By Veda Nadendla:
I just got home from one of the most inspiring conversations of my life. Interviewing Bala was the best decision ever. V Balakrishnan is the Founder and Artistic Director of Theatre Nisha. He is renowned for swimming against the tide and doing it with immense grace! Here I bring you a rendezvous with the man who has brought mature, intelligible and responsible theatre to namma Chennai.
V. Balakrishnan or Bala, a name that stuck around with those who know him dearly, is an alumnus of Sri Ram Centre for Performing Arts and National School of Drama (1998). He was later awarded The Charles Wallace Scholarship to attend International Residency for aspiring directors, hosted by The Royal Court Theatre in London. Bala started his tryst with theatre in 1994 with no Idea where his passion was to take him; with only one concern in mind- the true essence of theatre. I was surprised to learn that theatre happened by chance to Bala, as a way of passing time in the evenings when he was studying Economics in Delhi University. He now lives and breathes theatre. “My entire life, I have lived by theatre, it has been my livelihood, my bread and butter”, he says with such pride that it makes me feel proud. There is someone out there who has succeeded in making his passion his only occupation.
I don’t see you marketing your plays, not an advertisement or a Facebook page. There is seldom any post production publicity either. Why is that?
Bala: I have never been bothered by coverage; I am not doing plays for accolades. We are not catering to the least common denominator. For any play, hardly 100-200 people turn up. I am not doing stand up comedy, neither am I doing in-things. Theatre for me is not about entertainment. It is about the craft and the essence of the craft that should remain pristine. It took ‘Theatre Nisha’ the longest time to get invited to Festivals. In fact, we have to send our details some 30 times for them to recognize our group and admit us. Theatre has picked up a snob appeal over the years in India, catering to audiences looking for a quick fix of glamour. Our audiences, they have lost their cerebral capacities in their thirst for tamaasha, for chikni chameli’s and entertainment. The day the media stops covering plays, the day it’s not cool anymore to do theatre; that day we’ll have people leaving theatre. That day, will be just another for me and for Theatre Nisha because our work in the craft is all that matters to me.
Nisha was one of the first words rendered by Bala on stage in 1993 and so Theatre Nisha came to find herself in 2000 when Bala decided to create his own theatre group. Theatre Nisha finds her artistic expression in themes which are multi-religious, mythological and social such as gender roles, prostitution, open relationships, sexual awareness, women’s rights and ordeals, Hindu-Muslim issues and themes based in deep cultural settings. They have done Pinter, Sujatha Jayakanthan, Tendulkar, Karanth, Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane, Dario Fo, a lot of mythological self-written plays, Steven Berkoff, Anupama Chandrasekar’s first play Closer Apart, Dinkar, Asghar Wajahat and some more. Any play that involves a challenge and persistence is their forte. For the Director and artists of Theatre Nisha, theatre is about the experience, not about a set of certified and qualified individuals. Their qualification comes from practicing, performing and learning.
You have built Theatre Nisha with great integrity and clarity, a distinct identity unto yourselves. What is theatre to you and with what values have you raised Theatre Nisha?
Bala: Theatre is a communion. Theatre is perhaps the only place where people say the truth; the actor on stage doesn’t lie and that’s where the communion occurs. It is about us evolving together. It is as pristine as an experience you would have in a hawan in a temple or mass in a church. You develop this sense of power, energy, in being together. I feel as beautiful about you as I feel about myself. Theatre does not require an image value. I do not wish to categorize and pick my actors as pretty boys and pretty girls. What is a pretty person, really? If someone approaches me and says they want to perform, I tell them that the space is theirs, the script is in their hands, the role is theirs to execute, it does not matter who they are or where they came from, I just want passion.
I have always believed that expression lies not in the face, but in the eyes and in the body. In my experiences as a theatre learner and performer, adopting a character is smooth when you let yourself be naked to the character and her experiences, making them your own. Then it doesn’t matter if you perform on stage or on flat ground, all that matters is that you have created your world around you and your audience is in your world.
