BENGALURU: The lockdown last year was a pre-emptive measure taken because the world was reeling and dying. For the first time our eyes beheld a near disintegration of the ‘mighty first world’ where the privileged were dying and their medical infrastructure was all but collapsing. The ‘poor yokels’ like us who are fed on a daily dose of how the streets are paved with gold in other countries were amazed that there too, it was possible to be in dire straits.
After the hoopla of locking the country down, banging steel plates, clapping and singing songs, we convinced ourselves that we beat that sneaky virus and re-started our lives with a bang! Even the rationalists amongst us (skeptically) believed that perhaps we didn’t give enough credence to ‘gau mutra’ and ‘Godmen gobble-de-gook’! Now that bodies dropped dead like the proverbial nine-pins I see a lot more caution being exercised by our leaders and ‘gung-ho cavaliers’ (the type who roam around with no masks or lacy lingerie on their faces masquerading as masks!). We valiantly try to maintain social distancing and struggle to be understood from behind those visors (sounding like a plebian version of Darth Vader). But we are social beings and this enforced distancing causes a feeling of isolation and distress.
This week I need to speak about my tribe... special artistes with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. People with thespian pursuits who strive for audience appreciation and who are thrilled to engage with them. In theatre parlance, the audience and the artistes merge... becoming one. We are trained to be devoted to the written ‘word’ and the nuances that the playwright wants to express.
There is almost a manic devotion, an unselfish commitment and near penury situation that theatre people face while putting up a production. Worldwide there has never been any ‘money’ in theatre and amateur theatre was always on the brink of bankruptcy. Unless one ‘arrived’ as a big movie star who dabbled in theatre we (the artistes, technicians, stage-hands, directors etc) never got paid. In fact we barely covered the cost of an auditorium and playing fees from ticket sales! We wore our own altered clothes like costumes and generally brought furniture from our homes to develop a set. Endless rehearsals schedule in different spaces over endless cups of cold tea and stale samosas, consumed our lives for months. Why? For the sheer love of the arts...
Jagdish and Arundhati Raja are the legendary ‘madcaps’ (as the famed theatre and film artiste CR Simha called them). Simha’s comment was in many ways similar for all of us involved at that time. People with a passion for the art who would do anything, other than give up the job that was bringing in the livelihood, to get onstage, be backstage, do lighting, sets, costume, props - the whole shebang.
I remember the rehearsals and after parties on their farm and we grew up listening to Jaggu’s baritone and admiring the way Runa worked on a play. One of the few who put their money where their mouth is, they sold their farm to make space for a theatre, ‘Jagriti,’ now sadly closed because of Cardi-V. But online classes still demand their attention. As Runa says, “It’s the constant interactions with people younger than us that have kept us going - we certainly don’t feel as old as we actually are!”
Renowned director/actor Ashish Sen works in community radio, running online training for university/college students and community-based organisations. Munira Sen is a leadership development practitioner. Both laugh and admit that they indulge more in a ‘kitchen sink drama’ nowadays. They say, “While theatre has always been a serious passion for us, it isn’t our livelihood. But for those who do make a living out of theatre - it has been tough. Meanwhile, we’re grateful that we have work. The pandemic has brought home how precious work is.”