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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Arghya Lahiri: A place in the spotlight

Although he is one of Indian theatre’s bona-fide hyphenated personalities, Arghya Lahiri’s calling card has been light designer par excellence. As is the case with most artistes, it was a journey that began fairly early. During his years of schooling in Kenya, he remembers operating a spotlight from a “proper operator’s perch" several feet off the ground, at just age 11. And, then, as a fifth-former, he was entrusted with a gigantic switchboard “the size of a boat" to manage lights for a school production of The Sound Of Music.

It was during an annual school expedition to Mount Kenya’s base camp that he experienced a revelatory moment. The entire range, with its striking escarpments and valleys, was covered in clouds, and the sun was setting underneath. “It was golden in a way that doesn’t exist in anything but nature. The range was on fire and it knocked the breath out of me," he says. That’s when Lahiri began observing the intricacies of illumination. This is what informs his work in theatre too.

It took a few college productions in Mumbai to ensure that Lahiri was truly bitten by the theatre bug. In 1997, in junior college, Rehaan Engineer, then a budding director already developing a reputation as one of experimental theatre’s true envelope pushers, staged the Orestus trilogy on a basketball court. “It was a hell of an introduction to understanding that there was more to acting than just being intense with lines," says Lahiri, who acted in the trilogy. The same year, another contemporary, Quasar Thakore Padamsee, directed Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail. Lahiri was the self-appointed assistant director on this project, but was later called upon to operate an intricately complex light plan, with 48 cues in just the first 6 minutes. Being thrown in at the deep end made him realize that both courage and precision were part of the stage technician’s brief. “It wasn’t something I could be half-baked about. It needed a commitment to getting it right. And I did get it right," he says. The college production transitioned to the professional stage, opening at the National Centre for the Performing Arts—it was the first-ever outing of Q Theatre Productions or QTP, a group co-founded by Padamsee, Lahiri and Nadir Khan, among others. That was in 1998.

In 2000, he directed the neo-noir, My Funny Valentine, for Thespo, an annual youth theatre festival for under-25s organized by QTP. For the first time, he was working the lights to achieve effects on stage—like working with visual metaphors, for instance.

In 2009, during the making of QTP’s Some Girl(s), Padamsee recalls being astounded by Lahiri’s light design for the play. “He appeared to have left us all behind," he says. They had all been operating on the same rigs, the same set-ups, but Lahiri’s knowledge appeared to have grown exponentially. Lahiri puts it down to “engaged repetition" not dissimilar to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice spoken of by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story Of Success. “Every production is yet another iteration in a continuing laboratory experiment," says Lahiri.

Light designers work under time constraints, usually having to rig and focus lights in few hours. Years of experience mean that trial and errors can be weeded out. “Since 2011," says Lahiri, “I have been ready to work with anything and everything that is available in a venue. ‘Found lighting’ is a challenge."

There has been the occasional idyll too. When Girish Karnad’s Flowers opened at Bengaluru as part of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival in 2006, he was given five days, unheard of usually, for technical rehearsals. “It was the first time I had designed lights without reading the script, but just by watching the actors," he says. He still remembers the moment from the production when half of actor Rajit Kapur’s body disappears into shadows that had been created by using just one light.

An essential pursuit that appears to have fallen by the wayside, acting remains a philosophical conundrum for Lahiri. Looking back, he admits, “I was an incredibly self-conscious actor in my early years." Last year’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles, directed by Akash Khurana, was the first time he opened a play as the lead in 14 years. As the straight-laced Dr Watson, Lahiri was a revelation, bringing to the part a delightful conservatism and his own trademark locution, formal but impeccable. His controlled joy while on stage elevates the play beyond measure, although he is rather self-effacing about it. “If I get the laugh and the grin right, then everything falls in place."

Now, he is poised on the cusp of a creative breakthrough as a writer and director with his play Wildtrack, which opened in August. A two-hander featuring Devika Shahani and Jaimini Pathak, it looks at the personal language of relationships, and how the passing of memory can change everything.

He fielded scepticism about directing his own play. “I understand that a writer can make assumptions of clarity that may not be tangible or transparent." Yet Wildtrack is a play with very specific grammar. Its genesis lies in the long gestation of several years, and in personal loss—his father’s own tryst with dementia.

With this outing, perhaps, Lahiri can fit more snugly into the shoes of Mr Theatre, as he is called in theatre circles.

Wildtrack will be staged on 4 September, 5pm/7.30pm, at G5A Foundation, Laxmi Mills Compound, off Dr E Moses Road, Mahalaxmi, Mumbai. Tickets, 300, available on in.bookmy show.com

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