A love for theater, a few talented volunteers, and Naatak took shape somewhere between Berkeley and the South Bay, in the winter of 1995. “We had been looking for ways to indulge our love for theater,” says Sujit Saraf, founder of Naatak. There were many cultural organizations in the Bay Area, but none exclusively dedicated to the reading and staging of full-length plays.” Saraf cast the audition call, and on Dec. 2, 1995, a few curious people gathered in response at U.C. Berkeley’s International House dormitory. Harish Sunderam, a Naatak member since 1995, recalls, “We had maybe about 25 people auditioning for about seven roles. That’s a smaller audition turnout than a typical production today,” says Sunderam.Unable to fulfill the cast through the auditions, and not sure how many people would even watch the play, Saraf began the rehearsals anyway. Several hurdles cropped up along the way. Half the cast comprised of engineers who lived in the South Bay. The other half were students in Berkeley, with no cars. Rehearsal times had to be scheduled around exams and deadlines, and split between the East and South Bay. “The gas prices weren’t that steep, thank God!” says Naatak member Mahesh Umasankar with a smile.But there were more pressing issues to be tackled. “Although most of the actors could speak Hindi fluently, none had read Hindi in the last few years, so they struggled with the script,” recalls Saraf. What ensued were chaotic weekends of rehearsals until Feb. 16, 1996 when Vijay Tendulkar’s Khaamosh! Adaalat Jaarii Hai made its first Naatak run at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto. When Naatak officially threw open its curtains in the Bay Area, there was an audience of 205 people watching the play.For Naatak’s members, the driving force behind their participation is their passion for theater. Many have been active in theater since their days in school and college in India, and Naatak offered an outlet to re-indulge in that interest.
“I have been passionate about theater since my school days. Naatak has given me a chance to meet and work with other like-minded thespians in the Bay Area,” says Sunderam. “We get so engrossed in our daily lives that we do not take even a step out of it to look for opportunities to do what we always wanted to do. … With Naatak’s audition opportunity knocking at the door, it was impossible to let it pass,” says Vijay Rajvaidya. He subsequently played a role in Muavazey, which brought him offers to act in films.

Ten years later, approximately 200 people have participated in Naatak at various times, and at any given time, about 50 people are involved. Things have changed since their early plays, where they used stage sets manufactured out of wooden frames covered with cardboard, and painted and varnished at one of the actors’ apartments in Berkeley. Bay Area theater-goer Vijay Talati remembers his first glimpse of the Naatak stage from the wings as he provided tabla accompaniment for Muavazey: “The sets and props were minimal but the overall impact was really good.”

Naatak’s membership now boasts a large pool of directors, actors, set-designers, make-up artists, sound and light experts, and publicity and marketing teams. All work is voluntary. Many of the members contribute in multiple capacities. Sareeka Malhotra, who joined Naatak as the female lead in Talaash Vajoodon Ki in 2001, has since produced two Naatak plays and is helping with publicity for the upcoming production Everybody Loves a Good Tsunami. “As a producer you have to oversee all aspects of the presentation, from booking theater space, procuring insurance, coordinating rehearsal venues, props and costumes … the biggest challenge is marketing and publicity: coordinating design of promotional material, printing, its distribution, and finding creative ways of spreading the word,” she says.
Naatak plays typically require between 2 to 3 months of preparation with a single rehearsal lasting anywhere between 3 to 5 hours. And this is only the time spent by the cast. “The crew, sometimes, end up spending more time than the cast,” says Umasankar. “They start around the same time as the cast in terms of preparation and consume whole weekends until the shows are done. It is very intense and elaborate.”


Who bears financial responsibility for the play? “The director,” explains Saraf, “The director of a play bears financial responsibility for the play, and must accept any losses that may result in that play.” This is another aspect of Naatak that attracted some of its current members to join. “When I auditioned for Muavazey and met Sujit and Sanjay, the first thing (even before I had read the play) was the simplicity of the whole idea. I really bought into the ‘theater for theater’s sake.’ No personal agendas and let’s make the best quality theater. Starting from ‘zero’ and ending at ‘zero’ financially are few key philosophies of Naatak which led me to Naatak,” says Umasankar. Fortunately for Naatak, they have never lost any money in a play. The response has been overwhelming for most plays with 75 percent of the shows being sold out.

Often, Naatak gives away large sums of its proceeds to organizations like ASHA and CRY. However, stresses Saraf, “We prefer not to advertise this because we do not want people to watch our plays in support of another cause. That defeats the purpose of our play, and leaves us with no incentive to improve the quality of our productions.”

In its first decade Naatak has produced three films and 18 plays in Hindi, Tamil, and English. Saraf usually selects the play after reading the script. “I try to select scripts that are, in my opinion, intelligent, well-written, and original. If someone really wants to produce a script, I usually do not object unless there is something very objectionable in the script,” he explains. For the three Tamil plays staged by Naatak, all scripts were chosen by the directors of those plays. “Anyone who has participated significantly in one Naatak production and has a good script is eligible to produce or direct a play after committing to abide by Naatak principles in good faith,” says Saraf. As for the cast, Naatak follows an open structure. “You go through an audition for every Naatak production regardless of how many times you have worked in Naatak productions in the past,” explains Rajvaidya.

The first show of Naatak’s 22nd production, Everybody Loves a Good Tsunami will be staged on Dec. 2 2005, which is also the 10th anniversary of Naatak’s first audition. Naatak’s vision for the next decade is to make Indian theater an enjoyable and regular part of life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dinner and Naatak anybody?

For more information on Naatak details on its productions, visit www.naatak.com