Please tell us about yourself

I sat among an audience of 16-17 year olds, mesmerised as they were, glued to the actor, who manoeuvred deftly, covering every single square inch in the room, never for a moment breaking eye-contact with the viewers. Luckyjee Gupta had held us in his grip, as he took us on a journey of a young lad called Bhudhuram in the story ‘Maa Muzhe Bhi Tagore Bana De’.

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Luckyjee Gupta an actor from Jammu has a long tryst with theatre, which in Jammu, usually means traditional proscenium theatre. But somewhere down the line, Luckyjee realised that the need for theatre was to reach out to the masses and not be restricted to the privileged few, who could buy tickets to the shows. He also questioned why is it that an audience must necessarily come to the theatre in the first place. He was very disillusioned with what he had been doing and decided to hit the road. There was no looking back. The gypsy in him was born.

For the past four and a half years, this young man has been travelling the country and has been literally living out of his tiny backpack, performing shows. To date he has performed more than 550 shows and there will be more. Luckyjee’s passion and commitment to theatre, his frustration with the conventional, his strong desire to reach out to the audience, his unique style and dramaturgy of performing and his humility towards the art, was something that caught my attention. He performs in whatever space that is made available to him, telling his story, selecting his characters from the audience, working with them. He lives the life of a nomad. I was intrigued as I spoke to him for his work was not gimmicky, neither was he in the illusion that he was doing great service to theatre. Instead he was insistent that this journey was for himself, a search of the self, a search within, which has unwittingly made him wiser than when he started. His intensity in performance left me stupefied. In this tete-e tete, Luckyjee Gupta talks at length about how it all began and the journey since.

Ajay Joshi (AJ): How were your days while you did theatre in Jammu? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Luckyjee Gupta (LG): I have been seeing theatre in Jammu from a very young age. I would do odd jobs backstage and would occasionally get a minor role in the plays. The theatre bug had bitten me and after 4 to 5 years of dabbling in theatre I was sure this would be my choice of career. I dreamt of joining the National School of Drama (NSD) after graduation as there were no formal training facilities in Jammu. I come from a family of businessmen, and nothing beyond selling carpets or dry fruits, was considered apt to make a living. I was strongly opposed by my parents, yet I couldn’t resist the lure of theatre. I had closely seen theatre artistes bring joy to many through their art and being satisfied in the bargain. I wanted to be like them. I received stiff opposition for staying out late for rehearsals and performing, as my family felt it brought shame to their status. To satisfy my parents I took up odd jobs to bring in the money. I did this for 3 to 4 years and somehow it seemed to work with them and they let me be. I worked through the day and went to rehearse in the evenings. By then I was getting a sizeable amount of work but not the money.

In Jammu I worked with theatres like Rangamandal and the Amateur theatre Group and also did a few plays with Mustaq Kak, which gave me a fair exposure to the making of theatre, which was principally done in the proscenium arch. However as compared to the hard work we put in, the response was poor and often we performed for a small audience which barely covered our production costs, leave aside paying the actors. It was very frustrating.

After a while I wondered what it would be like to leave all this and work in schools. I went to a local school and spoke to the principal. At that time they were preparing for their annual gathering and asked me if I could help them put up a play. I agreed and was pleasantly surprised when they agreed to pay Rs 10,000, which I had randomly asked for. The experience was different but I realised that I could earn money by doing theatre. I gave up working for the local theatre groups and got involved in schools and colleges and worked for the young audiences. I worked in this fashion from 2007 to 2009 with nearly 25 schools in Jammu. My work also took me to Kashmir and an occasional visit to Delhi. By now I had stopped interacting with my family and they were short of disowning me. This exposure gave me renewed energy and I formed my own theatre group called Rangayog and did productions like ANDHA YUG, which we had to discontinue because of technical issues. We did plays like Shankar Shretstha’s’ Aadhi Raat Ke Baad’ and others. We worked hard but few audience members turned up. No amount of cajoling could draw them to our theatre. We were very disillusioned and soon I dismantled the group.

AJ: How did you turn to your present form of storytelling?

LG: It was during this lull period that I spent a lot of time reading, something that I had missed out in the initial years. I was convinced that I would like to break away from the proscenium and work in a space that got me in direct contact with the audience. I also realised that the partition between the working space of the actor and the seating of the audience created a major stumbling block in effective communication. I made up my mind to cross over this divide and I think that is what chalked my current style of performing. I came across three stories, which I felt would fit well with my scheme of thinking and presenting solo pieces- ‘Joker’, which is a Punjabi story; ‘ Un Mugaloney Sultanat Bashk Di’ by Rakesh kumar Singh and ‘ Maa Muzhe bhi Tagore Bana De’, again a Punjabi story written by Mohan Bhandari and translated into Hindi by Suman Kumar. I worked with the first two scripts in the proscenium format, but again the response from audiences was dismal. At one point I felt it would have been better to have listened to my father and taken up the family business. I really felt trapped. I wondered why people didn’t dare to come out of the proscenium. I read works of Habib Tanvir and Badal Sircar, travelled extensively in Jammu, went to the rural areas, met people, saw folk forms and heard their music. It was a period of enlightenment for me. I knew now that this was where the theatre lay. On one of these tours I closely observed a Behroopiya performer, and saw how he engaged the crowds in his storytelling. It was here that I found my form of work. The Behroopiya told me that he was a wanderer, travelling from place to place, telling stories – stories that joined people together.’

