When I first encountered Naatak while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was amused—a group of techies doing Hindi theatre in Silicon Valley! From the outside, it seemed a one-way ticket to IIT nostalgia alongside antakshari competitions and carom matches.
At one time theatre was quite the rite of passage for young urban Indians desperately wanting to be cool. I had done my bit, pasting on a white beard to play the soothsayer in Julius Caesar in a long-ago production in Kolkata. It even got reviewed in the local newspaper, a cutting I preserved for years.
Sujit Saraf started Naatak with a friend in 1995 as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. But he wasn’t trying to relive his glory days of doing theatre in India. In fact, he was clear he didn’t want Naatak to replicate what he had done in India.
At that time, like most English theatre groups in cities like Delhi, they staged classics such as Sam Shepard’s True West or Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. “Most of us had never even been to the US. What did we know about the French Quarter of New Orleans? Or what it meant to be a Southern belle? Or a blue-collar Polish immigrant? But our Stanley Kowalski took off his shirt on stage and shouted ‘Stella’! The audience loved it,” says Saraf.
“I think coming to the US made me aware I was not as Westernised as I thought I was. A close friend, who was a great guitarist and won all the inter-college competitions, told me he went to Austin and realised the panhandlers there played better guitar than him. But in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. We didn’t know better. Neither did our audience.”
He resolved Naatak would only do plays that its actors could feel in their DNA. Their first production was Vijay Tendulkar’s Khamosh! Adalat Jaari Hai. They put up posters in Indian restaurants, sold tickets to family and friends and were thrilled when they broke even.
This September, Naatak is putting on its 100th production—the dance drama Ramayan. It’s still 75% techie, says Saraf, the other 25% being family members, a few stray doctors and real estate agents. Some, like Rajiv Nema, a hi-tech marketing executive and an actor with Bollywood films under his belt, have been around from almost the beginning. “In those days, whoever showed up at the audition got at least one role. I was assigned two,” recalls Nema, a veteran of 26 Naatak plays who will be playing Ravan. By contrast, Neeraj Chawla is a newcomer, a computer engineer with college drama club credentials. When he went for the Ramayan audition, he almost turned around and left. “There were 75 people, many of them trained actors,” he remembers. To his surprise, he got the role of Hanuman.
Others in the ensemble have grown up in the US, born after Naatak itself was born. Some of them call Saraf “sir”. Sushmita Shrikanth grew up in the Bay Area and was introduced to Naatak through a manager at work who had been part of it. “When I heard there would be a dance drama production of the Ramayan, I knew I wanted to be part of the experience,” says Shrikanth. Like many Indian-American children, she went to Bharatanatyam class as a little girl and had her arangetram in 2010. Her day job? True to Naatak’s USP, she is a UX researcher for Google.
In all the media Naatak has gotten over the years, “techies doing theatre” has been the running refrain. That camaraderie is a fact. Konkani-speaker Medha Acharya, who also grew up in the Bay Area, enjoys the rehearsals but jokes that she hasn’t heard this much Hindi in one room since she lived with college roommates from India. While the tech background garners attention, it can also lower expectations—making it seem like time-pass, a weekend hobby. “The play itself becomes not so relevant compared to the fact that we are techies doing theatre,” admits Saraf. But Naatak has always taken its theatre very seriously.
Just as he realised that Shepard and Williams might be culturally far removed, Saraf quickly understood that many Hindi plays, written by someone who had never stepped beyond Kanpur or Lucknow, also made little sense to his audience. “I am the middle dude. I don’t do Tennessee Williams and I don’t do the guy who has never left Kanpur.” He started writing his own plays, sometimes poking fun at the very people who made up Naatak’s core audience. Everyone Loves A Good Tsunami was about two rival Indian-American associations trying to outdo each other while fund-raising after a natural disaster. “I remember the earthquake in Latur (Maharashtra), thousands died. And Indian students in Berkeley held a huge party with alcohol and dancing to raise money. I had to write a play about that,” says Saraf. I myself remember seeing Naatak’s Mataji, which skewered the cottage industry around a saint who hugged. Saraf got some angry emails about that; sometimes, it has gone beyond angry emails.
In 2004, Saraf wrote a play that critiqued the Bhagvad Gita, a book he has read many times. Protesters showed up holding signs. But he downplays the incident, saying he has the privilege of being in a place where protest is sanitised and happens in parking lots, with no real threat of violence. Then he adds reflectively, “Of course, we are speaking days after (author) Salman Rushdie got stabbed.”
Though Naatak’s plays might take on hot-button issues, he does not think of his theatre as activism. By the next play, they have moved on to a different topic. He admits that while “a good theatre artist would love to disturb their audience”, he’s not sure Naatak’s plays, whether they are about widows in Vrindavan or M.K. Gandhi, do that. This isn’t street theatre. “It’s still a play done in Palo Alto in an air-conditioned theatre for Indians living in America.”
A topic like the Ramayan is, at one level, safe and beloved. But it can also be fraught in polarised times, with people itching to take offence. Saraf grew up with the Ramayan. “My mother, who did not study beyond class V, would recite the Sundarkand from the Ramayan every day,” he says.
The epics move him, though he freely admits “they are guilty of every ism—racism, sexism, ageism, casteism”. He can shut his eyes to that, however, and enjoy them. At the same time, when he hears of someone being tied to a tree and being threatened with “Jai Shri Ram bolo”, he rues that phrases like “Jai Shri Ram” have been tainted. There will be no Jai Shri Ram in Naatak’s Ramayan.
For me, however, the real achievement of Naatak is not that they are techies doing theatre—or even the kind of plays they do. It’s that the group has lasted through dot-com booms and busts, when august repertory theatres have folded around them. Rajiv Nema has his theory. He thinks it helps that no one gets paid and everyone has a day job. “We shy away from award ceremonies, hosting celebrities and unwarranted publicity. The egos stay in check due to this.” All proceeds are donated.
Neeraj Chawla thinks that if their high-powered tech jobs cause “negative stress”, Naatak is a “complete reset”, what he calls “positive stress”. “We feel exhilarated despite 12-16 hours of rehearsals every week,” he says.
Or perhaps working in tech also makes people more amenable to taking direction, I wonder. “That sounds a bit pejorative,” chuckles Saraf. “But it helps that they know how to take a problem, set deadlines, break it into five sub-tasks and find out, as they say in tech, which task is gated. They are good at accomplishing projects.”
Naatak, 100 productions old, has, in its unassuming way, been quite a project. “It is what I will leave behind,” says Saraf, though he has written books like Harilal & Sons, shortlisted for the DSC Prize. He himself no longer acts in the productions. “My very favourite pleasure is to sit in the last row and watch, secure in the knowledge that I am truly not needed. It feels good.”
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.