Juhi Babbar Soni, fourth time curator of ''Rang Savaari'', which is the theatre component at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF), is super excited about the lineup of 49 acts in four languages for this year's edition that starts on 4th February 2017. Ranging from President APJ Kalam's biography, a musical historical about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta's MERA WOH MATLAB NAHI THA to mother Nadira Babbar's latest mono act MERI MAA KE HAATH, among several other plays and theatre events, Juhi strings together a varied fare from all over Maharashtra and even includes a theatre troupe from Delhi. Ferrying 4-year-old son Imaan to his classes, managing Ekjute group, and being the theatre curator at KGAF â€“ Juhi's diary is chock-a-block with events. She steals time to speak about juggling roles on and off stage.
By Deepa Karmalkar
Deepa Karmalkar (DK): Juhi, tell us about your journey of four years with the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF).
Juhi Babbar Soni (JBS): We started off in 2014. Nadira ji and I jointly worked as the curators then and we had 64 plays over nine days! In the second year, I was with my very capable Associate Curator, Ankur Parekh, and we had a lineup of plays in 16 different languages from the city itself â€“ in Sindhi, Dogri, Konkani, and in other languages. Last year, we roped in theatre groups from various places like Jabalpur and Delhi. This year our focus is on theatre from all over Maharashtra: from Pune, Kolhapur, Solapur and there is one troupe from Delhi. We have plays in four languages - Marathi, Hindi, English and Gujarati.
DK: What are your criteria for selecting the plays?
JBS: I have never succumbed to including popular artists/ stars in the festival. This is an arts festival and it is the right place and opportunity for the lesser-known artists doing some great work. Our endeavour is to provide them the right platform. But this time we do have some famous names like Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta in MERA WOH MATLAB NAHI THA, Vinay Pathak in NOTHING LIKE LEAR and of course Nadira Zaheer Babbar's MERI MAA KE HAATH.
DK: What are the challenges you faced and the achievements you garnered on the way?
JBS: Putting together the festival is super exciting. It connects me to so many people who do some fantastic work, and they are immensely talented and dedicated to their craft. For instance, there is a Tamil theatre group in Mumbai probably known to a clutch of city Tamilians and it is run by a senior theatre person who has been at it for 40 years. Then in Konkani theatre there are people working for 50 years and they produce highly professional work too. Meeting such people humbles me. As for challenges, they crop up in the form of last minute venue changes or cancellations, sponsors backing out, etc. These four years with Kala Ghoda have taught me disaster management too.
DK: How do you scout lesser-known groups?
JBS: By word of mouth! If there is a person associated with a Sindhi folk and music group, I ask him if there is any Sindhi theatre around. We even located a Dogri theatre group operating in the city and on the day of the show, it became a matter of pride for the Jammu wallahs, as they thronged the show! All the shows run to packed houses and that's an unbroken record of the festival. At times people stand throughout to watch a play. It is the world's largest, free theatre festival after all! Our venues are small restaurants, halls, and even open-air garden spaces in the Kala Ghoda area.
DK: What is the best thing about theatre?
JBS: Theatre accommodates everybody â€“a collegian, an amateur, a flop film actor, a successful performer, a city slicker, and even a villager. Theatre has a place for everybody. It is a huge umbrella.
DK: What is trending in theatre?
JBS: Finally people are accepting alternate spaces for performances. There is a welcome change in the society. People are choosing art. Like in restaurants, small conference rooms or even in gardens, the audience is willing to catch a play and the organisers are ready to play it in these spaces instead of just song and dance.
DK: Your roots run deep in theatre. How has your family influenced your choice in being a theatre person?
JBS: Credit is entirely due to my parents. It is because of them that I am in a profession, which I consider as the most valuable. My talent comes from both my parents. My mother has come into the world to be on stage. She is at so much ease and comfort on stage. She could be ill, nursing a heartache, or may just be experiencing the vagaries of age, but once she's on stage, nothing comes in her way. She simply exudes energy. I wish I could be like her! Dad misses theatre, although he too was from the National School of Drama. Owing to domestic responsibilities of his parents and having to get his sisters married, he had to join films. But he supports mom's efforts wholeheartedly. He is the backbone of Ekjute. Before any opening night, dad attends our grand rehearsal and gives his succinct comments. Only dad can criticise mom. She takes his suggestions seriously and incorporates them as much as possible. Theatre is the base of their relationship. That's where they met, started, and were united.
*Deepa Karmalkar is a film and theatre reviewer. She has been an entertainment journalist for over fifteen years.