Geetanjali Kulkarni Interview with Manvi Ranghar
Noted stage and film actress Geetanjali Kulkarni has been closely involved with the NGO Quest and oversees one of its key programmes “Goshtarang” that takes stories and theatre to rural, tribal children. “Goshtarang” has been inviting fellows to participate in a nine-month residency wherein young people involved with theatre have a wonderful opportunity to not only interact with these children but also the chance to hone their craft. Geetanjali Kulkarni tells us about “Goshtarang” and why the project is close to her heart.

 By Manvi Ranghar

Manvi Ranghar (MR): There was a moment when you and your husband had reached a tipping point. You felt that acting had a certain self-centeredness to it, and you wanted to do more.

Geetanjali Kulkarni (GK): I always have felt that actors end up thinking a lot about themselves. Theatre tends to make you self immersed. There comes a point where you get disconnected from society, from the common man. There has to be a bridge connecting different sectors and there must be possibilities for a different approach towards life. That's why I got attracted to Quest. I was amazed when I met Nilesh, the director of Quest, because he understood and manifested this. He is an intellectual with a deep understanding of educational pedagogy and philosophy. He is able to teach a rural, tribal child, who is a first-generation school-goer. It is important to make art forms accessible to children like them. Like in Kerala, with the work of Adoor Gopalkrishnan, and other people from the film community, the film club culture flourished and even shopkeepers went and saw Godard's films.

It is our duty as a community to share what we are able to. I feel very happy when I do that. That said, there are so many problems when you work with an NGO. Seeking funding and having to ask people for money is extremely hard. Even though I'm a very bad administrator, and often find it boring, the memory of that one child who was engrossed in that one story gives me the energy to work administratively for the project. I personally realised that working with aspiring actors, teachers, children and people who are not just from the theatre community, is more interesting - because they give you something you don't expect at all. Aaj kal aise lagne laga hai ki this intermingling of society has to happen. Remove all ghettoization, from religious to professional.

Now a software engineer will end up only meeting other software engineers, or actors will only meet actors. This was not the case earlier. Rajeev Nair was recently talking about the Chabildas movement and how it was the adda, where people from the western, central and harbor lines all got together. There was a dance studio, theatre rehearsals on the was a true amalgamation. We need more addas and spaces where people from different ecosystems come and exchange their ideas and cultures.

MR: You spoke once about an unusual topic for a theatre actor where you used theatre to communicate. Tell us more about it.

GR: It started because of a study group conducted by Nilesh. All 8 or 10 of us were from different walks of life. There were parents who wanted to understand the philosophy of education for their children; there were people who wanted to start a school, and people who were just curious about pedagogy. We met every month for a year or two and Nilesh would give us a topic to present the next month. There was this one time when I had to tackle the topic: ‘how to teach division by fractions'. It is something we have all struggled to understand, so me and another person turned it into a sketch, where it was a conversation between a math teacher and a clown who didn't understand math at all. What made it interesting was the theatrical element of conflict. The drama made everybody laugh. It was a light bulb moment for us.

MR: Tell us more about "Quest" and "Goshtarang".

GK: Quest is the mother institution, founded by Nilesh Nimkar. He is a simple man with a great mind. He is an excellent storyteller and understands how to use language very well. He worked on ground but understood it at a philosophical level. The focus that the project "Goshtarang" has is because of him. We are using theatre purely as a medium to tell stories and understand language. Quest works only in elementary education. We work with government schools and underprivileged students, wherever there is a need. The institutions and infrastructure are there but the quality of education is poor, which is terrible, considering 80% of our nation's students are in the villages.

We mainly work in ashram schools in rural areas, in four to five districts of Maharashtra. We have recently gone interstate and are working in Rajasthan, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Nilesh started Quest 10 years ago, and we supported him. Four or five years ago Nilesh told us that we must work towards a strong focused programme. He suggested we choose stories and present them dramatically in different villages. We had already been using theatre by then and had realised its communicative strength for these children. We did one play about two rats, called ITKU PITKU, for which we used puppets. This was in an informal space; gaon ke chowk mein karte the hum natak. A girl got up, came around, and watched the whole play from behind. That single action and impact was so important for me to witness. I felt her curiosity and the impact our presence must have made. The experiential learning of "yeh puppet hai, yeh aise kar rahe hai" is very important for children. We returned and told Nilesh who was equally excited and determined.

