THEATRE Director Ishwar Shunya reveals what it takes to survive doing the kind of theatre he does
Sex sells. And Ishwar Shunya is turning the market on its head. He’s delivered two hits in a row in less than a month, staging Valentin Krasnogorov’s Let’s Have Sex followed by Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s Orgasm . Titillated by the titles, mainstream dailies went to town on them even before they released.
But back in August, actors turned him down, the audience ignored him and the press was absent. The play was Joothan , based on Om Prakash Valmiki’s autobiography – about life as a scavenger (conservancy worker to be politically correct). “Actors asked why they should sweep on stage. Why don’t I do a sex comedy instead? Who wants to see toilet cleaners,” reveals Ishwar.
Plays on sex he did, but they weren’t comedies. They made the audience sick and drove them to tears. While Let’s Have Sex deconstructed the social approach and expression of sex, Orgasm dealt with rape, unplanned pregnancy, working women and domestic violence. Although female actors and theatres were apprehensive, the police and the entertainment tax department, surprisingly, had no problem. Staged at the Alliance Francaise, none of the plays had any sexual acts.
“When the actor described rape, as a victim, step-by-step, I could see the disgust on the faces of the audience. A lady started crying. After the play we held an interaction. The audience was quite intelligent. A lot of women talked to us. They thanked me for provoking this debate,” he says smiling. “That is my success.”
Ishwar began theatre in 1997 after seeing Vijaydan Detha’s Charandas Chor . “I have communist leanings. I began with Act One and Jana Natya Manch troupes, followed by Habib Tanvir’s Naya theatre in Bhopal,” he says.
“Bhopal isn’t like Delhi. The theatre fraternity is a family. Everybody cooperates. If Habib was staging a play, Alakhnandan would help with lights and Alok Chatterjee would do the sets. They would jointly spread the word. Here it is very competitive,” he explains.
After a couple of years in Bhopal, Ishwar returned home to Faridabad in 2001. He participated with a number of troupes in the Capital. He now teaches psychology at Delhi Public School in Ghaziabad. In the evenings and weekends, he returns to theatre.
“I was an actor, but I also wanted to direct. The groups here wouldn’t let me. So, I started Saanjha Sapnaa last year. In our repertory, anyone is free to direct, write or act. In fact, our first two plays weren’t directed by me.”
Saanjha Sapnaa opened its account with Brecht’s musical Happy End , in February this year. For most strugglers in the theatre world, evenings are spent distributing fliers for plays. Freshers often pay a fee to directors to join a group. Ishwar’s communist sensitivities do not permit such practices. He pastes posters on his own and uses his salary to fund his plays.
“We can’t cough up half a lakh per show in Mandi House. We perform in Muktdhara or Alliance. Our sets are simple and props, minimal. I can’t make actors pay. I feel they are doing a favour for my art,” he admits. Rehearsals take place on terraces or in parks. “Schools will keep their auditorium empty but won’t give them to us. I offered to do theatre workshops for free, but they still won’t agree. A large number of auditoriums, like those of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Delhi government are usually vacant. Leasing them out for a reasonable fee will help new groups a lot.” Despite his political leanings, he finds organisational work stifling. “Everything I do need not follow the party line. I like to do plays on Hindu culture, I like mindless comedies too. I’ve worked with Marxists for a large part of my career, but I won’t let my politics manifest itself in all my work,” days Ishwar who is trying to script an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner as he recovers from dengue.