After 55 yrs in theatre, he feels the needs to understand it better
The “bachcha-party” years went by and he added vocals and movement to his performance. After five decades in theatre, he feels theatre is a deep sea and to reach its bottom, he will need to dive deeper.
Former Bhartendu Natya Academy director Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha distinctly remembers his first appearance on stage, as a child, was as a deity, during Janmashtami. The “bachcha-party” years went by and he added vocals and movement to his performance. After five decades in theatre, he feels theatre is a deep sea and to reach its bottom, he will need to dive deeper.
“As children, we thought we had invented this art form. After dabbling in it for few years, it was like I have learnt a lot. ‘Par ab lagta hai ki abhi kuch bhi nahi aata, abhi aur zyada seekhne aur samajhne ki zaroorat hai’ (After all these years, I feel I know nothing about the art. I feel the need to understand and learn it further),” said the veteran actor-director.
Kulshreshtha has directed over 100 plays, shows of which have happened all over the country and abroad. For workshops and plays he has been to the US, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Canada.
Making of a director
After that initial Janmasthami act, radio shows fuelled his interest towards acting. He graduated in science and did LLB. “In 1972, I joined the Life India Corporation (LIC). Ranjit Kapoor (theatre giant but then a student of National School of Drama) came to Lucknow for a workshop and a play in 1974. The play was ‘Collage’ which was an enactment of a collection of poems. I enacted the role of a Kuano river,” he said, reminiscing his first act.
This fuelled his interest for the stage. “Luckily, in 1975, Bhartendu Natya Academy opened in Lucknow with Raj Bisaria as its founder-director. I was enrolled in the first batch of students where I specialised in direction. As a student, I directed my first play ‘Andhere Mein’ in 1976. Thus, direction took the front seat and acting was left behind,” he said.
Kulshreshtha joined the Meghdoot theatre group and started directing plays. “Harimohan Samson was its founder and it was a very progressive group with big names associated with it. My first independent play was ‘King Oedipus’ (based on the Greek tragedy by Sophocles) and it established me as a director,” he said.
His play, ‘Ramlila’, was selected for the Sangeet Natak Academy national festival in Delhi (1985) and earned him national recognition. “My bent is leftist and this play had the social message of anti-communalism. At that time, the Ram Temple movement was gaining momentum so it was a very relevant play. Communist playwright Safdar Hashmi organised nine shows of the play in various localities of Delhi,” he said.
He went international with his play ‘Bharwadjjukeeyam’ which was staged in Norway Fest (1991). “It was named as the best production and the next day we were on the street, taking out a procession with Indian flag. It was translated in the Finnish language and staged by local artistes. The play was also staged in Pakistan, NSD (New Delhi) and SNA (Varanasi).”
He has held workshops and staged plays in various countries and across India. His major plays are ‘Andhere Mein’, ‘Ram Lila’, ‘Bharwadjjukeeyam’, ‘Balkan Women’, ‘Cacucasian Chalk Circle’ and ‘Muntazir’.
After starting with acting he settled as a director. After not acting for 25 years, in 2014, he acted in Raj Bisaria’s play ‘Barefoot In Athens’. “I enjoyed acting as Socrates in the play. The play and his (Bisaria) direction was phenomenal and it received a lot of appreciation. The team was top-class and even now, people keep asking that when the show will happen again!”
He has acted in the critically acclaimed short film ‘Bypass’ which starred Irfaan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. “I did roles in Sudhir Mishra’s ‘Daas Dev’, GV Aiyar’s ‘Bhagwad Gita’, British film ‘Moh’ and Canadian film ‘Monsoon Shootout’.
Not fit for films!
He was assistant director and production controller of Sudhir Mishra’s directorial debut ‘Yeh Wo Manzil To Nahi’ which won a national award. “Sudhir called me to Mumbai and I was scheduled to work with Kundan Shah (and Saeed Mirza) for the TV serial ‘Nukkad’. During an informal chat, my friends discussed the industry trap and overnight without saying anything, I returned to Lucknow. The fact is that film direction ‘mujhe aata nahi hai aur ab seek bhi nahi satka (I don’t know how to direct films and it is too late for me to learn)’. Maybe, if I had taken it up then I could have learnt it, but not now! Offers do come but I don’t find myself capable,” he said.
He has directed tele-films and TV serials for Doordarshan.
Tough to survive on theatre
He resigned from LIC in 2006, when the directorship of BNA was offered to him. “My job has helped me feed my passion. They gave me a lot of freedom for theatre. The fact is, without a job, theatre could not have sustained me. Then, the only option would have been doing TV or films for survival. In the Hindi belt, to live with just theatre is still not possible. Then it was even tougher. All theatre legends have done something or either. Rajji (Bisaria) was teaching, Anil Rastogi was in CDRI, Urmil Kumar Thapliyal was in radio. So were others,” he said.
Kulshreshtha said that now things are better but still not enough to sustain oneself on theatre. “For plays, there are grants but that has opened up ‘shops’. There are people who run multiple societies within the group and commit frauds for grants. Today, after so many years, I can say that theatre can sustain me but it’s not same for everyone. Also, my lectures and workshops give me returns,” he said.
He is a visiting faculty member at Lucknow University, Bhartendu Natya Academy, National School of Drama (NSD) and many other universities in India. In 1991, with senior actor Mridula Bharadwaj, he started National Institute of Progressive Arts (NIPA) Rangmandli, which has done 30 plays so far. “Last month, I directed the play ‘Bury The Dead’ (on World War-1) for students of MP Drama School. Now, we are rehearsing for the play to be performed under NIPA, in Lucknow, next month. He has bagged several awards in which the most prestigious is Sangeet Natak Akademi Award by then president Pranab Mukerjee in 2015 (for 2014).
His wife Neelam is a home-maker and his sons Tuhin and Nitin are employed. “It’s due to the support at home that I have been able to carry out my passion which gives me creative satisfaction,” he said.