The Drama School Mumbai interviewed Anamika Haksar, theatre director and drama pedagogue on why she loves playing two different roles. She also shared her views on training and practice young people need to become terrific performers. Read more to get your set of advice…
Image sourced from Pandolin.
Anamika and I have scheduled an interview at her apartment in Mumbai but I am secretly scared. Upon reaching there, my eyes are wandering all over her living room. They rest upon the piles of old books kept everywhere. She makes me comfortable by offering me tea and thus we begin our conversation.
Anamika is 58-years-old. She studied at the National School of Drama, Delhi (NSD) and later went to study at the State Institute of Theatrical Arts, Moscow (USSR). She specialized in Direction and received the ‘Diploma of Excellence in Theatre Direction’. Anamika is the recipient of Sanskriti award for contribution to new theatre language in 1995. She has directed over 35 plays and one feature length film, acted in 15 major plays and taught at some of the most prestigious performing arts institutes in India.
Roshan: You’ve been a director and a teacher. How would you find an intersection between the two? How do you define who you are?
Anamika: I think I am a creator. I simply create. Defining yourself is a tough job, isn’t it? Very often, I’ve let others define me by my work. I like directing and my work is a little offbeat and experimental. I don’t depart from the norm, my work takes that discourse naturally.
I’ve been privileged to work with B.V Karanth, an eminent theatre and film artist. I imbibed a lot of values and the process of thinking differently whilst working with him. I was also privileged to go to Moscow to train myself for six years from 1982 to 1988. Moscow was a highly cultured city at that time and there was a great sense of consciousness among the audience.
My desire to question the norms repeatedly and create a body of work around it is strengthened by them. I wouldn’t like to call myself anything but what my work resonates. Luckily, it has been able to stand out as a new expression of theatre language. My work in theatre is mostly based on movements, poetry, and visual imagery within the text. It has redefined, for me, realism from a very stereotypical perspective. That’s how everyone started calling me experimental. Particularly, at this point, I feel calling someone’s work experimental also means dismissing their efforts. It means that they are doing something that everyone finds hard to understand and accept.
So that’s Anamika Haksar for you. An experimental theatre-maker. I’ve worked my whole life with theatre and it is only now that I have begun making films because I want to say something that theatre cannot say.
As a teacher, I’ve tried to break the centralist relationship between a teacher and students. I’ve always aimed to make my students learn and understand theory as a part of their experience, through processing their performance and their body. I try to liberate my students just like the way I felt liberated in Moscow.
R: Do you have any memories of childhood or early adulthood that you think have helped in becoming who you are today?
A: I had wonderful and understanding parents who told me I was free to pursue my dreams. My family didn’t have a background in theatre. My mother was a teacher, my father was a diplomat and my sister is a human rights lawyer.
“One thing that my parents imbibed in me was the utmost respect for ordinary people.”
Despite the fact that I was born with certain privileges, I can proudly say that I can crossover anywhere. I don’t believe in class or status. I’ve been to villages, smaller towns and I can be comfortable with everyone. I have always had respect for people with different backgrounds. My sister always fought against the state machinery so we had a lot people visiting us from Burma, Nagaland and Iraq.
That’s also why I think, today, I can speak to younger kids in their idioms and not just their language. They understand me. I tell my students to study who they are and where they come from to have a thorough understanding of their backgrounds and bringing it up in art and work. Whether they are from a village or a city, a Dalit or a Brahmin.
Face your background, cross it and enrich your work with all that you’ve gone through in your life.
I help my students to come to a conflict to realise the dynamics of their belonging and contribute creatively to their art. The other thing is, when I was 16, I met Badal Sarkar and we worked together for four years. We were a big group with stars like Anil Mehta and Sudhir Mishra amongst others. Most of them have now transitioned successfully into the film industry. We worked a lot on our body, trusting ourselves and others with exercises. After working with Sarkar, I joined the National School of Drama. Joining NSD worked a lot in my favour.
With B.V Karanth, we used to travel extensively. We have been all over Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. We used to go to all the villages and watch traditional performances, especially folk art. At that time, I didn’t know the importance of travelling and watching traditional art. Today, I understand that all of it has contributed to my work and has had profound impact on my life. My work has been moulded by contemporary aesthetic values but I’ve always found an echo of traditional art in it.
