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Due to the rain clattering on the corrugated roofing sheets at Prithvi Café at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, we had to shift the venue to interview theatre production designer (and actor and director) Dhanendra Kawade. The venue where we eventually moved to was probably the most perfect place to talk to him about his life and work. It was the technical room at Prithvi House; a small dingy room with a lot of waste materials, various props and a huge bell. It somehow was quite reflective of the state of theatre production design in India. While people are beginning to understand the importance of production design (especially set design), there are enough and more logistical challenges in the space.

We speak to Kawade, who has been in theatre since the last 20 years, about his personal journey, his relationship with theatre and his experiences as a theatre production designer in India. He has done production design for plays like Annoyance, Teen Ekant, End of Season, Once Upon A Tiger, Tukra’s Dream, Hamlet, Bone,  Namak Mirch, 60 Seconds Deep, Haroon, Don’t Look Now, Kavita Bhag Gaye, Project S.T.R.I.P., 1-888,  Ismat Aapa Ke Naam Part -2 , One On One, to name a few. The last play which he has written, designed and directed, Rang Rangeela Gittu Girgit involves creating a dazzling set crafted completely out of recycled materials.

You started your theatre journey quite early in life? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I was a good student in school and my teacher used to motivate me to participate in a lot of extra-curricular activities. I acted in my first play in school when I was in third or fourth standard and got a lot of accolades for that. Everybody started calling me Doctor Sahab after that because that’s the character I had played. That was the beginning.

At that time, Dada Bangeshwar Mallick in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh (where I was born and brought up), used to teach things like singing and dancing to children. I randomly went there one day and found it quite interesting. I started learning singing there. After a few days, I realized that they did not allow kids there post 7 pm. This got me curious, so I convinced them that I took permission from my parents and stayed back. There was a rehearsal going on for the play Andhon ka Hakim. I absolutely loved it. I started staying back regularly as I wanted to learn more and more.

What do you like about theatre the most?

I think initially my love for theatre was inculcated because of Dada. He used to do everything; he would play so many instruments like harmonium, mridangamdholak and a lot of other weird instruments. I heard pakhavaj’s sound for the first time and classical instruments’ sound was new for me too. I wanted to do all of that. Dada was from Uday Shankar’s ballet troupe and thus his sense of rhythm and body movement was great too.

While working there, we had to create the entire set ourselves which included painting, cutting, designing costumes, publicity, designing posters, creating creative lights, putting the same spotlights in different ways, gelatin change, putting filters etc. So basically, overall, we were doing everything on our own. Theatre also involves incorporating different arts like painting, dance, choreography, music and acting. This element of doing everything was one of the biggest reasons why my love for theatre kept growing.

When did you take up theatre as a full-time profession?

I had done a lot of plays by the time I was in the tenth standard. However, my first professional play was in 1993. From then onwards, I was very sure that theatre is what I wanted to do for a living. It wasn’t easy initially. I am from a middle class family background and my family considered theatre more of a hobby and not a serious profession. There were no examples as such about people from Balaghat who have made it big in the arts stream. But when I took the final decision, my family supported me.

How was the initial experience after coming to Mumbai in 2004?  

Initially, I did a lot of acting jobs. I did this Khalid Mohammad film called Silsilay and another film which had a Hong Kong based production house. So basically, I was getting all these small roles. In terms of work, I knew that I could do almost everything which also became a problem for me since I just couldn’t be idle. I wanted to do something or the other constantly. However, my focus never shifted.

While getting trained as an actor, I started learning other things on the job too. did lot of odd jobs in music, light, sound etc. In Mumbai, I got more work as a designer at that time, since there is a massive shortage of designers here. This is mainly because backstage is considered boring, unglamorous and time-consuming. For me, it was exciting and interesting. It is an integral part of theatre. Thus eventually, I got more established as a designer.

What are some of the important aspects of production design in theatre?

