With the city’s crop of creative millennials living by words like ‘glocal’ and ‘experimental’, we look at a few who are constantly trying to update themselves and their skill sets.
By Surya Praphulla Kumar
Juggling several projects at a time, these performing artistes are building on their passion by adding new skills and experiences to their arsenal. From dancers trying direction to actors doing stand-up and cinema, experimentation is their new code. “Rather than the previous generation—who didn’t have the luxury of treating the arts as a profession, but rather as a hobby—youngsters today are willing to take a chance with their lives,” says Karthik Kumar, who founded the theatre group Evam 12 years ago. He adds that societal acceptance makes it easier to turn it into a full-time profession. “When my generation came into the arts, we came from other spheres of life. Now, with people getting into it as young as 17, it will give them better grounding and will keep my generation on our toes,” he says. We talk to 12 who are pushing the envelope.
Singer. Composer. Producer
Maria Roe Vincent | 26
I am a singer, composer, writer, producer, director, marketing person and publicity agent. That’s a lot of work,” laughs Maria Roe Vincent, quickly adding that she wouldn’t have it any other way. The graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music was working as a vocal faculty at KM College, when AR Rahman spotted her and asked her to sing in Kadal. With her work in composer Anirudh Ravichander’s latest, Naanum Rowdy Thaan, bringing in accolades, she’s says she’s concentrating on original content, too. “Last year, I released a single, Neethan Yen Dream Girl, and now I’m working on my second, which will be an EDM-based number,” says Vincent, who is also quite active with El Fe, the acapella group and choir she started. “We just released a video of 2014’s Tamil hits and it got over 4,000 hits in less than a week,” she smiles, adding that she’s working on a Rajnikanth medley now and is planning a national tour. With Beyonce as her role model and becoming the “Queen Bee” her goal, Vincent is juggling her vocal arrangement work (changing music for a specific vocal or instrument combination) with lessons in sound design and EDM. “I want to experiment with my sounds and in a couple of years, I will compose for movies,” she concludes.
Now and then: Earlier, a career in music followed traditional routes. Now people are moving away from playback singing and trying to make it big in alternative mediums, like YouTube
Standup comic. Actor.Scriptwriter
Rajiv Rajaram | 30
Multipotentialite. That’s a word Rajiv Rajaram believes best describes him. His calling card fits a lot: former ad and radio man, actor, scriptwriter, director, comedian and now creative director of the comedy group, Put Chutney. At 30, he’s checked off everything on his “first” bucket list. “I’ve always gone with the flow. I took up writing like I took up football. When no one volunteered to be a goalkeeper, I did. When I realised there weren’t many writers in the city, I picked up the pen,” shares the boy from Madurai, whose scripts for Chairpersons and Karpooram won at the Short & Sweet festivals in 2012 and 2014. Having an opinion on everything made comedy a natural fit, he laughs. Today, his comic sketches with Enna Da Rascalas and Put Chutney—the latest being How to Eat on a Banana Leaf and the just-released Lifecycle of a Software Engineer—are going viral. But Rajaram is clear: life isn’t just about making money. After all, following his passion got him the chance to write scripts for Aha Kalyanam and Munne Moone Vaarthey. “Now I am working on adapting my script for Typists with Destiny into a full length play or a film,” he concludes.
