BY THE looks of it, you might mistake it for another abandoned factory premises on a stretch of such units located in Okhla, an industrial district on the southern fringes of the national capital. But go there on select evenings and you’ll find that the quietness has turned into a sudden burst of activity. We are talking about Kala Factory here, Delhi’s newest performance venue and one of several such places that are coming up in the country as alternative spaces for the arts.
Gone are the days when venues such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts and Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, or India Habitat Centre, Shree Ram Centre and Kamani Auditorium in Delhi used to be the only hubs for culture aficionados. Although these places haven’t lost their mojo, a clutch of new, alternative cultural venues—where people can stage plays, dance shows, music performances and conduct a variety of workshops—are changing the way people engage with the arts.
Interestingly, most of these venues are located in eccentric places—small rooms, basements or even factories, as can be seen in Kala Factory’s case. When Kala Factory hosted a play, Karkhana, earlier this year, the invitees who had gathered at the venue wondered whether they had landed up at the wrong place. But soon, music began to play, followed by actors playing their parts—that of employees in an office, attempting to break out of their mundane routines with “raging affairs, disco mob dances, violent confrontations, high-octane gossip sessions and karaoke breaks”.
“The environment is an integral part of the theatrical experience. It’s one of the fundamental factors differentiating theatre from film. But theatre makers have lost control of the environment because of archaic rules and monetary limitations at traditional venues. Alternative performance spaces are, therefore, organically sprouting all over the city to fight limitations inhibiting our growth,” says Nikhil Mehta, founder, Kala Factory. Mehta is a well-known theatre director. He was assistant director for the recent play, Sunday in the Park with George, at New York City Center, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and assistant to Vishal Bhardwaj for the film Rangoon.
To push the boundaries of what it means to go to the ‘theatre’, he feels we need to reinvent theatre itself. “Alternative spaces are essential to reinvigorate traditional forms and to create new performative experiences,” says Mehta, a postgraduate in theatre direction from Columbia University, US.
Architect Manjari Sharma, who co-founded the south Delhi-based alternative cultural space LSD (short for ‘Learn Something Different’), feels there is a lot of focus on ‘entertainment’ and less on ‘engagement’. “While the two can be together, there are few takers for such sessions. Alternative spaces allow for ‘uncomfortable’, but sincere interactions among close, intimate communities,” she says.
Talking about the germination of LSD, she says, “Having taught for years in professional colleges like School of Planning and Architecture and National Institute of Fashion Technology, I had the opportunity to witness design and art learning from close quarters,” says Sharma, adding, “I have always believed that creativity has a bigger purpose than what art and design accomplish today. In the past, it was used to access sacred spaces within cultures, for healing and spiritual evolution. But something vital got lost in the numbers and systems that art learning has to deal with now. LSD is an attempt to reclaim this space of ‘art healing’. It’s more about celebrating journeys than wanting to reach any one place.”
LSD likes to keep its doors open to all kinds of new ideas, events and projects, while keeping the spirit of the venture—it calls itself a platform, where one “nurtures the inner creative hidden inside each one of us”—at the heart of everything. It runs pottery, sculpture and art classes on a regular basis. “We also host events that provoke one to think and question, and have the potential for individual growth and transformation. We have had music shows, theatre performances, film shows, talks, comic performances, workshops, etc,” says Sharma.
Mumbai, too, has seen quite a few such venues come up in the recent past. Sujata Rao, the second-generation owner of New Vasantashram in Crawford Market, Mumbai, has let her 70-year-old boarding and lodging house be used for cultural events. The idea was to have an alternative and inexpensive site in south Mumbai, where people, especially the young, could come to imbibe culture.
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Similarly, the husband-wife duo of Sharin Bhatti and Sudeip Nair opened The Hive in Bandra, Mumbai, in 2010. A small room initially, The Hive would host book sales and open-mic poetry nights. Today, it’s a 4,000-sq-ft space. After opening The Hive, the couple decided to start another platform, The Cuckoo Club, for big-scale productions. “At both venues, we are trying to marry entertainment and hospitality. People in Mumbai would often complain about the lack of venues. They only had movies, theatre or clubs to go to. We started with one-two events a week. Now, we host 25 events at The Hive on the weekend alone,” says Nair, who has a background in hospitality.
The sprouting of these alternative spaces has not been confined only to the metros. At a cozy house, far away from Delhi and Mumbai, in the upmarket Banjara Hills area of Hyderabad, LaMakaan has been brewing a cultural revolution for over six years now. It’s “a space without boundaries” (the literal meaning of la makaan in Arabic), which has caught the attention of Hyderabadis as a place to meet, ideate, perform, etc. “Every society needs spaces, where communities can come together to discuss, debate, express and experiment, as it discovers the future. Broad visions of the common good, equality, tolerance and equity along with a dynamic cultural expression are central to a thoughtful and just society, especially its youth. LaMakaan aspires to be such a space for the youth, marginalised communities and all who seek critical and aesthetic expression,” explains Biju Mathew, co-founder, LaMakaan.
Apart from Mathew, LaMakaan was founded by Ashhar Farhan, Humera Ahmed and Elahe Hiptoola, who form the executive council of the non-profit organisation. Farhan’s maternal uncle M Hasan, the original owner of the space, had wished that it be converted into a cultural space open to all. “We have hosted and provided space for wide-ranging activities and issues like gender equality, Dalit issues, tribal and minority rights apart from performances and workshops by renowned artists, poets, writers and filmmakers. We will continue to showcase the best talent and highlight issues that need a wider audience,” says Mathew. Since LaMakaan is a non-profit organisation, it doesn’t charge anything from the audiences. The proceeds from its canteen sales help the administration manage operational and maintenance expenses.