The stage's their world
Sakal Times is kicking off a monthly feature — a panel discussion with various professionals to give our readers an insight into their world. This time, we have a member of the rock band Agnee Kaustubh Dhavale (Koco), contemporary dancer Hrishikesh Pawar, theatre director-actor Suraj Parasnis, stand up comedian Sudhanshu Ramteke and sarod player Anupam Joshi. The panel, all of whom regularly perform to a live audience, discuss the advantages and challenges of their respective mediums. Over to them..
Their relationship with the audience
Koco: When you’re into original content, it’s a difficult relationship. You have to first win them and that’s always an uphill task, and to continue to get their approval is most important. When you’re on stage for a 90-minute performance, you get immediate feedback — instant approval or rejection.
Getting a response from your audience is very important, whether they reach out to you through social media or express their excitement when you take the stage. Some artists are arrogant, they get angry when fans ask for selfies. I think every independent musician should know that the audience is extremely crucial and should always be treated with a lot of respect. When I’m on stage, it’s my job to entertain the people who spend their money and time to listen to my music.
Sudhanshu: In stand up comedy, you cannot have a passive audience. We are in the age of distraction, it’s very difficult to hold your attention for 30-60 minutes. Comedians can perform to an audience of 300-400 people or just to about five people in a room — we value our audience. We want them to be actively involved in the show, and not just keep checking their phones. In India, we focus a lot on the storytelling mode of comedy, so if you’re not listening to my story, we’re not connecting on an emotional level, and you’re missing out on the punchlines. We too get instant gratification from our audience, and that helps us identify the demographics and adjust our set accordingly.
Suraj: In theatre, we say that our audience is mai baap prekshak. They give me perspective. If I’d like to watch the play as an audience, only then will I work on it as a performer. I always try and bring something new to the table so that people are encouraged to come out of their homes and watch the play. I don’t believe in theatre that the audiences don’t understand and go home frustrated and dissatisfied. When they leave the venue, I want them to be satisfied that they’ve seen and enjoyed something new.
Koco: I agree, making the audience relate to your work is very important. This reminds me of when we played our album to the CEO of Sony quite a few years ago. He complimented us on being prolific musicians, and that we sound just like Shakti which was fantastic. But he could not remember any of our songs. That was a big learning for us as a band. Just because you’ve developed a skillset, you don’t need to overdo it with every song and make it complicated for audiences to connect with. When someone is listening to your song on a device, their finger is always on the ‘next’ button, and if your work doesn’t grab their attention within a few seconds, they will move on.
Anupam: Indian classical music gives 50 per cent authority to the artist and 50 per cent authority to the audience. I have played to all types of audiences, and most of the time it is a mix of veterans, half-baked listeners and those with no knowledge of Indian classical music.
The veterans in the audience have gone beyond the part where I have to show them my skills as an artist, the half-baked listeners have some idea about the genre and are there to see what else is possible, the rest have no knowledge about the genre and are there only to see the skill of the artist. I’ve been the first Indian classical musician to play in an unpronounceable city in South of France last year to an audience who had never heard this genre live, and there’s nothing much you can work with other than coming down to the basics and playing good interactive music.
The biggest challenge while performing
Koco: I think some of our most popular songs are not the best ones we’ve created. But when we’re on stage, the audience wants us to play those songs. Specially when we’ve got something new and want to perform that for our audience, the biggest challenge is to actually compete with our own more popular songs. We even tell the audience that we will play those songs in the middle of the set, we make them sing it to us before we perform it for them. Earlier on, we used to play those tracks three-four times during our set, now we’ve become bold about putting out new material. We call Aahatein our Hotel California.
Suraj: To make people used to new things we’re trying to do is a challenge. The audience prefers sticking to things that they are comfortable watching. I want to create something never-seen-before in theatre, and the biggest challenge I face is to make people accept it.
Anupam: You can’t keep on creating the same magic for your audience over and over again, and even if you can, you don’t really want to. There are many challenges when I’m on stage — my instrument, the sarod, has a mind of its own at times, the backstage air-conditioning is at minus 15 degrees and when you get on the stage, it’s so hot because of the lights, it’s like one moment you’re in Siberia and then you jump to Africa. The pitch might go up, the strings might break, the accompanist might go off on his own tangent if he is a fickle-minded person. Nothing can be rehearsed and fixed before the show. What we’re going to play is mostly decided just about 10 minutes before.