Since I have never had any formal training, I can’t talk about it theoretically. But practically, the main aspects are lights, costume, set design, scene design, music etc. A production designer has to go through all of this and needs to have knowledge about everything. He needs to figure out things like if a character would make an entry from left or right, if the set is feasible for a particular costume, he has to ensure smooth movement of characters, he has to see if the scene looks too cluttered etc.

What are the challenges in the theatre design space right now?

There are quite a few challenges but it is fun to have these challenges and to fight against them. The first big challenge is money. Budget constraints are huge as people still don’t want to spend much on design. They think ‘Mehel zaroor ban jaaye, par mehel mein jhopde ka hi kharcha ho’ (We should construct a palace but spend only as much as we would on a hut).

Another challenge is that there is very little design knowledge. People don’t understand the importance of design in theatre and how it can be used to enhance any play. It is a supportive part of theatre but is very important. It doesn’t even have to be very elaborate but even a bare stage involves some sort of design.

Big directors do give importance to theatre design and you can see that in their plays but there are issues like infrastructure. Even if we made really nice and big sets, where will we keep them? In a city like Mumbai, there is a massive problem of space. If you rent a godown, then an additional cost is involved. In India, we don’t have the culture of repertories. We are not working continuously, so investing so much in creating these things and then in their maintenance is not really possible. People want small set-ups; it should all fit in a matchbox!

How much creative freedom do you get when you do production design for other directors?

I do get a lot of creative freedom when I am working for other directors. I have my own way of thinking and working so while designing for other directors, I have to do stuff according to their thinking which is a challenge for me. But it also gives me a way to go through a new thought process. The directors’ ideas are new for me and what I try to do is use his way of thinking and mold it in my own way.

You launched your own production house, 3rd Bell, in 2005? How is that shaping up?

I met my friend Rohan Vyavaharkar at one of the theatre festivals and we started talking about how we both wanted to start something on our own. And that’s how 3rd Bell was born. We are now registering the company and rechristening it as Swangvale.

With my production house, I don’t want to be captured in a particular style. It is a challenge for me as a creative/designer to keep inventing new ways to do things. That helps in avoiding monotony too. I currently run the production house with my wife Supriya and we hire people on a project to project basis.

What are your most favorite projects that you have worked on as a designer?

I know it is weird to say that all my plays are my favourite but they really are. All of them have been different experiences for me. Each set is entirely different from the other and each has its own unique style. The thinking and theory of each design has been different.

But to name a few projects which have been exciting- Bone and Kumb Katha’s set ups were really appreciated. I like the simplicity in the designs for Namak Mirch. Some other plays that I enjoyed executing include Project S.T.R.I.P., 26/11, One on One and The Bureaucrat.

Tell us a bit about your new play Rang Rangeela Gittu Girgit where you have made the sets out of recycled material?

It is a play for children about environment issues. While we are trying to put out the message in the play about saving trees and growing more trees, we decided to implement it ourselves and embed it into the design of the play. For example, we don’t use paper/plastic cups on the sets. We all have our one designated glass and thus we are saving about 30-40 plastic/paper cups a day.

All the material we have used in the sets for this play has been recycled. We are using used plastic bottles (for the headgears and flowers) , flex from the buildings, fish net, cloth from some older plays etc. It might look a bit rough but it gives you the essence of what we are trying to say through the play. This is our way to creating sensitivity towards the issue.

You also conduct workshops on production design. How has that experience been?

I have conducted about 2-3 workshops, mainly with Thespo. We usually do get a lot of entries (about 15-20) for these but then the next day there are only a handful of people left in the room. And even from those, hardly anyone ever actually gets into production design. Like I said earlier, it is considered laborious and unglamorous.

Who are the people who have influenced you the most?

Legendary playwright and director Ratan Thiyam really influenced me. His work is of international standards and he has done everything on his own at a massive scale.

Habib Tanvir simplicity is commendable. B.V Karanth’s sense of music and his folk theatre also influenced me a great deal. I have also been inspired by musical maestros like Bismillah Khan and Zakir Hussain.