It's time to get professional. Avanti Nagral speaks about juggling her three passions – singing, acting and public health – ahead of the South Mumbai staging of the controversial Agnes of God

“When I was auditioning last year for the role of Agnes,” says Avanti Nagral, “I decided not to watch the movie, though I knew about it. I knew I would mimic Jane Fonda’s portrayal. I decided rather to come into my own.” At 18, Nagral, who essays the character of the young novice in Poor-Box Productions’ Agnes of God, is an actor aware of what she can bring to a stage. Her debut theatrical performance as Agnes (“professionally” that is, she says), landed her a nomination earlier this year at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) for best actor in a lead role (female). The play itself saw the highest number of nominations – seven to be exact – at the Awards.

Singer Avanti Nagral debuts with her first professional acting role in Agnes of God
Singer Avanti Nagral debuts with her first professional acting role in Agnes of God

The role of Agnes required Nagral to sing church music a capella, but it was a criterion well within the young actor’s domain. She has been training for the last 10 years under the tutelage of Dr Prabha Atre, a distinguished Indian classical vocalist and one of the seniormost artistes from the Kirana gharana today. But her onstage presence has found ample opportunities to showcase her interest in diverse musical forms such as hip-hop and the blues. “With Agnes of God, it was quite nostalgic, having been exposed to church music right through my school days,” says Nagral, who studied the Cathedral and John Connon School. In the last three years as a professional singer, Nagral has performed for both popular and seasoned audiences, right from a teenage music festival to last year’s national tribute to 26/11 at The Gateway of India.

Agnes however was a challenge for Nagral. Ahead of the first staging of the play in South Mumbai, which met with opposition from the Catholic Secular Forum last year, on April 22, Nagral says, “It was a complex role that required you to have a gentle innocence and have your wits about you. Perhaps my youth helped contribute to that role.” The novice is not new to theatre however, having previously contributed songs to Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature in 2014.

Nagral may not be the kind of adolescent who would like being termed ‘a teen sensation’ for this isn’t the end of her passions. She juggles three loves that clamour for attention constantly – song, theatre and public health. Currently doing cardiac research with Harvard Medical School, Nagral’s keenness in medicine and health has sprouted many branches. There’s music therapy in pediatric wards and setting up YCPR (Y for Youth and the question 'Why', says Nagral), a public health initiative. “I was diagnosed as an infant with a ventricular septal defect, commonly known as a hole in the heart. I was lucky that it closed up when about five years old. But there are many who have not had the same fortune,” she says, recalling incidents in her adult life that have stemmed from her childhood cardiac issue.

Auditioning for Agnes of God, to director Kaizaad Kotwal, happened with good timing. “I had just deferred my admission into Harvard by a year, when I auditioned for the role. I will be leaving this August to pursue my academics,” she says. Kotwal hints to us that a young actor, equally exciting, will be taking Nagral’s place in the play.