I shortlisted,’Maa Muzhe Bhi Tagore Bana De’ and felt this was one such story that would cater to all kinds of audiences. It was extremely flexible in its presentation and interpretation. I decided to take it to schools across Jammu and Kashmir. The story is simple and short. It speaks of a young boy who works in a brick-kiln, where he is mistreated and exploited. He craves for the school he once attended where he was praised by his teaches for his poetic skills. But life took a turn and he had to leave school and do labour to earn money for a living. I built on this theme and told a story of a boy who likes school but circumstances prevent him from continuining. But I didn’t want it to end on a despairing note and in my story; the boy overcomes his predicament and comes out a winner. This became a huge hit with the children and I found my calling.

AJ: What were your experiences as you approached the schools for the shows?

LG: I have learnt a lot in these past few years. It has not been a cake walk. Once when I went to Kashmir, the school authorities were reluctant since I was a Hindu. I was grilled for hours about the play and was finally told that it was fine as long as the play did not hamper their religious sentiments and political ideology or else I would be thrashed mercilessly. Often when I went to schools I had no money in my pocket and had not eaten a proper meal. I would borrow money or at times even sell personal belongings to make ends meet. But it’s all in the past now. At one school after the show, which went down very well with the students, the authorities refused to pay the promised amount. I was furious and barged out. After a while a small boy ran after me and handed me a small bag, which had loose coins, and which he had managed to collect from his friends. I have enough experiences to probably make a new play. But the success of the performance spread like wild fire and I started getting invites from all over.

AJ: What has been your USP and what is your modus operandi?

LG: I strongly believe that one has to constantly create new audiences. It is not a feat to perform in front of and cater to a fixed audience, who regularly come to the theatre. It is important to connect people to theatre, especially those who have never experienced it before. Once I was convinced of this, I embarked on my journey. I have been travelling since 2009. Initially I took small tours of 3 to 5 days but later as calls from afar started coming in, I was out for months together.

My method of working is fairly simple. I reach a new place. A couple of days are spent in meeting people. I tell them of my monetary requirement but I am not insistent that they pay. I make a lot of collection after the show. If they have liked the show I ask them for further references, which keeps the link intact. And this has worked fairly well.

I prefer to work in schools and colleges and in private institutes. I simply need an empty space and use the props that are available there- bags, table, windows, doors, etc. I work from within the audience and take up my characters from among them. At times I play some characters and together we take the story forward. Though I don’t deliberately try to play with the emotional quotient of the viewers, many are touched by Budhuram’s story and are not embarrassed to shed a tear- even with the elders present. Somewhere in the story, each person finds his own narrative and identifies with it. I stay on in whatever accommodation I can afford and then move on. I travel light since apart from my own self there is no other baggage that I carry. Though it may sound simple but it has been challenging, especially in places where no one knows you, where the language is different, and there are cultural differences. But I have managed to get about and this way of life has its own charm. This was not only about struggling in theatre, but a test for my own capabilities as an artiste and as a human being.

AJ: Where all have you performed?

LG: I have presented my work in various places in Jammu, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Kolkatta, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, UP, MP, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Orissa and in Kerala. I think about 5 States still remain for me to go to. For the past four and a half years I have been doing only this show and nothing else. But to earn some money I do conduct workshops with actors wherever I go.

AJ: Did you derive this form or did it happen as you worked?

LG: It is said that many forms of artistic expression come out of a need or a sense of helplessness. I think this true in my case. I had never planed anything in advance and nor had I made a conscious decision to present it in a specific format. I only knew I had to tell a story. The connect simply happened. Somewhere in the process the audience became a part of the actor. The demand on my part was to understand their feelings and judge what they wanted to see and believe in. I am basically a sensitive person and can sense the air. It was only when I broke through the barrier between the audience and me that the show bloomed. I feel for any art or theatre to work, its simplicity chalks its path to success and acceptance. When I work from within the audience space and make the viewer part of the play, they are more ready to accept the illusion and accept the process. This format is very interesting and one can delve deeper into its intricacies. I feel my search is still in its superficial stage and I have to go to greater depths of understanding.

I believe in the theatre of protest, but am not necessarily a Leftist. If you understand my theatre I am with you; if you don’t I will not force you to believe in me. I can speak my mind freely. Out of the entire theatre fraternity in India today, I believe 40% have received formal training but there is an equal number who have been born my way, yet doing phenomenal theatre. Theatre is on the streets, theatre is in the markets, theatre is in the restaurants.

As an extension to my present work, which is giving me immense joy and creative satisfaction, I plan to form a group of artistes and travel with them, while sharing our art with the masses. I plan to do this for a year as a group, and then encourage each of them to go their way and do their own theatre in this style of a travelling theatre. I also wish to go abroad and work in this fashion. Finally I would like to say that it would be pompous to believe that I am doing all this for the theatre and for the masses. I am doing it for myself, so that I become a better human being. I want people to experience my theatre and style of storytelling and draw joy from it.