Editor’s Note: India has a rich history in theatre, but our knowledge about the work our contemporaries and older groups have and are doing, is often limited to the geographies we live in. Driven by a curiosity to know about the work being created across the country, over the next couple of months, we will publish interviews and stories with different theatre groups and personalities from around the country. (Featured Image Source: Shakeel Qureshi)
Remember the overwhelming video of generations of Delhi University’s (DU), Kirori Mal College (KMC) students, applauding their 65-years-old-6’2”-Sukraat-like professor on his retirement day? That professor is Keval Arora; synonymous with KMC’s English Department and its 65 years old dramatics society, The Players. He’s dedicated four and a half decades to teaching students literature and training them in theatre with more than 200 productions. Many students join KMC only for the opportunity to learn from him, I know this because I was one of them. Keval is a manifesto on how to weave your politics, ethics, and aesthetics together and wear it proudly. With him you don’t merely grow or evolve, you mutate (with creative & critical claws!).
Thanks to (fun) loving students, fantastical stories of him abound. Some begin with, “Bharatmuni, Aristotle, and Keval went to school together…” while others speculate that, “A(u)rora is the Greek deity of dawn which is why he (Keval) makes people rehearse all night.” The best is perhaps that, “he is God’s younger twin, and suggested to the Almighty, ‘let there be light’.” Contrary to popular beliefs, Keval’s origin story is wonderfully ordinary. Born on 25th July 1957 in Kochi, Kerala, the firstborn of Commander Kundan Lal and Ms. Banu Udwadia was named Keval Krishan Arora. No, his alliterative name didn’t turn him toward literature. Ironically, it was a last-minute illness during his matriculation exams that brought his grades down and turned him away from studying medicine.
It was while studying BA (Honours) English at KMC (1973-76) that his adventures with theatre began. To hang around friends who had joined The Players, he too volunteered as a stagehand. By a twist of fate, he had his stage debut under peer pressure as an emergency substitute for someone who had developed laryngitis. The play was professor Ganesh Bagchi’s A Recurrent Theme. He recalls: “Rehearsals were frightening. My English had to be sorted out, and I was shocked to discover just how many words I used to mispronounce.” However, soon enough he began to enjoy himself “in the tasks of interpretation and articulation.” And thus, The Players helped a shy Bombay boy to break out of his shell. He even formed a theatre group, Chorus, during his MA years (1976-78).
After completing his MA in 1978, Keval found a temporary job at Ramjas College, followed by a permanent one at his alma mater, in 1980, during his MPhil. The interview for the permanent position at KMC had its moments of drama. The legendary Professor Frank Thakur Das (the then-Staff Advisor of The Players) had retired so when Principal NS Pradhan in passing asked, “‘You do know that if you get the job you will be expected to take over the drama society?’” pat came Keval’s reply, “You do know that if I get the job I will ask you to let me take over the drama society.” Working with The Players, Keval has felt “obliged to make the same opportunities available” to others that were to him.
But it isn’t just that sense of duty that has kept him going all these years. Keval loves theatre, especially the collegiate space, “…because it allows us to enter into speculated lives that lie outside our comfort zones and echo chambers… without too much taam-jhaam of finance and technology. It is portable, flexible, alterable….” It’s also endearing because not being driven by monetary concerns, “…the camaraderie of these projects cannot really be replicated in what we like to call ‘professional’ space’.” Enabling that space is so precious to him that he has prioritised it over a lot of other things, including his Ph.D plans and Chorus.
One can’t fully appreciate Keval’s work in theatre training in isolation, because it goes hand in hand with his teaching of literature. In my first year, he took English for my section of BA (Programme) and began with Aristotle’s Poetics. He felt it was important in laying a solid foundation, though it wasn’t in our course. It was like being fed desi ghee for the price of the banaspati version. Apprehensively, I requested him to let me attend his honours lectures too. To my joy, he generously welcomed me all three years! His lectures are filled with dastan-esque digressions. Once while unfolding Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist, he brought up Hera Pheri to bring the text closer to us students. While correcting assignments Keval fixes not only the imprecise arguments but also the poor syntax and grammar. He says that’s how he thanks his BA tutor Dr Rajiva Verma who taught him the importance of minute details in writing.
All this only adds to the legends about him; that Keval is this sassy-cigarette-smoking-Clint Eastwood of KMC, saving its egalitarian culture from turning into the wild west. But such cult-ification upsets him. He believes: “No institution that relies excessively on the contribution of an individual… can ever be considered to be in a healthy state.” He has always placed the institution above the individual by trying his best to nurture inclusive and empowering spaces through collective efforts. The Players is one such space.
