Dhwani Vij Interview with Deepa Punjani
Dhwani Vij is a theatre artiste based in Delhi. She is the co-founder of the theatre group The Third Space Collective. She has directed BHAGI HUI LADKIYAN for Aagaaz Theatre Trust. The play is scheduled for shows in Mumbai. It was part of the Mahindra Excellence In Theatre Awards (META) festival this year and received a special jury mention. The play explores the worldview of four, young Muslim girls from the Hazrat Nizammudin basti in Delhi. We speak to Dhwani about her experience with the play, about Aagaaz, and her own theatre background.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): You have directed BHAGI HUI LADKIYAN in collaboration with Aagaaz Theatre Trust. The play focuses on the experience of young girls in Nizammudin basti in Delhi and talks about gender. How did you come to be involved with it and why did you think this was a story that had to be told?

Dhwani Vij (DV): BHAGI HUI LADKIYAN was earlier named URBAN TURBAN. Sanyukta Saha sent an application to Gender Bender 2016 (curated by Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institute Bangalore) and received some funding to create a 15 minutes piece on gender/sexuality/identity. That is when she roped me in. We already had a theme in place. I knew I wanted to work with an all female cast and so it began with Nagina and Jasmine. Slowly through rehearsals, more concrete ideas of the self, the many facets of identity, the spaces that our bodies occupy, etc, began settling in. After about two and a half years of devising and re-devising, here we are!

DP: Having now worked intimately with the genre of community theatre, what have been your learnings? How do you think that this form of theatre can be taken beyond the shows?

DV: Aagaaz Theatre Trust has been working with the children of Nizamuddin basti since its inception. BHAGI HUI LADKIYAN is one of the many projects that Aagaaz has undertaken to engage with the community. These projects sometimes take shape of a workshop, a discussion, a learning circle, and sometimes a performance. Aagaaz's work seeps into the everyday of Nizamuddin basti, which goes far beyond this play.

The one realisation that I have had from this performative aspect of Aagaaz's work is the all pervasiveness of theatre application. Aagaaz is not merely a repertory of young performers but a space for them to deconstruct and understand the world that they occupy. In a way the stage becomes a metaphor for life itself. Performances in such a space have a way of entering, impacting and altering actual lives. Working with Aagaaz has made me question my choices, my perception, and my privileges.

DP: How can community theatre be further strengthened in our context?

DV: Drama is the only medium that allows its practitioners to disagree with, debate on, and discard established norms. No theatre is created through agreement. Drama cannot exist without crisis. Applied theatre uses these tools of drama to create more open spaces where disagreement is one of the many ways to engage with the issue at hand. Hence community-based theatre is so important.

Aagaaz's work over the years has made its members/viewers re-examine their own ways of seeing the world; to be able to find meeting points within the various identities, and in an increasingly homogenised world, find a safe space to disagree.

DP: You are an arts graduate from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. Would you trace the beginnings of your professional theatre journey to the college, working with Professor Keval Arora?

DV: 'Players' at Kirori Mal College was a space that encouraged me to ask difficult questions. It made me understand that theatre is beyond "acting", and made me realise that this is what I want to do with my life. Without Keval's mentorship and feedback, that would have been impossible.

DP: You went on to pursue your Masters in Theatre at Royal Holloway in the UK. What was that experience like and what was your focus then?

DV: I did my masters in Theatre (Physical Theatre and Performance). The desire was to:
a) Get training in a theatrical form. Focus on exploring theatre without the pressure of making a performance.
b) Understand Physical Theatre. Create and articulate my own practice.

DP: You are a co-founder of the theatre group The Third Space Collective, which is based in Delhi. Tell us a little about your transition from an individual theatre artiste to working in a group.

DV: I always wanted to work in Delhi. And make my own theatre group. Mostly out of the desire to create a body of practice that excited me- one which would have rigour and commitment towards theatre as an art form.

DP: The Third Space Collective has done a number of plays. Which has been your favourite and why?

DV: The Third Space Collective considers itself a process based theatre group. The end result/performance is important but primacy is given to the journey that leads to the result. Members of the group meet several times each month to hold workshops, read/watch plays, debate and discuss various practices. This is the space, which is my favourite. It allows me to engage with different art forms and different artists. It pushes me to try impossible ideas and make several mistakes!

*Deepa Punjani has been writing on theatre and performance for close to two decades. She represents the Indian National Section of Theatre Critics, which is part of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) that has over 50 participating countries.

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