That first time you stood in the wings waiting for the third bell or tensely chewed your nails watching the audience file into the theatre; that first sound of applause; that first time when an industry stalwart came backstage and shook your hand; that first tour to another city with your team; that first time you actually got paid for your work….these precious moments and many more stay etched in your memory forever. The masti, the friendships, the sudden feeling of self-worth as if you have finally arrived. That creative high of your first professional experience.
Thespo understands this better than anyone. For they have, over the years, given artists and theatre makers that final push from where so many have deep dived into the profession. So, what better way to celebrate their 22 years than a series of 22 heart-warming and nostalgic chapters from the life stories of a range of theatre professionals… handpicked by Thespo from across the Indian theatre spectrum.
The First Chapter asks each of them a very simple question – “Tell us about your first ever professional theatre experience?” From there unravel stories of joy and inspiration, struggles and triumphs. And that one thing that ties them all, young and old, together – the incredibly contagious spirit of theatre.
Ft NIMMY RAPHEL
“Keep a smile on the outside and die on the inside.”
Nimmy Raphel started her career as a dancer. She specialised in Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi at the Kerala Kalamandalam until she moved to Adishakti as a resident actor, dancer and musician.
My conversation with Nimmy allowed me to accompany her on a stroll down memory lane. She revealed to me the story of a career that would render any aspiring actor speechless. Nimmy has an energy unlike any other when she is talking about the prospect of being on stage. I can only imagine the passion that radiates from her when she finds herself in a performance space.
I am beyond excited to share this interview experience and the first question I asked her is:
What was your first ever paid professional theatre experience?
“I had a very strange introduction to the world of theatre. I knew I wanted to be a performer but was not keen on the academic side of theatre. So, I began my journey as a dancer and chanced upon an encounter with Veenapani (Chawla) when I was 19. She was such an inspiration to me that I saw myself moving to the Adishakti. I have to confess that I had never seen a theatre performance till then. The Adishakti style of working was my first exposure to ‘theatre-theatre’. I remember Veenapani taking me to shoot a picture with Shri Aurobindo’s statue and handing me a crisp white envelope soon after. The envelope contained my first salary of three thousand rupees! I had never seen this much money together in my hands before. I was so nervous that I sent the entire sum to my father, telling him, this is my first salary baba!”
Nimmy spoke at length about how her training as a dancer made her transition into the world of theatre effortlessly in terms of catching the rhythm, working in an ensemble and the respect for repetition. This made me curious about her dance experience and how it had impacted her. At the risk of straying a little off topic I asked her:
Do you remember the first time you were paid as a professional dancer?
“Yes, I was 15! This happened when I was still at the Kerala Kalamandalam. Something that you need to know about these government institutions is that there are many, MANY students. They are all so talented and it is an honour to be selected for any performance. I remember the rehearsals used to be so demanding, both physically and emotionally. There were times when I would be completely breathless. Yet I would have to keep a wide smile on the outside while I died on the inside”, she said as she burst into a laugh. “As senior students we were paid a very tiny amount as an honorarium and it was so exciting. I have a small story to share as well. It was the first time we were all performing as seniors. And while I was dancing (with an almost muscle memory smile of course), I thought I recognised the gentleman sitting front and centre in the audience. The auditorium was full of men clad in white. It kept bugging me till someone informed me much later, that it was the Chief Minister of Kerala!”
What was your first theatre experience as a performer after joining Adishakti?
