Scenographer Sumant Jayakrishnan speaks to Shalini Shah about his love for the theatrical and how an interest in performance drew him to space design
They say people make a place. Literally speaking, this would apply to Sumant Jayakrishnan more than anyone else. It's been close to two decades since an interest in space design and performance threw light on a possible career option. Today, there's not much the scenographer hasn't seen or done.
Be it working in the realm of performing arts —Tim Supple's A Midsummer Night's Dream or Rustam Bharucha' production of Kiss of a Spider Woman — or on projects by Khoj Foundation and SAHMAT, designing sets for Deepa Mehta's Water, events for luxury labels Chanel and Dior or lavish sets for fashion shows for the likes of Rohit Bal and Tarun Tahiliani, Sumant's playing field is a broad one.
Events around the upcoming Formula One and India Art Summit a little later will now keep him busy. When we meet him at his office at Dadabari in Mehrauli, Sumant's just back from a three-hour meeting. If he's harassed, he doesn't remotely look it. A few minutes are spent inspecting the fish tank, after someone from his team expresses doubts about the wellbeing of the snails inside. All is, thankfully, well.
Sumant joined the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in the early '90s to study Visual Communication. Midway, they opened the exhibition design course, and he started taking up space design projects while in his fourth year. His final thesis project was in set design and multimedia for a musical on the Mahabharata. “That's how I started moving into design for performance,” he recalls.
It was an interesting time, when he was trying to figure out the topic for his thesis project. “I thought the one thing I was passionate about is performance. If I was given a choice when I was young, I would have been a dancer, but I don't think that was an option because we moved so much; my parents travelled a lot. And I used to act; I worked with a lot of theatre groups and dance companies. So I thought ‘How can I use design for performance?'”
Then came in collaborations with Barry John, Rustam Bharucha and Anamika Haksar, Dadi Pudumjee and social activism group SAHMAT. When artist Dashrath Patel fell ill once, a friend suggested that Sumant travel to Chennai to assist dancer Chandralekha on production. The “trembling” 24-year-old went.
Soon enough, a grant came his way through the Charles Wallace Arts Trust Award, and a year in London happened — summer school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and trainings with theatre designers in London. A grant he had applied for from the French Embassy came through and a year was spent in France doing lighting design for performance and puppetry, followed by an installation project in Germany.
However, he says, “I came back to India, where I found it difficult to work only with performance.” Sumant was working with artists like Nalini Malani and Nilima Sheikh, Anuradha Kapoor (who's now the director of NSD) and gallerist Sharon Apparao. There was a brief foray into television, too.
The first fashion project was a set for Rohit Bal's show in Mumbai, which was followed by one for Ashish N. Soni at Khajuraho. “But doing fashion week in Delhi, the very first one, was what pushed me into doing what's at least half of what I do now. When I did fashion weeks and fashion weeks, clients would come and say, ‘Oh! We saw the show. Can you design a party? Can you design an event? Can you design a wedding?'”
Element of drama
The common element, he says, is drama. “The reason they come to me is I tend to make things theatrical and graphical. So curtains will move, or something will turn or something has to flip. The sense of how the space transforms, whether with lighting or structure, in the course of an evening, becomes a theatrical experience,” Sumant says.
“It doesn't matter if it's an English director or a crazy fashion designer or a Marwari housewife or businessman. What I can do is tune into who they are, try and understand what their vocabulary is, then work with that vocabulary adding things from my vocabulary. And find a quirk or something that is a new way of presenting a series of clichés. We keep on saying, ‘We want something different, something new.' But that different or new is just a twist on how you look at it.
Indian fabric and mirror rank as favourites among material. “Mirror can become something that is structural or it can disappear. I like things that turn or open or fold, or revolve… anything that transforms.”
The process of transformation is not without its share of glitches. Last August was a particularly harrowing time, when he was simultaneously working on the Couture Week at The Grand and the Tarun Tahiliani Bridal Exposition at Emporio, a stone's throw away.
“It was a huge outdoor setup at Emporio. We started the construction and the cops came and shut it down. So within five days I had to redesign something I worked on for four months, to make a smaller version of it to fit it inside Emporio. At the same time, at the second venue, The Grand, the cops came and shut it down; the excuse was the Commonwealth Games. So, for shows that were meant to be separate we had to build one set in front of the other, so there were three shows I had to redesign, in conjunction with the designers of the other shows. That was a nightmare week,” he recalls.
On another show, the revolving elements on stage stopped functioning half an hour before the show's start. “So we had to keep the audience waiting for half an hour. People are used to waiting for shows. Sometimes it is hair and makeup, sometimes it's a model thing, sometimes it's a star who doesn't turn up. That time around it was a set that got stuck. The audience need not know what it is; they're outside. What's important is present a façade of being alright,” he smiles.
Manav Gangwani's show at the Couture Week this year, time cogs, et al, had 12 moving mechanisms on stage. “That's quite scary, because in Delhi to get someone to execute it all… You keep thinking, ‘Will something fall? Will something break?'”
Sumant's, however, been picky about the fashion assignments the past couple of years. “But it's also something that the team enjoys, so I balance it out. It's fun to do and it's also a space where I practise or try out ideas. It becomes a trial space so those ideas can be developed on a bigger space.”
Is it heart-wrenching, the fact that most of his work is transitory and temporary? “I'm used to it. I've always let go, so it's not such a problem in my head. Now, I have the pangs, that there should be something that stays. I did an interior project a couple of years ago, doing a couple more this year. I would also love designing a bar, a restaurant. But it has to be dramatic, or I'll get bored,” Sumant explains.
What he would like to do now is get more of art back into his life — installation art, not unlike what's he's been doing, but more for its own sake than as part of a client's specification. Till then, there are many things calling.