‘Most of the theatre I’ve seen in Mumbai is half-baked’

Neeraj Kabi 45, Actor
Neeraj Kabi 45, Actor

Growing up, what pushed you towards theatre?
There were two instances. Some friends and I scripted an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for an inter-school competition. It began as a joke but I ended up winning the best actor award. Second, I did a school play called Our Town with my English teacher at Loyola High School, Jamshedpur. The experience of rehearsals, performances and hard work was the beginning of theatre for me.
Where does your interest in traditional dance and martial art forms stem from?
My bua, a kathak dancer, was my only link to the arts. I would see her practising and hear the beats of tabla and ghungroo every evening. My village is close to Saraikela, from where the chhau dance comes. Those were the beginnings of my connection with indigenous art forms. Later in life, I saw Brihannala by Veenapani Chawla, in which there was massive traditional influence. That play was my turning point. When I started Pravah Theatre Laboratory in 2003, I decided that it’ll be traditional. Our bilingual adaptation of Hamlet featured urban actors, Dhrupad classical singers and Yakshagana theatre performers.
How will you take these traditional forms forward in your work?
I want to study the text from which our traditions have evolved, the Natya Shastra, to understand its theory and techniques of acting. As a performer, I am very pro-Indian, not that I have closed myself to other methods. To bring the method acting of Jerzy Grotowski here doesn’t make sense because we can’t adapt it. We can’t westernise our theatre either. Most of the theatre I’ve seen in Mumbai is half-baked; it stands neither here nor there. I don’t know what to call it.
Did you associate closely with Maitreya, your character in Ship of Theseus?
A lot of Maitreya’s personal philosophies are my philosophies. Studying the character, I read about religion, vegetarianism, Gandhi, the philosophies of Peter Singer. I could feel it becoming a part of me. His stubbornness came from my adamant nature of not selling out for commercial gains. I understood when Maitreya decided to walk out on life for what he believed in. I now understand that an individual’s every action or thought impacts the universe.