“I took up writing like I took up football. When no one volunteered for goalkeeper, I did. When I realised there weren’t many writers in the city, I picked up the pen”
Now and then: With the Short and Sweet Festival coming to town, things have changed. But we still make plays by watching other plays. Only an emphasis on education can change that
Director. Actor. Stunt man
Krishnakumar Balasubramanian | 28
Krishnakumar Balasubramanian is clear: he’d rather waste time doing something he likes than focus on something he doesn’t. “I’d gone to the US to pursue a double major in exercise science and media and communication, when I realised all I wanted to do was be on stage.” So he came back and joined The Little Theatre, whose work he’d been following as a research assistant. In a couple of years, he’d bagged the role of the dame in his first Christmas pantomime, Pirates of the Curried Beans, attended a five-month residency in South Korea (“it was by Assidej, an umbrella organisation for youth theatre, and I was the only Indian”), and even spent nine months in Australia doing a stunt course and martial arts so he could bring more physicality into his plays. He states that “if you’ve seen a great fight sequence on screen, we’ll do it better on stage”. Most recently, the artistic director of the theatre company took his play, The R.E.D. Bean Can, to Iran, to perform at the 22nd International Festival for Children and Youth. “This has opened up a lot of opportunities. Other fests are calling us and we are looking to return, for the Hajj Festival, in Tehran, next year,” says Balasubramanian, who also runs Kickass Entretainment, which creates plays for adults. Currently working on his next panto, The Prince of Persia, he will be premiering Giggles, a horror comedy, at the Short & Sweet Festival in Delhi (today), and plans to travel extensively “for inspiration”
Now and then: More youngsters are getting into theatre. Though people say that with quantity comes a lack of quality, I feel when so many do it out of passion, there will arise a need for training and quality
Director. Actor. Nethead
Mathivanan Rajendran | 30
When you see Mathivanan Rajendran on stage, with his fluid face and deep baritone, it’s hard to believe he has degrees in automobile and industrial engineering idling in a file somewhere. But the theatre bug has bitten him hard—ever since he picked up the best actor award for a school production, The Cock, The Croc and the Candlestick. “When I started Stray Factory in 2010, people were talking about supporting theatre, but still doing it as a hobby,” says Rajendran, who believes the way forward is through diversifying. Just back from the Contemporary Arts Week in Delhi, where his play Osama, Cinema and a Whole Lot of Black Money performed to full houses, he shares, “The future is digital and virtual reality will be big. I want to be the first to create content for that.” The director-actor, who is very active on his YouTube channel, is also launching two web series in the next couple of months, which will culminate in an online festival. But this is not to say theatre will take a back seat. “I am drawn by physicality and I’m looking at doing contemporary physical theatre that is glocal in nature,” says Rajendran, adding that he is also open to cinema. With two movies, Andhra Mess and Sawaari, awaiting release and a third with director Guhan Senniappan (“I play a bad guy”) in production, he states that he is also planning to go to the US next year, to look for acting jobs in theatre and films.
Now and then: Those who are watching theatre, and working in it, have changed. Now, with people cutting across boundaries, we are going beyond mainstream plays and trying offbeat, too
Director. Dancer. Singer
Amrita Fredrick | 27
Les Misérables is a daunting subject for a directorial debut. But that didn’t stop Amrita Fredrick, who announced the launch of her theatre group, Kuku Company, last year with a production of the play. And it won her a standing ovation. “I’m a singer and dancer who slipped into musical theatre while in college,” she begins, adding, “I started my company because I believe there is so much talent here but not enough theatre.” Just back from Kerala’s Soorya Festival, where she was part of Theatre Nisha’s play, Oedipus, the 27-year-old is currently auditioning for her second production (refusing to divulge anything more than “it’s a contemporary musical”). “I took an 18-month break between productions so that I could work with other people and hone my craft,” Fredrick says. The psychology graduate, who laughingly admits to using ‘psych tools’ in her direction, shares that she pays a lot of attention to designing her shows—in fact, she did the costumes for her play, too. “I pick a word or a mood and link everything to it, creating an atmosphere for the audience,” she says. With a passion for physical theatre—“a current favourite is the West End production of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime”— Fredrick wants to follow in US-based theatre director Ann Bogart’s steps and grow in the industry.
“I started the Kuku Company because I believe there is so much talent here but not enough theatre”
Now and then: Schools now have theatre programmes, where they bring in professionals to train the students. This helps the arts reach a new audience
Movie star. Dancer. Model
Pooja Devariya | 24
She is always animated—leaping across the theatre stage, nailing punch lines or shooting a fashion flashback video of actresses. Pooja Devariya—who we recently saw in the play Osama, Cinema and a Whole Lot of Back Money—is now ready to take over the big screen, sharing frames with Vijay Sethupathi in Kutrame Dhandanai, a film by M Manikandan (director of Kaaka Muttai). “I’ve always wanted to do theatre and cinema. It just so happened that theatre came first,” says the 24-year-old, who is currently living in Mumbai, doing ads and awaiting the release of six of her Tamil films. But it hasn’t been an easy journey. “I’ve been trying to bag a role for six years. Directors said I had potential, but never cast me. I was depressed, before I literally woke up one day and told myself ‘Mumbai intimidates me so I’m going to face that fear and move there’. It’s ironic that since I moved here, I’ve bagged so many films in the South,” she smiles, adding that she’s considering shifting back. With Bollywood and cross-over films on her agenda next, Devariya says she keeps herself motivated by attending workshops—like an intensive one she did last year in South Korea, which resulted in 22 performances of the play Beyond Binary—and by going where her heart takes her. “I don’t have any role models, but I take inspiration from everything I see.”