As an institution, The Players enables and then expects you to have fun swimming in the deeper end. Keval fondly quotes his colleague and friend, Dr Badri Raina: “Don’t be worried about being confused. Show me the quality of your confusion.” In my final year, we wanted to make Accidental Death of An Anarchist in the form of a 25-minute nukkad natak. Keval warned us of the difficulties we might encounter, and even suggested that we think of another play. But when we insisted, he didn’t force our hand. During our presentation some disappointed fellow students objected to the idea of not doing it as a stage play but Keval stood by us convinced that the nukkad natak was a valid choice, for it added pressure on the original text to work through a chorus instead of relying on one character.
As always, these presentations were followed by casting, rehearsals, and lastly, run through drafts for final approval from the group. At one point in our blocking, we got the cast-chorus into a then popular formation, one standing behind the other, arms sticking out on the sides, to show how mighty collective power is. In the discussion that followed, Keval who had earlier championed us, dissected how that formation portrayed the cast-chorus as God, omnipotent with multiple arms; this was antithetical to the radical arguments of the play. We somehow believed we were subverting that image. He argued with us as an equal and convinced us that we were just poorly appropriating it despite our best intentions. He asked us to revise the draft as, “…theatre is political, in that it has to embody a social responsibility in practice and performance.”
Keval’s method with students has been to, “…accept their interest and their plans but subject them to critical scrutiny, as much to iron out contradiction as to extend their potential for further possibility.” And this doesn’t end at presentations or rehearsals or even drafts. Our synopsis for the same nukkad natak read slightly formal; he made us revise it until we wrote it in a register that had “nukkad ki shaili ki lachak.”
Having been inspired by the meticulousness of greats like Ebrahim Alkazi, Keval’s mentorship mantra is simple: be “…willing to spend long hours with students in rehearsals… to land up day after day giving time to the cultural space in its humdrum avatar (rather than for just the big or flagship moments)….”
He says: “I learnt my skills by just being there, available and interested….” But it isn’t just time that he invests. He stays approachable by consciously undoing the barriers that a teacher-student hierarchy creates. He makes you call him Keval and gets scandalized when students try to touch his feet. He is friends with students from the 1980s and 1990s and with the age gap between him and the students widening he has found new ways to stay connected. He undercuts his stature by cracking PJs (poor jokes), from Santa-Banta ones to self-deprecating jokes about his balding head.
However, the man respects personal boundaries as consciously as he blurs social hierarchies. In one of The Players’ annual General Body Meetings (GBM), someone was deeply hurt by another’s joke. Keval, who doesn’t usually mind offending people for a purpose, underlined the difference between bullying and joking: “Mazaak jiske saath kiya jaaye use bhi mazaa aana chahiye.”
Through these everyday efforts he hopes that young practitioners imbibe: “A respect for people different from yourself. A recognition that one person’s hurt or right to happiness is not more or less than another’s. An appreciation of the pleasure of working collectively together. And the knowledge that the stories we live in, and which live in us, are ours – for telling, and questioning, and changing.”
Keval’s contribution to the practice and study of performance extends far beyond KMC and DU. He has curated the Old-World Collegiate Theatre Festival since 2003. On several instances he has lectured students of the National School of Drama, and the Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture’s acting course among other institutions. He has written reviews, articles, and commentaries on theatre, for multiple publications besides being on the jury of the Bharat Rang Mahotsava, The Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award and the National Film Awards.
For his extensive work, a well-wishing senior Delhi theatre actor had asked Keval to put together a CV which he would have liked to submit along with his recommendation for the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Keval refused. He says: “…if someone has to give me an award, they should do the work themselves rather than have me apply for it – even if the application is being put in by someone else.”
I ask him what he gets in return for pouring his heart and soul for all these years and he shoots back, “Isn’t the pleasure and satisfaction of a job well done the ‘return’ that you speak of?” Hearing this, I wonder what a letter of recommendation for Keval would read like. The idea sounds subversive (much up his alley, hopefully he would approve) so here is my fun two paise:
To Whomsoever It May Concern
Keval has taught and trained legions of students (averaging 150 students per year for 44 years is 6600!). They chart different walks of life with values picked up from him (along with his uncanny impressions). His eye for detail and instinct for simplifying is awe inspiring (read his hamartia). His penchant for poignant punch lines is infectious and so is his childlike curiosity (barters his English for students’ Hindi). He makes nerdiness look cool (finds Excel formulae fun) and ethics look sexy (always critical, never cynical). He might forget to be gentle (discussing may turn into sarcastic dissing and cussing) but always remembers to be kind. With his attention, he makes every student feel like the chosen one. Keval is what Dumbledore would be had Aaron Sorkin written him.
He personifies the best of the public education system in India. He is hands-on, neither indifferent, nor inscrutable; a rare combination of guts and grace. I had heard “artists must speak truth to power” but it was Keval who shared how: “Don’t do for money what you wouldn’t do for free.”
Keval anant Keval katha ananta. Let me just say that a generous teacher like Keval comes only rarely in the life of an institution. I consider myself privileged to have learned from him. I hope and wish and pray for more mentors like him for countless others like me!