I think the most fun I had when I was younger was on stage…in that make believe space where anyone can be anything. My family lived on the outskirts of Hyderabad. With no technology or sights of the city to entertain us back then, we used to do the job ourselves. And when I took this skill to the stage, I had an immensely impactful experience. My father gave me sound advice to follow what I love so work wouldn’t seem like work and I stuck to it.
Dramatics played a huge part all through my academic life. It was encouraged in the convent school I went to in Hyderabad. I then went to a boarding school in Kodaikanal where I had Theatre Arts as a subject. Finally, I spent four years in England getting an honours degree in Drama and Theatre Studies. The course had a very strong practical element. In the first year, our job was to scrub the paint off the floor after the set was constructed. Slowly we got the responsibility of tightening nuts and bolts on the set. We then went on to cut and construct set pieces and finally by the last year we were designing. The course was thankfully intensive as I was banking on that.
I knew I had to come back to India to work. But even today, people exclusively designing sets or lights for the stage are a handful – especially in Hyderabad. So, I figured I needed to learn how to do everything from scratch. And the knowledge did come through. After I came back to Hyderabad, I had a tough time finding texts that would match the vibes and the demographics of the cast we had. So I ended up writing my own stories. Of course I enjoy acting the most, but what makes me the happiest is the theatre space itself. I think that’s why I prepped myself for any theatre work that could come my way, because it was this or nothing.
While I was writing, I needed more theatre work to sustain myself. From 1996 to 2000, schools around the city would call me occasionally to conduct workshops for their kids. By 2000, once I had decided that Hyderabad would be my base, I had set up workshops as a part of my usual routine. I spent 10 years conducting workshops and in 2010 I was extremely grateful that I had spent such a big span of time doing what I love. I wanted to celebrate with the kids of the city and so the Hyderabad Children’s Theatre Festival was born. It was supposed to be a 1-year celebratory event, but the response and the idea behind it got us festival founders thinking. In the past it would often happen that I would bump into one of the kids I had taught at a show and think the content wasn’t right for him/her…at least for his/her age group. But with the theatre festival we could curate the content we were bringing to them. And that sealed it in as an annual event. In a workshop a few years back, I had this little girl walk in saying she loves theatre and has watched so many plays. I thought maybe her parents liked the theatre and she has had the chance to watch plays with them. So I asked her to name a few. All the plays she named were plays screened at the festival. YES! That’s all my mind was saying. It was proof enough that what we were doing was making a difference.
This is the 10th year of the festival and what a year to bring it in! We have gone digital, reluctantly so, but the theatre always has a way of working its charm. Theatre people tend to be flexible and know how to make the most out of very little and these are invaluable traits to have, especially today. I had acted in this production called Open Couple, where our budget for the set and costumes was Rs.500. Everything was borrowed, sourced or re-patched to make it work. That show got nominated for six META awards, one of them for Best Costumes!
We knew we would get used to the digital space and make the most out of it too. I also had the chance to watch two brilliant digital pieces during the lockdown. First, I watched a conversation on Zoom with Richard Schechner, a theatre academician. He was narrating the story of a dance performance he attended in Chennai. As he explained how she moved, his hands followed along. I was sitting across a screen, but for that moment I felt as if I had tasted a performance I hadn’t even seen. The other was QTP’s Every Brilliant Thing which gave me hope at a time that I most needed it. It also got me excited to see the kind of interaction the new platform could bring.
Honestly, I had never thought I would be able to completely sustain myself through the theatre but here I am today, proven wrong. I was 9 years old when my dad advised me to stick to what I love. I’ve been in this field for 37 years now and I don’t regret a second.