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International Q&A with SiCa-Humanities Center 2011 Arts Writer/Practitioner M.K Raina

By Marie-Pierre Ulloa

Why and how did you become a theatre artist?

M.K. Raina

It all started long back, when I was a school kid of seven years. Our school principal, Mr. Deena Nath Nadeem, a legendary poet of the Kashmiri language, wrote a verse play for the children of the school. The play was about birds, animals, humans, and their inter-relationships. It was a futuristic thing dealing with the co-existence between these two worlds–that is the human and the non-human world, nature. It had lovely songs set to folk melodies that we, as children, sang. Later these became big hit songs over the radio. I had a major role to play, that of an orphan child driven away by evil uncles along with my little sister into a forest full of trees, birds and animals–a microcosm of nature, where these children are taken care of by the inhabitants of this forest.

It is from this experience that I started my journey as a child actor in all sorts of plays, where a child was needed. All these plays were in my mother tongue, Kashmiri.

Now, looking back, I think I perhaps had a hidden desire to perform and organise group activities. In my early years, we had formed a performance group in our locality and we would often create some kind of improvised performances and show it to our friends and some times to our elders. Most of the times, I remember I used to lead such endeavours and my fellow child artists had to follow my instructions. Many a times there would be arguments and showdowns, and the elders would have to intervene. Perhaps this was a part of our very tight-knit community living and also part of our Hindu-Muslim interconnectivity.

During all these growing-up years, I had the privilege of being encouraged by my parents and my grandmother. They never objected to my activities or interfered in any way from my childhood to my college days. My state of Jammu and Kashmir offered me a three-year scholarship to join the National School of Drama, New Delhi, where I got trained as a theatre professional. Along with my theatre activity, I studied biology chemistry up to university level. At one point I had a choice either to become a doctor like my father or become a biochemist, but I followed my heart. This decision surprised my entire clan except my parents, since no one in my family had ever ventured into the world of arts. My parents’ simple encouragement and faith in me has been my inspiration all these years. I have stayed a free-lance theatre person all these forty years working not only in India but also in South Asia both in theatre and films.

What are the three or four seminal plays in a theatre director’s dream repertory, and in yours in particular?

One cannot speak for other directors, since each director works in his own world and under his particular national culture specifics and social conditions. For me, I always had this desire to deal with classics from Sanskrit plays like KALI DASA’S Shakuntla, or Bhasis – urubhangam. Among contemporary plays I love plays that deal with the predicament of a human condition in the present social-political environment. I love themes and concepts developed by me in collaboration with traditional and professional performers, a kind of lab work, which later develops into a major theatre production. The themes one has dealt with in the area of my work are the concepts of displacement of people involving different cultures, beliefs, histories, violence and memory.

Who are your models and mentors, if any?

This is a difficult question, for a person who lost his home, his town, and who has witnessed violence and has escaped death many times, in cross fires. All models and mentors vanished during the many trials one has undergone. It is a sad and lonely state to be in. Hence I always look inwards into myself for inspiration and courage. I have always said that I am like a stream of water flowing down the hill, making its own path around any obstacles and moving on, and one day this stream will naturally dry up and become invisible.

I have no Gurus. I learned from many teachers and some of them have been the poorest of the poor with great wisdom.

Which are the most critical skills in order to become a good theatre director?

The most important skill is experiencing life in all its colours and shades. One can study in the best universities and learn skills from great teachers and masters. But if one does not learn and absorbs the essence of compassion and subsume it into one’s soul, all knowledge and skills will remain a bag of tricks and empty shells. Mahatama Gandhi once said, “If you are in a dilemma about a decision that you have to take, and you do not know what to do, at that moment recall the face of a poorest and most impoverished human being in front of you and think, can this particular action of yours change his life and empower him. Then you will be able to make the right decision.”