Walking into the rehearsal room at Drama School Mumbai on a Tuesday evening, I could immediately feel the energy shift. There was a palpable sense of hope and inspiration in the air, along with a lively, exuberant vibe. As an alum, it was nostalgic to see the students of the current in-person batch at their creative best. Something about being in a rehearsal space can really rev you up. When I met Irawati Karnik, the academic head, she described this batch as “fiercely competitive”, and I was just beginning to sense this in the air!
The groups had just returned from presenting their preliminary performance drafts to their instructors for critique. Well, they were not exactly ecstatic about the response they’d received. “It came across that whatever we made was our first choice, but we came to this point after so much thought,” said one of the students, Sumit Rawal. To this, Ritik Agarwal quirkily responded, “Maybe our fifth choice is their first choice,” and they all chuckled. Whenever a question was posed, everyone in the group looked at each other as if they already knew what the other was going to say. Their banter was lighthearted, but that did not mean they were not exhausted. And I liked how they were not trying to hide it. As an alumnus of DSM, one of my learnings was that you cannot always be creative; there will be times when you want to abandon the creative process, take a break from it, be angry at it, or even resist it. And yet, you do everything in your power to co-create, knowing fully well that not everyone will agree with you or even like you. That is the kind of moxie I found in this batch too, and it was inspiring to be able to witness that!
What, exactly, is Aadyant?
Full disclosure: I envy this batch, as I told Irawati during our hour-long meeting, and the primary reason is the Aadyant module that these students have. She described it as a chance for the students to “culminate everything they learn throughout the year-long programme” and produce their original work of twenty minutes in three months under their assigned mentors. The students then get to tour various cities, showcasing their performances. However, building a substantial piece of theatre from scratch with a batch size of 29 students is a significant challenge, and they have not found it easy either.
Challenges that arose on the way
I would be lying if I said scheduling meetings with all 29 students was simple! Bingo; even a seemingly straightforward logistical task demanded additional work. When I spoke to the groups, I found myself subconsciously making comparisons to my own experiences and was able to empathise with theirs. More the voices, more the ideas, and more the conflicts—but the batch agreed on one thing: that creative conflicts are healthy and should be there. The desire to stand out and gain creative control can get so strong that assigning roles like “writer” and “director” might seem scary. But how does one navigate through all of this?
When I asked about her greatest challenge, Anya Ghai stated it was not losing her sanity, “We are constantly questioning ourselves as creators and wondering if our ideas are good enough.” Anukriti Mishra added, “Sometimes we tend to become our worst versions.” I could see how the intensive curriculum encouraged students to find their voices and shape their artistic sensibilities while embracing their true and vulnerable selves. Working with so many different minds can be extremely intimidating and challenging. When one receives feedback and opinions regularly, it can be difficult to know what one wants. But, for Mayank Vashisht, Kalliroi Tziafete’s (one of the teachers at the school) advice, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly,” came in handy. It takes skill to compartmentalise and let go of your own ideas.
I resonated greatly with Pranjal Vaid when he pointed out, “There is a standard we have set for ourselves.” As artists, we are our harshest critics, and having the consistent expectation to produce and make quality content puts one under tremendous pressure, which can even be self-destructive sometimes.
When Ritik Agarwal talked about how relieving it was when the team “stopped taking the bhaar (pressure) of it and just be as authentic as we all can be,” it made a lot of sense to me, more so because I am still learning how to strike a balance between authenticity and political correctness in narratives, which happens to be one of the major difficulties his team was facing.
These students are not only acting but also making, and it can be easy to get stuck in “either” mode. When Akhshay Gandhi, one of the mentors, was asked to share the difficulties the students encountered finding the balance of the ‘either’ mode, his response was, “There were a lot of revelations in the process of making these pieces, which reminded them that they needed to not only think as actors but also as makers.”
I strongly believe that every batch gets better opportunities than its predecessors because the school also learns from its mistakes. My only bummer in this otherwise impressive group came from the fact that only six of the twenty-nine students are female. The reason for this is that there were fewer women in the audition pool for this batch. This gender imbalance has posed its own set of difficulties throughout the curriculum, not just in Aadyant. I noticed the frowns and the instantaneous unspoken exchanges when I brought it up, so I knew it was not the first time. “It’s draining and exhausting the effort sometimes you have to put in to be heard,” shared Anukriti Mishra. After some reflection, Princy Sudhakaran also responded, “It’s a loss on both sides. I would have gained more from the course, and so would others, if there were more women in the class.” For Aadyant this year, many of the stories were structured with the limitation of having fewer women in the teams, which had an obvious effect on the narrative and creative decisions. I could not help but wonder what my journey would have been like if this ratio had been in my batch. A relief that it wasn’t! They say that less testosterone equals more compassion, and I completely agree.
