Rediscovering Theatre at the India Habitat Centre
There was a time when nataks and jatras used to be major draws across society – a time when India was still mostly agrarian, rural. Then there were times when cinema peaked interests like none other, and natak mandalis dwindled into bankruptcy and ignominy. Multiplexes were all set to slap the final verdict. But through all the odds piled against it, theatre survived, faintly, firmly. Ardent theatre goers could never stay far from a play, the props. And for the actors, theatre has always been much about venting the inner demons, and of course getting high on the raw tangibility of audience interaction. Of late, however, the theater scene in India has seen a growth like never before. It is heartening, though still a rarity, to observe the current generation’s increasing interest in watching actors and directors up close and personal, and being able to see beyond the immediate gratification of cinema. For theatre goers in Delhi, this pretty much means hanging around the Mandi House area in central Delhi, discussing in hushed tones after another brilliant play at the Siri Fort Auditorium, or hobnobbing at the Epicenter in Gurgaon. However, it is the Stein Auditorium in the Habitat Center which easily steals the show. The IHC proudly hosted the much awaited Old World Theatre Festival recently, an annual feature. The festival held in the month of October featured some of the best and the brightest in the theater scene in India, and brought together an eclectic mix of genres and content. Delhi responded well.
Missing out on Dastan Goopi Bagha Ki – a theatrical take on the renowned film by Satyajit Ray, Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne – due to a washout of tickets, we hurried to catch the next promising play – Colour Blind starring Kalki Koechlin in a lead role. Colour Blind is a play that explores Rabindara Nath Tagore’s personality, his eccentricities, his life as a young man and his enigmatic platonic relationship with Victoria Ocampo, the Argentine intellectual and social worker. The play follows a non-linear format, taking its audience through the various stages in the life of Gurudev, the different muses at different times in his life, and exploring the nuances of his relationship with Ocampo. Colour Blind in all fairness is a play that belongs to Kalki. She outdoes herself, switching seamlessly between playing a student to Ocampo. The other actors playing Tagore’s different ages too deliver with a flourish. It’s some of the dance routines at the very end that did seem pretty old world and a tad overdone. As the play progressed, what struck me was the sheer amount of research that something of this scale must have required.
Coming back to the subject, the auditorium turns out to be really good with the acoustics being top-notch. The music and speech blend perfectly with none drowning out the other. The IHC is ready to impress with a huge underground parking and open areas around the auditorium helping accommodate a large audience with ease. As soon as you walk out of the Stein, the foodies may find themselves invariably drawn to the enticing menu and tasteful outdoor seating of the All American Diner. Regardless of the cerebral indulgences, Delhi remains a gastronomic haven. The diner adds another dimension to a good old fashioned theatre experience. The food court on the premise serves well. Strolling on the grounds can be a pleasure, provided the Delhi weather permits. The campus is beautifully maintained and the gardens well-manicured. It is easy to recognize parts of the campus showcased in various movie sets. The secluded amphitheatre stands out, of course, having been part of Aamir Khan’s legendary piece, Rang De Basanti. Running into an art exhibition on the campus can be more or less expected with visual and experimental art exhibitions almost the norm. We came across an exhibition of the works of upcoming painters, spending a good hour and a half admiring the work.
Now the experience had been decent and we wanted more. So back we went the following week and this time to a play with a story – Baked Beans on Toast, written by none other than the towering Girish Karnad. The abstract spoke of a story about an intertwined story of different characters inhabiting the city, including a grandmother winning money by betting on horses. The play promised novelty. And we weren’t disappointed. The story is dealt with fluidity and Joy Sengupta in the lead role is masterful. Lillete Dubey, the stylish and yet empathetic director had a winner here, but with the interesting angle of an elderly lady betting on horses being played down to a minimum, some might have mixed feelings when exiting the auditorium. The play explored many issues like migration to cities, environmental issues, and an absolute indifference towards the circumstances of the downtrodden.
The Old World Theatre Festival offers a rich experience to indulge in some good old theatre, exploring plays that bring out the best in its actors. The India Habitat Centre lives up to expectations, and packages a wholesome experience, to say the least. Besides, who needs an excuse when it comes to plays over cinema?
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