A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday night, I decided to ditch bar hopping in my hometown Mumbai and head for a mushaira; a kind of poetry recital that had its roots in Urdu story-telling from a bygone era. There were a number of things I wasn’t expecting about the event. First, the fact that it took me a good ten minutes to find a space to sit, clearly there were more people looking for a sober weekend, right? Secondly, what could have been an intellectual gathering of connoisseurs became an intimate circle of strangers; audience and artists alike celebrating and enjoying an art form of a bygone age. Such experiences where art breaks the straightjacket of tradition and formality is only possible in an alternative art space, like the one I went to and the countless others that have cropped up in Indian cities over the past couple of years. Art galleries, theatres and auditoriums have long since served as platforms for the arts in India but with their bureaucratic policies and high brow demeanor, they are growing increasingly constricting. This is exactly where such experimental venues are proving to be attractive alternatives. Their curatorial vision welcomes art that is neither defined nor particular about its ‘audience type’. Unsurprisingly then, they have become havens of free speech and dissent as they initiate conversations around taboo topics like sexuality and the queer community that would otherwise be censored in the public domain. Take Conflictorium; set up in 2013 in Mirzapur, Ahmedabad it is an interactive space that addresses the nature of conflict through art and culture. Since its inception, it has hosted a wide range of events that could be even be viewed as part art and part activism. Such as a workshop in which women from Mirzapur made comics based on their personal stories of conflicts and then that formed the basis for an exhibition. Organisations that stage plays about communalism and other social issues, such as the National Peace Group and Akshat Drama Group, are a regular here. This September Vadodara-based Rollie Mukherjee, whose art focuses on the Kashmir conflict, also opened her exhibition “To Stories Rumoured In Branches” here.
Moreover, urban dwellers have reached a saturation point with commercial entertainment. That is why alternative art spaces that allow you to unwind without breaking your wallet or getting shitfaced and more importantly engage you mindfully have become popular amongst young audiences. What could have previously been seen as a niche started by a few programmers, artists and patrons seemed to have established itself as a movement in 2017, one that is challenging and changing the cultural landscape of cities. As the year draws to an end, we thought to speak to some of the pioneers and newbies of alternative creative spaces; Harkat Studio and The Cuckoo Club in Mumbai, The Black Box Okhla in Delhi and The Village Studio in Goa to understand what makes them thrive and survive.
Physical Space & Everything In-Between
One of the most distinct features of such venues has often been their unconventional design. Taking away from the usual stage set-up an audience is accustomed to Black Box Okhla; a relatively new theatre space in Delhi is simply four walls covered with black fabric and nothing else. “Theatre-makers can choose the kind of audience-performance interaction that best fits their story-telling. Moulding it into a different environment for each show is the fun part. No two shows will ever look the same here,” says Nikhil Mehta the founder of Black Box while explaining the idea behind the aesthetic of his venue. Harkat Studio in Mumbai; a creative space housed in a charming old Versova Bungalow with an outdoor courtyard, is equally unique. “I think people love coming to Harkat because our casual living room set-up reduces the proximity between artist and audience who then feel as though they are a larger part of the performance. To be honest, I think that is what brings them again and again to our events,” says Michaela Strobel who extended Harkat from a boutique studio to a performance space in the city with her partner Karan Talwar, in 2016. A year before that, The Hive; now synonymous with the alternative cultural scene in Mumbai today, became the first to host open-mic poetry nights in a one-room office at Carter Road. Talking about that year in an interview with Hindustan Times, Sharin Bhatti who manages The Hive with her husband Sudeip Nair said, “..our bigger goal was to get a venue that was dedicated to performances. Otherwise, something like stand-up comedy would have remained just a hobby.”
What might seem like the unique physicality of alternative creative spaces that lends itself to making art more impactful is a symbiotic relationship. The last decade has seen the birth of new art forms like spoken word-poetry, stand-up comedy whereas traditional ones like dance, theatre and storytelling are recreating themselves, often by employing multimedia. Sunil Shanbag, the founder of Tamasha Studio in Mumbai told India Today in an article that, “quite often you want to do things that are not necessarily performance-oriented for which you need a space that belongs to you as opposed to other venues where you are at the mercy of the owner.” These new age performance arts demand a kind of minimalism and intimacy that only alternative art spaces can give them. The malleability of these art spaces doesn’t only give artists a tremendous bandwidth to explore their own creativity but allows them to interact, network and collaborate with artists cutting across genres. As Shambhavi Singh one of the faces behind the creation of the Oddbird Theatre And Foundation in Delhi told DSSC in an exclusive interview, “We want artists to spend time here, create conversation, share experiences, and not just focus on evening performances.”
