The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Magical Ashokan Theatre: The Team Behind “Daastan-e-Parkhee”

Kanishk Devgan, Class of 2020

It’s Thursday night at Ashoka University: half the campus is partying before finals week, while the other half savours a rare delicacy — sleep. There is, however, a group of students who are wide-awake, full of energy and, most surprisingly, sober. Under the leadership of Arpit Kumbhat, co-founder of Kirdaar, this group sweats it out every night until the wee hours of the morning in preparation of their theatre production, “Daastan-e-Parkhee”, which was performed on the first of May to thunderous applause and adulation.

“Daastan-e-Parkhee”, an original play, is the story of a sex worker’s daughter who deals with the conflicts of her inherited identity. The eponymous Parkhee — played with aplomb by Drishti Chawla — is constantly told that she has no choice but to join the “dhanda” (business) of prostitution. She insists that she won’t. Driven by the need to write her own destiny she dreams of becoming a singer, she finds an unlikely coach in her mathematics tuition teacher — a customer of Parkhee’s mother who has cut a deal to teach her daughter in lieu of sex. Parkhee finds her tuition teacher to be a source of comfort and guidance, and, in a moment of infatuation, kisses him. Her mother — who works tirelessly to ensure that Parkhee does well at school — is shocked, angry, and disappointed. Although our young protagonist manages to avoid following her mother’s footsteps, and so, circumvents what once seemed to be her fate, the inevitability of tragedy in a life marred by an unwanted identity, enforced over and over, remains. Parkhee might not have become a prostitute but the expression of an adolescent sexuality made her feel like one. The way Parkhee sees it, she must carry the guilt of betraying her mother, and herself.

The promotional poster for the production

Though Parkhee’s story warrants much discussion, my attention was caught by the novel — almost revolutionary — process of the production’s development. The team behind the production were screened in auditions that gauged passion rather than skill or experience, spent months in ideation, and wrote several versions of the script. Every member of the team worked in every single department — from set design to music direction — thereby gaining an understanding of all the aspects of theatre. “Daastan-e-Parkhee” is more than just a play; it’s an attempt to cultivate a brand new crop of theatre enthusiasts at Ashoka University.

At about one in the morning, on the staircase outside Dr. Reddy’s Auditorium, a few members of the production (Arpit Kumbhat, Vanshaj Garg, Drishti Chawla, Bhavya Khare and, a little later, Mansi Ranka) took a break to talk with me, and each other, about their experience as a part of the production. Here’s what they said:

The following interview has been edited.

Vanshaj (to Arpit): Where did the idea for this play come from?

Arpit: When we first started working on this play, I had no idea what I was going to do. I just sent a mail saying I want to make a play and need a team. So, there were nine of us who worked through March to May to figure out a basic theme we wanted to work with. In the summer, we cut to the specific theme of sexuality, and picked prostitution as our tool to explore it. We started working on the script in early September, and that’s when the first years came in. And then, as you know, we all wrote the script together.

Vanshaj: How did you come up with the process of making the play? What was your trajectory for making the play?

Arpit: Kirdaar has a policy that you can join the club and make your own play. We’ll help you with cast and crew members, and whatever else you need. Keeping that in mind, I decided to work on this production. I don’t audition students for their characters or their skills in dramatics; I conduct them to understand the students’ enthusiasm levels, their passion for theatre. Even if they’re really bad at everything and completely new to theatre, I don’t care. What matters to me is that they’re passionate, energetic, and want to learn and create something new.

The process which we followed is atypical for theatre productions. We assign tasks to every person for each performance. So, if we perform every three weeks we keep changing the roles. If someone is learning how to sing for a character, this person will be doing something completely different next time. The cast and crew keep shifting roles — everyone has to do everything. The idea is that everyone has to learn everything. If you aren’t a musician, you’ll learn to be a musician. We’ll teach everyone everything. If we can’t teach each other something, then we’ll find someone who can.

Drishti: You want diversity but there are time constraints, and different people have different potentials. How do you deal with the inefficiencies that come about from such a process?

