Atul Kumar is all business and efficiency and like a homemaker, multitasks while we wait in his “office", a comfortably small one-bedroom flat in an Andheri housing society in Mumbai. When the help, a smiling lady who insists Kumar see the vegetables she has bought (to which he demurs, but praises her initiative), is about to leave for the day, he reminds her about the cobwebs she has forgotten to clean. “Tomorrow, for sure, okay?" he says.

Kumar, 45, sits behind the wooden desk in his drawing-room office, and interrupts the interview often to introduce the young actors who have dropped in for a reading of Hamlet. Each time, he picks up the thread of conversation without needing much reminding.

The residency at Kamshet

“He’s a stickler for detail," says Sanjna Kapoor, who met Kumar shortly after she had taken over the running of Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre in the early 1990s. In 1993, she acted in a play directed by her friend and Kumar’s long-time associate, Rajat Kapoor. The trio, she says, “talked about theatre all the time. We were all young and full of dreams". Many things changed for Kumar that year. He started TCT after leaving Chingari, Prof. Kichennasamy Madavane’s theatre company with whom he had begun his career in 1984, acting in Rajat Kapoor’s directorial debut, Max Frisch’s Firebugs.

A few things remained. Kumar’s love for the absurdists (“We did a lot of absurd drama—Genet, Ionesco, Beckett—at Chingari"), his penchant for devised theatre (theatre without a readymade script, put together around a theme with inputs from actors and improvisations) and his association with Kapoor, with whom he went on to do three famous Shakespeare productions, playing the character of a clown. A dream to create a theatre residency, modelled along the lines of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil—located in an abandoned munitions factory in the woods outside Paris, France—took shape around this time. Kumar also worked with French puppeteer Philippe Genty for a while after leaving Chingari.

One of the first to arrive at Kumar’s office is Sujay Saple, a TCT member and the director of Unselfed, a devised theatrical offering with a cast of dancers and actors. “Sujay was 16 years old when I conducted an audition (for Noises Off) in RD National College in 2003. Many of the youngsters, Neel Bhoopalam, Namit Das, Puja Sarup, who worked with me then, are now all famous in their own right," says Kumar. “With Atul, you are not limited to conventional ideas of theatre. He never allows his actors to feel secure during the creative process," says Das, who took up the profession after he got selected in the audition.

But then, Kumar would argue, he has seldom felt secure as a theatre practitioner. This, despite the fact that TCT’s commercial viability allows Kumar to share up to 60% of all productions’ earnings with his actors; and critical viability means that Piya Behroopiya debuted at the Globe Theatre in London, UK, during the World Shakespeare Festival. He has four productions running, and is busy preparing for a performance towards the end of the month in Singapore. He’s simultaneously putting together a motley group to create a devised performance tentatively titled Cabaret, about sexual freedom and expression.

Kumar in Rajat Kapoor’s ‘C For Clown’
Kumar in Rajat Kapoor’s ‘C For Clown’

A peripatetic lifestyle, lack of theatre spaces, and a perpetual shortage of funds to fuel his residency dream (it took over a decade to actualise it) taught him the importance of discommodity.

“I was a gali ka ladka, interested in girls and cricket," laughs Kumar, who got hooked to theatre in school and joined Chingari after being spotted by Kapoor at Sri Ram Centre, New Delhi. “I left home when I was 15-16 years old. We’re a family of merchants in Old Delhi, and all my cousins still sell sweets and silver foil. Rajat would come home and tell my mother that I am all right. I have divorced twice, and recently got married for the third time, and I’ve come to realise that my work takes precedence over everything else for me. I have a daughter from my first marriage and I could have sacrificed this or that, but I didn’t—even to be with her."

“Money is never an issue to worry about when you are driven by that sort of madness," he adds, returning to the larger point he is making about passion. Yet money, or the lack of it, drove him to find new ways of expanding his craft. In the early 2000s, his company started something called theatre at home. They performed plays like The Flying Doctor, Sganarelle, Lady With Lapdog and The Blue Mug, at restaurants, pubs, people’s homes, garages and terraces. Theatre critic Shanta Gokhale points out: “As far as my knowledge goes, the theatre-at-home initiative was first introduced in Mumbai by Atul. Looking for small intimate spaces to perform has been a perennial quest for theatre practitioners involved in serious, experimental, theatre. QTP (led by Quasar Thakore Padamsee) and Sunil Shanbag have been in the forefront of this search. Jyoti Dogra’s work has always been presented in art galleries and other such spaces. Currently, Bharati Kapadia has been presenting her Untold Stories in homes and other informal spaces."

Kumar’s experience was interesting, to say the least. He recounts a performance, which took place at someone’s eight-room house, in which the actors performed part of the play in the open kitchen, and another inside a bedroom, the audience following the cast around. “We never changed the space to suit our play; we changed the play to suit the space. That kept the performance very dynamic."

But the unfulfilled dream rankled. Almost everyone who met him—from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s—speaks of his intent to create a residency, where theatre practitioners could hone their craft. Interestingly enough, it was the country’s artist community that offered Kumar his first big push towards realising his dream.

TCT’s Creeps

They exhibited the works at the Tao gallery in Mumbai, sold them and bought a plot in Kamshet. In its present avatar, the residency can accommodate 25 persons; Kumar hopes to build cottages and a fabrication workshop, and create an organic farm. But the residency began its work, long before its formal opening last month. Manish Gandhi made Limbo, Saple worked on Unselfed, and Hina Siddiqui, who runs a theatre group called Orchestrated Q’Works in Pune, conducted a workshop.

“This has been my quarrel with the government, to create a culture of engagement and not just subsidise theatre or dole out funds. Lab spaces are critical. Not just for one’s own work, but for the community’s as well," Sanjna Kapoor says.

Kumar hopes the residency, finally inaugurated over a weekend-long performance fest on 1 March, will do just that.