Experimental Vision And The Risks That Follow
For me, experiences at these venues have always seemed to linger even long after the performance is over. What most people like to call experimental, I prefer to refer to as a warm eclecticism that keeps me on my toes.One of the most extraordinary events at Harkat Studio has been the ‘The Museum Of Ordinary Objects’. As the name suggests, the venue was given a museum set-up where objects-ordinary or otherwise-were put on display with handwritten notes from their owners. One could even contribute to the display with an object of your own. Conceptualized and designed by Choiti Ghosh (Tram Arts Trust), Karan Talwar (Harkat Studios) and Sananda Mukhopadhyaya (Extensions Arts), the exhibition aimed at stripping objects of their “material consumerist value and celebrate their banal value.” This is probably one of the most tangible methods of democratising art but still, for Harkat, it’s been one where skepticism did follow when it was first shown in 2016. Turns out that it was so well received that they had two similar exhibits the following year. Similar doubts followed when they hosted a show called ‘Queen Size.’ In response to section 377, this was a performance by two movement artists and the entire sequence took place around a single charpai. “Honestly I thought the kind of crowd that would turn up would be the likes of the Bandra ex-pat community,” says Talwar. “To my amazement, the people who turned up seemed like they were here to watch a play for the first time. I was quite sure that either they wouldn’t understand it or not appreciate it because of the politically charged sensitive content.” Fortunately, the response was absolutely positive, putting Talwar’s apprehensions at rest. “We have learnt not to make any presumptions about our audience until they have departed,” Michaela admits. “You need to allow them to absorb instead of spoon-feeding them.”
The Hive including their latest venture - The Cuckoo Club- curates close to 700- 1000 experiences per venue. Lately, they have been pushing sex and gender-focused events a lot while also working on sensitising attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. When asked how their audience has reacted to their curatorial vision Sudeip Nair confessed, “The response is largely positive. Though they [the audience] have evolved to a level where they now expect certain edgy, exciting and educative experiences.” For Laila Vaziralli who opened The Village Studio; Goa’s first alternative art space only two months ago, understanding her audience’s sensibilities is still a work in progress. “Sometimes the events are completely booked while at times nobody turns up,” she confesses. Still, this hardly keeps her from introducing artistic experiences that have never been tried and tested before. One of the events that she is really looking forward to this month is ‘Forest Stories’ in collaboration with BuDa Folklore. This will see members of the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe of Uttara Kannada share their ancient traditions; ‘making a meal together is the performance, eating together is the purpose of the story.’ Through events like these, Vaziralli intends to make Village Studio a space where “knowledge is shared and skills learnt, especially by involving the local communities.” As these spaces make art more accessible and inclusive they also challenge their audiences to re-define what art has meant to them. For Nikhil Mehta at the Black Box, the goal is much larger-to change theatre culture in his city as a whole. For this, he has adopted a one-of-a-kind programming mission; each show at the Black Box will run for at least a month. “This is the only way to build more audiences for theatre, which in turn will make it commercially lucrative for the theatre practitioners and then finally with more resources theatre can produce more exciting work.”
Challenges Of This Invisible Revolution
But being at the forefront of a cultural revolution comes with its own set of challenges. Curating innovative artistic experiences for millennials who constantly crave “newness” coupled with little financial resources is an exhausting task. For artist and audiences most if not all alternative spaces subsidise their rates, some venues even let artists decide the cost of their tickets. Though when it comes to coping with the sky-high real estate prices in Indian cities, in the absence of any government subsidies, can surely even weaken gritty ambition. Sudeip Nair from The Hive told Hindustan Times in this report that it took him “six years to just break even.” Even in Goa where the cost-of- living is relatively less as compared to Mumbai and Delhi, Vaziralli has to rely on her personal savings to run Village Studio. Many of these venues have also become co-working spaces with their own cafes to make ends meet but still, the battle to achieving a successful business model is a rather long and hard one. This is still just the tip of the iceberg for those with a fiery passion to introduce their neighbourhood and city to the best of the art world. Sudeip Nair tells us why, “So many spaces open up only to shut down because they are in it with the assumption that they can ride a wave. It’s a while before the wave hits you so have to make sure you have a plan to reach shore when it does.”
Despite these challenges creative spaces have managed to collectively achieve a remarkable feat; breaking the ‘fourth wall’ for art in urban India-a technique that allows the audience to be more involved with the art they are engaging with. Each venue’s programming vision looks at its space as a medium through which it can weave intimacy between audience and artists alike. In a country that spends less than 1% of its annual budget on culture, these independent creative spaces are doing no less than a social service for the cultural health of urban India.
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