“I joined in 2001 and I think that was a very transitional point for Adishakti. Veenapani and Vinay Kumar were setting up the foundational infrastructure for the performance space and for housing and research. Essentially from 2001-2007 no new productions were devised and my skills as a musician were being utilised for existing productions. My first ever performing experience was by far the best ever as well. We were going for a festival to Ninasam and taking our popular productions Ganapati and Brihannala. We were a day away from leaving and Aravind, our lead actor, calls Veenapani and says, come to PIMS (Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences). He is the main Mirava (musical instrument) player and he had 14 stitches on his wrist. I had never seen her so angry. She was fuming! After she had chastised Aravind for being so irresponsible, we started back for the campus in our Qualis. As we were taking the turn towards Adishakti, she turned to me and asked me if I would do it? I just said YES! From the get go my primary goal at Adishakti was to impress Veenapani. Strangely enough, this was the perfect way to do it. Every single hair follicle was aware of the stakes. I experienced ‘being in the now’ for the first time. I didn’t want the other actors to compensate for me. I wanted to be a performer in my own right. It was probably my youthful adrenaline that made me jump at the challenge. Now, I would never have the courage to do something like this in just 24 hours away.”
I cannot believe she just had a day to prepare for her first ever theatre performance. I could only imagine what was racing through her mind at the time. I could feel the tension rising even as she recollected the story! Without a moment’s hesitation I plunged into my next question:
What did you do during the 24 hours leading up to the performance?
“Back in those days we didn’t have CDs and DVDs. We were still largely reliant on VHS tapes.
I remember watching the recording of Ganapati at least 15 times and taking profuse notes! The strangest part was, the ensemble was spread across different cities and we were going to meet directly at Ninasam for the performance. So technically, the first time I would meet the entire cast would be on show day! You can imagine my state of mind. In that condition, Veenapani took me costume shopping for 4-5 hours. It was the single most terrifying and simultaneously exhilarating day of my life. The funniest reactions were those of the other cast members. They asked Veenapani the reason for performing when Aravind was not there and she proudly said I would step in. Their faces were priceless. Having said that, they were tremendously supportive throughout the process.”
Nimmy describes this experience very fondly and admits that it has never been easy for her to step onto stage.
But once she is on, there is no turning back. This was a perfect segue for me to ask her my three favourite questions:
- Theatre Ritual
I always wet my feet…I don’t know why. It probably sounds silly as well. The thing is I’m very scared of water. I’m a really good swimmer but only in a pool. In a river or the sea I feel like I will be taken away. So the water gives me a sense of grounding…of cleansing. It’s not like I fully wash my feet. I just sprinkle water on them. It gives me an inner feeling of starting something new…like dusting off everything and starting afresh.
- Nervous moment
This was during another performance of Ganapati. So there are two performers upstage and two downstage. They are placed like the vertices of a quadrilateral. The two upstage actors follow a 7 count beat and the two downstage actors follow an 8 count beat. The point of reference is a metronome placed slightly off stage. I cannot begin to express how disorienting it was for me when I miscounted my beat of 7. The embarrassment was real. I had a background in dance and to top it all, Veenapani was, as usual, sitting right in the centre of the audience. The worst part was that my co-actor Aravind, thought that I could not be wrong and followed my cue. I could see from the corner of my eye Veenapani ominously rising in the audience, followed by her exit. I think I prayed to all 33 million of our Gods to just come to my rescue. Strangely enough, we somehow recovered and the tension of our characters was heightened by the tension of us actors struggling to re-establish the rhythm! The audience did not notice anything. During notes though, I was sure she would scold me, but to my relief she said it was a good performance. Still, it was the most nerve wracking moment for me!
- Fondest Moment
The drumming for Ganapati! If there is a girl on the drums, no matter how hard the men play, the praise will always come to the girl. The entire production is based almost entirely on the drumming. Only on acute observation can you see the layers infused by the director. Once you catch the rhythm of the drums though, it is sublime!
“It is my opinion that difficulties are not an unknown variable for creative people. One struggles during their creative work and we always have the hope that the work will be finished. Somehow, if we start something we will see it through, come what may. Sometimes when we have a creative block we think it’s the end and that it will not move forward from there. I am painfully aware that we are all going through unique adverse situations, especially during the past months. Thus, during this time my advice would be to acquire new skills…to enhance yourself as an asset to any production process!”