Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Sushma Seth interview

You enter to meet the clatter of schoolrooms, children giggling over colourful textbooks, duster pounding, chalk particles flying and you search for the drama room.

A group of little girls in salwar kameezes with dupattas wrapped tightly around glide in gracefully and perform the surya namaskar. Krishna Sudama is a play performed by kids from the slums nearby, who take tuitions at the NGO Arpana on Mathura Road. This will be staged at The Shri Ram Centre this month. The girls burst into dance splitting in twos, many pairs of Krishnas and Radhas. The children enact the ancient tale of Krishna and Sudama’s friendship. Director Sushma Seth points out that a girl should be moved in front because she is tiny and yet so talented. With careful co-ordination of schedules, 80 children gather in this hall every other afternoon to become Gods and dancers, leaving other worlds behind.

They have been rehearsing this play for two years and have performed six times already.
“We use techniques of movement, action, reaction, and improvisation. I allow for spontaneity, for the children to develop ideas on their own. We wanted to write a lullaby that Sudama’s wife sings when the children are cold and hungry. I told the kids to come up with some lines so that we can construct something. The next day, a girl came with a few lines and said she wants to sing it to us.
She had written and composed a whole song. It turned out to be the most poignant part of the dance drama.”

One wonders if and how theatre has helped these children. “It is a gradual process. One doesn’t browbeat them. The minute you give them a speaking part, they are given an opportunity and develop a tremendous confidence that they can do it. Theatre is a facility for them because they dream of acting and singing. A lot of these children, when I met them first, they were extremely shy, deadpan. They wouldn’t open their mouths. But, I didn’t rush them to learn their lines. I don’t impose anything on them. I let it evolve. I want them to enjoy. Drama and elocution should be fun. After all the other lessons are so serious.”

Today they are pockets of energy, connecting, making drama, breaking walls.

Seth has reasons for choosing mythological scripts. She directed Shabari with the kids from Arpana before Krishna Sudama. “All the plays I have done here were written by the spiritual guru of Arpana. Also, I think mythology is about universal values. When you teach children, you have to do it subtly. You cannot say ‘Speak the Truth’ or ‘Make friends’, but when you enact it, the learning comes automatically.”

The script recorded by the children plays in the background and the characters lip sync perfectly.
(“We record because it is impractical to give so many children lapel mikes for performances.”)
Everyone knows everyone else’s line and if children are absent, which happens often because of the different schedules, someone is always there to replace the missing actor. Golu, who plays Sudama today, is spot on with his dialogues and theatrical expressions. Ask him if it is his role and he says no and that he is just filling in. “I love everything about drama. I recently started doing this. I am in class IX. Bahut mazaa aata hai.” He was one of the children who wouldn’t speak a word one year ago, but today he is the boss, the leader amongst these children. A bunch of girls echo his sentiment, but when I ask what they want to do after the 10th, they say 11th. “After that, college and then job lag gayee tho kaheen pey government, teacher aisa, accha hoga.”

Seth says, “The only disadvantage with acting is that it is difficult to take it up as a career. I never tell them that they should. I tell them studies are more important, they should get moving, learn a skill, and earn a living. I never tell them to go try in film schools or television school because they come from families where it is critical for every member to earn an income. Nowadays, even
graduates from drama schools don’t get jobs. There is absolutely no money in theatre. There is no theatre going habit, at least for Hindi theatre. A play has to run for at least 100 days continuously in order for the actors to be paid. When I acted on stage, we did weekend shows and could barely break even.”

Many of the students are passionate about making it professionally. A boy, an old student at Arpana, who looked about 20, came up to Seth and touched her feet. He told her he hasn’t found a job yet. She told him to meet her later to talk about the possibility of helping her with her theatre workshops. “He is a brilliant theatre person and has been working in television channels but they just don’t pay apprentices enough. Of course they all aspire but it is just not practical. When I do plays, I cast from their communities, their friends and older children.”

Seth, who has worked in Bollywood, television and theatre, says theatre is what she is most drawn to. Children’s theatre happened by accident. She needed to entertain her children during the summer vacations. Her friends wanted her to teach their children too. Workshops led to productions. She founded the Children’s Creative Theatre in 1971 and conducted workshops and directed plays for the group in Delhi and Mumbai till 1983. “Children’s theatre in India is mostly in the schools. I have been speaking to NCERT. They cannot introduce theatre in the syllabi simply because academic requirements are themselves so expansive, one cannot overburden the child. We, the promoters of the finer arts, are striving to have more space for the arts in schools, but it will take time. Parents want to push academics to the forefront. I want to tell parents and mentors that they should allow children at least an hour everyday to paint or pursue any other art that helps a child to explore his/her creative potential, to feel like she has achieved something even if it means sacrificing study time.”

Seth says working with underprivileged children has been different in some ways. “They are more disciplined, more enthusiastic. It is such a big opportunity for them. I have been doing this for ten years now.”

Talking about her book, Stage Play: The Journey of an Actor to be released later this month, Seth says that it is a book that evolved from the notes she took doing children’s theatre in the 70s. She did workshops at Prithvi and NCPA in Mumbai and NSD in Delhi. She was always conscious about being democratic, casting all the children in good roles and involving them in the decision making process. Theatre is not just for the extroverted ones. “Even the introverted children should be encouraged to
open up because they also can benefit from the creative process. There is a lot that I learnt all those years. When I went to America, (she studied drama at Carnegie Melon University at Pittsburg) , I saw that children’s theatre was given so much importance. I later put all my knowledge to practical use and wanted to compile everything into a book.”

After decades in theatre, the inevitable question is to ask her to look back and comment.
“The grass has risen for sure, but not as vertically as we hoped it would.” Seth says that theatre as a profession is still very difficult and there are a few exceptions like NSD, which is government aided. “We wish there were more corporates but the ones that do sponsor theatre are the alcohol and tobacco companies, and we don’t want such companies to sponsor children’s theatre!”

“Delhi is a spoilt city. All shows are by invitation. Nobody wants to pay. In the past, Maharajas patronized artists. For artists, it is difficult to combine the creative and the practical. Artists need support. I am unable to request anyone for funds, to say that these are underprivileged children, to even mouth these words.”
Krishna Sudama will be staged at The Shri Ram Centre on August 13. The book Stage Play will be launched before the performance

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