Arpit: Yeah, so the process is slow; it takes time. If you’re learning to play a new instrument for this production, you can’t do it in a day or two. It does take time. I tackle it by pushing my team. It’s not like I push them beyond the limit, you know, we take care of our team. But we do push them a little. Sometimes it is, in fact, beyond their limits. I mean how else do you grow, in any field? You have to be pushed out of your comfort zone. We often exceed deadlines, and that will happen. It happens every time. That’s how our process is. But we’ve always cared about the quality of our production over the quantity. Even if we cross deadlines, we don’t compromise over the quality of work.

Kanishk (to Drishti): There are a lot of new skills that you all have had to learn. And I’m sure you all also brought your own skills to the table. How has this played out for you?

Drishti: I actually revived one of my old passions whilst working on this play; I used to learn music but I had stopped. When I was required to sing for this play because my character wants to be a singer, music was revived for me. I’ve fallen in love with it again. My experience with dance also helped my choreograph dance sequences for the play, and do blocking — the placement of actors on a set — for scenes. Oh! One new thing I had to learn was how to play the ukulele — within ten days. On the first day, I couldn’t even hold it properly! Now, I can play one or two songs for fun.

A shot from the performance | Photograph by Kanchan Yadav

Kanishk (to Vanshaj): From the moment you auditioned for the play, until now, when you’re the assistant director, what has your journey been like?

Vanshaj (translated): First things first: when you come here you realise that this society demands more time from you than any other society on campus — which I loved. We spend at least two to three hours a day together, and that changes a lot of things — your social relationships, your work ethic. The most important thing for me is that my work ethic has transformed. Everyone tells me, “Your grades will drop because of Kirdaar,” but my grades have improved because I’ve learnt how to manage my time. I’ve learnt what it means to work hard for something. You know when people say “I don’t have any passion in my life” — well, I used to think that too. Now, I feel that you can’t just “have” a passion — it’s something you can learn; it’s a skill like any other. Everything we do is learn-able. Social skills, acting, dancing, and even seeing the world differently — you can learn it all. Creativity can also be learnt if you expose yourself to enough.

Kanishk (to Bhavya): As someone who entered the production at a later stage how did you adjust to the group and what was your take on the production?

Bhavya (translated): Well, I’m quite new, and I was a little lost because the story has changed so much. Adjusting to the group was a bit tough since they’ve all been together since the start of the year. But they always divide work: usually a few people are working on the script, another few are working on a scene and yet another few are working on the set. So, whenever I’m working it’s with two or three others. This helps me connect with them. The best part is our reflection session at the end. We connect to each other during our reflection sessions.

Kanishk (open question): Could anyone explain what these sessions are?

Arpit: Reflection sessions came about during a production I was making in my first year. Back then, there were a lot of conflicts during practice. When we went back to our rooms, we would feel very unsettled. So, we came up with this strategy, which is great for all kind of teams, where sit in a circle at the end of every practice, every day, and talk about what we’ve done, what we’ve learnt, and what we’ve gone through that day. Everyone gives a brief glimpse of what the day meant to them. For instance, if the choreographer was not happy with how the person who was learning the scene behaved, they would air out their conflicts. They’re meant to just take everything out. Even if you’re really rude or angry — the idea of the reflection space is to provide an open space to let people vomit out whatever they’re feeling. This honest communication keeps everyone on the same page, and when everyone’s on the same page the team functions smoothly. I also carry out a “special reflection” once every two weeks, where everyone has to talk about everyone. In those two weeks you would’ve ended up working with everyone, so you can talk about all of their work processes, appreciate them, constructively critique them. This helps everyone’s personal growth.

Vanshaj: Once we had a competition in Goa where we had two performances. The first was the qualifier, and we didn’t perform up to our usual standards. We were all disappointed after that and thought we would practice all night for the final. However, we then decided to have this special reflection, which lasted for, like, five hours. Everyone was crying after it but not in a bad way. And it changed things. The next day, during the finals, we had never been so coordinated and supportive of each other. We’ve never had a better performance than that, and we ended up winning the competition. That really tells you something about the value of reflection sessions.

