Marriage-ology, Sunil Shanbag’s most recent production, had its premiere at Avenue 29 in Mumbai. It’s a little offbeat, you might think, for a first show by Tamaasha Theatre; a hall that’s certainly no bigger than a large living room, yet filled with a makeshift stage, wings and overflowing audience. But it worked. The experience of sitting on gaddas and enjoying the various vignettes that make up the production had its own charm, and the proximity of the actors to their audience helped them connect better. Since that first show, Marriage-ology has since been performed in empty flats, gyms, and finally, even auditoriums.
You could say the best part about that first evening was its intimacy. Yet it was an intimacy born of necessity. Shanbag had lamented that night itself that Prithvi Theatre was “booked for a year in advance”. Luckily, he had a solution at hand. Tamaasha Theatre (co-founded by him and Sapan Saran) was born of his desire to work with newer, younger talent, and the opportunity to explore different spaces for performance.
It’s been obvious for some time that the arts have been rebelling against being presented in the same humdrum spaces. The map of Mumbai’s performing spaces now includes metro stations, abandoned warehouses, terraces, cafés and a host of other newly discovered theatrical arenas. At the heart of the matter is one nagging truth: the city’s recognised performance spaces—never a huge number to begin with—are already swamped with bookings. Muddying the waters further, lesser-known groups whisper about favouritism every time theatre calendars are drawn up.
Clearly, the time was ripe for theatre—and other performing arts—to seek out alternatives spaces to express themselves in. Take the quirky Seema Pahwa and her quirkier play, Saag Meat. The narrative is basic. A middle-class woman is seen fretting over her help, husband and children. All you hear is her side of the conversation. But it isn’t just a monologue; the disgruntled housewife’s ranting becomes much more when Pahwa actually cooks the titular dish as part of her performance and serves it after. The whole act is carried out in the informal setting of a Mumbai housing society’s terrace. The open space actually made the experience cosier—with an air of spending an evening among friends. Permission issues were also handily disposed of. It’s a rare auditorium that will let you set up a working chulha. As a vegetarian, I had to step away from dinner. But if it was remotely akin to her performance, it must have been unique, absorbing and pleasing to the senses. I’d wager it left those who tasted it craving more.
Innovative venues go hand in hand with an increasingly experimental approach to theatre practice. Quasar Thakore Padamsee’s Nostalgia Brand Chewing Gum has been performed at Big Bang Bar and Café. Director Atul Kumar rehearses at Kamshet, at The Company Theatre’s workspace. There, his cast live together, speeding up the process of bonding and lending a cohesiveness to their performances. It’s not only final productions that are heading off the beaten path. The process begins right from rehearsals.
The streets are no longer off-limits, either. The National Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA) is an NGO established with a view to “reclaiming public spaces” for performance. Since 2012, the NSPA has been instrumental in re-acquainting the public with what it already owns. As founder Ajit Dayal told us, “The aim is to bring some soul and smiles to the streets. When Mumbai was Bombay, there were a number of street performers. In places like New York, Amsterdam and London, you have performers everywhere. We wanted to bring back music to the streets. A Kabir or Meerabai wouldn’t be born today. Where would they practice their art?”
In the current viral, virtual world, the NSPA does something real for people. They perform everywhere. Streets? Check. Parks? Check. Select cafés, metro stations, amphitheatres—even the Carter Road stretch in Bandra. Lovers’ squabbles and the blaring of horns will be interrupted by shehnais and harps. They plan to branch out into theatre, puppet shows and dance performances. The only request they have is that the government relax its stringent rules on the usage of space and demarcate areas solely for the arts.
These initiatives have had an interesting effect: if anything, more easily accessible performances hasten the move towards the non-commercialisation of art. This melody is finally reaching those it was meant for— anyone and everyone who wants to listen.
Nittal Chandarana is a writer and performer in Mumbai. She performs with The Artistes Studio and Kalanjay Academy. She is currently working at The Indian Quarterly.