In 1984, Rajat Kapoor was intrigued by a 14-year-old boy watching a play all by himself at the Shri Ram Center in Delhi. After the show, he walked up to the kid and asked him to audition for his first play. For Atul Kumar, growing up in old Delhi “in a family of Lalas who had nothing to do with the arts”, as he puts it, there has been no looking back since. Ask Atul what theatre means to him today and even after much deliberation all he can say is: “It is me. I am it.”
As he grew older, he began to look for the course of his life in theatre. His search for a guru took him to K.V. Panikkar in Kerala. He didn’t quite enjoy working with the maestro, and instead, stayed back to learn Kathakali and Kalaripayattu. “Those years in Kerala were the most magical of my life. Almost every day, I remember having moments that transcended simple explanations.”
Kerala was the beginning of a long journey that was to take him to France, the U.S. and the U.K. as a student of theatre. A journey that culminated in Bombay 12 years ago where Kumar set up home with his old friend from Chingari, Sheeba Chadha, and their group, The Company Theatre.
What became increasingly clear to him through his very diverse education was that the only way to work is to live together in a community, and develop one’s craft. Thus was born Atul’s dream of setting up a world-class theatre residency in India — a dream that he nearly gave up on six years ago. “It was taking too much from me, chasing this dream.”
On the suggestion of a friend, Kumar went across the country asking artists to donate a painting each for the cause. Before he could count, he had a 196 works from contemporary masters and raised enough money to put the plan back on track.
The money has run out once again, but Atul has a number of ideas to raise funds, all happily involving projects that also attempt to take his art forward. One of them is the revival of his play “The Blue Mug”. Friends such as Ranvir Shorey, Rajat Kapoor and Vinay Pathak, who have gone on to become Bollywood celebrities, are helping draw the crowds, but it is the play that strikes a chord. Inspired by a clinical essay from Oliver Sacks, Atul devised this play with his actors by getting them to talk about their most crucial memories.
Talking about his process, Atul explains: “My introduction to theatre was with writers of the Absurd genre such as Cocteau, Genet, Pinter and Ionesco, but eventually I got tired of it. Devising a play without script was a popular modern trend in Europe by then, but what we forget is that there is a lot of it in our own classical and folk forms. I have stopped working with bound scripts since. Over the last couple of years, this project has kept me away from the stage. There is also stagnation somewhere. I want to start afresh with questioning when this residency takes off. ”
The stage has also missed Atul the actor, especially when reminded of his exceptional genius in Rajat Kapoor’s acclaimed “Hamlet — The Clown Prince”.
He is brutally objective and critical of his own work — an ability that sets him apart. The other is his undying optimism. Experimental theatre in India is languishing. But, Atul only has the time to dream and get on with it. “I feel very lucky. I know it is tough and there is politics everywhere, but I have only been helped by people from the profession wherever I go. Theatre is a community art form and that is also why I love it. I need the energies of people to sustain me. So much so, I can hardly be by myself anymore. The other important ethos is that ‘the show must go on’. Every theatrewallah knows this cardinal rule intrinsically. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can ever make me stop. Even pain is a fuel now.”
Atul’s passion is rare. “A friend asked me why we theatrewallahs take ourselves so seriously as if we were doing something noble, and I thought, but we do. Theatre is a great service to the world!”