Ten years after college, when a group of friends with a passion for theatre decided to collaborate and put up a play at a community theatre festival, a spark was lit. On 23rd January, 2011, their first performance as an independent theatre group saw the birth of Aatish (which means ‘fire’ or ‘fireworks) – a theatre group “aiming to lend a voice to issues that are often marginalized”.
The Delhi-based group Aatish is best known for their street plays, though they also conduct workshops with marginalized, underprivileged groups. Their Facebook page  explains the group's raison d‘être as follows:
Born out of those people who firmly believe that voicing one’ beliefs is crucial, we are all theatre actors. We believe that change is each and everyone's responsibility, and whoever wishes to see it, needs to add their bit, to see it.
[…] We believe in vocalizing and bringing to fore not only our opinions, but also the different issues that plague our society at large, and the few steps that can be taken towards larger and greater solutions.
Till date, the group has scripted and performed street plays that deal with issues such as women's empowerment, child labour, children's education, usage of solar energy, the need to vote, examining the state of democracy, anti-sedition etc. They have partnered with non-profit, grassroots organizations and conducted workshops in Delhi as well as in rural areas – spreading awareness regarding critical issues such as menstrual hygiene and post-natal care. The group also conducts workshops with children, often among those living in shelters run by NGOs, where they not only inspire children to perform and learn acting skills but also tackle serious issues such as child abuse.
Global Voices caught up with Ankita Anand, founder member of the group and asked her via Email to tell us about Aatish in greater detail. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
GV: What made Aatish focus on social issues and street plays?
Ankita: We felt that not enough street theatre is being done currently. In different people’s campaigns and struggles, so much hard work is done by activists and when they try to sensitize people to such developments that are often not highlighted or mis-projected by the mainstream media, they face challenges. We thought of employing it (street theatre) because visual impressions are strong.
We wanted to creatively mould our anger and frustration with what is happening in the Indian State unbeknownst to so many who are fed with false hopes and visions of incredible India. The idea is not to prophesy apocalypse but for all of us to sit up, take notice and get in on the act. The very fact that we do these plays with no props, lights or sets—by transforming our ordinary bodies and physical spaces like street corners into something less routine—is our way to assert that the regular, routine, seemingly mundane has immense potential and should not be undermined or rejected in waiting for something extraordinary to descend and transform our lives.
We also want to break down the myth that street plays cannot be used to treat the nuances or subtleties of a complex theme. We have done plays on issues like sedition and the stereotypes associated with motherhood and have had engaging discussions with our audience. Also, we want that theatre should not be confined to big auditoria but should reach a much wider audience.
GV: How do you select where to stage these performances? Do you work with other NGOs in this respect? How do you select your themes?
Ankita: Our performances so far have been in collaboration with other host organizations.We are invited by organizations working on particular issues to stage plays around those themes. While their suggestions and ideas are important to us, the scripting and directing is done by us and we take decisions regarding the final content and presentation.
We choose our performances on topics close to us that are often marginalized but about which we want to take a stand, in a small effort to lend our voice to a cause that needs it the most.
GV: What kind of response/ awareness/ change do you want to effect in the audience?
Ankita: We hope to see two kinds of change. First, we want that there should be motivation to act about the issues portrayed. Secondly, theatre should be seen as something creative but doable and accessible. So we want more and more people to start doing their own kind of theatre and using it both for individual and social improvement.
GV: Currently, what are the biggest challenges that Aatish faces? Do you have any vision/plans regarding how they can be overcome?
Ankita: The challenges we face are common to every voluntary group. The group has members with full-time jobs. We have to spend a lot of time deciding upon the rehearsal venue and time because we have to consider everyone’s limitations. We do not have a permanent rehearsal space.
As people with full-time jobs, we realize how tough it is to get involved in other things. But we also know it is possible and that the rewards are rich. Aatish is not a hobby for us. Nor do we see it as merely a theatre group. It is a collective manifestation of what we wanted to do individually, a way of putting our thoughts into actions. We feel that while all of us need to earn a living, it should not stop us from living itself.
GV: Where do you see Aatish going from here?
Ankita: While street plays are close to our heart, we also mean to push the limits of expression and storytelling, and experiment with new forms. We have done one stage play so far but there are others ideas lined up. We only want that in such plays too our politics should be clear and for them to be made in a way that they can easily be performed in open spaces as well.