3 December 2008
Super trouper: Arvind Gaur
Arvind Gaur tells Trisha Gupta what keeps Delhi’s most prolific theatre group going.
Once upon a time, Arvind Gaur used to study electronic engineering. He left it to join Navbharat Times, where he wrote a culture column. “You could say watching and writing about plays is how my training started. I used to do theatre too, mostly with activist groups. I did plays with the Delhi Public Library. The first street play I did was with Zakir Husain College, it was called Videshi Aaya.”Gaur started conducting theatre workshops with children, but he still needed a job. So he joined PTI TV, where he helped produce the popular show Tana-Bana. But all this was before he started Asmita in 1993. Since then, theatre has been his passion as well as his bread and butter.
Gaur has directed all of Asmita’s plays – and the group has 52 productions to its credit. Six of these – Moteram ka Satyagraha, 30 Days in September, Log-Baag, Rakt Kalyan, Court Martial and Operation Three Star – are being staged as part of Asmita’s summer festival. Does he never act? “I was never much of an actor. I have acted once or twice – usually under compulsion,” he grinned.
“Asmita’s first show was a performance of Bhisham Sahni’s award-winning play Hanush in the Sahitya Kala Parishad youth festival. But on the eve of the first proper public performance at Shri Ram Centre, the main actor backed out. Forty other actors were involved, and we had booked the hall. We made a supporting actor do the main role instead, and I took on the supporting role. The two of us – or at least I – did the play with the script in hand! That was the first and last time I acted in an Asmita play.”
It was this unfortunate experience that triggered Gaur’s decision that Asmita plays would have only in-house actors. “We take whoever comes to us, regardless of experience. But we put them through an intensive programme of theatre workshops. Our actors are divided into three tiers: senior actors, with the greatest level of experience; mid-level actors, with some experience; and finally, people who are more or less newcomers to theatre.” In productions with a small cast, only senior Asmita actors get to be on stage. The larger the cast, the more likely it is that second-tier actors might get a role. “We also have in-house productions, in which all parts are played by junior actors, and the whole group gives them feedback.”
While old-timers like Jaimini Srivastava and Deepak Kochani continue to be associated with the group, Asmita has also been a training ground for younger actors. “In our 1995 production of Tughlaq, with Jaimini Kumar in the title role, a young chap called Deepak Dobriyal played a soldier. You would have seen him recently in Omkara, as Kareena’s rejected bridegroom.” Dobriyal was with Asmita for several years, as was Kangana Ranaut (of Gangster fame). Does this migration of actors from Delhi theatre to Bombay cinema bother him? “Not at all. I think this generation is more target-oriented. They may use theatre as a stepping stone to cinema or TV, but if theatre doesn’t provide people a living, how can you blame them? Also, it’s the theatre-walas who have changed the quality of acting in our films. It’s a symbiotic relationship.” Though distressed at the monopolisation of government funds by a small group of nationally-acclaimed directors, Gaur remains optimistic about the future of Delhi theatre. “Nowadays, there is a lot more emphasis on theatre-training. Asmita has a lot to do with this. Many of our actors have formed their own groups.”
But in an era when so many Hindi groups seem to be turning to comedy to get the crowds in, how has Asmita managed to survive financially, doing mostly “serious” plays? “I have nothing against comedy – in fact I think it’s the most difficult thing to do well. Moteram ka Satyagraha is very funny. But somehow my sensibility is such that even when I try to do comedy – like Chekhov’s stories in Log-Baag – the play somehow transforms itself into something darker,” Gaur said ruefully. “Financially, we manage because all our actors contribute to the running of the group, the rent for our rehearsal space, etc. For the actual shows, we get some money when we’re invited to perform in other cities. And I am constantly conducting workshops – for colleges, at the Habitat Centre and elsewhere. That money goes into Asmita’s coffers. Thankfully, the audience has supported us.”
Although Asmita under Gaur’s direction does only what he calls “socially and politically relevant theatre”, Gaur has no illusions about theatre’s revolutionary potential. “Revolution is not so easy to bring. Ab tak kranti jo hai woh JNU se nikalkar Munirka tak nahi pahunchi. But we try to bring about a dialogue with the audience.” Asmita’s shows of Final Solutions, Mahesh Dattani’s play about communal conflict, and 30 Days in September – a play about child sexual abuse, also written by Dattani – are often followed by animated discussions between the actors and the audience. “After a recent show of 30 Days, three people came out and said that after watching the play, they felt able to speak about their experience of abuse for the first time. That gives us a feeling of achievement.”
Published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007