He knows what he wants. He knows how to go for it. And invariably, he accomplishes it. Actor, Director, and Performer Atul Kumar has one great love – theatre, and he’s left no stone unturned to romance it. From being a teenager enchanted by the world of stagecraft to the man taking over Shakespeare Globe Theatre (London), Kumar has undoubtedly made all the world his stage. As this firecracker of a man moves from strength to strength, #DSSCSecretConversations raises the curtain on what maketh this theatre giant. Hint: it’s pure passion, an indispensable need for change, and a clear-cut vision to explore deeper to reach new heights in the craft.
“I had no idea what theatre was, and no clue that it would become my career,” says Atul when asked about his first tryst with dramatics. A 14-year-old was asked to fill-in for an injured actor in a school play; the understudy went on to win an award, and soon became the underdog who’d give the industry his blood, sweat, and tears, and many a theatre gems along the way. The first taste of acting in tow, the Delhi boy joined the theatre group, Chingari, while still in school, “They were not professionals, but they did theatre like professionals,” he says, crediting it as one of the most important experiences that moulded him as an artist. He further reminisces, “Accidents, broken skull, or 1984 riots breaking out – come what may, nothing would stop their rehearsals. Chingari helped form my ethics of theatre.”
As he grasped the strings of performing with Chingari, Atul immersed himself in theoretical theatre at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he studied French to get closer to French greats such as Genet and Ionesco. While he studied the western playwrights in-depth, indigenous theatre was not lost on him. A viewing of the play Karnabharam by Kavalam Panicker left him intrigued, and Atul decided to follow the great artist to Kerala in order to work with him. “Unfortunately working together didn’t turn out well. However, I saw that Mr. Panicker himself derived energy from Kathakali and Kalaripayattu, and that’s how I decided to learn those art forms for three years.” With that solid discipline under his belt, Kumar flew off to France to work with Philippe Genty, which broadened his perception of theatre and triggered the constant need for change in him, “I grew up in a very orthodox Marwari family, and my world was quite small. The travels exposed me to different forms of theatre ideologies and processes, great artists and performances; making theatre an ever-growing entity in my life. That’s when I knew I never want to get comfortable in one space,” the gent shares.
Back to India, Atul started The Company Theatre (TCT) in 1993. On what made him take this step so early on in his career, he says, “Chingari did plays only when they felt like it, and I grew up doing only theatre so I needed to do theatre all the time. That’s the reason why I set up my own company.” Kumar soon gained the reputation for pushing the envelope with his ever evolving take on the thespian arts. His persistent endeavours to reinvent, led him to create experimental theatre – from ‘Theatre at Home’ which was performed inside people’s living rooms to plays like Noises Off where performers deconstruct and refashion a whole set in front of the audience. Along with a company and a platform for fringe theatre, Atul also constructed some solid friendships within the industry, who also became a part of his journey of explorations – be it Rajat Kapoor and his acclaimed clown plays, or Vinay Pathak in The Blue Mug. “We’re friends first and then theatre people. Our kids were born in front of each other, we’re always together on Diwali – losing money to each other, we fight for the same cup of ice-cream each time…that’s the reason why so many years of good, bad, and ugly theatre has happened sans issues,” he quips.
While incessant explorations are synonymous with Kumar, the rationale to it is simple he says, “It’s just a matter of trying, falling flat on your face, and getting up to try again. Whether you fail or succeed, the idea is to enjoy the journey and continue doing your experiments.” The talisman certainly worked for Kumar, with his musical comedy Piya Behrupiya opening at the World Shakespeare Festival (2012) at London’s iconic Globe Theatre. This Hindi adaptation of the Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has since then been performed almost 200 times from one end of the world to the other – from Chile to South Korea and several stops in-between. Being his first musical, Kumar didn’t anticipate the roaring applause the world showered his way, “Who would’ve thought a nautanki will travel across the world!” he laughs as he tells us that the play has been translated to Mandarin, Serbian, Spanish, and many more. Speaking about what made the critics and the audience praise the production alike, he modestly says, “The actors were fantastic, Amitosh (Nagpal) did a super job translating the play, and we all came up with a great music score; so it was actually a joint ensemble effort.” 2012 was a defining year for Atul, not only did Piya Behrupiya stack up accolades, but it also saw him fulfil a 20-year old dream of setting up a theatre residency. Nestled in Kamshet, near Pune, this international residency was set up with an aim to help artists ‘experiment, innovate, and explore new performance languages in a dedicated performing arts laboratory’. “I wanted a space away from the noise of city life, a quiet place where you can rehearse day in and day out,” he talks about the space that is swiftly developing into an impactful hub for the theatre community.
With stagecraft in his every breath, Atul has been a part of the theatre world for over 30 years now. With the industry evolving at an increased pace every year, he observes, “It’s a great time to be in theatre, lots of youngsters, scripts, and styles of theatre. It’s flourishing!”. With his play Khwaab-Sa (an adaption of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) taking over the stage currently, we talk about the next creation brewing in this theatre sorcerer’s lab, “We’re trying to inculcate Contact Improvisation into our act. I’m trying to work more with movement rather than just a script…also, a play in Punjabi would be interesting!”
As Contact Improvisation workshops begin at Kamshet next month, we can’t wait to take our seats for what the curtains will reveal. Before we make our parting bows, we perform the signature DSSC Rapid Fire with Atul.
One change you’d like to see in the industry?
First of all, I’d like it to turn into an industry. I would love it if it can provide people with a livelihood!
Besides acting, what puts a skip in your step?
Your most memorable performance till date?
Hamlet The Crown Prince.
One theatre entity who never ceases to inspire you?
One pro-tip for those looking to set foot into the industry?
Watch a lot of theatre.
Favourite perk of the job?
I found my life partner through my work!
The worst pitfall of the job?
Saying bye to a team you’ve been performing and touring with for so long, once the show’s over.
One up & coming theatre person we should look out for?
Which is your favourite city to perform in?
Delhi! The audience is so forthcoming.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.
Featured Image Courtesy: hindustantimes.com