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Watch the brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

The play Piya Bherupiya has been running to packed house for the last five years.

art and culture Updated: Aug 04, 2017 20:36 IST
Manik Sharma
A scene from the play Piya Behrupiya.
A scene from the play Piya Behrupiya.(Photo credit/The Company Theatre)

For a theatrical act that is close on the heels of its 200th show, there is obviously much pride, but also some contemplation: what has changed over the years, and more importantly, what made it possible? The Atul Kumar-directed ‘translation’ of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Piya Behrupiya, when it returns to Delhi today, will have completed quite a journey. The play, that premiered at the World Shakespeare festival at the Globe theatre in London in 2012, has become one of the most popular theatre acts over the last five years in India.

That said, any theatrical performance that has gathered the kind of popularity, and in the rare case of Piya Behrupiya, the capacity to perform to sell-out venues, comes with its share of tedium. “Even after 30-40 shows, a play becomes monotonous. The energy goes away because the actors can’t continue doing the same thing. A certain level of complacency and boredom does set in. You can start feeling like a machine,” says Kumar. “So now we switch between actors and improvise with other things. We now even have a completely new team that does Piya Behrupiya.” Despite its success, both critical and commercial, has Kumar ever considered pulling the plug on the show? “I have, many times. One needs to move on,” he says.

The reason Piya Behrupiya’s longevity has to be considered is because of what it is, and what it demands of its performers. Stretching close to two hours, it is, as Kumar will tell you, a translation and not an adaptation. It merely borrows the premise from a Shakespearan comedy, and does what a nukkad natak company would do with it. It has songs, sung by the actors themselves, shayari and comedy full of physical and accented punchlines. Even the bard is not spared, nor is a Bengali’s love for fish. All of it plays to classical music and dance brewed in Punjabiness – a multi-cultural mix that is different while performing in Gujarat, for example, and takes quite another form in Maharashtra. The energy, the acting, and the entertainment though, remain ceaseless. It is quite a journey for a band of performers.

Atul Kumar, artistic director, The Company Theatre and director of the play Piya Behrupiya. (Photo credit/Thee Company Theatre)

Kumar’s own journey through theatre has been long and not without its obstacles. He founded The Company Theatre, the theatre company behind Piya Behrupiya, back in 1993. He has, over the years, gained a steady reputation and built a decent financial framework to run his theatre company. Though the success of Piya Behrupiya exemplifies progress, Kumar believes there is still cause for concern.”I’m sure the next ten plays I do after Piya Behrupiya will again struggle for funds or will fail to take off. So nothing has changed really. All that has changed is perhaps that there are many more theatre companies now. But all of them struggle for money. In our case, the only thing that has happened is that if we spend 10 rupees on a production, we earn those 10 rupees back. Even the actors get paid a minimum amount,” he says.

Piya Behrupiya also points to another dilemma of sorts. Its success suggests that somewhere, there might be a formula that can make theatre in India both entertaining and viable, which should in turn enable its survival.”If there were a formula, and I had it, I would wrap it in a sack and throw it in the ocean. We don’t do performing arts to do work according to money-making formulas. If I wanted to do that I could have remained in Delhi and sat at my Dad’s shop in Old Delhi. Art has to be about experimentation, about pushing boundaries, about asking questions. If we are not doing that, then it isn’t art,” Kumar says. What needs to change then? “I believe it is the same old thing. We can’t compare theatre to Bollywood to see why one is popular and the other isn’t. We just need a better system to look at our arts and culture policies. Give people opportunities,” he adds.

Kumar’s dedication to experimenting with art most recently materialised in the artist residency he founded in 2014 in Kamshet near Pune. A secluded place, the residency allows artists to unwind, relax, ideate and create something away from noise of cities. There are creative opportunities even for farmers and children who live close by. “We don’t teach anything here. We don’t have a module. All kinds of people come. Just last week we had a group from Kashmir who came and practiced here. We are expecting a filmmaker who wants to sit in a room and write her script, also a dance theatre company. So there is just interaction.”

As for the return of Piya Behrupiya to Delhi, there can only be cautious anticipation. Even though a play follows script, no two performances are really ever the same. But some must stand out for one reason or another. “We did a show in a South American town, in a bullfighting arena. The venue was flooded with more than five thousand people. The actors entered on buses. The sheer number of people was baffling. I think the whole town came!” Kumar says.

WHAT:Piya Behrupiya (Play)

WHEN: 03.00 pm and 7:30 pm, August 5, Kamani Auditorium, Mandi House

TICKETS: Rs 400 & 560 at the venue and bookmyshow.com

CALL: 7507549141/9820192778