Theatre is seen as a healing art form, encouraging communication and openness. Tell us more about your theatre endeavours with Children.
Bala: A friend, Jeeva Raghunath, requested me to finish a Manipuri Short story being performed by children in a special school. I spent three days with those children and what those three days did to me and to those children left a lasting impression on me. Three days became 13 years. From there, I’ve worked with Alpha To Omega and Sankalp doing theatre with children, noticing the mild changes that make a world of a difference to their lives.
What we have to understand is that there will not be drastic changes or transformations like in Taare Zameen Par. It is a long process, so it is not fair to assume that theatre is a change maker, a solution or a miracle. There are miraculous stories like this one boy who just could not sit in class or look at his book for longer than a few minutes, but found it dirt easy to learn up his lines in a play and is now working as a Manager in a big company doing well for himself. With children, we aim to build social skills, understanding of their environment; good touch bad touch, social communication, self-awareness, personal development and understanding society. We talk to children that it is perfectly alright to say ‘NO’. I do this activity where I make the children stand in a line and tell them to just say No. No. We ask them questions like, ‘Can I buy you an ice cream?’ NO. I have noticed that theatre helps them form an identity and an opinion. We as adults find it hard to say no ourselves, imagine how the child would feel.
Have you been able to help in increasing sexual awareness among parents and children through theatre?
Bala: At the end of the day we are drama facilitators, not certified to disburse sex education and there is a line which we can’t cross. So, everything we talk we make it drama and under the guise of theatre we inculcate values in the children. We have parents coming up to us thanking us for teaching their children to say no and for helping their children speak their minds openly. That itself goes a long way in allowing the child to open up.
What do you think about theatre in India?
Bala: How many people will spot a poster for Girish Karnad’s ‘Yayati’, stop and say, ‘Hey! Let’s go for this one’? Let me give you an example. We approached a sponsor to bring down Mallika Sarabhai for a show in Chennai. Within five minutes of our conversation they were in complete agreement of our proposal and asked us when Ms. Mallika Sherawat is arriving in town. WHAT? I clarified that I was talking about Mallika Sarabhai who acted as Draupadi in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, the daughter of the renowned scientist Vikram Sarabhai, the lady who opposed Modi in the elections. The gentleman immediately hesitated and said they would get back to us. Ridiculous.
Good theatre practitioners in India will die in oblivion. Theatre in India has come to be commercial and entertainment oriented. Yet, today, to perform at The Metro Plus Theatre Festival, we don’t have a space for rehearsals. Theatre groups are running from pillar to post arranging for the money to pay for a hall to perform in, for a small space to practice these days. There is a lack of infrastructure for theatre in the country and the Government has so much land available, yet is ignorant. The country also deserves more decentralized theatre education. There should be one National School of Drama in the south, east and west. How can we call ourselves National if our performance is restricted to one language, Hindi. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are still relatively lucky over their southern counterparts with more exposure and availability for performance as well as a larger viewership. How do you expect Chennai to watch more plays if those plays don’t have a space to develop and perform?
But, it is not about the audience for me. It is about what we are putting out there and its quality. Theatre Nisha will successfully complete 12 productions as of December 2014, but how many of them are really heard of? I will attract maybe an audience of 100 people for each show. I am satisfied. As long as there are actors who share my passion, theatre will go on till the end of time.
Talking to Bala was such a humbling experience. He tells me that for him theatre is a way of bringing people together and that it brought me to him, looking to learn and share with the world. We are constantly aching to belong and to find people like ourselves; we seek to share and communicate, to dominate and to segregate. What we humans seek is drama with a purpose. “Theatre is telling a story. Story telling is a human instinct, we evoke the human spirit, we communicate as prey and hunters, as gatherers in a cause, and we unite. Theatre equalizes”, says Bala.