935_1471278782969043_1955987201210018547_n

On the 10th of September, Aagaaz headed out to rediscover an old production – performing ‘Duniya Sabki’ at the Nafrat ke Khilaf, Humaari Awaaz event in Lodhi Garden.

After two hours of rehearsal, rehashing dialogues and sharing Biryani, the team left Nizamuddin. We decided we would walk to Lodhi Garden – it was right in the neighbourhood, and we could talk amongst ourselves in our comfortable group of 15. “Log dekhenge kya?”,“Logon ko kaise bulaayein, ya shuru kardein?” were our immediate conversation-starters. It was a different kind of anxious, mixed with the unique wonderment that accompanies every performance. However, this was our own personal (and maybe ‘political’?) intervention in a public space – confronting picnic-goers and Sunday relaxers at the Lodhi Garden with a play that was so dear to us.

So what was this ‘event’ about? Over the past month, thousands of people collected in “citizen protests” across the country, to publicly condemn the violence of ‘hate’ perpetrated against Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and other disadvantaged and minority groups. Gradually, each subsequent ‘protest’ became a realization of collective harmony, reflected in the music and poetry that filled the streets wherever #NotInMyName registered a presence. Another such exercise was to take place in Delhi, in 100 localities all over the city. We thus found ourselves at Lodhi Gardens with two volunteers from #NotinmyName and banners that announced, “Nafrat ke Khilaaf, Humaari Aawaaz / Say No to Hatred”.

“Who does this land belong to if not all of us?”, seemed an appropriate question to ask on a lazy Sunday evening in the backdrop of a magnificent tomb, surrounded by families out for a respite, teenagers frolicking around, and ‘grown-ups’ on their day off. We were accompanied by our friends from the Kutumb Theatre Group, who filled the makeshift performance area with the humming of their guitars and the rhythm of their voices. The sun was about to set, and just like that, we had taken our final bow as well. We breathed a sigh of relief that a substantial crowd had gathered. Thank God!

We decided to walk back to Nizamuddin. After a quick check of all our possessions, we left the space just as we had found it. Just like that, our impromptu performance had come to an end. No stage, no lights, no predefined ‘audience’, but ‘Duniya Sabki’ had discovered a new form of itself, one that existed in the minds of those who stopped and looked at a group of young adults telling a story in a public park, even if for a little while. Maybe they had the time to read the banner as well?

Raavan Aaya Travels to the City of Joy- By Sanyukta Saha

19424107_1400488290048093_7836661033815301303_n

Think Arts and Jhalaphala reached out to us in the month of May to take Raavan Aaya to Kolkata. Raavan Aaya was the opening proscenium play at Jhalaphala’s annual theatre festival for young audiences, Ikir Mikir, supported by Think Arts. We also performed at Mahadevi Birla World Academy and New Town School to middle and high school going audiences. The fourth show was at Swabhav, for a group of theatre practitioners from various grassroot level theatre groups from West Bengal, Delhi/NCR and Jaipur.

We were in two minds when the invitation came in, as we already had plans of traveling to Srinagar during Ramzaan, and knew that we would be pushing the families of the actors by asking them to let their children travel during Eid. We are still a bit taken aback by how little the families resisted to this idea. Two days after the Ballabgarh lynching, we unfortunately had to wish each other Eid Mubarak in hushed tones as we made our way to the City of Joy. Most of the festive day was spent looking ruefully at the glitter and festive glow through our windows as we passed many a small village and town in Bihar and West Bengal.

16 of the cast members, and Anirban, Sanyukta and Naveen (from Third Space Collective) split into two groups at the nostalgia inducing Howrah railway Station, to find our way to homes generously opened up for us by relatives in Jadavpur and Salt Lake City. With 24 hours of travel for the third time in a span of three weeks, the evening had to be spent celebrating Eid, in all sorts of gorgeous finery we assembled at Azad Hind in Ballygunge to fill ourselves up with Biryani, and fill ourselves up we did. Calling it an early night, content with laughter, friendships and amazing food, we prepared for the marathon performances beginning the next day.

We had realized that traveling and coordinating between the two houses that were hosting us was going to be a challenge, what with all the props and costumes we were constantly lugging around. An adventure began on the 27th of June with the show in Gyan manch and the preparations that preceded. The setting up included Neel, the director of Raavan Aaya, on a video call, to check out the light design. Hail modern technology! After the big evening with many familiar faces in the audience (included Neel’s father!), we feasted on famed Kolkata egg rolls. The two shows the next morning were scheduled at schools at opposite ends of the city, and we made it through the humid day, full of anticipation and activity, inspired by the insightful questions and comments that came our way from the students.

The last morning in the city we packed all our bags and headed to Rash Behari Avenue to meet our friends – Vartika and Ankur at Swabhav. The plan was to spend the morning sharing with each other about our practice, and then explore Gariahat before boarding our train back to Delhi from Sealdah station. As we reached the beautiful, old house that is now Swabhav’s nest for the gorgeous work they do, we decided that we could actually perform Raavan Aaya, for all the participants of the playwriting workshop that was in progress. It was a very different experience performing for an audience comprising of just theatre practitioners. It was also exciting using the house and its elements for the piece.

The performance was much appreciated and led to conversations about the role of theatre in society, for it to change. We shared our perspective of beginning by understanding and developing the self for the its connection with society to become tangible, so that change is tangible. Listening to narratives of theatre groups working with labour movements, and villages, made us reflect on our own practice in the urban landscape of Delhi. Bittersweet conversations led to consuming melt-in-the-mouth rosogollas, a walk in the rain through the streets of Gariahat and a mad sprint to the station.

While it’s lovely having our feet rooted in Delhi for a while as we work on our next production and the many big plans for Aagaaz, the travel bug has definitely bitten us, and we are holding our breaths for the next opportunity that comes by.