Public Spaces in India: How performance and art can revitalize them

by Zohra Malik

One of the most distinctive ways that we choose to talk about cities is usually with reference to how how they warp time, how fast or slow they seem to move. It’s not just our imagination, fortunately, because studies show that the reason why cities warp time differently is because of the pace of social life. The pace at which people move around in their city, their rhythm, interaction all of these make up the pace of social life which is how we identify with our city and negotiate with our space. In this context, the central hubs that facilitate this construction of how cities move and breathe generally turn out to be public spaces.

Cities have grown out of a basic need to live as a community and public spaces were traditionally designed to facilitate public interaction. However, the need to exploit real estate and construction potential of a city have left no real open spaces that encourage public interaction. Places like Oval and Cross maidan that are located in and around Churchgate; the parks we find at every turn in Chandigarh at every turn; even the MMRDA garden located in the suburbs of Mumbai; these usually have the odd group of children running around, a cricket team being coached, a group of adults playing football but other than that they seem to be missing the energetic vibe that one would hope to find in places like these. It’s almost like these spaces have come to embody the quality of “chill” that has taken our generation by storm. We could complain about the dearth of space, and yes, this is an issue but one that is being addressed by the movements like Open Mumbai initiative. For our part, we are trying to address the issue of stagnancy in these public spaces and what sort of a role performance, art as well as design can play in reviving them.


A lot of the public spaces in India seem to be designed keeping in mind the principle of function following form. According to movement generalist and co-founder of Mumbai Parkour, Cyrus Khan, the main reason for stagnation in public spaces is because most people stick to the limited possibilities of movements in these spaces and allow mono-utility to thicken like a bubble around us. When asked about how parkour changed the way he perceives public spaces Khan replied, “Parkour is this little pin that you find one day with a simple message. “Everything is for whatever you want it to be.” And with this pin, you go around popping all these bubbles, jumping down stairs, balancing on railings, climbing the walls – just releasing yourself from the narrow blinders to see a world full of possibilities.”


Picture Courtesy: Mumbai Parkour Facebook
Mumbai Parkour traceurs

He also cites the similarities between the designs of these spaces as one of the reasons for stagnation. “You see replicas of nearly the same play set in most gardens, with the only other spaces being walking tracks or open grounds.”


However, that is slowly changing with the government and organizations like ST+ART who are trying to add to the aesthetic appeal of the public spaces as well as encourage more activity. In Delhi, Gurgaon as well as in some parts of Mumbai, parks have been revamped to include machines for exercise that are absolutely free to use. The restoration of Hauz Khas Village and Deer Park and the re-painting of railway stations in Mumbai, have also significantly brightened up these spaces.
King’s Circle Railway Station
Anpu Varkey’s mural, ‘Lava Tree’, New Delhi.

Performances and art in public space change the way we look and think about our surroundings, and potentially challenge the design and diktats that we have created for those spaces. While we may sometimes catch the odd performance or two by the NSPA at stations or witness a street play, the seems to be some amount of hesitance in taking art out of theatres, galleries, auditoriums etc. You aren’t as likely to find someone playing a guitar and singing on Marine Drive as you would be to find someone playing the saxophone on the subways in London. Part of the reason could be that when you produce work within an institution there are certain rules and etiquettes that need to be adhered to and one’s boundaries as an artist are respected. This isn’t so when the audience is unpredictable and accidental and interaction between the artist and audience can lead to confrontation.
In an article by The Dance Current, Julia Taffe who is the artistic director of a dance company in Vancouver substantiated why it was worth embracing the uncertainties and ambiguities associated with performing out on the streets. “When I was a contemporary dancer working in the sanctity of the studio, I thought I needed to put space between myself and the world to protect and polish my artistry. After many years of public practice I’ve become more resilient, affable, collaborative and intuitive as a choreographer.”
Living statue at Times Square


It is glaringly obvious that to make art accessible, it is necessary for artists to trust the public. Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, “The Art of Asking” reiterates the same sentiment as she regales us on a time when she stripped and let her fans draw on her at a Kickstarter party in Berlin, the visceral feeling of trusting strangers and the blurring of boundaries between artist and audience. Artistes in India like Anish Victor and Shaunak Mahbubani have picked up on these ideas and are curating and collaborating on projects such as UR/Unreserved; which is a series of performances that will take place on trains in four destinations, all the while contemplating notions of identity; and Traversing Experiences which was an art installation curated to showcase the experience of traversing through public spaces as a woman.

