Atelier’s Kuljeet Singh on what it takes to make a movement out of campus theatre

The presence of street theatre troupes in most protests and public outreach events in Delhi would pleasantly surprise most visitors to the Capital. While the tradition of using theatre for agitation isn’t new to the city (its initiation and growth here mirrored the rise of the Jana Natya Manch in the 70s and 80s) the credit for its 21s Century resonance among Delhi University students partly goes to the Atelier Campus Theatre (ACT) Festival.

This 16-day annual event takes place all over the varsity and boasts of a cumulative audience of 20,000. Last years festival, in October and November, had 18 proscenium plays, 18 street plays, two music events and discussions on theatre. There was multiple shows. ACT is directed by Kuljeet Singh— an English teacher at SGTB Khalsa College and a key member of Atelier Expressions, a theatre company in Mukherjee Nagar. Speaking at the company’s new studio, currently under renovation, Kuljeet says, “If you want to do something radical, it is easiest on campus. Outside, bread and butter issues will overwhelm you.”

Thanks to ACT, at any point of time there are at least 30 active troupes in Delhi University. Not only do they perform during ACT, but also for other festivals and more importantly, protests all the year round. Most recently these groups were seen in action during the protests against violence on women and, corruption before that. Plays and adaptations like Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s Hawalat, Barrie Keeffe’s Sus and, the works of Manto were the most popular on the campus circuit last year. An army, once raised, can’t be idle.

“This is marginal theatre practice, not supported from outside. When there are no commercial gains or losses, and the space comes free, the focus is on Agitprop,” he adds. “This is the kind of movement we dreamt of when Atelier started in 2004.”

Agitprop is a Russian term referring to the use of the arts as tools of political propaganda. Like Agitprop of the past, DU’s nukkad nataks also fall prey to repetition. Although called nukkad, or traditional street performance, these plays are usually one act skits that take place in the open. “They are often identical. Same coloured kurtas, four chunries, gulaal and a human pyramid. It is easy to emulate.”

In Atelier and Ankur — his college’s troupe — Kuljeet encourages students to break this mould. Ankur’s recent play Dharm had none of the elements listed above, yet was received well at IIT Bombay’s Mood Indigo Festival last month.

Kuljeet is currently working with Ankur on Punjabi playwright Gursharan Singh’s Comrade and Baba Bol Da Hai. He’s also working with Indraprastha College on a reinterpretation of Saadat Hassan Manto’s female characters Sakeena, Roop Kaur and Lajvanti. The play called Rehearsing Manto in times of Gang Rape is scheduled to be staged next month.

Kuljeet has come a long way since Goodbye Blue Sky, his first original production co-directed with Ravi Shanker in 2004. The play was about a theatre group rehearsal being interrupted by a mob that demands they hand over a Sikh actor whom they wanted to kill as revenge for the assassination of a prime minister.

The poster of the play sits amongst photos and notes on the history of theatre in Delhi University— the subject of his doctoral study. Actors rehearse before them. The lights of the studio, behind Meerut Sweets, are rarely switched off.