M.K. Raina talks about his dramatic journey coloured by intriguing decisions and engaging experiences

He was a child and a flower. A platform slid to the stage, so the audience could see him. That is Maharaj Krishna Raina's early memories of stage, in “Neki Badi”, an opera. “We won a gold medal and my mother preserved it,” Raina traces the roots to his passion — theatre, sitting beneath a benevolent tree in his alma mater — National School of Drama.

Many productions make his past. A director, an actor. A dramatic voyage swelling close to 40 years, theatre with people and groups from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, healing frayed emotions with drama in his home State - Jammu and Kashmir. Ever since he graduated from NSD in early 1970s, theatre has kept Raina on his toes.

“I got a rucksack, bought a sleeping bag from a hippie in Paharganj and tramped across the country. I worked with folk artistes, tribals, students, lived in hostels,” remembers Raina. He became a freelance theatre person at a time when the sheer idea was madness.

“I was still in the hostel when I worked in ‘27 Down',” he says about his first feature film. Feeling flighty with Rs.10,000 in his pocket — earned from the film — Raina set out on his theatrical journey.

“People thought I was mad. But I created my own employment. I had no godfather, nor was I from a very, very wealthy family. It may have been my arrogance, I didn't give a damn.”

Raina may not have been from a “very, very wealthy family.” But it was definitely one where he was allowed to discover his calling. Growing up in Kashmir in the 1960s meant a childhood like any other. A dental surgeon father with a “progressive streak” never came in the way when his son chose theatre. “It must have been a three-sentence discussion,” recalls Raina.

When he arrived in Delhi, armed with a scholarship, it was to be trained and tuned by the iconic Ebrahim Alkazi. “He would make mincemeat out of student, but was a fantastic teacher. We never dreamt of bunking a class. We became responsible and professionals,” he says fondly.

However, trekking from one place to another, interacting with myriad people, the young graduate realised he had to unlearn a lot to do theatre in the grassroots.

“That was the time of anti-Americanism, after the Vietnam War and sympathy for the underdog shaped the kind of work you did... But I had to reverse gears a bit and reflect on my own work,” says Raina.

He, like Habib Tanvir, tried to blend rural and urban actors in plays. “Coming from NSD, Habib Tanvir was on the other side of the bank. I would have a lot of issues but later his works became a reference point. I would think how he would tackle a problem,” recollects Raina about venturing into new theatre tracks.

Theatre away from the claustrophobic confines of cities was education. “You can't use techniques you have learnt. There are no auditoriums, you have to tell stories in an empty space.”

If language was a stumbling block, he says, “Over the years, you learn the language of the face, eyes and hands. You become very alert to it. I almost sit in my actor's brain and see things his way.”

Raina slices his theatre broadly to three to four pies — from “serious” theatre to working with folk elements and then with children and the young. The man who christened theatre the “safety valve in a democracy” says for a society to work well all the valves — painting, literature and theatre – have to be healthy.

Ask him if the phase of angry theatre is history, he is quick to say, “The phase is not gone as the fact is not gone. It is not that the underdog is not crushed anymore, the war is not over.” For him, theatre is now in the smaller centres and campuses.

Of late, it is his work in Kashmir that has kept Raina engaged. “My family left the place in 1990. I lost my mother in the tensions, my father came to Delhi and never went back. There were challenges in there,” he says about countering the pang about never working at home.

“I was testing myself, tracing old contacts. After getting off the flight, even when the bag was moving in the conveyor belt, I did not know where to go,” Raina recalls early 1990s.

Creative umbrella

“I went to a tiny hotel near my college.” He stayed, walked down the lanes in a city his own, amidst people he had known, and doors gently opened. He unlocked fears within and soon realised the greatest casualty of the insurgency were children. Workshops were aimed at bringing them together under a creative umbrella. Raina also works with traditional performers, Bhands of Kashmir, reviving old plays and bringing in new texts.

“Last summer, we did ‘King Lear' translating about 6,000 to 7,000 words. We performed it at the University of Kashmir and surprised the intelligentsia. They realised these were avant-garde performers,” he says with pride.

Meanwhile, the veteran artiste is dabbling with play ideas in his head. “I got this book from a kabaad, “The Autobiography of an Untouchable” and there is a short story of Muktibodh,” Raina says about texts he wants to mount on stage.

A concept dear to him is a dramatisation of Gandhi and the children of Sabarmati. A mighty musical, he says, finance is the hurdle.

Raina has always kept the link with films alive. “They are fun,” he says about his cameos, the latest being Taare Zameen Par. He will appear next in Aisha, an adaptation of Jane Austen's “Emma” and a 40-minute production on Kashmir by Deepesh Jain.