Now and then: The plays I watched as a child were English ones, where Indians played a John or an Elizabeth. Today there is a lot more original, indigenous work being explored
A slender boy wielding a big drum—you may almost discount Vishwa Bharath, but that’s only until he starts playing. The percussionist behind such works like Stray Factory’s I am Cine-Maa and actress SS Kalairani’s Song of Lowino, he wants to do his bit to popularise the folk arts. “I studied silambam at school, before getting interested in drums and folk instruments like the thappu and thavil,” says Bharath, who has also mastered folk dance forms like thappatta, oyilattam and kavadi under the tutelage of city-based dance teacher, Nellai Manikandan. His mastery got him noticed by the Creative Group Noni, a theatre group from South Korea, when they came down in 2011 to perform Kkok-Du. And he made sure his association continued—heading to Korea last year, in a collaboration with Inko, for a residency that had him touring with the show Beyond Binary, playing the urumi. “I want to collaborate with more artistes and spread our folk music,” says the 24-year old, who’s now preparing for an Australian tour. A student of the Government Music College in Adyar, he also teaches in his free time—training students at several schools and city colleges like Womens Christian College and Ethiraj. “Next, I want to go back to Korea and learn their singing, storytelling, folk dance and percussion. Finding more contemporary expressions will help get our folk traditions a bigger audience,” he states.
NOW AND THEN: Ironically, folk has become a ‘new’ thing now. Everything is going in reverse. People are updating themselves by learning our traditional folk dances and instruments
Theatre groups in India are still amateur, believes Meera Sitaraman. “We haven’t reached the level of specialisation the West has. So no one can just be an actor and survive. Everyone has to have something by the side, a second skill—like an actor-director or actor-stage manager,” she says, adding that she did her first lighting workshop when Prakriti Foundation brought down British lighting designer Dee Ashworth in 2012. “The one-week workshop taught me the basics—about boards and rigs, how you put up lights and mix colours,” she states, recalling how Theatre Nisha’s Balakrishnan asked her to light a play just a week after. “I lit The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, and I must say it went off well,” she laughs. Today, she is perfecting another craft, script writing, with Writer’s Bloc—an 18-month playwriting programme by the British Council, Mumbai’s Rage Productions, and London’s Royal Court Theatre. “I was one of a handful chosen. My script and I have made it through the first two levels. If I make it through the final leg, I’ll stage my play at Prithvi Theatre next April,” says Sitaraman, who won best script two years in a row at the Short and Sweet Festival (2012-13). Plans are already in place to learn more in lighting, especially digital, and to explore traditional forms of theatre like Pandavani. “I want to write and direct plays that will incorporate these forms and not just do English proscenium theatre,” she adds.
“Theatre is still amateur in India. So no one can just be an actor and survive—everyone has to have a second skill”
Now and then: My family wasn’t too keen about my career choice, but now they get excited. Sometimes. Also, unlike a decade ago, we have more opportunities to learn new things now
Producer. Actor. Educationalist
Dushyant Gunasekaran | 28
Dushyant Gunasekaran has a few revolutionary ideas. Like theatre doesn’t need talent. “It is based on commitment and attitude. And the more you give of that, the more the stage gives back,” he says. He also believes we are all born dramatists—that if you find your voice and pursue it with discipline, you are a good actor. This philosophy guides Crea Shakthi, the theatre group he started with six like-minded individuals in 2012. “I realised there was no singular approach to building a community for youngsters in the craft. And they were becoming dispassionate because their stories weren’t being heard. So we came up with a self-sustaining plan to do just that and now we are a theatre institution,” he says. They teach in over 30 schools—including in Kochi and Bengaluru—and help produce plays in over a dozen colleges. They also make customised theatrical plans for different audiences. Though Gunasekaran admits they often face criticism, he turns a deaf ear. “We don’t want to be the Reliance of the theatre world. We are everywhere not out of greed, but out of need.” Joining The Madras Players last month, as its youngest committee member, he has a play with them in November and plans to venture into talent management next. “We’ve created an identity and an institution. Next we will turn it into an industry,” he says, adding that they’ve just launched a performance space, Crea Studio, in Gopalapuram and plan to get into music, too, “to see if we can help bands reach new audiences.”
