Theatre Talk Theatre

For Rupesh Tillu clowning is a serious business

From Rupesh Tillu’s play

From Rupesh Tillu’s play  

The actor-director says let the world laugh with you

Rupesh Tillu believes that every society needs its clowns to stay balanced. As an expert in clowning and physical theatre, who has travelled to places most may not even have heard of, his observation comes from research and experience.

“Any theological society has in-built clown characters,” he says, “For me, the Western clown and Indian vidushak is just a methodology; we try to fit those ideologies in a box. Somebody who can make people laugh at their own expense is a clown. Birbal and Tenali Rama are clowns. So is Krishna because he knows and balances everything — in one hand he has the sudarshan chakra and in the other, a lotus.

“I was in Bhutan, a couple of years ago, where they have jesters called madmen,” he says. “I was among a group of the first foreign clowns to be invited to Bhutan. There were ten thousand people at the king’s palace. They were having a traditional festival, where Buddhist rituals were going on, there were monks and the masked dancers; amidst them was the madman. So if the monks walked on one side, the clown walked on the other. The clowns were so offensive to the monks and to the king, and nobody minded. I was absolutely blown away by this picture. Then I was told that these acharas had the job of keeping every sacred thing human. That’s what the clown does.”

Rupesh grew up in Mumbai, with parents who were not well-off financially, but gave him a cultural grounding that stood him in good stead over the years. He watched as many plays as he could, and acted in a few; but it was the exposure to the works of the Swedish company Teater Slava during its India tour that took him to Sweden, where he intended to do a workshop in physical theatre for a month and ended up staying for ten years. He was employed by Slava and travelled with them. He made a documentary, Living Gods on the Theyyam performers of Kerala for the Swedish national TV. Rupesh also trained with Clowns Without Borders (an initiative to bring humour to children and people in conflict areas) for six months. After which I did my Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) with a specialisation in physical comedy at the National School of Dramatic Arts in Stockholm. “Once you graduate from there, you keep getting work. I always wanted to return to India, and when I was almost ready to come back in 2010, I met Emma Gilljam — she is a pianist — who became my wife. Then we had a daughter. Finally, in 2014, I told her we would give life in India two years and if she did not like it, we would consider going back to Sweden. That hasn’t happened yet.”

After ten years in Europe, India was a shock, and a challenge. “I worked a lot in Europe, so my understanding of stage comes from there. And all my childhood I watched Marathi plays. For me this was a great opportunity to mix the two. What I love is that we have still kept those traditions of humour like the songadya, swang and maskhara alive. But then, I also find that in an open space, chaos works, but on stage it doesn’t always connect. Many people might disagree, but I love method. I believe in method and technique and training. Even if you put chaos on stage, there has to be a method to madness. That’s a great line by Shakespeare.”

He has just premiered Shakuntalam-Agar Pura Kar Paye Toh, a clown version of the Kalidasa’s classic Sanskrit play with three young actors he trained in the form. “This project was my experiment — whatever little I know, I want to pass on to actors.”

On his choice of play he says, “I feel every story needs to be retold, otherwise, it dies. And sometimes it is very easy to pick up Shakespeare or any international author, because a theatre literate audience knows about them. Indian classics are so imbibed by our everyday behavior, that we don’t know where it is coming from. Literature has played a big part in the psyche-building of this nation. Earlier, theatre evolved because not many people were literate, so how would stories reach them? Modern theatre emerged so that if people could not read stories, they could watch them being performed. Then cinema took over that job. That’s why theatre is in a transitional phase.

“Theatre is also changing,” he continues. “There are a lot more opportunities, but that also means doing experimental work has become difficult. A few years ago, theatre was a route for a person from a small town to get into films. Today at the age of 17, they get cast in a web series, so they have no need to do theatre. Still, theatre is the only art form that has been trying to die for the last 3000 years but never dies. It always reshapes and reforms. When we saw modern theatre, we starting believing this is how theatre is supposed to be. The stories you couldn’t tell in cinema, you made a little cinema on stage. Today, anyone with a phone can make a film, so what differentiates theatre from cinema, is the accessibility and availability of the actor on stage. That’s why the theatre I believe in is actor intensive. Here we have made just two categories — commercial and experimental — but we need to invest in forms.”

Rupesh runs an initiative called Laughter Per Kilometre, and works with children a lot. “The importance of physical theatre is so much more today than ever before. Humans are not meant to laugh alone, but, today I see kids watching something on their phones and laughing alone, and that scares me.

“Unless people find ways of coming together and laughing together, they will die in isolation, and I have seen that happening in Europe. That’s why I believe an artiste’s job is to emotionally cleanse a society. The Greeks called it catharsis .”

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 8:30:42 AM |

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