If you see my play Antar Yatra that questions stereotypes around identity of women or Uchakka, an adaptation of Marathi novelist Laxman Gaikwad’s autobiography, you will come to know how I’ve blended traditional art and performance with contemporary thoughts. The plays travelled all over Maharashtra. From performing shows in Pune and Nanded to studying mill workers and pickpockets in Mumbai. We wanted to reach different kinds of people. We wanted to break prejudices with certain kinds of text.
R: You’ve had intensive training for a decade. How would you narrate the experience and importance of training to a performer?
Training helps you with self-awareness. It also helps you understand what tools you need to express yourself better. Training has to be very compassionate and considerate and to an extent that helps you open up closed doors. Also not to forget, one needs to be careful in the name of training. A trainer shouldn’t impose just one way of looking at things but open a multiple ways of looking at life, looking at theatre and looking at oneself. That’s how students start understanding the vast world of theatre.
“Training has to be very compassionate and considerate.”
My job as a teacher is to open their body, mind, gestures and postures. My job is to also translate the theory that they learn into gestures and expressions so that it becomes an experience for them. Training the mind is very important to me but after keeping in mind the region where the person is coming from. It has to be done both ways, gently and strictly in order to open up a person’s potential.
Another kind of training is through seeing. That is called training through the eyes. Maharashtra has witnessed many years of traditional theatre. In the last 200 years, they’ve had impetus on contemporary theatre. There was a time when the mill workers would watch two shows a day where the eyes are being trained in the best traditional ways. I am also very grateful for the training I have received. I traveled a lot and learned to respect folk artists. I have seen some folk performances in Karnataka that were staged for the whole night; with physical challenges and competitions. I have a very strong memory of that and I carry it wherever I go.
Finally, what I also learnt from Moscow was the importance of careful analysis and discussion between students and teachers to improve the performance. We were also studying paintings, music and art forms. All of it helped us develop a sense of perception and understanding of the world. Training in Moscow made me realise the capacity of my body and space with respect to performance which is quite different from the English theatre where the impetus is only on the speech. I really value the teaching methods I was exposed to in USSR.
R: Do you agree that age and experience play a major role in becoming a better artist?
A: I don’t necessarily feel that age and experience go hand in hand. Although, with age comes compassion and wisdom. You understand how to talk to younger people. You understand that you cannot be brash or arrogant. You cannot pull them down or even use too refined a vocabulary they may not grasp.
There are a lot of things that age may give you but not everyone embraces it. I’ve met people who haven’t learned anything from their journey. These people can be very imposing, conservative and rigid. I’ve personally received a lot of push back from my contemporaries and directors elder to me but I’ve never let it affect me. So I am neither for or against age being an indicator for excellence. Growing old and not willing to learn can make you fossilized, egoistic and conservative.
R: Drama with movement, body and text has been your forte. You’ve specialised on this front creating multiple productions. Does it hold a special place for you?
A: I began directing plays using movement, body and text. At Moscow, we were made to do acting for the first four years of our training. So as a learner, I’ve nurtured values from dancing and acting. I am very grateful for that. Training in Moscow helped me hone my art.
“I am completely mesmerised by the coordination of body, movement and text. For me, it is a holistic form of theatre.”
Photographs clearly don’t give you an idea of movement and space but you can see how I’ve always used them in my productions. I’ve worked in many regions where movement and body expressed a language. I’ve tried to ignite my actors in the right space.
Training your body is supremely important. I’ve trained myself for years on movement and body. Theatre-makers in India have to have total expression. These practices need to be inculcated in contemporary theatre scene. It’s a very strong body of visual metaphor.
R: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in three decades of your experience with theatre?
I think in the beginning when I started directing and teaching, acceptance among people I worked with was difficult. I was young and working with international actors, Russians to be precise. I have received a lot of love and warmth from my actors. Sometimes my actors had to face the wrath of hatred from others whilst working with me.
A lot of people couldn’t find the intersection between dance and theatre in my performances, so naturally a lot of times, they would walk out midway. When these people walked out, there were also others who sat and enjoyed my shows until the end. When I started directing plays, it was the first time that metaphors, visual movement, dance and theatre were coming together in India. Some people called it bizarre to my face but I was always lucky to work with a team of young people who were loving and understanding.