Traversing Experiences by Shaunak Mahbubani

So we are able to recognize public spaces where art and culture can be celebrated, festivals like Kala Ghoda and Kochi Bienalle are proof of that but to make using public space for art a long-term commitment we need to recognize how performance and art transform urbanized, individual spaces into a space that is communal, congenial and invites participation. As artistes, we need to show some Palmer-esque grit and trust the public and as spectators we need to create spaces that care about art.


To join Cyrus Khan and his barrel of monkey men AND women, you can follow them here:
Mumbai Parkour | Facebook

Mumbai Parkour (@mumbai_parkour) • Instagram photos and videos


To know more and contribute to Anish Victor for the UR/Unreserved project, go to:

UR/Unreserved- a 30 day arts project on trains






The Guru-Shishya Parampara with Sunil Shanbag and Sapan Saran

Written by Gaurangi Dang

The fourth instalment of Conversations@theDSM saw theatre thespian Sunil Shanbag, and writer, poet, actress Sapan Saran talk about their initiative Tamaasha Theatre, Sunil Shanbag’s plays, the changing trends in theatre, and the relevance of theatre in today’s world.
Continuing with the Guru-Shishya tradition, Sapan who has grown under the mentorship of Sunil Shanbag interviewed the latter on 8 July at the Purandare Hall in Sahitya Sangh.

I first met Sunil Sir two years ago, in class at The Drama School, Mumbai. He called me his problem child. Since then, not much has changed. I get flabbergasted and tongue-tied around him every time I meet him, and he being the kind man that he is, tries to deal with me as patiently as possible. In all this time I have accumulated a whole list of questions that I want to ask him. That situation was remedied to a great extent on Saturday, 8 July, when Sapan Saran sat down with Sunil sir at the Drama School, Mumbai for an illuminating discussion.

Sapan and Sunil sir have been collaborating over the last few years. Their first project together was the play Club Desire and in 2015, they co-founded the Tamaasha Theatre. In some ways one could say, that Sunil sir is a mentor to Sapan, like Satyadev Dubey was to him.

Let’s rewind a little bit.

The year was 1966. India had already seen three Prime Ministers in January itself, and a young eight-year-old Sunil Shanbag was boarding train by himself to go to Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh. Then one day in class, his teacher mentioned that he’d be directing a play and asked them if anyone of them would like to be in it. This information came as a revelation to a kid trying to blend in. Despite not knowing anything about theatre, Sunil Shanbag’s hand immediately shot up into the air. On show-day there was an accident where the curtain rose while he was taking still his place on stage. It was awkward and they had re-do the bit, but from there on everyone in school knew who he was. “After that I was in every play that my drama teacher directed.”

After school, he returned to Mumbai and began to do theatre in the city. Dina Pathak, whom he had worked with back in school, got him in touch with Satyadev Dubey. “I kept thinking if only I had joined him five years earlier. Dubey had directed Andha Yug. The critics say that was when Dubey was at his peak.” Later, while answering a question from the audience mentioned every play and every period is important. Having said that Shanbag Shanbag was blessed to join Dubey at a time, when he was regrouping. His core group of actors had moved away and begun to do their own work and he was looking for new talent to work with. Before he knew it, Shanbag became an integral part of Dubey’s Theatre Unit, so much so that his parents felt like they had given their son to him. He went from (doing odd jobs, to) acting in his plays, to assisting him till eventually he was allowed to conduct rehearsals by himself. Dubey was an eccentric man. When you worked with him, “his friends became your friends and his enemies your enemies.” Other than noted theatre stalwarts in the city, the NSD was out of bounds for Shanbag because Dubey hated the NSD. And so, Shanbag was stumped when Dubey went on to direct plays there!

Each theatre group back in the day had it’s own core crew, and you were expected to work with only your group. While Shanbag understood that, he also wanted to be able to sit in on other people’s rehearsal and process. He soon realized that while the theatre circuit was filled with great actors, they had very little technical knowledge. So he began designing and operating lights for other groups. This allowed him to move around freely without being constantly chided by Dubey. Eventually, he was thrown out by Dubey and asked to run his own company. In 1985, he set up the theatre company Arpana.

Almost everybody that did theatre back then, also kept a day job. Most people worked in banks, for a banks had reservation for the arts and had fixed timings, so post five you were free to do whatever you wanted. Shanbag on the other had assisted Shyam Benegal and worked as a documentary filmmaker on projects such as Yatra, Surabhi and Bharat Ek Khoj. This was before the privatisation of television. In 1994 he won the National Award for his documentary film Maihar Raag, on the Maihar Gharaana in Madhya Pradesh.

Whether it’s Maihar Raag or Cotton 56, Polyester 84, there is a specific social objective. He says that it has something to do with where he comes from and why he is an artist. You have to know as to “why do you want to do this play?”

