A dramatic coupling

A dramatic coupling

Ajeet Singh Palawat’s awe and enthusiasm for Bengaluru’s theatre audience is heartwarming. The actor and playwright, a fast-ascending star on Rajasthan’s theatre horizon, is enamoured of the city’s ability to engage emotionally and intellectually with a theatre production. Not so in his home town of Jaipur, he laments. Rajasthanis, he believes, are more enamoured with the art of singing and dancing than with theatre.

A mere babe in theatrical woods, Ujaagar, founded by Palawat in 2013 with National School of Drama (NSD) graduates and local artistes of Rajasthan, has garnered attention for its use of Rajasthani folk traditions in the productions. Their maiden venture, Kasumal Sapnoo, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has won accolades across the country.

The use of the intrinsic Rajasthani art of Kathputli (string puppet theatre), with its vibrant hues reflecting the colours and passion of the desert land, is a stroke of genius. Music composed by Raghbir Yadav and inspired, in part, by the virah geet of the Langa-Manganiyar musicians, adds a subtle texture to the plot set in the enchanted forest of Amrogarh, Rajasthan. On the challenge of transposing works of the bard into regional milieu, Palawat explains: “Shakespeare provides that freedom of experimenting with his text on any level, in any language and even in any culture.” Palawat is obviously unafraid to tread the path less travelled.

The challenge
When Palawat entered the theatre scene, there were about 20-25 theatre groups in the state. But after his sojourn at the National School of Drama, Delhi, Palawat realised “that we are wasting our energy over there (Rajasthan). There is no good direction, no encouragement for new scripts, or new style of performance. I know they (Rajasthan’s youth) have a good knowledge of Hindi, English and literature, and their own rich culture, yet they don’t have proper direction for theatre,” he explains.

Dismay ignited resolve and Palawat and Ipshita, his wife (a fellow NSD graduate), decided to remedy the situation by conducting one major residential workshop per year, inviting drama students from Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bikaner and the surrounding areas, exposing them to the benefits of their combined learning from NSD. “We are looking at slowly building up confidence in youngsters to be able to script their own stories, be able to experiment,” he says.

The Palawat couple share a symbiotic working relationship though they come from different backgrounds. Ipshita comes from a family with a strong music and theatre background, but Ajeet and his brother are an exception to the rule in theirs. “Ipshita made me understand Shakespeare’s text. But when the adaptation was being done, I was strict on the kind of Rajasthani used as I did not want it to end up as a soap opera!” says Palawat.

Palawat, when in school, heard the dialogue, ‘Raath kitne jhor se gir rahi hai.’ “When I returned home, I could not stop wondering, ‘What was that?!’” The flame of passion had been ignited. Palawat persuaded his schoolmates to help him script a skit — Choo Choo Nawab. The applause and appreciation was intoxicating. “Everybody was in love with us!” he says.

In 2000, the same skit won Palawat the Balraj Sahni Trophy for best actor in IPTA’s (Indian People’s Theatre Association) drama competition. Theatre at Ravindra Manch and IPTA followed. A chance meeting with fellow Rajasthani and global actor Irfan Khan inspired him to head to NSD. “I completed my graduation just to join NSD,” he says.

As always, the biggest hurdle to sustaining theatre, says Palawat, is finance. He rues the fact that the Government is not doing enough. Theatre competitions in schools and universities would encourage quality, he says, as would platforms in the form of festivals for various branches of theatre. While Palawat acknowledges that Jairangam, a theatre festival that started in Jaipur in 2001, “does create an audience, yet they do not allow them (theatre groups) to take risks — not the kind of experimentation that we see in Mumbai and Pune.”

Ujaagar hopes to fill this void. Palawat was in Bengaluru recently at the invitation of Ranga Shankara.

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