Exploration of Novel Themes
At any given point, both floors of the school resound with spirited, some more animated than the rest, discussions of the six groups busy polishing their drafts. What’s most fascinating to me is how each had an original topic that stemmed from their own experiences and personal space. The students formed six different groups, each with a different mix of people based on shared interests. According to mentor Anitha Santhanam, “Aadyant foregrounded some of the issues they are grappling with. It’s a great place to start.”
Abstractly exploring the concept of death, Amb da Buta takes the form of a tappa – a Punjabi semi-classical vocal music – in which a woman with a terminal illness wishes to be transformed into a mango tree. Roko Mat Jaane Do revolves around the happy landlord-tenant dynamic and the heartbreak that ensues when the tenant needs to vacate. Copy-Paste looks into the reconciliation of a strained father-son relationship. Shehad satirically explores Muzaffarpur politics when a Maulvi meets a sex worker one night. Lo Chumbak is attempting to take on the dynamics of an Indian gay couple after the legalisation of same-sex marriage. In an ironic take on the Agniveer plan, Veer Ki Khoj describes how a government official’s speech about the Agnipath scheme motivates his son to join the military.
Prabhakar Singh from Veer Ki Khoj says, “I was there in the chaos when the Agnipath scheme was announced, and I wanted to build something out of it.” Sidhant Seth of Chumbak Lo wanted to normalise queerness through his work and questioned, “Why does one have to portray a certain lifestyle?” All the groups had very focused ideas and knew exactly what they wanted to ask at the heart of their scripts.
As they began to improvise on the floor, many of these concepts were redefined. I give them brownie points for improvising not only with their own team but also with others. “50% of our script changed when the other groups improvised on our idea,” said one of the teams. The groups went far beyond their usual areas of expertise in their quest for answers.
Working in collaboration
I was curious about how their group dynamics worked and where they stood because it takes consistent group efforts to maintain a forward motion and morale. To reach here, each of the groups devised their own rituals to help them come together and align themselves. Sumit Bishnoi responded, “We do omkaar, yoga, or play a game at the beginning of our day”. All the students seemed to emphasise the importance of regular check-ins as a tangible value they needed to hold on to, which their Student Convenor, Sameera Iyengar, helped them understand Sidhant Seth remarked about how, after three months of working together, his group is now aware of each other’s subtlest nuances and “have each other’s backs,” which shows how far they have progressed as a team and is a silver lining in and of itself. What stood out to me was that his team decided early on that there should be no one author, so they are just calling it “everyone’s creation,” and they would switch roles in the two-actor play in every performance.
Both Gandhi and Santhanam have taught this batch in different modules of their course, which has greatly aided them in mentoring them. “There is a shared sense of understanding, not just verbally but also experientially, and they have responded to my stimuli really well because of that,” Gandhi said. Likewise for Santhanam, who refers to her engagement with the batch as “intense” and adds, “There is a lot of trust. It is a great space for a mentor to draw from the experiences they bring in.”
Hopes before the showcase
The six micro theatre productions are slated to have a tour, with shows in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune, and Jaipur. The excitement and nervous energy is palpable across the board, with a few days left for the shows. When asked what success looks like for their groups, Anukriti quickly responded, “Finding a moment of honesty,” while Anya said it would be “being able to convey what we want to say.”
These students have invested their whole beings. One look at them tells you how important this final showcase is to them. Gandhi exclaimed, “All these voices are very fresh and exciting. I haven’t seen these kinds of ideas around. I am very hopeful for some really exciting productions.” It is a responsibility to tell stories, and these aspiring young theatre makers know it very well. As an actor and a DSM graduate, I only hope to learn from and imbibe their energy, and congratulate this group of talented people on their journey forward.
The Aadyant showcase kicks off on July 17 at Drama School Mumbai and then moves to Pune, Ahmedabad, and Jaipur in the following days. For more information about the show and tickets, click here and here.