Kanishk: You’ve performed and won awards across India. How has performing in other cities been?

Drishti: It’s great to go to other festivals. You really see how other colleges are doing and what they’re like. It helps pop the “Ashoka bubble”. Another thing you learn is that no two stages are the same. You have to adapt to the stage in seconds, and there’s always a problem with their lighting. Logistics is another thing you learn. Whoever is in charge of logistics needs to take care of eleven people. You need to think about food, clothes, hotels, entry, registration, props, prizes. One of the greatest things is the travel because you have so much fun! We didn’t do that well in Mumbai, but it was great to roam around there. We won and partied in Goa. We also see these amazing college festivals. It tells you the possibilities of what all can happen in a college festival.

Arpit: We have three objectives for every out-of-station performance. The first is to just beast-out and perform what you have learnt. The second is to watch as many performances as possible so you get to know what theatre outside Ashoka is. And the third is to party the fuck out. Have a lot of fun. Your journeys, your parties — they’re important. Meeting new people and seeing new places — it’s all part of the experience.

Kanishk: You guys are known to have insane practices. I’ve heard stories of other clubs and societies using your night long practices as an example. How do you guys end up committing this much time and effort? What keeps you going?

Vanshaj: We have many methods to motivate ourselves, but they aren’t what drives us. It began with the way we were chosen — not because of certain skills but because of our drive to make this production. If we lose that drive the production will fall apart. I think this team represents some of the most motivated, hard working people at Ashoka. Last week we even had a practice from 9 PM to 7:30 AM.

Arpit: I’ll tell you why that works. It’s very difficult to get people at Ashoka to commit so much time for one thing. So, what you do is give them worth. When we make a production, we feel it’s worth something. For me, it’s worth more than what I learn at my classes. Even if I give eight hours — twelve hours — I feel that it is worth it. That’s what motivates me to come on time. That’s how everyone on the team should feel — that giving their time is worth something. That’s how I want them to feel. For that, you need discipline. From day one I make sure everyone follows these rules. The first is that be on time! If you’re one minute late, it’s the one minute of ten other people that you’re wasting. That’s a lot of time for this production. That’s why I think the time commitment isn’t a big deal.

Bhavya: About three weeks after joining, I freaked out about my studies and left. But later, I realised how much time I had and I came back. These people create a space to keep everyone motivated. Arpit and Vanshaj, as AD, try to do as much as they can. I don’t know how they do it but you feel like coming back and working here.

Mansi: There have been times when we would think that this just wasn’t working, or that we don’t have the time. Personally, there have been times when I feel like I haven’t given enough to the production. I thought about leaving but I couldn’t. It was a compulsion. I’ve really learnt more here than my courses. You can find out so much about yourself. I found out that I can learn to sing on my own; that’s huge for me. I learnt that if I engage with something for some time, I will get used to it. I know I will get it done. I played a character, I learnt the ukulele. Right now, I’m working on script writing — I’ve done so much. That and the people here make it special.

Kanishk: Final question. It’s clear that this production is special, but in your words, what makes it special?

Vanshaj: When this play started, it was a magical realism; there was literally a genie. Now, it’s about a girl who wants to sing. She leaves her home but the question is what makes her leave? We started, in essence, by thinking about whether we are a product of our environment, or are we something more. We’ve been talking about our process of everyone doing everything, but it doesn’t just result in everyone learning new stuff, it also results in everyone creating different stuff. If everyone has tried to improve the music it is not just a product of one person’s imagination. In fact, how many people have we had in our production?

Arpit: Lots. I think thirty, forty.

Vanshaj: It’s the product of forty people’s imaginations, who’ve all been in the play at some point. We’ve written, directed, and scored this play. It’s made by everyone. I remember a judge who said that it really looks like each member has contributed to create the play. We all looked at each other thinking, “Wow, it really shows.” We were happy.

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