A few weeks ago, as I entered the basketball court at Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, I noticed a bunch of people engrossed in heated discussions. Moderating this decorous mini-parliament was Aastha Narang, the current president of “Ankur”, the Dramatics Society of STGB Khalsa, Delhi University.
Aastha, a third year Commerce student, overlooked other colleges at the time of admissions for being here. It was her newly found fascination with Ankur while auditioning for an ECA seat which promoted the move. Usually, when people from cultural societies are interviewed, they appear to be over enthusiastic. I wouldn’t accuse her of being uninterested but rather more focused on an upcoming production.
What seemed amusing was how they had comfortably placed themselves and their props peacefully at the ever-buzzing basketball court. “People respect us here. Perhaps that is why you wouldn’t find people playing here today,” she says.
Aastha’s role as a president is not just restricted to managing affairs and studying scripts for stage and street productions but much beyond the obvious. Ankur faces the intrinsic challenge of cultivating a passion among freshers who may have enrolled in the society – fascinated by the limelight. The role is to explore the greater scope of theatre as an art form- in illustration of ideas and stories.
In her quest for coherent creativity, Aastha follows a democratic work regime. As she explores themes for the next production, she asks the entire team to pitch in their ideas for discussion and appraises their marketability. There are times when the discussions are marked by disagreement between the seniors and juniors inviting ego-clashes.
And that’s where the challenge lies. The President has to give equal attention to an experienced and diligent senior and a motivated fresher and thereby adhere to the democratic work regime.
Being the president, she could’ve been authoritative and paid heed to her more experienced and diligent friend. Instead, she asks both of them to present their cases and let the other members be the jury.
“Seniors have more experience and should use the same for contributing to the society in a dignified manner. They are vested with the responsibility of being clear about their stands and contradictions. I cannot allow them to be assertive at times when I am training people to be expressive,” says Aastha. What I concluded was that the discussions helped the troupe to have a clear vision and hence add greater conviction to their storyline and adopt better presentation techniques.
Doing all this is indeed a difficult job, especially if you have an almost all-day work schedule where having a social life becomes difficult. Aastha claims to have a good social life but in an unconvincing tone. You wouldn’t expect a Commerce student to spend an average ten hours daily exploring scripts, literature, props, and ideologies and not accountancy, tax structures, and MBA coaching.
Perhaps, something that isn’t too pleasing for her parents. Being irregular to lectures, leaving home early and returning late, initially triggered off some serious protests by her parents but once they saw the productions getting staged, they understood that their daughter is part of something exquisite. As she deals with a fresh batch- having a similar set of issues, she realises that she has to be mature and approachable as she recalls her own experiences.
Into her final year of college, she would be one of the few people of the generation-credible enough to illustrate the highs and lows of pursuing performing arts in a rough political setting.
Aastha was a fresher when Ankur ran into a controversy for staging an ‘anti-Hindu’ street production: “Welcome to the Machine”. The play discussed how religion is used to polarise votes and was seen as promoting ‘anti-Hindu’ sentiments by the ABVP – the student wing of the RSS.
“We took names, something that was not something they could digest, how can someone take a name in a democracy, ironical, isn’t it?” she says. She recalls the turbulent times, how ABVP pressurised the college to ban the society and the solidarity they received at the campus. Critical of the occurrence but more concerned about safety, her parents had asked her to stay away, but she refused. “It was our play, and being a part of it, how could I stay away?” reasons Aastha.
Over the last one year, she told me how Ankur had been defamed with several labels. More than a year later, the student political parties are still hostile towards the society, and recently snatched a cage which was to serve as an essential prop for their street production: “Untitled” revolving around freedom of speech and censorship.
The plucky troupe replied to this occurrence in the most dignified narration ever, which said: “Ye Pinjre humse chinne gaye hai aap par daalne ke liye (These cages have been stolen from us to trap you in them)”. They also severely mocked the student body’s direction to get their scripts scrutinised for objectionable content. “How do you scrutinise art? Discuss your viewpoint and contradictions if you have any, but why are you suppressing my right to speak and restraining the scope of performing arts?” she says.
Ankur gave her friends for a lifetime and taught her discipline, perseverance and the ability to acknowledge opinions that differ from her own, she says.
As I close the interview, Aastha rushes to answer a dozen phone calls checking on the progress on a competition registration process and resolving queries on a script to a fresher. While the world shall cheer, laugh and get exhilarated as they continue to perform, it wouldn’t ever get to know the mental and physical stress the team undergoes over weeks for a performance. Aastha cares little, perhaps that’s how she likes it.