I realize that young people are always receptive. Except the first time I was teaching. I left the class after a few minutes. It was quite humiliating for them to accept someone of their age as their teacher and for me to hear them taunt about age difference. I was trying to break grounds. I wept for a couple of months and later, it didn’t matter. I just went on and on. There was so much acceptance and exuberance from people I was working with.
Many assured me that I was really not doing anything wrong. Slowly, the audience that would leave started staying back and recognising experimental theatre. When I did Antar Yatra, a Tamil epic, we devised a huge space. The critics at that time wrote highly about it. Archana Shastri and I designed it very carefully but it wasn’t celebrated the way it should have been. I was a little disappointed. We had released our fixed deposits and invested in the performance. So there were these times but I have to say that it’s completely your choice. You can push yourself and keep working on the criticisms or you can go back to your comfort shell. I am very grateful to my country. Without any self-propagation, I’ve earned a lot of respect. Just at Kochi-Muziris Biennale, we had about 6,000 to 10,000 people watching my creation.
The journey has been tough but rewarding too. At times I felt that I should have received more recognition than I have. For example, Sangeet Natak Akademi celebrated their golden anniversary and didn’t invite me. It’s painful but I also know my worth. A lot of worthy people are marginalized by politics, so essentially it’s a choice you make. Ultimately, I want my work to be truthful and artistic. It should evoke feelings that are felt deep inside the heart and soul. It is hard but it is also beautiful. I’ve also received warmth and love from a lot of places I’ve travelled to. To be honest, in the end, it is your work that speaks and transpires into the love you receive.
Q. A lot of your work has revolved around social issues and injustice. What motivated this commitment to such issues?
A: To be honest, I really cannot pin it down! Antar Yatra was a poetic journey about women. If you look at Raj Darpan, it is about the censorship act forced by the Britishers on Indians. We showcased the multi-perspective vision of Indian art. It wasn’t about the troubles or issues of an individual but about the country.
Dalit poetry and literature have a special place in my heart. It has metaphors for the modern world. It has always drawn me close. Hard-hitting contemporary stories attract me. I would never try to do a love story. Not because I don’t believe in it but it doesn’t draw my attention.
Some of my feminist friends asked me why was I using Namdeo Dhasal’s text. He mistreated his wife. I told them that I wanted to juxtapose his actions with the sufferings of his wife. The pull of the contemporary life is important. I really feel the urge to talk about issues that matter or cause an emotional stir. Even for my film, we documented what it meant to live in old Delhi. I have an old rishta with old Delhi. It has life in its most intense form. How could I not try to portray that?
The essence of theatre is to pull you out of your existence.
Also, my sister’s influence whilst taking up cases against the army rule in Kashmir and Manipur affected me. She is a very political person. But I don’t belong to any political party. I may belong to a certain mold of thinking. I work on anything that challenges stereotypes. I have a compelling urge to express joys and sorrows, both rare and every day. I have an urge to communicate them.
Q. You’ve been training young actors and theatre-makers at the Drama School Mumbai. What are the most effective tools that a young story-teller can use?
A: I’ve always asked students to pick up elements and characters from their neighbourhood and be proud of their history. Otherwise, they start closing up. Usually for people from a lower economic background, there are complexes and conflicts that need to be resolved. Begin your art from your differences. Don’t be scared to show that you are a son of a farmer or you milk cows at home. That’s my first rule while teaching.
Secondly, what’s important is imagination. I try myriad things to open up my students. We work on photographs, paintings, proverbs and musical pieces. Those exercises are to open up your imagination in such a way that you are really feeling what your performing.
Third thing is being playful. Having fun with each other and being able to receive and give is also important. Then there has to be some sort of training for the body. Any training that gives your body an aadhar or anchor is must. Do whatever is conducive to your own regional climate. Be it yoga, chhau or any other dance form. It can bring your rhythm across. That’s it.
Invest a lot of thought and work on Indian culture, be it paintings, music or art and then move to western art. Sometimes exercises can be psycho-physical. Elements of performance are always to be explored by playful exercises. It opens up sensory perception like taste, sound, vision and feel. Training is a lifelong process. The more you invest in it, the better your performances get.
This interview was conducted, written and edited by Roshan Kokane. With inputs from Ramu Ramnathan, Lyra Niharika Dutt and Ragini Khushwaha.