Recently presented with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, theatre veteran Kusum Haider shares glimpses of an eventful career.

With over 50 years of theatrical experience behind her, Kusum Haider is a name to be reckoned with. Recently presented with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the veteran actor, director and, interestingly, Tai Chi expert, still retains the love and enthusiasm for theatre she started out with at the age of 15.

You were young when you joined Theatre Unit, School of Dramatic Arts, in Bombay. Tell us a little about the journey from there..

I started at age of 15 and Mr. Ebrahim Alkazi became my guru. He was in Bombay running this school. My father was posted in Bombay then and I was looking for something to do. It was my first experience with theatre. I was trained by Mr. Alkazi for nearly two years and then my father moved to Delhi, and I left with him. My time at that school transformed my life. Mr Alkazi opened the whole world of theatre for me. I was trained as an actor, and he was a great teacher, very methodical. I was also fortunate to get a lot of great exposure, and the other students were all of different ages. People around me were all different ages. I acted in my first play “Antigone” with Satyadev Dubey. It was a very nice exposure, where I could interact with not just people of my age but others too. Once in Delhi, I did my graduation from Miranda (Miranda House, Delhi University). In DU, I got lots of opportunities. It was an exciting time. Everything was flowering. The theatre scene was getting a lot of exposure from the West, and there were new plays and translations as well as lots of folk theatre. St Stephen’s College had a lots of theatre activity, I worked in the Unity theatre which was launched then, and with Sheela Bhatia. She and I did a few plays together. And then, Joy Michael started Yatrik and we all joined it together. I was a founder member. After graduation, I got a scholarship and moved to France to study mime under Jacques Lecoq.

Almost 60 years down the line, it’s impossible to not notice changes, both within yourself and in the country’s theatre map.

Growing up, I worked with best possible people, Mr. Alkazi, Begum Zaidi, Habib Tanvir. I couldn’t have had a better time, or exposure. Over the years, a lot of experimental theatre has come up, which is very exciting. There is also a lot of quantity of theatre but, unfortunately, less quality. I think in terms of quality there were some great plays happening in the earlier days. There were great directors then, and not that there aren’t now. Over the years, I met people like Amal Allana and worked a lot with her. She in a way changed me as an actress. I always had played these heroines and did these leads that were strong emotional parts. Then she gave me challenging roles that were different to anything I had done earlier. For instance, she made me play Chandragupta Maurya at 19. She had this gender thing. She made Manohar Singh play Mother Courage. She helped me a great deal to develop as an actress.

Today a lot of young people are involved in theatre. But people want to do plays in two weeks nowadays. There is a lot of theatre that is commercial, with people looking for immediate results. But then, there is a lot of great serious theatre happening too. I like the stuff coming from Kerala, including Jyotish’s work, which was here for the META awards. I also like Deepan Sivaraman’s work. He has imagination and is bold. That’s the kind of theatre I love. His work is also relevant to the times. Other than these, great work is also coming from other states, like Bengal and Karnataka.

The audience today has also grown enormously. You go to plays and can’t find people you know. Before, you knew everyone because the same people would attend the plays.

Today, foreign directors are coming to India, since there is so much talent here. They come looking for source of inspiration, and I think it’s fantastic what’s going on in theatre today.

And as an actress, how do you approach roles? Is there a specific method you work with?

Everyone has their own method. There are books on method acting. I go by the best way which was with Mr. Alkazi. You know, I watched him very carefully in my impressionable years. He is absolutely amazing with characterisation. He made you study the role very carefully, had many discussions to find out what the character was about, examined his/her interaction with other characters, and the play’s theme. Once you understood your part in the play, you had to get a hook into it — had to find that one thing in the character and observe that something in the world around you. Of course, there is no fixed way of approaching it. What you have to do is search for the truth of the role. You can’t put on and pretend. It takes time. I know that Amal gives five months to a play, Mr. Alkazi gives it three months. Sai Paranjpye is another person I really enjoyed working with. She had a way of persuading you to enter the character in a particular way. Imagination plays a great role in entering the character, as does observation. You also need to practice a lot, come in front of the director, show him something. If that fails, try something else.

Did the extensive experiences with many directors shape your own work as a director?

I’ll tell you something, how I became a director is very interesting. It was because I was an actor. I observed a great deal. The way Mr. Alkazi used to teach his actors, I took it very seriously. He used to give us one hour long individual classes on speech, pace, volume, emphasis, pronunciation. And then, I was a teacher too. So I found it very interesting to do a play and teach all these actors.

You once said that you will never act in a play your were directing yourself. Does that still hold true?

Yes, I could never do that. I think you lose your distance and perspective that way.

And how do you choose the plays you act in and direct?

I’m very particular about choosing a play. After all, you have to put so much time into it, it’s your life’s blood. So I do plays that I want to do, that mean something to me. Like “Rashômon”, I found it very relevant and engaging. Secondly, I’m very devoted to Federico Garcia Lorca. I still want to do one more play of his. I feel very connected to his work, still feel like he’s speaking to me. I’ve acted in and directed “Yerma”, directed “Blood Wedding” twice, as well as other plays by him. Now if I get a chance I’ll do “The House of Bernarda Alba”.

As someone who has worked with speech and voice, and taught theatre, do you see it as something that must be an inherent talent, or one that can be cultivated?

That’s a very interesting question, because I honestly believe that you have to have a flair, that one spark, from the start. You might go a whole lifetime not discovering it, which is very sad. Once it’s been discovered though, then it can be trained. But to begin with it has to be inherent.