Sudhanshu: I think people are more forgiving towards musicians than comedians. When a musician is on stage, even if they go slightly off, it’s okay. But when a comedian is performing, their attitude towards us is challenging, it’s like ‘Okay, we’ve paid for you to make us laugh, ab hasa ke dikhao’.
Koco: I understand. We’re playing songs that public has already heard, but you can’t go and say a joke that they’ve already heard, then it’s not funny.
Sudhanshu: Musicians want the people to record their performances and show it to their friends, comedians can’t do that. Hecklers are another problem. If you have drunk people in the audience, you’re done! They find everything funny and offensive, then they start making their own jokes and spoil the show for everyone. As a comedian, you need to have tactics to calm them down before it goes out of hand.
Anupam: In fact, it’s not just the uninvited and unwanted humans. At one of my shows in Ahmedabad, three dogs came strolling on the stage from nowhere! I love dogs, so I was calm, but the tabla player freaked out and walked off. I’ve put this in my bio data, because in the old days when rishi munis used to play, birds like peacocks and all used to gather around and it used to rain also.
The ever-evolving youth
Anupam: The charm factor is always associated with the young. For youngsters, we try to dramatise things a little bit, make them aware that something is happening. I see a lot of youngsters in the audience and make sure to speak a lot to them about what we are going to do, why someone is playing an instrument etc. I try not to be very rigid about things. The last generation’s rigidity has really affected the market. For them, everything is divine and spiritual. They have pushed the audience away.
Suraj: For me, content is king. Why will anyone like to watch a tragic thing on stage? I thus present it in a way that is more relatable. The most interesting reaction from my audience was when a small boy came crying to me because a character in a play had died. The play is running for seven years now. There’s a lot of youth audience for it. It’s content which is really important and the way you present it.
SudHanshu: The youth today have so many options to choose from but if they have come to your show, it means something. Content is certainly the king. If your underlying material is strong, audience of all age groups will come. But yes, with the young audience, pop culture references work more. I always start with them — web series, movies etc. Get them on your side, and they become your best ambassadors. The elder ones might not talk about you after the event but the youngsters will talk about you on social media, among friends etc.
Koco: The earlier generation has made things rigid. It is easy to call everything contemporary trash but you have to overcome this feeling and keep an open mind. I myself like to attend a lot of young band performances. It’s important to keep your feet on the ground and be abreast with technology and what the younger artists are doing. One must also know social media, technology, public speaking etc. The younger audiences are going to teach you something that you didn’t know through. Their innocence will keep your ideas fresh too. You can’t beat age, but you have to be as relevant as possible.
Hrishikesh: To do so, one must shift gears — from being an instructor to facilitator. In a country like India, where years of yearning for learning text has been over-glorified, it’s difficult to deal with the youth. The education system needs to change, and the “over-glorification has to calm down a little” and aspects like literature, philosophy need to be looked at. At the same time, it’s important to look at who decides the standards of work — the producer, artist or, the audience? Do you do mediocre work just to make yourself accessible, this is something you have to ask yourself. As for me, I won’t do things that don’t genuinely come out of me. But if I have to, I will still put in a lot of research.
Anupam: Another issue is that of contexts, especially with the youth. I once had a young girl coming up to me and saying that songs like Babul Mera Naihar Chhuto Jaye make no sense today. She couldn’t relate to the lyrics of a song that was a classic for my generation. So every generation will have a different ‘better’. Musicians we call legends now, were at once heavily criticised by their veterans. So this tug-of-war is eternal.
Hrishikesh: So the way forward is to constantly evolve our instructional values.
Sudhanshu: But also, this generation is quite ‘woke’. You got to be politically correct with them. You can’t crack sexist jokes or generalise. So you have to be guarded all the time.
Koco: I am very guarded even on social media, thanks to this very out-of-context hyping of what an artist says.
Customising the content
Koco: You have to customise the performance based on the audience. In corporate gigs, we decide to not speak much to the audience and do medleys because that’s what the 35-40-year-olds want. With a college audience, you can do some solos with your drums, guitar etc.
