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 urban centres or 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.
It’s early morning in Germany, as Shiva Pathak and Nimi Ravindran snack on a cursory breakfast of M&Ms in between sharing insights from the long and illustrious journey Sandbox Collective has had. They’re in Germany to receive the Goethe Medaille 2022, an honour awarded by the German government. What do medals and awards mean to them? “Of course, it means a lot,” says Nimi. “Artists often wonder about the point of what we do, and it feels great to get that validation for our work. But even if the nearest village panchayat invited us and awarded us a flower because they appreciated our work, we would be thrilled.” I’ve spent a decent amount of time going through the Sandbox Collective website. I’ve read everything I can, and I still can’t figure how to categorise the Collective: a production house? A theatre company? A group? An institution? When I ask this question to Shiva and Nimi, they laugh, because they understand the struggle all too well.
Nimi offers to go first. “We first started Sandbox in 2013. Me as a theatre director and Shiva as an actor, we both felt there was so much that the theatre community and industry was missing. So many infrastructural gaps that needed to be filled, and we started Sandbox to find a way to build this soft infrastructure. And this was coming specifically from the perspective of us as artists, rather than from the perspective of, say, a production manager.” I’d say they’ve been rather successful! From their well-loved grant ‘Gender Bender’ to being local producers of touring shows; from hosting visiting artists to organising workshops and reading groups, Sandbox has built a community you can count on.
This strikes me as the most heart-warming part of our conversation – their commitment to community. It started with them helping touring artists who were visiting Bangalore: offering everything from press contacts to a place to stay. It includes their immensely successful first year where they organised 120 (!) shows in just one year. “We performed in living rooms, bedrooms, terraces, kitchens… just short of performing in toilets, we were everywhere. See, when we started, there weren’t too many alternative theatre spaces in Bangalore, and we felt the first step was nurturing an audience that would appreciate such spaces. We also wanted to find a way to ensure that a play can live beyond just the usual 4-show run.”
To build theatre infrastructure is definitely a worthy goal, but one that has endless possibilities. Has their raison d’etre evolved over the years? They both agree that they’ve become a lot more focused. As the theatre and arts ecology has changed, so has their work. They’re especially interested in gender and sexuality, and are consciously working on building safer spaces and more opportunities for women, non-binary, and trans folk. ‘Gender Bender’ is perhaps their most successful endeavour. It was originally conceived as a one-time grant based on some funding they received. The response they got was overwhelming, and they realised the urgent need in the arts space for work on gender and sexuality which is not just about research, but also about fun.
Shiva points out that Gender Bender is a rare ‘trigger grant’ – there is no pressure or expectation to have a final output. “We all want the ability to take a chance to fail, but this is not an opportunity that is often available to us. Once you remove the pressure of creation, you’re actually aiding creativity.” Nimi adds that Gender Bender has become so successful that ideally, they should be working on it year-round, with a dedicated team just supporting that project. Alas, the harsh reality of the battle between theatre incomes vs cost of living gets in the way.
Their notion of community has also evolved over the years. At the start, it was about solidarity and building a tribe. But over time (and especially in the past three years), the changing socio-political landscape has called for a change in their projects as well. One example of this is the Garden of Reflections series. This was created to be a space to gather, to come together to read, listen and share to start a conversation through personal stories and sharing around themes of love, friendships, gender, caste, religion through the lens of identity and citizenship.
They also mention that though the community can be very supportive to the people they consider “their own”, it is hard to break into those circles. They’ve always been clear that anyone at all who reaches out and asks for support, will get it. Be that in the form of a meeting, advice, contacts, suggestions, mentorship. Nimi says, “Ideally there should be some open resource that everyone can access for information. In the meantime, whatever information or access we have, we’re happy to share.
Some time after our interview, Shiva reaches out to offer an addendum, that criticism is important to the work they do. It is important to be able to receive feedback (including criticism) about their work, without taking it as a personal attack. It is necessary for the process of growth. The theme of honest and open dialogue pops up throughout our conversation. When I ask what change they would like to see from the theatre community, they speak of accountability “that goes beyond hashtag solidarity”. “We’re not saying there’s a need to cancel people and completely shun them. However, it seems that after a social media calling out of a person or institution, there is a short break and then it’s business as usual,” says Nimi. “If things have to really change, we need to commit to difficult conversations. We can’t just move on like nothing has happened. That’s not beneficial to anyone.”
Shiva adds that in the theatre space, we seem to be constantly reinventing the wheel. We keep trying to recreate the process, instead of learning from each other. It is important that we can honestly share our successes and shortcomings with each other, so that we can move forward as a community, rather than trying to do our own thing and repeating the same mistakes.
At this point in the conversation, I glance at the clock, and there is little time I have left. I know there’s so much more I’d love to hear from them, and so much more they would like to say, but their busy schedule ─ and my word limit ─ must be respected.
Even several days after our conversation, one thread keeps playing in my mind: the topic of Swami the poster boy. This young man approached them some years back, looking for some source of extra income. Shiva half-jokingly says, “Nimi pretty much trained him on how to put posters; where they should be put up, how to put them up properly.” This was a win-win situation, since putting up posters for shows can be a dreary and time-consuming (albeit unavoidable) task. Eventually, more theatre groups began hiring Swami, and before long most Bangalore theatre artists had his number saved as Swami Poster Boy. Through this work, Swami became more acquainted with theatre, and began attending shows. He refused to accept a free ticket; he wanted to support the art he was watching. Recently, he attended a cultural course at Ninasam in Heggodu, and if he ever needs support in broadening his artistic horizons, Sandbox is happy to facilitate.
Nimi says, “To us, this is also a huge win. The Goethe Medaille is a validation that everyone shares the joy of; while Swami’s story may not be well known, we still feel it is equally important.”
Perhaps the only thought I have as I sign off our Zoom call, is “thank you for the work you do, Sandbox. And may your tribe grow!”