There is a lot more, so watch the video, and be there for the next talk with Mohit Takalkar and Alok Rajwade on the 19th August, at The Drama School Mumbai, at 5 pm.


Conversations@theDSM: Mohit Takalkar and Aalok Rajwade


The August instalment of Conversations@theDSM will be the fifth. So we thought we will step up and do something interesting to mark the occasion. So we got  internationally renowned playwright and director Mohit Takalkar, who will be interviewed by his colleague and friend, a young director and actor, Aalok Rajwade.

Mohit has had an immense experience internationally as well. Not only have Mohit’s productions have gone abroad, but he has also worked on the directorial aspect of international productions with the likes of the legendary Tim Supple. Aalok, on the other hand, has been making heads turn with his out of the box, socially aware Marathi plays. Be it experimenting with format, presentation or content, Aalok has all the feathers in his cap.

Both these Punekars will grace the DSM with their presence on the 19th August, with the talk starting at 5 pm.


About Mohit Takalkar

Mohit had his first exposure to theatre at Progressive Dramatic Association (PDA) before setting up his own theatre group Aasakta in Pune in 2003. He has been active in various aspects of theatre for the past eighteen years earning a reputation for the group and him, with his works; widely acclaimed by both the audience and the critics. His plays have toured the length and breadth of India and have also been invited to National and International festivals.

Since his first play, Girish Karnad’s Yayati in 1999, Mohit has directed other notable plays which include ‘Mein Huun Yusuf Aur Ye Hai Mera Bhai’, ‘Uney Purey Shahar Ek’, ‘Gajab Kahani’, ‘Garbo’, ‘Kashmir Kashmir’, and ‘Chotyashya Suttit’. He has directed plays in Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, English, Rajasthani and Kannada.

He was invited at the Lincoln Centre in New York to participate in The Directors Lab and at the Performing Arts meet in Yokohama, Japan. He assisted celebrated director Tim Supple in his version of Midsummer Night’s dream performed all over the World.

He has been awarded the prestigious Homi Bhabha Fellowship, Bismillah Khan Sangeet Natak Award, META, Aditya Vikram Birla Kalakiran Puraskar, Sahitya Rangbhoomi Fellowship, Zee Gaurav Puraskar, Maharashtra State Award etc.


About Aalok Rajwade

Aalok Rajwade has played an active and contributive part in the Marathi experimental theatre scenario for the past nine years as an actor as well as a director.

With critically acclaimed plays like ‘Geli 21 Varsha’, ‘Mi…Ghalib’, ‘Natak Nako’ ,’Sivacharitra ahi Ek’, ‘Tichee 17 prakarane’  and ‘Binkamache Samwad’ as his directorial ventures,  he is considered to be an upcoming director with an eye for the aesthetics and a vision to go beyond the obvious. As an actor, he has performed vivid roles in the plays ‘Bed ke neeche renewali’, ‘Dalan’, ‘Ashadhatil ek diwas’ and many more.

In the past, he has got the opportunity to showcase his skills at  prestigious theatre festivals such as ‘META’, ‘Jashn E Bachpan’ and ‘Bharat Ranga Mahotsav’ at ‘NSD’, ‘Summertime Festival’ at Prithvi, ‘Thespo International’ as well as in ‘Universo Theatro Festival’ and ‘Rosobastardo festival’, Italy.

He is a proud holder of the Vinod Doshi Fellowship, Damu Kenkre Puraskar, Nargis Datta puraskar AND Lakshmikant Berde puraskar which has only helped him work on his skills even more.


About Conversations@theDSM

Conversations are a tradition in theatre. And so, the DSM brings an entire series of discussions, talks and conversations, curated for the first weekend of every month. Our purpose in these conversations is twofold. First, we celebrate the bond between guru-shishya. Teachers in school, professors in college, coaches at the gym and directors in the rehearsal hall – all mentors have taught you something through conversations. That something makes you the person you are today.

The second purpose in these conversations is to celebrate Rekha Sabnis.

Rekha Sabnis was a one-woman theatre army. She ran theatre group Abhivyakti from her house. She took care of sets, costumes, bookings, transport, tickets as well as acting and directing. Abhivyakti starting performing at the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh, the same building that houses the DSM today. Rekha Sabnis was a key force behind the DSM-Sahitya Sangh partnership. And this partnership makes our work forging a new generation of theatre-makers, possible.

Rekha passed away in September last year, studying elements of the Natya Shastra till the very last.

Conversations@theDSM started in April. It is our small way of paying tribute to a great spirit who made theatre a little bit better for us all. These conversations form part of an ongoing series of talks between theatre-makers young and old. The entire series has been curated by Yugandhar Deshpande and Anuja Kale of Theatre Across.