Akram Feroze pedals across India to take theatre to villages. He speaks to Nithya Sivashankar of his experiences and his dreams for India
On October 27, 2011, 23-year-old Akram Feroze set off on a journey. He had a bicycle, a bag containing two sets of clothes and a laptop, and Rs. 300. Akram wanted to just travel around the country and see places. However, a little into his journey, he decided he wanted to do something else too. Being a theatre artist, he asked himself, “Why not travel to villages and introduce the people there to theatre?”
Akram wanted to go where theatre was inaccessible. “I'd heard of Natak Mandali, the ancient art of travelling theatre and I wanted to experience it.”
The outcome was ‘The Cycle Natak'. In 95 days, Akram has visited around 40 villages in three states, and has written, directed and acted in plays with the locals. “The Cycle Natak is theatre for the people, of the people and by the people,” he says.
Inspired by the best
Akram's first exposure to theatre was when he moved to Hyderabad from Karim Nagar district in Andhra Pradesh, for his under-graduate studies. “My grandfather Kadir Zaman, an Urdu writer, introduced me to theatre. He was one of the trustees of Qadar Ali Baig Theatre Foundation,” says Akram. “I watched famous theatre personalities such as Naseerudin Shah and Arundati Nag perform. I would sit in the front row and watch them, and feel the stage was mine.” Akram dropped out of college before he secured a degree in genetics and took up theatre professionally later.
Beginning in Hyderabad, Akram has covered villages in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. He uses mime and role play to educate the villagers. “When I cycle into a village, I first stop at a tea stall and chat with the owner about the village and the people who live there. Since my first priority is to get my stay arranged, I walk door-to-door and ask for accommodation. People are usually extremely hospitable.” Akram spends three to four days in each village, interacts with the people, visits schools, and explains the idea of theatre to both adults and children. “I conduct ice-breaking sessions first, ask the villagers to let their hair down. Most of the adults are shy, but the children are very enthusiastic. There is so much talent available in the villages,” he says.
One of the biggest problems he has faced so far, says Akram, is language. “I know only Hindi and English. I have had trouble communicating with villagers. Sometimes I find a person who can help me with translation; sometimes I convey my thoughts through actions.”
Akram is at present visiting the Andaman Islands. But he confesses that he has often felt lonely and far away from home. He has seen people die on highways.
But he has good friends too who have always helped him. “I once lost my phone while I was cycling near Chennai. A few of my friends pooled money and bought me another one immediately. They even bought me a camera for my birthday this January,” says Akram. Help has come from Facebook-friends too, he adds.
It is not just about rural India. Akram wants to create a link between urban and rural theatre. Apart from educating the villagers, he also plans to hold panel discussions in cities to talk about rural art forms such as shadow puppetry and Dollu Kunitha.
“In Bangalore, I met Arundati Nag. She trained me for three days and arranged a panel discussion with a few theatre groups,” says Akram, whose medical insurance for the journey has been funded by Nag. “When I travel through cities, I visit schools and colleges, and conduct theatre workshops for the students. They pay me if they want to.” He says his expenditure is minimal. “I carry a tent with me; I don't spend money on stay. Dhabawalas and villagers feed me almost always.”
“Most people I meet think I am going on a pilgrimage. They give me money and ask me to pray for them!” He recounts a rendezvous with an old couple on the Karnool highway. “An old man saw me cycling, I was extremely tired. He stopped me and gave me two custard apples. The poor couple told me how the custard apple season had been bad this year. I handed them whatever money I had with me. They refused to take it and asked me to pray to God for a good custard apple crop this year.”
You can follow Akram's journey on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheCycleNatak.