From her first theatre production in Australia, Aishveryaa Nidhi decided she was going to help set the scene for Indian artistes Down Under
While Indian cinema is known for its glitz, glamour, dance, vibrancy and enormity, not many around the world are aware of the thriving theatre culture in India. Like Broadway or the London theatre, Indian theatre too has a niche audience that enjoys the stage more than the silver screen. The Indian diaspora in Sydney has yearned for Indian theatre but had to make do with YouTube clippings and memories… That was until Aishveryaa Nidhi (Aish) entered the stage. The scene was set but the script not yet written.
Born and raised in the city of New Delhi, Aish had a very ‘Indian’ upbringing. Honours came her way very early in athletics, the NCC or drama; she dabbled in everything from cooking to sewing to embroidery. Aish’s natural talent for acting was evident from the school plays she participated in. She was even offered roles in films, which she decided not to take up. But the artist in her was not to remain shackled for long. Aish started acting in stage plays, and so her career in theatre and the stage got off the ground.
Aish hoped to continue her passion for theatre in Australia but she had to face a number of ‘road blocks’. Casting a non-White actor is only possible if the script of the play demanded it—she could only be the ‘Indian’ in the play. The themes and stories of the plays in Australia usually did not have a multicultural angle and hence there was no requirement for a non-White cast. Aish missed the theatre, she yearned to hear the collective sigh from the audience or experience their pin-drop silence of anticipation. However, she did not let the narrow focus of Australian theatre deter her. She decided to become the agent of change, to be a trend-setter aiming to transform the ‘scene’. She stormed the Australian stage with her Ghandhari.
Abhinay School of Performing Arts, Aish’s brain-child, became her platform for theatre—both dance and drama, and where colour was no barrier. Her passion and dedication soon received wide recognition. She is the only Indian actor who has earned a nomination in the Best Actress category at Short+Sweet in 2009 and the only Indian director to be invited to present her play in the Short+Sweet People’s Choice Showcase in 2014. Pete Malicki, the Short+Sweet Festival’s director, had this to say, “Regarding her achievements as an artist, Aish is the only Indian actor to be nominated for Best Actress and the only Indian director to be invited to present her play in the People’s Choice Showcase.” Under her guidance, Abhinay was awarded Best Quality Independent Theatre Company in 2012. The School is unique in offering youth and adults alike the opportunity to learn Indian dance forms like Kathak, Bhangra, Bollywood dancing, play-writing, and acting and also learn the Hindi language, all under one roof.”
Aish also received numerous awards from the local Indian community. In 2013, she received the GOPIO GYAN Award for ‘Connecting India with Australia through Art and Culture’, in 2011 and 2010 she was honoured by UIA on International Women’s day and by Hindi Gaurav and SurSangam respectively. In 2009, she received the Navtarang FISCA award and was also named the South Asian Artist of the Year. Aish has lent her voice for the documentary East of India, and Bhiwandi Blues, Indradhanush and Jab Rooh Ko Saand Aaye for ABC Radio. Last year, she chaired the Art and Culture session at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas and has also been the guest speaker in conferences like Gondwana landings hosted by the Australia India Institute. She was invited to perform Ghandhari at the International One Man Show by ITI UNESCO and to conduct acting workshops in New York and New Jersey.
In February next year Short+Sweet is launching a new dance festival featuring Bollywood dance styles. Aish has been appointed the director of this component of the Short+Sweet Festival. Short+Sweet director Mark Cleary says, “We’ve been presenting theatre and dance festivals in India for the last four years with regular programs in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. But this is the first time we’ve ‘imported’ an art form from another country. With Aishveryaa as festival director, the event will run for a week in February at the New Theatre in King Street, Newtown and groups from all over Sydney will come to the Inner West to participate.”
The Indian Sun talks to the actor-director-creator.
When do you think theatre became a passion in your life?