Now and then: Earlier, theatre was a closely-guarded space that not everyone could enter. Now people are open to all options—from watching students perform to catching a play in a classroom or a theatre
Actor. Surfer. Marketing Director
Karuna Amarnath | 30
By day she is the marketing director of one of the city’s five-star hotels. Any free time is devoted to her passions—theatre, surfing, sailing and travelling. “Theatre is a space where I unwind. I plan my life around it and then manage my job accordingly,” smiles Karuna Amarnath. Coming from a family of theatre enthusiasts (who put up annual plays at the Maharashtra mandal), stage fright was never in her DNA. Right out of college she joined Evam, “as their first employee” and did several plays, before joining theatre group Perch in 2008. And now everyone in the city knows her by the name of her character in the eponymous play, Miss Meena. “I was not the first choice, (actress) Aparna Gopinath was. But when she couldn’t do it, I got in through a cast vote,” she admits, explaining that it was a struggle to “find” her character at such a young age. Though Miss Meena got her several calls for movie roles, she turned them all down. “I can’t give up theatre any time soon. It allows you so much independence, and it has also made me more trusting and open to experiences,” says Amarnath, who is going with her play, How to Skin a Giraffe, to the National School of Drama Festival. Besides workshopping—string puppetry from the French group String Theatre, commedia dell’arte from Mumbai-based Yuki Elias and kalari from artiste Prabhath Bhaskaran in Pondicherry—she wants to “co-create things” and shares “I am interested in movement, using a non-verbal medium, but not as contemporary dance.”
NOW AND THEN: People are more exposed to new plays, so things are bound to improve. But we still can’t sustain theatre because we don’t have a support system—like good spaces to perform at
Playback singer. Composer. Entrepreneur
Vandana Srinivasan | 27
If she could, she’d clone herself. For Vandana Srinivasan wants to do “tonnes of things”. “I want to work with Amit Trivedi and AR Rahman, I want to travel, and even study Sufi singing,” rattles off the playback singer, who is currently juggling concert tours, a song with composer D Imman and collaborations with foreign artistes. The psychology and economics graduate, who started studying music at the age of four, says 2011 was her career-maker. “I met Shankar Tucker, the American composer, online and we collaborated on Thuli Thuliyaal. This gave me an online presence and I started doing YouTube videos,” says Srinivasan, who’s just wrapped up a project with a new artiste in Italy. Then 2012 gave her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to perform “Carnatic, Hindustani and filmi music” with her band Stacatto at the London Olympics. The same year got her her first song, with GV Prakash in Thaandavam. With a few Bollywood auditions (still under wraps) in her kitty, Srinivasan is concentrating on a new album (“Indian lounge music”) and strengthening her entrepreneurial venture, Vandanam. “Upcoming artistes can work on projects with us, which will then become a part of their portfolio. This helps them showcase their work,” she signs off.
NOW AND THEN: The industry is more open to people, especially newcomers, from outside their circle. My only grouse: with technology,
I miss the old magic of everyone recording together
Poet. Actor. Dancer Shakthi Ramani | 24
She’s young, she’s talented and she’s obsessed with acting. “I’ve wanted to act since I was eight, but I didn’t have the courage until I was in college,” says Shakthi Ramani, who won two best actress awards while in college and then joined Theatre Nisha in 2011. Today, she is known by theatre enthusiasts for her role as Mata Hari. While she has pitched in with lighting and costumes, Ramani says she is taking her time adding new skill sets. “I’m doing a one year movement training course at Attakkalari, learning bharatnatyam, ballet, kalari, contemporary and more. I’ll soon start folk dances, too, like devarattam and kudiyattom. I want to take my learning back and do plays with it—bring movement back to theatre,” she says. Another aspect she wants to explore is her poetry. “I’ve been writing for four years and I’m still finding my voice. But in a couple of years, I will convert them into plays,” she says. Constantly workshopping to keep herself on her toes—like the recent ones with Heisnam Tomba, the founder-director of Kalakshetra Manipur, who works with physicality and voice, and with Finnish movement artiste, Anna Olkinuora—she’s also drawn up several bucket lists. “One includes fine-tuning my adaptation of my mother’s (writer Andal Priyadarshini) short story, Vaanavil Vaazhkai, and playing the lead—of a woman who does nude modelling to send her daughters to school,” she says. Next up, it’s a trip to the UK to study movement at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
NOW AND THEN: Theatre has become more accepted as a profession—as a space where you can earn money. But it’s also become a little corporatised. That said, the scope for having different expressions is always good