Twenty three year-old Mohammad Akram Feroze’s bicycle has been to places even his nimble imagination never scaled all these years.
On good days, Feroze, a resident of Kareemnagar district in Andhra Pradesh, can be seen atop a remote hilltop in Karnataka, teaching theatre to students through hand gestures, because they do not speak the same language. Or at a jatra performance in the Andamans, watching parents in the audience see their children put up a street play meant to convey their disgust at their parents’ alcoholism. On bad days, Feroze walks up to deserted highways and screams till the pent-up frustration and loneliness abates. Then, he logs on to Facebook to cool off or to connect with a friend.
Founding The Cycle Natak has not been easy or even ‘practical’, as most of his kin believes. But, then, Feroze doesn’t come across as the sort who would do something just because it is advisable. Over a crackly telephone line from Tamil Nadu, he tells me that in October 2011, he quit his job as programme director at a TV channel in AP and told his parents that he would travel through India’s villages on foot to learn and spread theatre. “My parents were just coming to terms with the fact that I had dropped out of Genetics in my final year. But all my father said was, ‘Well, it would be foolhardy to travel on foot. Take a bicycle, at least.’”
Feroze’s decision could be traced back to a play he had just finished scripting, which evoked a fair amount of existential angst. “As children, we always want to be nomads. But then, we grow up. I wanted to keep my dream alive, and find some answers myself, and the only medium I connect with is theatre,” says Feroze, who has been involved in theatre in AP since he was 17 years old.
He set off with Rs 300 and a second-hand bicycle. His first stop was a village in Rangariddhi district in AP. “No one believed me when I told them I was there to spread theatre. Now, when I look back, I realise how childish — even dangerous — I must have sounded.” He got in touch with a local cable TV man who took him to a school teacher who was known to patronise theatre. Feroze lived in the school for three days and performed monologues for awed children who had never had access to a contemporary artiste from a larger town.
But he noticed how the same children clapped excitedly and almost jumped in their seats when a local TV soap artiste enacted the famous scene from the Mahabharata when Karna discovered Kunti’s secret. “That’s when I realised that I could impress them with my contemporary approach to theatre, but I’d never be able to move them the way their roots could.” That is when Feroze decided to step back, quit performing in rural areas and immerse himself in encouraging folk artistes and local children to tell their own stories.
“The idea sounded great in my head, but I realised that I knew nothing about folk theatre, and didn’t want to do a hotch-potch job just because there was no one to oversee the quality of my work,” he says. So, in December last year, Feroze travelled to Bengaluru and headed to Ranga Shankara, the city’s theatre hub to meet noted theatre personality, Arundhati Nag. “First, she got me medical insurance because I told her I would be on the road for the next three years at least.” Nag also invited rural artistes and organised a panel discussion.
Feroze says he had a more mature perspective after the conference ended.
“For the first time, I felt ready to approach children and older locals in villages and introduce something that was their own. Their stories belong to them, and I wanted to act as a mediator to help them rediscover their history,” says Feroze, who stumbled upon a curious theatre venue when he travelled to Kolar district in Karnataka. “In Shiva Ganga village, when the villagers saw me on my cycle, speaking of ‘natak mandalis’, they pointed to a hilltop.” Upstairs, he discovered a gurukul for children called Adima Living School. K Ramiah, its 50-something founder welcomed Feroze and allowed him to put up a show for the 15 children, who stayed there and learnt theatre free of cost.
To his surprise, Feroze discovered that every month, on the full moon night, around 1,000 villagers from nearby villages climbed the hilltop with fruits, grains, cooked vegetables and rice to watch the children perform.
You need money, and Facebook
However, by that time, Feroze says, he was fast realising that money was important to do what he had set out to achieve.
“I didn’t want to make money, but I wanted to go to the Andamans to explore its rich theatre culture, and there was no way I could afford the tickets.” His erstwhile methods — sweating it out on locals’ farms, doing odd jobs — were not working. “That’s when I wrote about my ambition on Facebook and created a page for The Cycle Natak. Within days, friends and acquaintances gathered money to help me buy the tickets.”
“More than 95 per cent of its tiny villages deeply understand the jatras. Television has, of course, affected the locals’ love for theatre. Until three years ago, locals would bring mattresses, watch jatras all night, and return to their fields at the crack of dawn. And no one knows about this side of the Andamans,” says Feroze, awed by how much he has learnt about the area since he began the project.
Feroze collected groups of children in the villages he visited and asked them what they strongly felt about. “Every child had a story on how their parents were alcoholics and how it had forced (the children) to eke out a living. No one discussed child labour because the adults were hardly in their senses,” he says.
Soon after, he staged street plays where children told these stories while their parents sat in the audience. Those were sticky moments filled with shifty parents and nervous children, but the kids didn’t want to give up. “Once, I feared for my safety when the host at a village function introduced me to a father whose daughter had played a character called ‘60 ml’, named after the amount of alcohol her father preferred for his drink. He looked daggers at me, but I got away unscathed,” says Feroze.
Feroze maintains that he isn’t the one who is teaching the children across the country — they teach him and he absorbs a life and an art so different from his own. “The middle class thinks it has it very tough with, say, price hikes. We think we are not responsible for oppression of the economically weaker sections of society. But a week in the hinterlands will tell you that a man out there cannot even afford the emotion of aspiration — all he longs for is dignity, which the middle class denies him on a daily basis,” says Feroze.
He counts the small blessings, which he says aren’t that small after all. “A truck driver calls me every week to ask me which highway I am on, so he can give me a lift, even if it is for 20 km. Another poet from Nepal, who works as a labourer at a dhaba in the Kurnool district in AP, sat with me for hours and narrated his life story through his shayari,” he recalls.
“This small natak mandali on wheels has taught me that people’s lives and theatre aren’t two different things at all.”