I had done a stage production of Kaagpanth with the National School of Drama when I was in University. I also worked in Ranjit Kapoor’s Ek Ghoda Chheh Sawaar in the 1980s. A photographer friend of mine introduced me to Swadesh Deepak, writer of Court Martial, Sabse Udaas Kavita, Jalta Hua Rath (The Chariot in Flames) and Kal Kothari (The Dark Cellar), who later introduced me to Arvind Gaur of ASMITA theatre group and there has been no looking back since then.
Your favourite stage production so far?
Gandhari…in search of light written, designed and directed by Arvind Gaur is very close to my heart. It is an hour long monologue where I play 14 characters from Mahabharata. Gandhari premiered at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Sydney, in 2005.
Who is your inspiration?
I like artists who have a powerful voice like Cate Blanchet, Meryl Streep, Judy Dench, Vidya Balan, Madhuri Dixit, Shabana Azmi, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Smita Patil.
How is theatre different from cinema?
Theatre is unique in itself. Theatre means live performance, so there is not even a slight margin for mistake. Also, the stage is more friendly to everyday characters, while film—despite the advantages of makeup, lighting, soft focus, etc—is relentlessly cruel to any sign of imperfection in the actor or actress.
While the theatre actor can use exaggerated gestures and exclamations to express emotion, the film actor must rely on subtle facial quivers and tiny lifts of the eyebrow to create a believable character. In theatre, you have to develop a character during the course of a two or three-hour performance, whereas in films, actors lack continuity, forcing him or her to come to all the scenes (often shot in reverse order in which they’ll ultimately appear) with a character already fully developed. Since film captures even the smallest gesture and magnifies it 20 or 30 times, cinema demands a less flamboyant and stylised bodily performance from the actor than does theatre.
How is a theatre audience different from a movie audience? What does it take to appreciate theatre?
Theatre is an actor’s medium and film is a director’s medium. Theatre is a special relationship between the actor and the audience and it is more immediate and spontaneous. Connection with the audience is on a more direct level in theatre.
How has directing been different from acting?
Directing is a different ball game altogether. As a director you are like the obstetrician. You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to support and do no harm. When something does go wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry—and your clinical intervention to correct it—can determine whether the child will thrive or suffer, live or die.
How easy or difficult has it been to promote Indian theatre in Australia?
Theatre is not about acting, it is about challenging prejudices, breaking stereotypes and bringing a wave of reform.
It has not been easy, I have had to work very hard to create a certain level of interest among the Indian community to come forward, write for theatre and act on stage. It’s not that people cannot develop on their acting skills, commitment and passion are the main ingredients that take an actor forward. Celebrating Hindi Diwas by translating locally written plays into Hindi and providing opportunities to writers, directors and actors has been the most rewarding experience for me in terms of promoting Indian theatre in Australia. To promote Indian theatre, I have had the pleasure of inviting directors like Arvind Gaur of Asmita Theatre from India and conduct production based on one-month-long acting workshops free of cost. Engaging the world renowned, leading playwright, Alex Broun to run workshops at Abhinay School was also a very fruitful exercise.
Tell us about Short+Sweet.
Short+Sweet is a festival of 10-minute plays. It has one very strict condition—you have to tell your story in 10 minutes. Short+Sweet Sydney is in its 14th year and is the world’s biggest festival of 10-minute plays. It features TOP 80 and 100 Wildcard entries involving 1,000 local and international artists, put together by the best up-and-coming and established directors and performed by veteran actors and fresh new talent. I have participated in seven festivals so far as actor, director and also as an independent theatre company in Australia and India. I am a silver artist (Artist recognition program) of Short+Sweet.
Tell us something about your projects in Sydney?
I have acted in films including Virsa, Bachna -E-Haseeno, My Cornerstone, Love you Krishna, 21st Conspiracy, Crossroads, Jab Rooh Ko Saans Aaye, Meadow and few other short films, and have produced and directed films like Beyond Life, Sub-urban Terror and Flight to Bollywood. I have also worked in commercials like Jhappi Times by Destination NSW and NPS MedicineWise. And I have also translated and produced works of Alex Broun, world’s number one writer of 10-minute plays in Hindi.
Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Magazine in Sydney)