The worst is over, but the founders of Delhi’s iconic Akshara Theatre are not taking any chances.

Last month, the 44-year-old institution was sent an electricity bill of around Rs 3 lakh. The bill was due on March 1 but the theatre could not pay up and it soon received a notice that its electricity connection would be disconnected if the bill wasn’t cleared by March 15.

“They just sort of jumped that big bill on us,” said theatre artist Jalabala Vaidya, who co-founded Akshara Theatre along with her husband, playwright and director Gopal Sharman in 1972.

The crisis came about after a troublesome tenant at Akshara, which is allowed to rent out 23% of its leased premises in central Delhi, left without paying his bills. “The bills piled up,” said Vaidya. “We really couldn’t have easily paid the electricity bill and they sent us a disconnection notice. If a theatre doesn’t have any lights, how can it possibly run?”

Bill shocker

To raise money to pay the bill, the couple decided to ask the audience at Akshara for donations. They even started a campaign on the crowd-funding website BitGiving. And then stand-up comedian Papa CJ, who believes Akshara is one of the best places to perform in India, saved the day – he donated the entire bill amount to Akshara.

“I wanted them to be able to pay it [the bill] off completely and continue operations without this hanging over their heads,” said Papa CJ. “Akshara is incomparable. Its magic lies in its intimacy. When I perform [in their indoor theatre], I don’t even need a mic.”

After Papa CJ’s intervention, Vaidya and Sharman agreed to let the BitGiving page still take in donations just in case they received another jolt. “I expect next month’s bill to be another shocker,” said Vaidya, laughing. “So we decided to keep the BitGiving page alive a little longer to get help to pay off some of the other government dues.”

The goal on the BitGiving page is set as Rs 5 lakh; the campaign has managed to generate over Rs 3.5 lakh so far.

Unique creative space

Tucked away next to the busy Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in the heart of central Delhi, Akshara Theatre has entertained the capital for decades. First-time visitors could easily miss the small entrance where an unassuming little gate gives way to an arts complex spread over a leafy acre of land. The complex includes an indoor wood panelled theatre, an amphitheatre flanked by two peepal trees and a 40-seat acting area for poetry and song.

The entrance to Akshara Theatre (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).
The entrance to Akshara Theatre (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).

Akshara has always provided space for art, culture and satire to flourish amid the power play of India’s capital. The theatre doesn’t receive any government funding and that perhaps allows it creative freedom. “If you do not have free institutions like Akshara, where will you get free speech?” asked Vaidya. “If you want to be a democracy, you must have institutions that are not government funded who are willing to pick up serious issues and talk about them.”

The amphitheatre at Akshara (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).
The amphitheatre at Akshara (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).

Its Larflarflarf series of political satires have performed to full houses before every national election for decades. “No political party, no matter how virtuous they may make themselves out to be, likes our satires,” said Vaidya. “But Akshara has always spoken freely. We have never stopped. In fact we performed even during the Emergency, lampooning Mrs Gandhi herself.” Akshara’s BitGiving page says that the house was so packed during this particular performance that if the door was opened midway, people fell out.

One of its most famous productions is The Ramayana, a dramatised retelling of the epic written by Sharman and performed by Vaidya. The play, enacted in the traditional Indian katha or storytelling style, travelled the world. In 1975, when it reached New York, the New York Times called it “India’s gift to Broadway”.

Jalabala Vaidya in 'The Ramayana' (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).
Jalabala Vaidya in ‘The Ramayana’ (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).

The theatre has played incubator to a considerable amount of talent. Several young theatre groups started out from here. Epic Shit Entertainment, Toss A Coin Productions, and Cineaste are just a few groups that held some of their first shows at Akshara. Even now, it continues to provide space to college theatre festivals and other workshops at reduced rates. “It is important for all artists to grow in the dark,” said Papa CJ. “When you are performing for a large audience, there’s no room for mistakes or experiments. Akshara, however, has always been a space for experimenting and taking chances without the fear of being censored.”

Gopal Sharman (extreme right) performing a political satire (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).
Gopal Sharman (extreme right) performing a political satire (Photograph: Courtesy Aksharatheatre.com).

The show goes on

The theatre stands on land allotted to Sharman and Vaidya in the late 1960s with the help of Morarji Desai, who was then the deputy prime minister. That was the time Sharman and Vaidya were contracted by the Royal Shakespeare Company to take The Ramayana to Britain. As nationally eminent artists, they were leased the space in what is now prime property for rehearsals and performances.

Registered as a non-profit cultural society, Akshara is no stranger to hard times. At present, the monthly cost of running the theatre is around Rs 5 lakh. Despite fairly consistent footfalls, Akshara has been short of cash before, but has managed to raise money thanks to fundraising shows by theatre veterans and those from the world of stand-up comedy. This is the first time its founders have had to resort to a crowd-funding campaign.

After reading about Akshara’s predicament earlier this month, Kapil Mishra, Delhi’s minister for art, culture and language, had tweeted: “Sad to read about Akshara Theatre. I am meeting them tomorrow to find a way to save it for sure.”

Vaidya said this was the first time the government has offered help. “We have been low on funds before, but nobody from the government has ever offered help,” she said. But though Mishra did send a representative to meet Vaidya and Sharman, something concrete is yet to come out of it.

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