On 21st February Artistic Director Sudha Bhuchar and I set off from Heathrow on an 11 day trip to India supported by the British Council, the purpose of which was to make creative connections and network. And so, with a number meetings in the diary, expectations of some sunshine and adventure and fear of the ‘Delhi belly’ (on my part at least!) we touched down in our first destination, Mumbai.
Sudha had not visited the country for 20 years and was looking forward to catching up with a number of relatives and friends and I had never been in my life so was thrilled to be on board.
On arrival at Mumbai international airport we were met by a driver from the Hotel Regal Enclave who pointed out construction on a new part of the airport, commented on the state of the traffic and complimented Sudha on her Hindi. The gorgeous heat, clamorous cacophony of car horns and dust were all completely overwhelming. I have since been reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and can appreciate, having glimpsed from the plane window the famous sprawling slums next to the airport, the description of that road as ‘Where Old India and New India collide, making New India late.’
So many details to take in; from the kids on the school run in their impeccable school uniform, the shanty-esque higgledy-piggledy shops and chaat stops, to the tuk tuks/autos/three wheelers and stylish 50’s cabs which I became a bit obsessed with (patterned upholstery, graphic stickers, marigold garlands – each one completely individual!)
We touched base at the basic but friendly hotel and after a quick masala chai, shower and a few jet lagged phone calls we were basking in the sun outside a cafe waiting for Sunil Shanbag; theatre director, screen-writer, documentary film-maker and our first meeting of the trip. When Sunil turned up he understandably thought we were a bit nuts to be sitting outside (sun starved Britishers that we are!) And we retreated into the air conditioned cafe. Sunil was responsible for the Gujarati Alls Well That Ends Well at Globe to Globe Festival and he and Sudha and he share a love of work derived from well-crafted text. He was extremely familiar with the work of Tamasha and, for me, was an introduction to the passion, tenacity and energy it takes to be part of the ‘theatre world’ in India (no subsidy, super long hours and 8 hour turn-arounds and get in-perform-get out-drive home).
That evening after a hazy ride over the sealink toll road to Worli we were warmly welcomed by Pramod, Sudha’s cousin and his friends and family where we had some amazing food including a delicious fish curry. Conversations turned to the economy, arranged marriage, regional cuisine and the changing nature of life in this city and Sudha observed on our ride home that that day we had already heard what would be some amazing nuggets for a verbatim piece “A Postcard from Bombay”. An insight into the growing ‘squeezed’ middle class of India.
We visited the buzzing 200 seat Prithvi Theatre in Juhu the next day. Kunal Kapoor has recently taken over sole running of this family business where they stage shows in both Hindi and English (as well as other languages on occasion). With a programme of new writing, contemporary theatre, music and other cultural activities and a gorgeous outside area, the theatre has a festival vibe and lots of potential for a Tamasha visit. We could see our forthcoming show My Name Is… written by Sudha, working really well there. After this, we went to the South Indian seafood restaurant ‘Mahesh Lunch Home‘ (stretchy ‘apham’ pancakes best thing ever!) to meet Quasar Padamsee, theatre director and producer. Quasar is extremely prolific, recently worked as AD with Tim Supple on the international tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and has a number of exciting projects on the go. He mentioned the huge growth in English language theatre in India and typified the type of boundless energy and commitment we had already witnessed. Strolling amongst the groups and couples along the beach after lunch, Sudha was amazed at how clean it was compared to her last visit. Quasar agreed that this area had been cleaned up and pointed out that it was the only place that Bombayites could come and stare straight ahead without another person in sight. A seaface haven in a hectic metropolis.
Lovers on the seaface
That night we were taken for dinner by the magnificent Ila Arun who played the title role in our 2010 production The House of Bilquis Bibi and writer/producer K.K Raina. Ila looked absolutely stunning and I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo. Many a potential creative collaboration -from Indian remounts of certain popular Tamasha shows to new ideas – were discussed. We went for a drive around the bandstand area where lots of Bollywood stars have their homes after the meal and were struck by the US style Christian Chapels in contrast to where we were staying in, Khar West which has mostly intricate Hindu temples.
