These theatre artistes package big truths in bigger laughs
Sheena Khalid and Puja Sarup take fun very seriously
Fun is pretty much the life force of the experimental theatre outfit Patchworks Ensemble they founded in 2014. The clever conceptual work they have been producing since is distinctive for the sense of exuberance and mischief that permeates it.
In It’s About Time, their third and latest production, which opened at Mumbai’s NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) last month, they attempt to answer that existential toothache—are we merely puppets in the hands of time?—through a fluffy rom-com about cicadas. Set over the insect’s curious life cycle (cicadas live underground for 17 years, emerge only to mate, lay eggs and die off in four to six weeks), the show starring Sarup, Khalid and guest writer-actor Neil Bhoopalam is a revolving door of slapstick, word play, dance, sharp dialogue and good lighting that will leave you giggling and wheezing about how little we control in this life.
On stage, Sarup’s histrionics collide hilariously with Khalid’s laconic style, but off-screen, as creators, they couldn’t be more alike. Ask them what they each bring to the partnership and Sarup deadpans, “Dhokla.” “Mutton curry,” Khalid returns, equally deadpan. The two instantly hit it off when they met at a Bunraku puppetry workshop in 2011. After finishing their training—Khalid at London International School of Performing Arts, and Sarup at Helikos International School of Theatre in Italy—they returned to India to start the company.
Gender and its negotiation is another theme that threads their work and they find a way to discuss its nuances without coming over preachy or worse, dull. Their first play Ila, the story of a king who transitions into a woman every full moon, is narrated by the busybodies in the ladies compartment of a local train, while TAPE aka Gentlemen’s Club, their inventive second, is a plotless keyhole-view into the world of drag kings (Sarup’s Shammi Kapoor-inspired character is not to be missed). All of their productions feature collaborations with a wide cast of theatre professionals. “We want to work with not just different kinds of performers, but also different kinds of artists like painters, designers, architects. It’s sort of in our name. We’re a sum of things,” says Khalid, who last toured with Rajat Kapoor’s clown version of Macbeth, What Is Done, Is Done.
Sarup, who will appear in the Vishal Bhardwaj period drama Rangoon, this month, doesn’t worry about Bollywood eclipsing theatre in India as it does everything else. “I’m not interested in the comparison; I only care about bringing people to the theatre,” she says. “When Ila and TAPE played in Bangalore, many people told me it was the first bit of theatre they had ever seen in their lives, and that makes me very happy.” In their bid to democratise the form, Patchworks Ensemble also organises workshops in storytelling and bodywork, which are open to everyone, “whether you intend to perform on stage or just want an outlet,” says Khalid.
Both women are excited about where Indian theatre is headed, but for a little grouse: “It’d be nice to have rehearsal spaces where the lights work. And there is ventilation. And the bathroom functions,” says Sarup. “But it’s no deterrent either way. Like my teacher at drama school would tell us, ‘Take the first boat out, don’t wait for the ship.’”