The theatre scene in Mumbai is growing, albeit at a very slow pace. Newer venues are opening up, experimental performances are being celebrated and the number of theatre festivals is on a rise. Where do women fit in, you ask? They are, perhaps, at the very centre of things. From direction to producing and acting, they are doing it all and quite effortlessly so.
On World Theatre Day today, we look at five important woman changemakers in Indian theatre.
Sameera Iyenger has been associated with theatre professionally since 1997, first writing for the Seagull Theatre Quarterly, then working for Prithvi Theatre, and currently running Junoon alongside Sanjna Kapoor. That’s 20 years in all.
“When I began my association with theatre, women theatre directors were few and far between, as were women playwrights. At that time, Nadira Babbar, Usha Ganguli and Anuradha Kapur stood out as women directors, who were making their presence felt amongst practitioners and audiences in the theatre circuit. If I were to sum it up, I would say that by and large women were not expected to have their own voice in theatre, either themselves or as characters,” she says.
Iyenger still believes there are not enough women playwrights. In Mumbai, the last decade has seen a wonderful community of women in theatre who are vibrant, have fresh ideas, are lovely actresses, who conceptualise their own plays, and who are clear leaders in the theatre community. “Among these women are Trishla Patel (director, actor, heads Tpot Productions), Ratnabali Bhattacharjee (writer, actor, director), Choiti Ghosh (object theatre practitioner, heads Tram Theatre), Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid (both actor-directors, head Patchworks Ensemble), Shaili Sathyu (director, heads Gillo Repertory Theatre), Yuki Elias (actor, director, heads Dur Se Brothers), Faezeh Jalali (actor, director, heads FATS TheArts), and Sapan Saran (poet, writer, actor, heads Tamaasha Theatre with Sunil Shanbag).”
From watching plays ardently and reviewing theatre to being the Head of Programming: Indian theatre and film at NCPA, Gahlot is one of the pioneer figures in Mumbai’s contemporary theatre scene. “Women have more opportunities in theatre, since it is still not totally commercial. It has been seen that when any line of work starts making big money, men take over and start making the rules. Still, we could do with more female playwrights and directors,” she says, listing out her favourites: Amal Allana, Neelam Mansingh, Nadira Babbar, Sanjna Kapoor, Purva Naresh and Faezeh Jalali to name just a few.
Faezeh Jalali, slightly shy of 40, is a third-generation Iranian but presently a Mumbai-based theatre practitioner, trapeze artist and ballet dancer. She has been part of the theatre industry for two decades now. Her last directorial, 07/07/07, was an out-and-out women-centric play based on the true story of 19-year-old Iranian Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was arrested and hung for raising her voice against the man who molested her.
“In recent years, it seems theatre has opened up to more women writers and creators and more women creating for and with women. It’s a welcome change. Some of the women theatre makers who are doing path breaking work are Veena Paani Chawla, Nimmy Raphael and Kapila Venu,” says Jalali.
Her noteworthy theatre stints: an adaptation of Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rajat Kapoor’s I Don’t Like It (based on As You like It), and 07/07/07.
Actor Rasika Duggal has been romancing theatre since college with several breaks here and there. Theatre is her escape from the challenges acting and the city bring along. She has no qualms whatsoever. “The only challenge that men and women face in theatre, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t pay your bills. Otherwise, I have found most theatre groups gender-sensitive, friendly, relaxed and great fun,” she says, adding, “Veenpaani Chawla, who is now no more, has given theatre in our country the biggest gift with her work at Adishakti in Pondicherry. I have had the good fortune of attending some workshops there. Their process and their productions are truly path breaking.”
Her noteworthy theatre stints: Vagina Monologues, which she’s been part of for almost a decade.
She has been studying theatre since the age of seven. Having completed her Masters from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London in 2009, she started her theatre company, J Productions, in 2014.
“It’s really about establishing that you know your work. The beauty of this field is that everyone is accepted equally. There’s Junoon and Primetime doing some great work, both lead by strong female individuals. Kalki Koechlin with Little Productions is doing some very interesting work too.”