As an actor, light designer and stage architect, his involvement in nearly 120 plays during the last four decades is enough to put Ashok Kar in Odia theatre’s hall of fame. Though he has been felicitated and awarded by numerous cultural organisations in Odisha and other states for using theatre as a tool for social development, Ashok considers himself as “a small servant” of theatre. What distinguishes him from the numerous other activists is his relentless effort to promote theatre on social media. Though he works in a senior position with a Navratna company, Ashok has found the time to be a part of all major drama festivals in the state. Presently residing in Damanjodi, Koraput, he was recently in Bhubaneswar to be a part of Purva Ranga, a national theatre festival, and sat down for a chat with Bijay Mandal about his experiences in the world of theatre.
SP: You are well-known to theatre aficionados of the state thanks to your effective use of social media for the promotion of drama. Tell us how it all started.
AK: Earlier, I used to collect information about plays being staged across the state. Then, I called all the people known to me and sent SMSes requesting them to watch those shows. I have spent a lot from my pocket to promote Odia plays in the state. Seeing my selfless activities, theatre groups started providing details of their programmes to me. My job became a lot easier after I started using social media. I have created a Facebook page Odisha Theatre to reach as many theatre lovers as possible. This page discusses well in advance the plays to be staged in various auditoriums of the state, and the viewers get a lot of theatre-related information. I think it is extremely important to inform the audience about the plays beforehand, otherwise it will be a daunting task to fill the seats in the auditorium. Besides, people of other states should also know about the ongoing theatre movement of Odisha.
SP: Any interesting incident related to your endeavour?
AK: I will cite an example of how my effort reaches even people of other states. Subodh Patnaik of Natya Chetana was travelling outside Odisha for some work. There, someone told him that so many plays are being staged in Odisha at that point of time. When asked how he came to know about Odia theatre, he said he regularly got messages on Odia plays on his mobile phone and received updates on social media. Subodh Bhai was all praise for me. That day, I felt my hard work had paid off.
SP: What are some of the other aspects of your work?
AK: I have got the opportunity to travel to many places because of my involvement with theatre. I try my best to attend all major theatre festivals organised in the state. I don’t confine myself to the hotel room, rather I remain present at the festival venue to help the troupes irrespective of the regions they come from. As I have watched a large number of plays, my assistance comes in handy more often than not for the troupes. On one occasion in Damanjodi, I had completed the set before the arrival of the troupe from Bhubaneswar. The director was surprised and asked whether the play was staged the previous night.
SP: Though you are involved with theatre in various capacities, what do you enjoy the most?
AK: Though I have donned many hats – acting, direction, lighting and stagecraft – I enjoy stagecraft the most. Legendary actor, director, writer, columnist and the best set designer of the state Asim Basu was my inspiration. I was excited when I designed the stage independently for a play named ‘Titli’ at Rabindra Mandap. When I sought the assistance of Asim Da in set designing for that play, he asked me about the layout and gave me a free hand to design it. It was a litmus test for me. I won’t forget the moment when Dada patted me at the end of the play and said I had qualified the test with flying colours.
SP: Tell us something about your family background.
AK: My father was a priest and deeply involved in theatre. Later, he moved to Rayagada to support his family. After settling down there, he asked some unemployed youth of the village, most of whom were good at playing mrudanga or cornet, to come down to Rayagada so that they could find some jobs. My uncle used to play the female lead at that time and he also came to Rayagada. There, he formed the first Jatra party in undivided Koraput district called Jay Jagannath Natyakala Parishad. The troupe used to perform at various places in the district. I was attracted towards theatre because it was in my blood. My father and uncle were involved in drama from the beginning, besides which Kalpasagar Banchhanidhi Satpathy was my elder brother’s father-in-law. Famous theatre personalities Ratnakar Nanda (my father-in-law) and Gadadhar Nanda (Ratnakar’s brother) are related to my wife. So, there is no escaping from drama.
SP: Despite your official work how do you manage to get time for theatre?
AK: I work in excess of my normal work hours and my superiors cooperate with me, so that helps me devote more time to theatre.
SP: You have watched shows in other states also. How different is the ambience?
AK: Recently, I was in Rajkot as part of a Bhubaneswar-based troupe. In Odisha, the organisers request the viewers to put their mobiles on vibration mode. Still people talk among themselves even during the play. But that was not the case in Gujarat. There was silence throughout the play and the viewers gave a standing ovation at the end. We miss this kind of audience involvement here in Odisha. This apart, we need to remove the element of jealousy that exists among the groups. The theatre scene in the state can become better if theatre workers start respecting each other.
SP: Despite a lot of jealousy among the groups, you have earned the respect of all theatre groups of the state.
AK: I consider all the troupes as my family. Whoever be involved in the production, it feels as if it is my own play and I don’t discriminate. I feel a sense of responsibility and do my best to make the plays successful. Whether it is an actor, a team or the audience, maintaining discipline is important. It is impossible to produce a successful play without it.
Born April 28, 1965, Ashok Kar has remained the executive committee member of Allahabad Natya Sangh since 1995, vice-president of Odisha Natya Sangh since 2012 and the member of general council of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi.
BIJAY MANDAL, OP