Holding Spaces – The Box

There is a lot of weight given today to holding space. In the context of social or professional circles, holding space for others is being seen as a crucial aspect of care, of balance, of the health and well-being of a society or community and the people it encompasses. 

We’re tweaking this sentiment – and mixing metaphors while we’re at it! – to turn the spotlight on to people who hold our beloved physical spaces for us. They’re there before us and they stay much after, they’re at work on holidays, during all kinds of festivals and lately, even during a global pandemic.

This time, Vinutha Mallya visited The Box in Pune and discovered their unique and effective staffing model.

It was a coincidence that all three of them were wearing red t-shirts that day. They hadn’t planned it. But Avaneesh Kalkeri, Gaurav Kale – both 19 – and Maitreya Rane, 20 years old, are eager with the details of what they’ve actually planned. Sitting in the green room of The Box in Pune on a hot May afternoon, the three interns speak about charting a future in the theatre.

Maitreya Rane (20), Avaneesh Kalkeri (19) and Gaurav Kale (19)

“Most of the days, we start by mopping the floor,” says Avaneesh. “We learn to do everything,” he explains. Of the three, Avaneesh has been at The Box the longest. In the time that he’s worked there – since September 2020 – he has learned everything about backstage work. Setting the stage up, rigging lights, assisting in production. So much so, theatre groups coming to perform at The Box know him well. “They even call him directly. He prefers to be here most of his time,” says Pradeep Vaiddya, co-founder of the arts space.

The Box is a black box theatre founded by Vaiddya and Rupali Bhave, both well-known and experienced theatre makers, in Pune’s Kothrud neighbourhood. Since opening its doors in mid-2020, the venue has emerged a favourite among experimental theatre groups in Pune and beyond, offering an apt training ground for young people like Avaneesh, Maitreya and Gaurav.

Avaneesh is certain that he wants to pursue a career in the theatre. He caught the bug when he was only 14 years old, taking part in plays produced by Jacaranda, Rupali Bhave’s organisation that brings theatre to children and young adults in Pune. Later, he got involved with the GRIPS theatre too. Now a BA student, he has also participated in the city’s intercollegiate theatre competitions. “I’ve found my passion. I will become an actor,” he says. He’s been acting in the new season of Kajvyancha Gaon, a landmark play written and directed by Vaiddya under his Expression Labs banner.

The 19-year-old is confident he’ll make it. “This is the stepping stone,” says Avaneesh, who spends over 10-11 hours of his day at The Box, choosing to learn everything he can here than spend his time on anything else. “What I get here, and what I got from Jacaranda, is a kick-start,” he explains. A few moments later, he’s sitting perched atop a tall ladder, adjusting the lights in the grid for a Kolhapur-based group that is preparing to perform in the evening.

Avaneesh Kalkeri, 19
Avaneesh Kalkeri, 19
Avaneesh Kalkeri perched atop the ladder to fix the lights for the evening’s play

An interest in lights and a fortunate chance brought Maitreya to The Box in November 2021. “I was a hungry person,” he says. Maitreya is a long way from his hometown, Amravati, 600 kilometres from Pune. A “small workshop” in theatre had given him a glimpse, which he wanted to explore further. “I came to Pune because my father’s friend advised me to go to a city where there is more theatre. Pune is a cultural hub, so I moved here,” Maitreya says. “I was interested in light design. Once when I was in Bharat Natya Mandir, a person working there, Ramu kaka, told me, ‘Contact Pradeep Vaiddya’. So I came here.”

While he’s training under one of the best light designers in the country (Vaiddya), Maitreya has not zeroed in on it as a specialisation. “I am still in the exploratory phase, learning about sets, lights, direction…I want to explore writing too. I want to learn theatre to find my expression.” He reckons it will take him 2-3 years. “I want to develop myself doing artistic things,” he says.

Maitreya Rane, 20
Maitreya Rane, 20
Avaneesh focuses a light on the actor
Avaneesh focuses a light on the actor
While the lights are being tested above, Gaurav Kale (left) and Maitreya Rane dress the stage with cloth
While the lights are being tested above, Gaurav Kale (left) and Maitreya Rane dress the stage with cloth

The newest intern, Gaurav, inducted in March 2023, is determined to become an actor. But he’s had no experience. When he was growing up in his aunt’s home in Kopargaon, in Maharashtra’s Ahmadnagar district, he had not watched many plays. “I just saw one natak, but I have no memory of it,” he says. After Class 12, Gaurav worked as an electrician for three years.

One day, when he was watching a television serial, his aunt remarked how nice it would be if someone from their family were in TV serials.

Obsessed with the thought of becoming an actor, Gaurav decided to move to Pune. “I didn’t want to go to Mumbai. People say it isn’t a safe place. So I came here.” Mr. Superkar, who handles catering at The Box, introduced him to Vaiddya. “I feel I am in the right place. I observe the actors here, see how they are, what they do, how they perform…”

Gaurav’s path will be more demanding than of the others. Living in an aunt’s house in the Katraj area, he has been travelling to Kothrud every day. His brother, a vegetable vendor, has been supporting the travel. But he will soon move into a room close to The Box, and will start managing the canteen that is being set up at the arts space. “This way, he will be able to earn and cover his room rent,” says Vaiddya.

Gaurav Kale, 19
Gaurav Kale, 19

The foundation of their internship rests on the apprenticeship model, where they learn to do everything from dusting the props to performing onstage. Work is divided in such a way that they consistently perform tasks again and again, to achieve perfection. “Our aim is that they should be launched in the theatre circuit as serious theatre people,” says Vaiddya. “They are encouraged to read, discuss specific themes and become friends. They are good friends; they help each other and there is transparency between them. I advise them to focus on these relationships. It’s more important than the learning.”

The interns, and their happy mentor, Pradeep Vaiddya

Maitreya’s experience at The Box – participating in the activities and workshops, working in the in-house productions, and being mentored – is changing him. “I used to be the silent kind, depressive, unable to speak up. Now I am 30 to 35 per cent better because of Pradeep dada. He reminds us to count the small successes,” he says. But he’s raring to catch up to the more experienced Avaneesh. “He has more experience and gets praised; it makes me jealous,” he admits frankly. But the feeling motivates him to work better, he adds. On the other hand, Avaneesh says he was a shy person once. Now, “I love everything that gives me an adrenaline rush.”

Bundled into three red-shirted figures, when this youthful energy went to work inside the theatre that afternoon, the tranquil, grey and minimalist interior jumped to life. The confidence, ease and awareness with which Maitreya, Avaneesh and Gaurav spoke – undoubtedly stemming from their training and mentoring – quickly transferred to their limbs. As I watched them perform their tasks around the stage for the next hour, I tried to remember what I was like at 19-20. Not as sure, for sure.

When you are next at The Box, be sure to seek out these happy, smiling fellows, and say Hi.

Vinutha Mallya
Vinutha Mallya
Vinutha Mallya is an editor, publishing industry journalist and consultant based out of Pune. This piece was commissioned by Bhasha Centre, under their Holding Spaces series.

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