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`Slow-trotter' going places... .

He prefers Kerala to the U.S. He is ready to look at history dispassionately. Yet he feels that he has a responsibility of keeping the flame burning for posterity. Meet M.K. Raina, Delhi's best known freelancer here in a freewheeling conversation with GOWRI RAMNARAYAN... .

TOWARDS NEWER VISTAS: M.K. Raina may not consider himself a globetrotter but that has in no way diminished his stature among theatrelovers across the world. Photo: S. Subramanium.

THE DAY he graduated from the National School of Drama in 1970, he started on "27 Down'', a significant work in Indian parallel cinema. Since then he has produced 130 plays in 14 languages, with different groups from Leh on the icy mountains, to humid villages in Andhra Pradesh. He has acted in 18 films for directors like Mrinal Sen, Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. His documentaries include the sacred dances at the Hemis festival, and the profile of Kashmiri poet Rahman Rahi. Delhi-based M.K.Raina is most happy with the fact that he is "the only freelancer in North India working on my own terms, my own steam, and for my own beliefs. I have created opportunities, found my niche without godfathers and PR men.''

Why did he not move to Mumbai as many colleagues did? "I am a slow-trotter, not a go-getter,'' MK Raina laughs. "Besides, survival in the glamour scene demands a closed mind, and blindness to all social concerns in a mad round of `me-my success-my career'.''

With a family background of doctors and engineers, how did he take up theatre and cultural activism?

"I should think that to be born a Kashmiri Pandit is enough motivation for protest! My father was an activist and our home seethed with political discussions.'' As a student he became responsive to causes against oppression, ever ready for processions and protest meetings. That is how he forged bonds with academics and intellectuals in the Capital and widened his field of exposure. With them he too saw communalism taking invidious, diabolic shapes. A long-term friend of the brutally murdered theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, and founder-member of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, Raina recalls how "we rushed to the hospital thinking that Safdar was merely injured, until reality hit us...''

Raina is convinced that culture is a counterpoint to the violence and terrorism around us, validated by the inherent pluralism of bhakti and sufi traditions. These values came early, with a renowned Kashmiri poet for school principal, who wrote plays and operas for student performances. He invited leading writers to read their works aloud to the children, as he himself did. Raina joined the "Young Writers' Forum'' and was found enthusiastically selling the newsheet "Akhbaar-e- Kashmir'' by a family friend, who reported the matter to the father with amusement.

After college in Srinagar, a State scholarship enabled the boy to move to NSD in Delhi, then headed by the martinet Ebrahim Alkazi. "He never got sentimental but whipped us into shape, made professionals out of us. That gave me the courage and the training to become a freelancer. The other teachers too had stature, they carried amazing experiences from the freedom movement, the IPTA and so on, and used them to improve our lives.''

There are those who believe that Raina has not fulfilled his promise. He admits that he has not been challenged enough. More interested in direction than in acting, Raina has tried to respond to his times. His "Raag Desh'', premiered at NSD's annual theatre festival this year, is a Punjabi adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden'' -- remember Sigourney Weaver's and Ben Kingsley's chilling performances in the film? A car breakdown brings a stranger into a home where he is recognised by voice alone as the man who, with a background score of classical music, tortured and raped his host's wife. The woman imprisons him and puts him on trial. The result is an exposure of the nation's history of bestial repression. Starting with the pun, Raina's version returned to the traditional realistic form where all the complicated layers had to be decoded, revealed by the actors. The aim was to see if harmony is at all possible to achieve in our war-mongering, tension-torn nation.

What do you find in the darksome caves, do you see any way out of the nightmare, I ask.

"We have to keep talking, look into history unflinchingly, whether of the Partition, of Kashmir or Ayodhya or Gujarat. This is a young democracy, a complicated experiment. It can succeed only if we respect each other's space. My play gives you a see the distorted faces and start thinking.'' But creative energies are charged by love, not fear or hatred. Raina's own excitement is sparked by the diversities of his motherland. "It's like a little bhang, intoxicating! Come down from the mountains into Himachal Pradesh, Punjab or U.P., and you see how the terrain, language, costume, cuisine, everything is different! My children don't want to go to the U.S., they would rather see Sikkim or Kerala. My future home will be Ladakh, I revel in its snow peaks where man has never walked before...''

Influenced by Buddhist thought, Raina is fond of saying that no one can take your space if you create it yourself. "In Kashmir I stay in a hotel near my home reduced long ago to rubble. I don't lament. I have the responsibility to see that I light some little flames and keep them going for my children.''

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