8 February 2009

Theatre Spaces: Akshara Theatre

Published as part of an occasional series on Delhi's theatre spaces, in Time Out Delhi. 

Most people in Delhi know Baba Kharak Singh Marg for its long line of emporia selling handcrafted goods from various Indian states, or the Hanuman Mandir. But very few are likely to know that it’s home to what is arguably Delhi’s most charming theatre. Or rather, theatres – there are two.

The plot of land on which Akshara now stands, including the original bungalow, was allotted by the government to dancer-actress Jalabala Vaidya and her husband, playwright-filmmaker Gopal Sharman, in 1972. “We had been contracted by the Royal Shakespeare Company to take our production, the Ramayana, to Britain, and we needed a space to rehearse and to perform. The house was leased to us as nationally eminent artistes, and we sought permission to hollow out a portion of the bungalow and build a 50-seat theatre,” says Jalabala Vaidya.

They got permission, and the indoor theatre was built in the same year – 1972. “We opened with a political satire, Let’s Laugh Again, in which we took the actual words of politicians and made them into a script. It was studded with these bon mots. And we charged tickets. In the beginning we found we weren’t getting audiences, because we weren’t inviting people. So Gopal started to design advertisements, beautiful ads but in the smallest size the newspapers would accept, which was 3cm by one column width.”

It helped. “People started to bring their own cushions and sit on the steps, because all the seats would be full,” says Vaidya. In the mid-80s, they succeeded in getting Akshara registered as a cultural society. In 1998, the indoor theatre was expanded to accommodate 100 people, and an outdoor theatre with 300 seats was constructed at one end of the garden. “The French and the Malayalis have often done shows here,” says Vaidya.

Until 2004, Vaidya and Sharman still performed frequently. Nowadays, the theatre is used for occasional performances by the children who’re part of Akshara’s Deeksha Program. Every Friday and Saturday, children between the ages of 5 and 15 come to Akshara to receive training in theatre through a combination of yoga, poetry, music and actual acting. “In February, the children did two plays – Rudyard Kipling’s The Butterfly that Stamped, and The Train To Darjeeling, which was written by my daughter Anasuya,” says Vaidya. “I’m now trying my level best to encourage young people to use the theatre. In March, a young group of university students did a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? We have our own technicians, so the lighting and sound will be professionally done, and we would only charge the actual costs – electricity and so on. I only want that they should be open and innovative. And that they do the play for a week, at least.”

Getting there: Follow Baba Kharak Singh Marg in the direction of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Slow down when you see the sign for Gate No. 4 of the hospital. Akshara Theatre is right next to it.

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2008

1 comment:

Ruchi Shrimali said...

Are you somehow connected to Akshara Theater? I would like to know more about their Deeksha program.