Fortunately, we received a fund at the time. It was very small but I said let's use it for "Goshtarang" so we can pay the actors. The following year, we made it into a fellowship programme. Here each person was given a stipend of Rs 18,000 rupees per month for the duration of the 9-month residency program. "Goshtarang's" focus is to use theatre as a medium and tool to enhance the children's language skills. The children we work with come from a background where reading and writing are not a part of their lives. Their parents don't read, and most of these children are first generation school-goers.

We don't know how many fellows we will select this year, but we picked five fellows last year. There is no other fellowship of its kind in Maharashtra at least, so we had eighty-five to hundred applications that came in from all over the State. From those we selected fifty people for the workshop, and later picked our five fellows. Fellows must be between the ages of twenty to thirty-five, because we travel a lot and we want the stories to have physical representations. Even I can't do "Goshtarang", because I'm forty-four (laughs). The other criteria are that they should be either trained in theatre or have equivalent experience. We rehearse for a month and then begin our shows. We need people who are rooted. The language of expression is Marathi, so fellows must have sufficient knowledge of Marathi.

How would you describe the life of a "Goshtarang" fellow?

GK: I think it's a very good opportunity. When I graduated from the National School of Drama (NSD) I was not sure about myself as an actor; what my approach with people or my method should be. I didn't even have any money and was so confused. I had learnt everything, but I wasn't sure what to do with it and how to apply it. Ultimately theatre is about practice. So, "Goshtarang" fellows who have just passed out of drama school, or have some practice, get a regular platform to perform. And the real privilege is to do it for an audience that is not judgmental and is hungry for your performance.

Geetanjali Kulkarni Interview

It is also a simple form of theatre, where we strip away the technological dependency. We don't have any sets or lights; just open your trunk, lagao parda, kapde pehno ooper se, aur karo natak! Telling stories is so easy, yet so important, and so magical. Fellows living through this immersive experience gain the ability to be connected with reality and understand a way of life that is different from their own. As a theatre actor, you have to give yourself time. That is very important. Because aise phat ke nahi hoh jati hai cheezeh. You have to give your craft that time and space.

MR: What is your team like?

GK: All our members are from different walks of life so coming together is very fruitful. Sagar Bhoye, an actor in our first year, was from an ashram school. He then went to The Drama School Mumbai. Santosh was not from an ashram school, but was from a very remote part of Maharashtra in Marathwada. In the first year we worked with local actors. They knew the language very well, so it was not a problem for them to adapt and connect instantly with the children. There was no hesitation at all. In the second year, we had fellows from different villages all over Maharashtra. By this time the children too had seen performances and were familiar with us. Chinmay Kelkar directed all the stories of the first year and Prasad Vanangade directed all the stories of the second year. Nandal Gokhale, Kalyani Mulye and many others from the Marathi theatre community have come to Quest and conducted workshops.

MR: Are you satisfied as a creator and as a person? What does this project mean to you personally?

GK: I don't think human beings are capable of being satisfied. We are greedy people! No, I'm not satisfied at all. I want more money for "Goshtarang" (laughs). I get very frustrated as far as funds are concerned. I feel like I should work more, earn in crores, and divert that money to "Goshtarang". My dream would be that the project could take care of itself. It would be great if I can find and hire somebody better at it than me – to take "Goshtarang" to new levels. I have my own constraints and inabilities as an administrator. How would I like to be involved? Creatively! I like working with new actors; watch them grow as actors. I like going on tour to these schools and have been to all of them. So, I love that part; the creative bit of it and the training.

MR: Why should a young actor sign up for the Goshtarang Fellowship?

GK: I feel that when an actor is based in the city, there can be disconnect and even cynicism. There is so much opportunity outside. Young actors in Mumbai get stuck auditioning for advertisements or serials, and do work that is more for money than for creative satisfaction. With "Goshtarang" you can grab a backpack, travel to different schools across the state, be a storyteller and even earn a stipend. You can do theatre, which is your riyaz. You have the chance to learn to tell stories in a way that doesn't depend on money. That's the biggest boulder for theatre makers. Aapke cost badteh jayenge and apke medium ki woh taakat hi nahi hai ki aap woh vapas kama paye. Why get into that? Be storytellers. Mazza ah jayega aapko. It's magic.

*At the time this interview went to press, "Goshtarang's" Fellowship Applications for 2018 had concluded. 116 applications have been received.

*Manvi Ranghar is an actor, writer and environmentalist from Mumbai. She studied Literature and values freedom.

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