Thirty Years of The Company Theatre

April 10, 2023 10:36:46 IST
MTG editorial

Atul Kumar's group, The Company Theatre has completed 30 years, and grown from strength to strength during this period.

"When we had started 30 years back, it's nearly embarrassing because theatre was quite a passion and it was in quite a mad spirit, having fought with family and left home and being ready to sleep on the roads and eat nothing for days and still being able to. So it was a similar madness that everybody goes through at that time. You're young, you're foolish, you're ambitious. But yeah, I remember a couple of things that were very concrete in my head. And one was that I wanted to do theatre full time. I didn't want to have a day job and then do theatre as a hobby and even my other teammates in Chingari theater group, of which Rajat Kapoor, Sheeba Chaddha, were a part, did the same. People used to do day jobs and then evening very passionately would pick up very difficult scripts and do it wholeheartedly and like absolute professionally. But I really wanted to do theatre all day long, like wake up in the morning and start and work till the evening. So that was one thing I wanted to do and the other was of course creating a laboratory and artiste space. So, to be able to do that kind of theatre all day long, we needed a space, a dedicated, undisturbed and also sort of sponsored or, you know, the way we brought the place up after having collected money from lots of donations. We needed people who were kind and supported such a place. There was this dream of creating the workspace in Kamshet that we have now, and just to be able to work on our skill sets."

Kumar admits that it was a privilege starting out in a city like Delhi and then shifting to Mumbai. "And in the middle," he says, "one has had the opportunity of traveling and learning and working with companies around the world and around the country. Of course, there were struggles for money like all theatre groups. And we had struggles with spaces to rehearse. So we have rehearsed in IIT bathrooms in Delhi. You know, we used to go to their gyms and they had huge bathrooms there, big enough to rehearse a play and nobody used to come there to play for long hours in the evenings. I remember, overall budgets being just like ₹3000 for a play, tickets were rated at one or two rupees, you know things like that. So yeah, coming to Bombay again, space was a problem to perform, to rehearse and and then of course there was a lot of pressure to. make money through television, film, because Bombay was a difficult city. I mean financially. So usual struggles like all theatre companies go through. Nothing new. I think the largest struggle would have been just to be able to be truthful to to the work one is doing. Because very often there are times when you slip, when you falter, when you take shortcuts, when you overlook the essential values while you're doing theatre. So those I would say would be the biggest struggles--to be able to maintain one's humanity and truthfulness towards the art form. So there were ups and there were downs, they still are there. One is constantly struggling with the same issues in new forms."

He acknowleges that he personally does not survive only on theatre activities. "I also do film work and have always been doing that whenever there have been difficult times. But yes, we are very, very, very, very fortunate. One of the few theatre companies in the country who have completed 30 years and we still concentrate, only on performances, workshops, exchanges, you know, cultural activities at Kamshet, like festivals, curating other festivals for other people, teaching and other theatre related or other allied art forms that we pursue. And as I said, I've been extremely fortunate because there have been grants that have come from international organizations, people in India have been very kind and donated,--from big industrialists all the way down to, students and fans and people who want to learn who sent us cheques worth 50 or 100 rupees.

"Our work has travelled all over the country and around the world So audiences have been very kind, And now finally, The Company Theatre and the workspace are working very well. A lot of companies from around the country and and around the world, all kinds of artistes are coming there. So it runs by itself. I'm really proud of the business model that we have followed, of depending on our own productions, our own work, our own internally generated revenue with a little bit of help from outside that we do not have to pay from our own pocket for any work that we do. Theatrewise, it's a rarity. I realize it's an opportunity, it's a privilege that we never overlook, but we also work very hard towards it and are constantly at it."

Everybody in the field of performing arts was affected by the pandemic. Kumar says, "Post pandemic, I would like to talk about this on two different fronts. One is purely for creating work, because there was a lot of pressure from friends colleagues, well wishers to just stay put, just observe and let time pass by. But unfortunately, and I'm saying unfortunately because I realized the worth of what that suggestion meant, but I am extremely impatient and I continued to make work during the pandemic, also digital work, or be acting in Amitesh Grovers piece or creating our own 6-7 different projects, which are half finished.

"Also we performed a special piece, an immersive piece for people, audiences that came to Kamshet. It was an open air piece where audience moved from one venue to the other within the larger space. Immediately after the pandemic we have again revived PIYA BEHRUPIYA, we've done TAKING SIDES, BAAGHI ALBELE.

"Basically making content and and I think thats just a disease nearly and it's difficult to to stop making work. But yeah, I'm feeling that audiences are not fully back and now with this new threat of the pandemic coming back...COVID it's quite scary. Audiences are not fully fully back and we are experiencing that hit. It will probably take some time and it has a direct implication on all the shows that we do ourselves, which are our own public shows where we invest money ourselves. So we are hoping to do a tour of PIYA BEHRUPIYA. We are closing it in July this year and we are performing it in five different cities of India. So let's see. And that will probably be the real answer to this question as well, because PIYA is a popular play and people love it and they come to see it again and again. So if houses are not good, I think that would be a clear indication that audiences are not back, and subsequently the small grant from the government is delayed for like 2-3 now. So it's like a butterfly effect as one thing affects the other and it's little difficult but As I said earlier, I really cannot be complaining because I realize there are hundreds of other theatre companies around the country in urban and rural India who probably are finding it difficult to even breathe. And I just hope things become better for all of us and that people don't stop work making work because that is essential to the to the spirit of theatre. Work of whatever kind is essential and urgent and necessary for all theater makers."

After a successful 30 years, what is Kumar's vision for the next five years? "There really is no vision really, " he replies, "but what I can share with you is that the pandemic and this upheaval has really shaken up. I speak not only from my experience but from a lot of talks that I am having with other artistes and not just theatre but other artistic fields--people have started questioning as to why they are doing what they are doing. And so the questions are real and these struggles are real. I question why am I doing theatre anymore and what kind of work should one be making? Is it really necessary And what good is finally being achieved by doing this on a personal level or as a community or, you know, as a in the larger sense? So yeah, a lot more existential questions. And this has nothing to do with any other pressure, but artistic pressures of just being a human being in the present world as it stands."

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