Such A Drama Queen…

                                                    ASMITA: 25 years of a theatre movement

♦ Malini Nair

If protests, bans and threats are indicative of how effective a play is, Asmita has had a really good run. Ambedkar Aur Gandhi, which relives the famous debate on caste between the two leaders, has faced angry mobs in Kapurthala.

Mr. Jinnah was banned in Delhi (the actors later staged it outside a neighboring police station). Its latest Hindu Code Bill deals with the historic squabbling over legislation to strengthen women’s rights. Next up is that imagines a conversation between the leader and his assassin.

In the 25 years of its existence, the Delhi-based theatre group has never once done a play that is a pure money-spinner. Can we describe Asmita as an amateur group? Founder Arvind Gaur bristles at the use of the word ‘amateur’. No, he says, the actors are in it for life, for livelihoods. But it isn’t professional either because the cause comes first on Asmita’s agenda.

If it isn’t social or political, it isn’t Asmita. From caste to gender, acid attacks to riots, there are few issues it hasn’t shone the stage lights on. But Gaur is equally categorical that it isn’t just theatre of isms, but pure theatre, only done with a conscience. The nukkad or the proscenium, every stage gets the same reverence.

When I meet them, the senior core of the group is busy rehearsing Final Solutions, Mahesh Dattani’s courageous play on communal violence, at an adda in a frenetic corner of East Delhi.

The play is part of the group’s silver anniversary celebrations. The troupe’s dedication is evident.

Delhi’s June heat is beyond oppressive but the actors and trainees—about 150 of them—gathered at Friends Public School in Shakarpur seem impervious to it.

Artistes’ nursery

Asmita has evolved as a rather distinct theatre body in Delhi. It is more than a performing group; it is a drama school that sprawls across the city, its workshops doubling up as nurseries and laboratories for future artistes.

So, even if there are 50 or 60 people who may feature in a large production, there are at least 350 others who are being trained for their big debut and meanwhile get to do small street plays or backstage work.

Hardly surprising then that some of the finest actors in Bollywood today—including Deepak Dobriyal, Tillotama Shome and Kangana Ranaut—are products of the Asmita crucible. They aren’t your average stars who fit the mould, Gaur points out. “Kangana has defied accepted norms about actors and acting. She always had that fire in her,” he says.

Social and political awareness is a must for every Asmita trainee and actor, even if they are headed for cinema.

You have to learn, read, research, discover the world before you take the stage. Some of the group’s best known plays have taken contemporary issues head-on.

Staged over a thousand times, Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak is centred around caste, crime and authority. Final Solutions, is another favourite, as is Premchand satire Moteram Ka Satyagrah, adapted for stage by Habib Tanvir and Safdar Hashmi.

The thought of running into a wall of angry responses doesn’t bother the group, which believes in having a dialogue with everyone, including the haters. After every single play, the group has a charcha session with its audiences. “We say don’t yell, talk. Let us discuss, argue. And we find that most times people respond,” says Gaur. “It is keeping quiet that is dangerous. Final Solutions, for instance, says let’s forget some of the history we hold against each other. Move on.”

Asmita has been a part of various protest movements. It was one face of the public outrage after the Delhi gang rape of 2012. The anti-corruption movement that later led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party was also backed by Asmita’s street plays. The youngsters who participate in the group’s plays say they will have it no other way.

Believe, to act

Susan Brar, the young actor who plays the lead in Final Solutions, talks of being educated by the theatre experience. Rahul Khanna, popular name in the school circuit for training children, says he was planning a career as a filmstar when he walked into an Asmita workshop. He didn’t leave.

“Our methodology for training children in theatre is unmatched,” he says. “We say there is an actor in every child, each should be able to write, direct and act in a play.”

Much of the theatre action at Friends Public School starts after 5 p.m. and goes on till 11 p.m. or later. And it is not unusual to find people from all walks of life sign up. Ishvak Singh is a young architect, who says he was inspired by Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre concept and found that Asmita’s real, powerful and minimally staged plays come closest to his ideal. “You have to believe, or there is no theatre,” he says.

Courtesy: The Hindu, July 1,2017   

Posted Date:

July 5, 2017 12:54 pm

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