Suraj: From three-act plays to deerghanks (one-act long plays), I am adapting to the new demands. People are now low on time. But at the same time, I don’t compromise if the content is very strong.
Koco: But that doesn’t mean the audience is dominating everything. Rather music producers and a few large publishing houses are calling the shots regarding what the masses should listen to and they develop their tastes accordingly.
Suraj: As artists, keeping your unique style alive is crucial for all of these. I like to do the plays that excite me in the first place, as an audience. But I also have to think of how experiments can work. For instance, I once got into magic realism and it didn’t work because I couldn’t create that amount of magic. Also, till date I haven’t done a single classic because I don’t think I am grown up enough to handle it. I do stories written by my contemporaries which is some great work, and it is my job as a director to bridge the gap between their stories and the audience. On the other hand, I have also experimented with the horror genre in Marathi play Anathema, and it worked well.
Anupam: As an artist, you have to decide, as to how much you can do and what you have to let go. It’s part of the game. You cannot do everything. Because you have to keep your exclusivity. Otherwise, you as an artist, will die out of frustration. So many people take up fusion and lose their core foundation and realise it only once it’s too late to return.
Koco: One must first figure out where to be. I take lessons from jazz musicians but I don’t want to incorporate it in my songs. I want to write in the pop-rock genre. If I start completely experimenting, I will start a separate brand, and not do it under Agnee. Of course everyone wants to experiment, but the aesthetics must be kept in place.
Pressures on them
Sudhanshu: It’s important to be politically correct if you want to do corporate shows. I do jokes on myself. So that way, there is not much pressure on me. But from some venues, yes. Because sometimes people vandalise the venue and I think it’s our duty to not let that happens. But there will be multiple schools. In comedy too, there is a school of sexist and regionalist kind of jokes. Ours is a very responsible community where we tell each other if something has been sexist. Even AIB, which led the whole movement about free internet, is very woke. But yes, unfortunately, those jokes on wife kind work with people. It is sad.
Hrishikesh: I have made a career out of being politically incorrect. In the very conservative area in Pune where I grew up, boys learning Kathak wasn’t very appreciated. I remember making sure my ghoongroos didn’t make noise. I couldn’t share with my classmates what I was doing. Also, there was a lot of body-shaming. And boys talking about it is not allowed in our society. As for pressures, we recently gave a performance at Yashwantrao Chavan Natyagruha called ‘My Clay Mould’. A female dancer and I were to pose naked in one scene. Of course it was a silhouette, but people could see some body parts, and I heard the auditorium gasp. Both my fellow dancer and I were scared but I gestured her to continue because I wanted to see how people react. I don’t know why we don’t talk about this physical idea. Our dance styles are sensuous, they are meant to be. We want the navarasas to be part of our lives. But we are in a very body-shamed period right now.
Twenty years from now...
Suraj: We will make good use of technology in theatre in the next few years. I chatted up a guy from Intel sometime back. He was working on the drafts of his play, which I found very interesting. He has blended technology and storytelling. In one of my plays, I wanted to open a bag when the actor says, ‘Sssh’. So I hired the robotics team of VIT, which managed to create that app. I used to operate it from the stage pit. This, I couldn’t have imagined doing 10 years ago. Earlier, we used to have handles for lights. Now, we have pulsar boats. That’s technology. We are going ahead. If someone is trying to come up with new advanced technology, then it is evident that something exciting is waiting to happen in theatre. Also some big names like Paresh Rawal, Lillete Dubey, Rajat Kapoor, Kalki Koechlin and Richa Chadha are still doing plays. Definitely, there is some stimulation for these people to do theatre and for people to watch it. I don’t think theatre will disappear.
Anupam: The performing arts came into existence as a centre to socialise. This is still true in many parts of the country. People will come back to stage and live performances once this phase is over. There were similar phases in the past too, which faded out. Performers across all genres have survived the phases. I would like to ask a question — How many people in this room have watched a sarod performance live? Is it the same as you watch it on YouTube? It’s not. However, what we need to focus on is creating an environment where art can flourish. When it comes to performances and art forms, we talk of Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, but that is not India. What about the other places? I want to go and perform in those places, I know people will love it. But where’s the stage? People there do not have a choice, but to go to YouTube and watch the videos. Live shows do not happen there.
