With students and facilitators spanning over a decade, coming ‘back to school’ took on a new meaning last month. The Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh was buzzed with excitement as people – alumni, long-time collaborators, well-wishers of the school gathered to celebrate the school’s 10-year anniversary. It wasn’t just about commemorating DSM’s existence, but more about celebrating the individuals who make DSM a place of growth, support, and creativity. It also seemed to be the right time to reflect as an artist as to what it means to have a community accessible in one’s artistic journey. So, here’s a collection of some interesting things we heard people discuss during the 2-day Mela.
“It’s been 10 years marked by consistency.”
In 2013, when the seed for a ‘drama school’ was sown, students and facilitators alike recall that the opening ceremony event was chaotic but full of excitement. Students were asked to stand on one side, facilitators on the other with a ribbon held between them. The cutting of this ribbon is what marked the grand opening of the school, aiming to bridge the gap and bring together the seekers and the sought. Ten years later, the anniversary event felt quite similar, just with a bigger family of students, teachers, staff and more. This time, the grand opening was marked by the traditional 3-bells in theatres; the chaotic energy was the same!
When the alumni decided to band together for a celebration, naming it “Mela” was most appropriate for the joy and madness that ensued. “We wanted to open the doors of DSM for everyone and make it accessible, so the idea of a Mela resonated with us instantly!’ says Shimli Basu, a DSM alum and an actor-singer-theatre maker, who was one of the organisers.
“The community thrives on generational wealth, the good kind.”
When you think of “theatrewallas”, the image you’re met with is of someone clad in loose cotton pants, definitely carrying a jhola who probably forgot to carry an umbrella; the quintessential ‘artist’. You’re not wrong. But the tag of being an “artist” here certainly didn’t mean living up to the other stereotype the label can often carry: that of being lackadaisical. When the loose cotton pants and jhola-clad alumni came together to brainstorm for the Mela, the idea was simple: to celebrate learning and playing. The difference however was in the attitude. There was meticulous planning, excel sheets, deadlines, emails, meetings over meetings, and a thoroughlyorganised setup. The youngest alumnus could hold the oldest alumnus accountable for missing a deadline, the alumni from outside Mumbai were chipping in with their thoughts, the ground rule was to never settle for the first idea that popped into one’s head; it felt like a (healthy) war room where one department was pushing the other department to go above and beyond.
Jehan Manekshaw, one of the founders of the school, recalls how similarly it was the Mumbai theatre community with some shared values that came together a decade ago, to build the school that it is today. Jehan Manekshaw, one of the founders says, “When we came together to start the DSM, I always imagined that one day it’d be the alumni who’d be taking over and starting something of their own. It’s a good sign that the Mela was completely run by the alumni. It’s a step forward in that direction.” The shared values of discipline and professionalism in the arts (just one example of many!), is the generational wealth that the alumni carry with them in their own work.
“There’s always a shoulder to cry on here.”
A whole new generation of DSM alumni also means contemporaries finding their way together in the real world outside. It’s never easy to do it alone. Tushar Pandey, a long-time friend of the school and a support system in more ways than one, concisely put together the feeling of this community: “It’s not just about the skill they learn from the school but about how they take care of each other, there is a sense of empathy.” Another recent alumnus, Vidur Khullar (actor and theatre maker) said, “I don’t even know most of these people, but I know they’ll be there for me if and when needed!” It perhaps explains why there seems to be an urge to stay connected to the school and its community long after one is done with the training.
“For me, it’s always been a seva” – Sundar Chacha
Everyone’s go-to person at DSM is Sundar Chacha, who has been working for the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh since the 1970s, a job he took over from his father. When DSM started in 2003, Sundar Chacha became an inseparable part of the family instantly! He knows the ins and outs of the campus like no one else. Every new batch of students also soon realise that he knew much more than just the campus.
“I’ve been watching plays since I was a kid because my work would be either before the show or after, so during the show, my only job was to watch the play!” In the early years, a student wrote a piece specifically for him and asked him to perform at one of the showcases. “I performed with whatever knowledge I’d gathered over the years and gave it my all. Not just the students but even the facilitators appreciated my performance!” he recalls fondly. Such moments and more are what have kept him around for so many decades. He doesn’t call it a job, he calls it a “seva”, a dedication with no expectations. And now he’s grateful that his grandson takes after him and everyone at the school encourages him to attend the showcases and workshops.
Building practices together
For people from the community who couldn’t be part of the celebrations, just watching it unfold was exciting enough. Chirag Lobo, an alumnus who now works as an actor at the West End in London and has performed in Life of Pi and The Circle, says, “It’s inspiring to see what everyone is up to. Constant updates on various groups and social media help to not just stay connected but make you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than just yourself.”
Staying connected to the community isn’t restricted to reacting with the heart emoji on social media on each other’s achievements. It’s also about building practices together. It need not necessarily be something as big as starting a theatre group together. But it’s small everyday things that aid your practice better. Like an outcry on the Whatsapp group about “unpaid internships” gives you the confidence to put your foot down next time you come across something like that. Having a sounding board of 100+ alumni to bounce off your ideas that come from vastly different backgrounds and practices means you cover all bases when you pitch something, there is constant circulation of new opportunities not just between the alumni but also from the facilitators making gatekeeping a thing of the past, and hundreds of other conversations on a simple messaging platform that have the ability to change how you work.
“I’m telling you, it’s a proven formula.”
After a year of being in training, a year of constantly creating, and a year of feeling constantly productive, it can get very overwhelming when you’re suddenly in the real world with bills to pay. But for Rahul Kumar, an actor, writer, and an alumnus of the 2021-2022 batch, there is a proven formula that helps him every time. It’s going back to school! He says, “Lately, I have been feeling very stuck with the mundanity of everyday life. But the Mela gave me a 2-day break where I attended multiple workshops that instantly rejuvenated me; it got me un-stuck in a way! Just going back to training, even if it’s for a short span of time, always goes a long way.”
“Honestly, just honesty”
Apart from workshops, conversations around producing theatre, careers off-stage in education, corporates and content space and casting directors from the industry spilling the beans held fascination for many. A lot of the attendees were impressed by the honesty and practical insights that the panelists shared in their talks. “They broached topics that are always on your mind but don’t know who to go to with these questions,” said Rigved, who attended all the talks on both days of the celebration. “The atmosphere and intimate nature of the talks made the panelists seem very approachable. It felt like all the judgment was erased and you could be whoever you wanted to be, say whatever you wanted to do! I learned much more than I normally would have because it felt like we’re all in this together!” he continued.
“It’s baby steps here and a leap of faith out there”
“An institution that values brave spaces or conversations about consent, and includes it as a part of their curriculum is what makes me come back to DSM again and again,” confesses Neha Vyaso, an intimacy director and consent coach who facilitates sessions at the school for the same. “This shows their willingness to strive for ‘better ways’ to make theatre. Just being involved in conversations is a great first step.” She also appreciates that with the DSM community, the conversation doesn’t just stop at taking a class in school, but that these students return to her as working professionals, wanting to learn more and do more.
“I’ll see you soon!”
This, by far, was the most repeated phrase over the two days of workshops, talks, events, and performances. And that says a lot about how far DSM has come and has brought its community with it. Facilitators in school become colleagues outside of school, seniors in school become peers elsewhere and strangers in school become guideposts in the world outside. The 10-year anniversary didn’t just celebrate the institution but rather celebrated the people in the community that help the institution stand tall even today.