On the ever-evolving stage

Strap: Thespian Shilpi Marwaha wants to spread social awareness through her street plays

Neha Kirpal

Popularly defined as theatre that goes to its audience rather than the other way round, street theatre usually happens in public places and requires no defined venue. One of the most well known names in the Delhi theatre circuit is Shilpi Marwaha. Having worked as a theatre artist and activist for about 14 years, she first came into the limelight with her activism through street theatre during the anti-corruption movement in Delhi and the protests at Rashtrapati Bhawan against the Nirbhaya case.

Till date, Shilpi has acted in more than 40 street plays based on relevant social themes such as women empowerment, slut shaming, child abuse, road safety and communal harmony. Talking about the scope of this unique art form, she says, “Street theatre reaches where no one goes. It can be performed in a temple, a terrace, a lobby, an office or a home. While stage performances may still be expensive for the common man, everyone can afford street theatre.” Dependent entirely on actors, it does not require fancy sets or other paraphernalia. Moreover, she says that the feedback that one receives in theatre of this kind is instant and direct, which enables actors to immediately incorporate it and make the necessary amends for their next performance.

Asked whether street theatre lacks finesse, Shilpi disagrees. According to her, street theatre in the Indian context has evolved considerably over the years with audiences becoming receptive, and accepting the medium with more and more understanding. As a theatreperson, she feels she has a responsibility towards society and uses this strong medium to educate people and bring awareness among them about critical and sensitive issues. Some of the plays she has written, adapted and directed are based on controversial themes such as violence against women (Dastak), LGBTQ issues (Pehchan), marital rape (Woman Alone), inter-caste love (Kaash) and lesbianism (Ehsaas).

Shilpi, who started her career as a theatre actor in Delhi with the Asmita group, was trained under theatre director Arvind Gaur. Twelve years later in 2016, she left the group due to reports of sexual harassment from Gaur. About the experience, she says, “I faced a lot of shaming after speaking out about the incident. After working day and night, I had all the authority at the time I left, and so quitting was a big step—I had to start from the beginning due to no fault of my own. However, it is important for girls to speak out about such things instead of feeling like they are being judged.”

Subsequently, the following year, she started her own group called Sukhmanch Theatre. As its creative head, Shilpi continues to work on sociopolitical themes as before. The group has both a summer and winter festival of four months’ duration each. Some of the notable plays she has directed and written under the Sukhmanch banner include Lakdi ki Kathi, Kasturba vs. Gandhi, Purity and Ramleela.

Apart from theatre, Shilpi also acts in films from time to time. In the past, she has worked with Oscar award-winning director Ross Kaufman. Her latest film Widow of Silence was recently selected for the International Film Festival, Rotterdam 2019. Talking about her role in the film and the experience of being a part of it, she says, “The shooting took place in the extreme cold in the Drass region of Kashmir, and so it had some very difficult scenes. I was the only trained actor in the cast. The rest were all local Kashmiri people, which lends the film its originality.”