Sudhanshu: Comedy has gone online. It’s there on stage as well. In the near future, I see a trend of house parties. I think these are the places which would become our stage, a more intimate ambience, where an artist will be called and there will be 15-20 people in attendance. We don’t have to have a big stage with 200 people watching us. It can be a small set up.
Hrishikesh: The latest debate in all performing arts is space — the lack of it, or it being too big, or too small. Now performances are taking place in garages and drawing rooms. As far as technology is concerned, I believe that we are far behind of having an infrastructure that says that technology enhances the performances and we as artists are not dependent on it.
A lot of times, I have realised that people have started creating work, because they know there is a supportive technology to it. There’s a show that I saw in Ahmedabad, which had a brilliant LED wall and amazing things were happening on it. But the performers were there and it was disturbing the whole visual. It was daunting and loud for me. So I think we will take another 10 years to figure out how to create a visual. We are an experiential country and one needs to understand the culture and tradition that we come from. What is it that I want the audience to experience? In the next decade, this will crystalise and settle.
As for 20 years, the conflict is to figure out where is contemporary dance going. The whole idea of contemporary dance is quite vague. Anybody and everybody is getting into it. Theatre personalities getting into the idea of physical theatre is wonderful, but I don’t think they have the authority to talk about it. As a practitioner, I am scared of that. I think for the next 20 years, that’s a scary place to be.
Koco: There are big companies who are doing various festivals, but they haven’t got it right when it comes to curating shows. We have had people asking us to do ‘something alongwith someone who is interested in performing with us.’ I don’t think it’s nice. We are there for audience, and we spend a certain number of years and time improving our skillset. So we can’t water it down by incorporating something in the middle of a show.
Once, wee had a senior person who came on stage and said, ‘I want to sing along’. He was cantankerous! So these kind of ‘collaborations’ don’t work, unless there is a properly thought out show where we meet the artists and decide to perform together.
Hrishikesh: I think we need to have a nourishing vision when we get together people. I need to show my work and allow other people to show theirs.
Koco: We are doing something similar now in the next couple of weeks. We are collaborating with another group. This was a thought-out decision and not the one taken by event managers. There has to be a lot of trust and familiarity, camaraderie with the artists.
Hrishikesh: It took me two years to convince wrestlers of Kunjir talim to work on a project with me. I told them that they need to do their own thing, but they have to learn dance, listen to music. There should be certain aesthetics to it. Collaborations can happen but you need to know your work. There has to be a sustained growth for you as an artist. You have to keep challenging yourself.
Anupam: Who performs prior to or after me doesn’t matter to me, as long as my slot is well defined. I have been doing jam sessions with contemporary dancers. That happens if the drive is strong or if the payment is good. At times, we are desperate to make a living. Sometimes I have to do things that I am not very proud of. If I do perform for seven minutes at a function, then I also perform at places, before people, who are genuine listeners, but don’t have the money to invite us.
Suraj: The organisers need to take into account our requirements. If we require 20 lights, then we must be given that number. If we are asked to manage with 10 lights, and we agree, then our performance is hampered. That in turn affects the future assignments and also the experience of the audience.
Sudhanshu: The biggest challenge as a comedian is that we need the audience to warm up. So performing for 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there, doesn’t work. I cannot just come on stage and crack the first joke. When it comes to shows, the hierarchy is poetry and storytelling at the base, then stand up comedy and then music and dance. I cannot have a band performing before me, because dude, that’s really difficult. The energy levels of the audience is charged up and I have a tough task to match it.
Anupam: Why should we ask for payment, is what many organisers say. That’s very embarrassing. We need to change this psychology. Eighty per cent of the ticket for a Hindustani music concert is exempt from tax because people will not buy it. The entry is free for many such programmes. Why?
Sudhanshu: We are a closed group. Any inquiry that comes to us is shared. We have set a bottom list before gig. Anyone offering us less than that is rejected. And others are informed.
Koco: For established acts like us, who have been around for 10-15 years, we have some saying power. But not the younger musicians who are eager to be seen and heard. However, there are established artists who perform at throwaway prices and that’s ridiculous. This trend is then carried over.
For an average organiser, it’s always the artists’ fee that pinches them the most. They are willing to pay for the hardware, for sound, light and generator. But when it comes to the artists...they get a raw deal. This needs to change. I tell the younger band to not get exploited.