Any work of art should make us feel, think or imagine and this goes for theatre as well. When the 29 students of Drama School Mumbai’s in-person batch of 2022-23 landed at Nilakanteshwara Natyaseva Sangha (popularly known as Ninasam) Theatre Institute in Heggodu, Karnataka on a hot, sweltering April afternoon, they truly could not have foreseen how much the week ahead would make them think, feel and imagine.
Having arrived around 2 pm, the students rushed straight into the bathrooms to freshen up and tumbled into the dining hall for their first proper South Indian meal – rice, sambar, beetroot sabzi, rasam and curd (the rasam was my favourite). An afternoon siesta followed for some. For others, they ambled around the campus, walked around to discover food joints (which served some delicious mangalore buns, biriyani, fish and more). For some others, they sat at the edge of the forest opposite the Ninasam gate, slurping down an ice candy called Pepsi.
Despite the heat, the air was thick with anticipation. We were there for a week-long exchange program between the DSM and Ninasam students – two sets of people who came from completely different worlds, geographies, stories and training. Each wondered what the other would be like. Later that evening, we encountered the current cohort at Ninasam at their performance of Vanya Mama, a Kannada production of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. The play was translated and directed by KV Akshara, the current artistic director of Ninasam.
There was something stunning about watching fully present bodies radiating energy in a way that reached every person in the audience. There was conviction and commitment in their performance. What was more astonishing was the audience – there were children as young as 10-12 years old who sat quietly and watched the play for two and a half hours, a sight rarely seen in the urban spaces we come from. As Akshara mentioned during one of the feedback sessions following the DSM shows at Ninasam of Love and Information and Log Jo Dikhte Nahi, “It is crucial to cultivate theatre audiences from a young age,” which is why there is no age restriction on who gets to attend plays here.
The students spent the first three days watching each other’s performances, all of which were vastly different from what they had encountered in their own training. We spent each afternoon, after the performance, sharing our thoughts and curiosities about what we had watched the previous day, what we felt, what was different – a space for open conversation and an exchange of ideas. This sparked some deeply engrossing conversations on adaptations, ethics behind some dramatic choices, different acting styles, language and more.
Being at Ninasam for the week was like living, breathing and eating theatre the entire time. Students attended classes on Kalaripayattu, Kannada theatre and translations, and even received a lecture on Natyashashtra from Akshara. There is an emphasis on rooting oneself in one’s body and connecting with nature. In one of the first classes, Manjappa PA, fondly called as ‘Manju sir’, led the students barefoot into the forest opposite Ninasam and asked them to stay silent for the entire duration till they returned. He asked them to walk through the forest, pick anything they saw – a leaf, a tree stump, the algae in the pond, an ant scurrying down a tree – and think about where it came from, what it’s story could be about and how it could be interconnected to something that is perhaps hundreds of miles away. As we all walked through the forest, there was a different kind of silence, one where our minds seemed calmer, quieter, more attentive and more intentional. The thing about being able to create anything, is that you need the time and space to think for the sake of thinking, to dream and imagine. The creative process is filled with lots of lying down, sitting quietly, pacing around, being bored and then seeing what possibilities emerge from those moments.
Speaking of creative processes, the DSM and Ninasam students were divided into groups where they had to work with each other and create a short piece of theatre across the week and share it with the others at the end of the exchange programme. This was one of the most interesting parts of the week – to watch how the two diverse groups of students worked with each other having come from a different training, language, location and more.
And it was not easy. How do 15 people come together to make a piece of theatre from scratch? There is so much jostling, so much of being at loggerheads with one another.
Witnessing the making of the three pieces, and their processes, was more dramatic to watch: “I feel so stuck,” “We’ve made 25-30 TMLs, and never had so much discussion,” “We’re trying to marry two ideas that don’t belong together,” “This is a very different way of doing improvisations for me, to jump into something without any idea or direction.” These were some reflections students shared through the process at different points.
Though, for a while, things felt frustrating, there were also bursts of discovery, flashes where something clicked, and the group found a beautiful image or a moment or a sound to hold on to. It was also about building a new ensemble and finding a connection within a matter of days.
It is fascinating to see how 14-15 people find a common language (in all cases, of course, it was music!), mesh with each other despite different clashes, and find stories they want to tell, ranging from how AI will take control of our lives, a truck driver who ends up performing in a company natak, to the dreams a prisoner has of escaping.
Prasanna, the founder of Samudaya and a major Indian theatre director and playwright from Karnataka, told the students, when we visited him at the Shramajeevi Ashrama, that he believes that acting is “haath ka kaam”. “Actors should be skill driven and sense driven. There is no art unless you become aware of your senses and skilled with them,” he said. If there was one thing the students took away from their week at Ninasam, it was to pay more attention to their senses, to watch more, to listen more, to make theatre a part of their living more.
Working and performing with each other ended up creating an unexpected sense of camaraderie among the DSM and Ninasam students, one which they did not want to let go of as the hour to bid goodbye to each other inched closer. As people exchanged hugs and phone numbers, the sadness of leaving and realising how much each had received from the other lingered heavily in the air. Everybody waved and chanted ‘Ni-na-sam, Ninasam, D-SM, DSM!’ as the bus carrying the DSM students drove away as the sun began to set. As it disappeared around the bend in the road, the Ninasam campus stood a little bit quieter and emptier but richer with the memories and connections made.
All photos and videos by Phalguni Vittal Rao