Special Report – Delhi University's Lively Theater Scene

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Miranda House actors

An investigation into the inner world of campus theater.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

“Maaro Saalon ko!”, mobs shout as they tear into each other. Muslims are massacred, Hindus killed, leaving everything numbingly quiet. The stillness slowly gives way to signs of life as the following is revealed – the goonda is a girl, and the broken-hearted Mother India is a first-year grad student in jeans.

Dramsoc, the theater society at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR), is rehearsing its Independence Day play. The actors have attitude. “We perform with full energy and full volume,” says Sheetal Jerath, the society’s President. As the death sentence is passed in a gripping court scene, would be martyr Udham Singh unexpectedly breaks into giggles; everyone else, including the nasty British lawyer, ends up in smiles. Dramsoc’s sunny buoyancy is partly born out of successes in the last academic year, when it had won 23 awards.

This mix of youth and drama spells adventure. “In the college you were either in Dramsoc or wanted to be in it,” says Manika Dhama, a Miranda House alumnus. There is an eagerness to be different and to take risks. Lack of resources, something that everyone cribs about, doesn’t consign students to inertia, but impels them to look for creative alternatives. The necessity to improvise and think on one’s feet has proven a valuable training ground for many well-known actors. Lilette Dubey (LSR), Sunit Tandon (St. Stephen’s), and Mira Nair (Miranda House), all honed their skills in college dramatic societies.

Some thrive in spite of college administrators. A society in a North Campus college, that wished not to be named, complained that staff advisors are un-cooperative. The permission to use the auditorium is a luxury. “We don’t get the space. If we rehearse in the grounds, the principal scolds us for wasting time,” bemoans a member. Yet, this society is respected within the university. It has performed in prestigious festivals in India and abroad.

Other colleges have more support. Kirori Mal’s drama society, The Players, is perhaps the luckiest. Keval Arora, an institution in campus theater, has been the staff advisor there for more than 20 years. With his white beard, balding head, and half-sleeved shirt, his Socrates like persona has witnessed the changing trends in the campus. “Earlier, the emphasis was on an expensive annual play which would exhaust all the efforts and claim the entire year’s budget, ” Arora says. Now more stage plays, with more performances of each play, are spaced throughout the academic year, along with numerous street plays. This has meant more opportunities for more students.

All changes have not been for the better. Rivalries have grown disconcertingly unhealthy. Earlier, it was not shocking to have actors from more than two colleges in the same play. St. Stephens, when it was only open to boys, would send its men to do male leads in Miranda House productions, which would, in turn supply the ladies for plays by its Shakespeare Society. Likewise, actress Neena Gupta, a Kamla Nehru student, appeared in a Kirori Mal play.

Such co-operation is unthinkable in the present-day college-eat-college world. The exception is Anukriti, Mrianda’s Hindi dramatic society. It holds auditions for men from co-ed colleges for its annual full-length production.

Inter-college festivals can be mean. Host colleges create rules heavily loaded in their favor. Time limits are devised to suit the duration of their play; self-written scripts are conveniently disqualified; and guest teams are barred from carrying their own lights. Occasionally students from rival colleges are heckled in the midst of performances. Worse things happen – appointing certain judges virtually guarantees the victory of certain colleges.

Such bare-knuckle competitiveness can ruin the pleasure of theater. But despite the petty politicking and backbiting (some say it’s hyped), Delhi’s campuses bubble with originality and talent. Their performances and certainly their enthusiasm can reinvigorate the jaded sense of the most cynical seen-it-all critic. Compared to the predictable Toba Tek Singhs and Ghasiram Kotwals of Mandi House, performances here are offbeat and experimental.

A few years ago, Hindu College performed Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, less of a play and more a polemical lecture on theater. LSR impressed Pakistanis on a trip to Lahore with Eight, a drama on child rape. Hansraj College desi-fied Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty to Waiting for Kranti, a play originally based on a New York cab drivers’ strike. Kirori Mal’s attachment to Howard Breton has seen seven of his plays performed over several years. Miranda House’s Ariels played Jackie Crossland’s Collateral Damage. Anukruti, Miranda House’s Hindi society, wowed audiences with their depiction of Bihar’s Naxalite problem.

These scripts may not sell outside, but deeply satisfy those passionate about theater.

Sexual abuse, partition stories, and angst-ridden leftist views alone do not keep the student-actors busy. “We try avoiding clichés like Vijay Tendulkar and Premchand who have been done to death,” says Tvara Misra, Anukruti’s General Secretary. Comedies and spoofs are popular. The energy in the street plays, occasionally performed in places like Dilli Haat, have an enthralling rawness of its own.

However, when even Bollywood is boldly adapting Shakespeare, students here remain shy of the greatest playwright of all time. “Drama isn’t just Shakespeare.” says Puja Sen of Miranda’s Ariel, a society ironically named after a spirit in The Tempest. Perhaps that’s why the bard is left to the whims of Shakesoc, the Shakespeare Society in St. Stephens. This college is so sticky about English that its festivals occasionally come with the caveat that excessive use of Hindi would disqualify the entries.

The language issue, of course, has another twist – ‘bad words’. The women colleges are particularly sensitive. But these are minor irritants in the otherwise captivating theater scene that has taken tentative steps out of the campus gates.

India Habitat Center, the college campus of Rang De Basanti, has been inviting selected colleges to its Old World Theater festival since 2002. Last year Anukriti performed “Khubsurat Baala” at Sri Ram Center Auditorium. Ashoka Hotel hosted a college festival the same year. Five colleges have been invited to take part in the Atelier’s Youth Theater festival at Mandi House in October.

However, the real action still remains inside. From September-end to February, college hours are claimed by drama competitions. Auditoriums echo with dialogues, canteens are abuzz with theater talk, and all the campus is a stage.

Dramsoc Actors of Lady Shriram College for Women

Theater Queens

Dramsoc Actors in Action


Hansraj College Actors


Kirori Mal’s Keval Arora, The Living Legend of Campus Theater


The Delhi Walla with the Miranda House’s English Society Actors (picture courtesy: Rajesh Thakur)

The Delhi Walla