Following a trip on the boat from the gateway of India to Elephanta Island, a spin round cottage industries and a drink in the world famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (had to be done!) we met Deepa Ghalot at the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) where Tamasha had performed 20 years ago. NCPA do a number of exciting international collaborations and Deepa’s reception to a number of our ideas was very warm. We discovered that because the Mumbai traffic is so thick productions often tour to both Prithvi and NCPA, as they are at opposite ends of the city.
The Gateway of India and Taj Hotel
Our next meeting was with Shernaz Patel of the wonderful new writing theatre Rage Theatre. During a meaty discussion (Tamasha and Rage share many aims and passions) we talked of creative exchanges for artists of British Asian origin to India, ways that Rage can contribute to and involve their writers in our Scratch Nights and a lot about verbatim theatre (Rage are looking to explore verbatim further and would love a Tamasha workshop… if only budgets would allow!) Shernaz also helped us obtain a local mobile phone which was prooving an issue up until then. Thank you Shernaz.
We embarked on a whirlwind trip to ‘Software City’, Bangalore on the 26th, arriving at night packing in two meetings in different parts of town the next day and flying out to Delhi the following morning. I am in love with the Kannada language script daubed on walls around the city the chunky architecture and different kind of greenery here.
We met Jagdish and Arundati Raja as well as their son and colleagues at Jagriti Theatre. A beautiful 200-seat auditorium built around a full-thrust stage with a vision is to professionalise English Language theatre in India, this space is the recent realisation of a dream, 30 years in the making. Jagriti supports its performers and has a strong training and education arm. Again it’s hard not to see a Tamasha show making perfect sense here.
On to another part of town to meet with Suri (Mr SurendraNath) at Rangashankara Theatre, a lovely 320 seat 8 year old theatre who do a lot of Shakespeare, international collaborations and Hindi/English work as well as hosting an annual children’s theatre festival. Suri is very open and having done a lot of German and Australian creative exchanges is keen to to get involved with one with the UK.
The UB Tower, Bangalore
In Delhi we were welcomed by Sudha’s amazing family Jyotsna and Dalip Laroiya. We arrived late afternoon and by supper we had had a manicure, pedicure, coconut oil head massage plus an amazing lunch, bought saris, been shopping and generally had a lovely time. That should give an idea of Jo’s energy, capabilities and connections!
The next day we met with Shaguna Gahilote from the British Council who supported our trip through their recent ‘Connections through Culture’ scheme. They are currently focussing on programmes and touring work and are open to our multiple proposals so fingers crossed! After this we went on over to meet Abhilash Pillai at the NSD (National School of Drama), Tamasha’s birthplace where Kristine first directed Untouchable in 1989. They were keen for collaboration on a number of levels and especially interested in Tamasha’s intracultural approach. I was struck by the fact that they offer a stage management course where apparently students from the West often come to unlearn what they know about stage management!
Outside the NSD, Tamasha’s birthplace
It was difficult to tell which city had the worst traffic but in Delhi we coined the term ‘doing the Delhi dodge’ for those people expertly leaping and weaving through traffic on foot, calm as anything. The elegant parks, cooler March climate and wide roads were refreshing in Delhi and I found it impossible to work out which city I prefer…
The next day we met with Renu Oberoi of the Habitat Centre an ingenious centre, home to a number of environmentally conscious organisations, an indoor amphitheatre and small out door performance space.
That night we went to Twelfth Night in Hindi and English by upcoming writer/director Neel Chowdary at pop-up outdoor venue ‘Zorba the Budha’. The show was stunning and we met with the director briefly after who was clearly destined for great things.
The Kamani Auditorium
On our last night in Delhi we visited the Kamani Auditorium to see Gasha a new play about Kashmir directed by Abhishek Majumdar who has recently been commissioned by the Royal Court. I could tell that it was well acted interestingly staged and balanced humor and sadness but I couldn’t understand a word (it was in Hindi/Kashmiri/Urdu) so you would have to ask Sudha about it in detail!
And so we returned to London. Adventures had, insights gained and some amazing people met. And mercifully we both avoided ‘Delhi Belly’, even in Delhi.