NEW DELHI: Formed in 1993 under the stewardship of Arvind Gaur, the Asmita theatre group completes 25 years this year. Since its inception the group has worked to sensitise people and raise mass awareness. From resuscitating the culture of nukkad naatak (street theatre) to becoming the face of movements such as India Against Corruption, the group has traversed a long journey. Excerpts from our interview with Arvind Gaur:

Could you describe the Asmita theatre group’s journey over the past 25 years?

Before founding Asmita theatre in 1993, I was associated with social work and street theatre. In those days the street theatre scenario was under the helm of legendary names like Habib Tanvir and Safdar Hashmi. I had also worked as a journalist before joining theatre full time. I chose theatre because it is, by and large, free from censorship. What made Asmita different was that it had no personal agenda, and has never been associated with any flag. Its sole purpose is to raise the vital questions which beset our lives. Be it issues like caste discrimination, women’s empowerment or workers’ issues, Asmita has always been at the forefront of such movements.

What has been your experience vis-à-vis censorship and freedom of expression?

Unlike filmmakers, we don’t have a formal body like the Central Board of Film Certification. But there are still a myriad ways to curtail the freedom of expression. The Dramatic Performances Act is used to regulate the performing arts. This act was instituted by the Raj in 1876, after the performance of a play called Neeldarpan, which was based on the discrimination meted out to indigo farmers. Some of our plays, such as Final Solution, Mr Jinnah and Operation 3 Star, have faced the brunt of this colonial vestige. I don’t see the need for such laws in independent India. Imposing regular visits to police stations, or auditorium owners’ reluctance to give permission, are some other indirect forms of censorship.

You were rejected in an audition for a theatre group. Since then you have trained thousands of students. What made you decide to start an acting school?

I was asked to act for hardly a minute and rejected in a humiliating manner with the words “Shakal dekhi hai apni?” (Ever seen your face?). I took the vow that the doors of Asmita theatre would be open for everyone interested in learning the craft. Rejecting somebody at face value is a crime. That said, it is only the student’s passion and dedication towards acting which will take them places.

Initially we did not have actors under our banner. In our very first play, the lead actor refused to play the role at the eleventh hour, asking for money. Eventually I had to play his part. Since then we decided to have our own actors.

Young actors’ propensity for instant success seems out of sync with what Asmita stands for. How do you cope with this challenge?

Consumerism has seeped very deep into our society and everybody is after instant success and money. We at Asmita have evolved a reading culture, to ensure our actors are aware about important social causes. We have no support staff. By sweeping, cooking, distributing tickets or managing the audience, the actors come to ingrain humility and hard work in their outlook.

What are some of the challenges involved in performing street plays?

Street plays are the most difficult to pull off. One has to manage exigencies such as noise, traffic, and so on. To attract the layperson walking on the street is a challenge in itself. One needs to raise the projection of one’s voice, for instance, and we train our actors accordingly. Every actor associated with Asmita, including Kangana Ranaut and Deepak Dobriyal, has done street theatre. It is the best way to understand the nerve of our society.

How difficult is it to cultivate an audience for live theatre, when most people would rather shell out for a movie in a multiplex?

Quality theatre still has many takers. We first performed Court Martial in 1996, and even today every show runs house-full. Besides, it is ethically wrong to price theatre shows exorbitantly, as any show can be produced within a budget of Rs 40 to 50,000. The most challenging part is the auditorium rent.

Does the government need to build more auditoriums?

It’s very unfortunate that even after 70 years of independence we have no cultural policy to steer the flourishing art practices in our country. Some 90 percent of our ticket revenue is spent on renting the auditorium. The government gave land to these auditoriums at cheap prices so they would nourish art, but even in the national capital they are flouting rules right under the nose of the government. We now have more than 20 IITs and IIMs across the country -- so why is there only one National School of Drama? The government has been unable to decentralise. There are no auditoriums and no rehearsal spaces. It’s not as if the government doesn’t invest, it does, but with no direction or policy.

You were associated with the India Against Corruption movement, which seems to have died a slow death. What keeps you going even when confronted with such disappointments?

Every movement raises awareness among people. How many people knew about the Lokpal Bill earlier? Governments at the centre, and in many states, changed in the aftermath of the movement which brought corruption to centre-stage. The fact that people are asking questions of this government, to address public corruption and bring in a Lokpal Bill, shows that the movement did raise vital questions and has been a success.

Your passport has been under surveillance since 2008, curtailing your freedom to go abroad. Is there any difference here between the previous United Progressive Alliance government and the present regime?

I find no difference. Governments are run by the bureaucrats, notwithstanding politicians’ claims. I have not been able to discover a single reason for the surveillance on my passport. Meanwhile, people whose passports should have been seized are holidaying in London, after having stolen money from banks.

Charcha (discussion) sessions have been an intrinsic feature of Asmita. What is their significance?

Theatre is not a one-way medium. It is incumbent on us to have a dialogue with the audience after the play, as we are doing theatre for a cause. These charcha sessions facilitate the exchange of ideas -- barring a few untoward incidents where some people resorted to slogan-shouting. Often, objections raised by one audience member are responded to by another. Society is intelligent and has a penchant for discussion and dialogue.

(Yash Shukla and Rajat Mishra are freelance journalists pursuing an MA in Convergent Journalism at the AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia).