Spotlight: Theatre entrepreneurs in India

(Co-written with Prathima Nandakumar)

Theatre entrepreneurship is the new buzzword that is luring the new-age professionals out of their cubicles and boardrooms. While some have bid adieu to the corporate life to embrace theatre full-time, many are keeping their day jobs out of compulsion, entertained by the thought that some day they would take the plunge.

Bengaluru-based techie-turned-playwright Abhishek Majumdar fell in love with theatre during his school days. After dabbling with the art form for many years, Majumdar, 34, took the plunge in 2005, when he got a scholarship to study theatre in England. “When I came to Bangalore to work as a software professional, I did plays with many theatre groups. At some point, I realised I needed to do it full time. I got a scholarship to study theatre abroad. I quit my job. Now, I travel, collaborate, learn and train in theatre,” says Majumdar, who is the artistic director of The Indian Ensemble, a theatre company he started in 2009 with friend Sandeep Shikar. So far, they have produced six plays in Hindi and English dealing with contemporary themes.

Subodh Maskara’s love affair with theatre started when he was just six. His father’s brother, theatre director Pawan Maskara, recruited him as a prompter for the play he was directing. “I was a regular fixture at the rehearsals and I would learn all the dialogues, which is why I was given the job,” says Maskara, 44. But that was it. The next 38 years went by without any creative pursuit. Maskara founded an industrial production company called Polygenta Technologies Limited, which worked in the recycling sector and produced T-shirts for multinationals like Nike and Adidas.

Was it marriage to actor-filmmaker-activist Nandita Das that reintroduced him to theatre? “Not really,” says Maskara. “It was the birth of our son, Vihaan.” What seemed like a perfect job left him with no time to spend with his family, and after 10 to 15 years of constantly being on his toes, Maskara was exhausted. It was time to take a break. So, Maskara quit his job and, with Das, co-founded CinePlay, a venture that archives theatre productions by filming it.

“It was a tough year,” says Maskara. “I was like a horse who only knew how to run a race. Once he stops, he has no clue about doing anything else.”Then Das came up with the idea of doing their first production, Between The Lines, a relationship drama about a lawyer couple. Initially, Maskara used to help with the rehearsals. During this time, he rediscovered his love for the form and attended acting workshops by theatre giants like Mahesh Dattani and Waman Kendre.

“It was only after many conversations with those in the theatre circles that I began to get a grasp of the kind of struggles that the form goes through,” says Maskara. “The economics of theatre struck me hard and I had this urge to do something to help the form be sustainable.”

In the meantime, Between The Lines, in which Maskara ended up playing the lead with Das, began getting rave reviews and the couple received performance requests which were way beyond their ambit as a small production house. “This got me thinking of doing a specially filmed version of the play so that it could be shared with a wider audience,” says Maskara. And, thus, CinePlay was born.

CinePlay offers not just a recorded version of the live performance. It is a special “made-for-screen” version with completely different lighting and sound. “The idea is to preserve the live experience and make the productions engaging,” says Maskara. Although he is quick to say that he will “never go back to the corporate sector”, Maskara admits that his background helped him vastly while setting up CinePlay.

Like him, Archana Patel Nandi, too, doesn’t regret leaving her corporate job. Though she was always interested in theatre, Nandi chose to stick to the conventional path. However, an advertisement in the newspaper inviting applications to The Drama School got her thinking. Her husband, Devashish Nandi, and seven-year-old son Eishaan encouraged her to give it a try.

On day one of the course, Nandi had a funny feeling in her stomach. Her batch mates were much younger than her. Most of them were fresh college graduates and Nandi, then 31, was surprised by their enthusiasm. “They were brimming with so much energy,” she says. “It scared me a bit because I wasn’t sure if I could match up to them physically.” It took Nandi a few days to gel with the class.

One and a half years later, Nandi is now active in the Mumbai theatre scene. “This is what I dreamed of when I was younger,” she says. “I will never go back to a corporate setup again. Mar jaaongi lekin stage nahi chodoongi [I will die, but I will never leave the stage].”

It is not just people from the corporate sector who are leaving their jobs for theatre. Six chartered accountants, a radio jockey and two women fresh out of college created Crea-Shakthi, a Chennai-based theatre group in 2012. A year later, it won the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Emerging Entrepreneur Award for Art.

A still from a Crea Shakthi production Image via Google Images
A still from a Crea Shakthi production
Image via Google Images

Vaidhya M. Sundar, 24, didn’t think twice before quitting his job as pricing retail analyst at Amazon.com when his friends mooted the idea of forming a theatre group. “We launched Crea-Shakthi as we felt that in this computer age, theatre should reach all instead of remaining a niche form,” says Sundar. “Talent is in abundance but there is no platform to showcase it. We teach physics lessons at schools through theatre and we train corporate employees in the art and craft of theatre to give them hands-on experience. We run acting workshops in 32 schools and campus theatre initiatives in 25 colleges in the city.”

Bengaluru–based theatre company Tahatto was started in 2009 by five professionals in their early 20s, who met at a theatre workshop. The group soon realised that theatre was not just about acting, writing or directing plays, it also required entrepreneurial skills.“It was an entire gamut of stagecraft, from light designing, stage management and ticketing to publicity,” says Vikram Sridhar, a SAP professional, who is now an actor and publicity in-charge at Tahatto.

For Sridhar, theatre is about discovering a new form of expression. “I find it to be a great tool for expression. As a conservationist at heart, I effectively use theatre to reach out to people and promote green initiatives,” he says. “We wanted to tell people that theatre is not preachy but entertaining. So, we decided to take it to alternate spaces like cafes, coffee bars, bookstores and malls.”

Pioneers in theatre entrepreneurship, Ranga Shankara in Bangalore South and Jagriti in Whitefield are the labour of love of two couples who dreamed of an intimate space for theatre. When actor-director Shankar Nag and his wife Arundhati, who is also an actor, moved to Bengaluru from Mumbai, they missed a space to perform. Nag decided to create ‘a vibrant, affordable and inclusive space for theatre’. His untimely death in 1990 resulted in Arundhati stepping in. With help from theatre lovers, she started Ranga Shankara in 2004.

Arundhati Nag Images via Google Images
Arundhati Nag
Images via Google Images

In contrast, Arundhati and Jagadish Raja, founders of Jagriti, have no formal training in theatre. Arundhati had a career in teaching (French, biology and drama) in 1970s. She launched Artistes’ Repertory Theatre (ART), an English theatre company, in 1982. Raja, on the other hand, was a communications, advertising and marketing professional.

For three decades, they worked with individuals and groups before starting Jagriti in 2011. “The past four years have not been easy—suddenly from being a performing company worrying about the next production and where to perform it, we have a 200-seat theatre to fill,” says Arundhati.

While the focus on theatre is welcome, there is a word of caution, too. “Artistes do not perform to a paying audience unless they have had rigorous training. Yet theatre productions with inexperienced actors, directors, playwrights and production designers abound,” says Raja. “Good theatre will never happen unless the people engaged in it treat it as more than a hobby and get trained.”

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