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Discernment. Online


'The background I have is Western classical music. But I've played on occasion with Indian musicians, which has been really fun. It has got me thinking about what kind of music I like to play'

'English theatre is elitist. It's a tiny minority in this country that speaks English and fits into that slim bracket. Sometimes I just don't like the whole attitude'


'Everybody likes song and dance'

Preetam Koilpillai, well-known pianist and director of the theatre group Black Coffee, says Indian music is liberating and English theatre elitist

Preetam Koilpillai, crème de la crème of Bangalore's burgeoning English-language theatre scene and piano man extraordinaire. He is at the vanguard of a new breed of young Indian artistes willing to give up regular jobs to pursue careers that are considered "no hope" even in cosmopolitan middle-class India.

Preetam directs and produces plays under Black Coffee, a group of loosely associated individuals bound by passion for theatre.

I caught up with him at Alliance Francaise, and he talked with candour about theatre and music.

When did you start playing the piano?

I began when I was five. My father was working in Switzerland, which is where I started. After that we came to Vellore, Bangalore and then England. I've had piano teachers throughout, in all these places. I finished my eighth grade Trinity School exams in the tenth standard... so I've been playing for a while now.

What are your main musical interests?

The background I have is Western classical music. But I've played on occasion with Indian musicians, which has been really fun. It has got me thinking about what kind of music I like to play. In fact I'm playing less and less of Western classical music now. I'm moving towards writing my own stuff, possibly with some sort of Indian influence.

How did you find playing Indian music given your Western classical roots?

Well, with the sitarist I played with, I played proper Hindustani music, but he had taken a raga that allows for a certain amount of freedom. There are some ragas, that are traditionally classical, which you can't really mess around with, but this one was on the borderline. The other musician I played with was a percussionist and that was pretty straightforward.

What differences did you find between Indian music and Western classical music?

Indian music is far more liberating, and for a performer, far more creative, because you have to create in performance. This is not the case in Western classical music. It's all there for you and there is a limited amount of interpretation. Jamming doesn't happen in Western classical music. It happens in any other Western forms, be it pop, rock, and jazz especially, but not in classical. So for me it was big change.

Do you enjoy playing and improvising in pop and rock genres?

Yeah. For a very brief while I played with Thermal and a Quarter, which was great fun. I do like pop and rock. The only thing I haven't been able to relate to, curiously, is jazz. I've tried but it's just gone several feet above my head, (laughs) especially contemporary jazz. The more traditional jazz like swing, I like. As performer I don't struggle with the rhythms of jazz or anything. I think it's just the syntax of jazz that's too vague for me. I haven't been able to get a fix on it.

Do you teach music?

I used to teach piano. But I stopped after a while, probably coinciding with the whole "not-too-sure-what-kind-of-music-I-want-to-listen-to" thing. I used to make a living out of it. I mean, it was the only way I knew how to make a living. But now I'm doing theatre too so I'm trying to make a living out of that. I would have continued teaching, but it's not exactly what I want to make a living out of. I'm also beginning to question Western classical music. It's difficult to sit down with a young child who is learning Western classical music and say, "This is what you have to play!" I wouldn't say it's wrong; it's just that I'm not as comfortable with it as I used to be.

Is questioning your Western classical roots difficult?

Let's put it this way. If, as a child, I had a choice between learning Western classical music and Indian classical music, I would have chosen Indian classical music. Given that I am from India, when you are looking at your music eventually gaining credibility, it has to be a reflection of who you are and where you're from. There is not much scope for an expression of that sort when you are playing Western classical music. If you decide that you are going to live abroad and play abroad, I guess it's fine, but not otherwise. I think it's a question that's relevant to any art form. Even in theatre, I am beginning to question the kind of theatre that's being done in English.

You mentioned in an interview earlier that English theatre is elitist. Why do you think so?

Of course it's elitist. It's elitist first of all because of the numbers. It's a tiny minority in this country that speaks English and fits into that slim bracket. Secondly, sometimes it's so full of shit, you know. Sometimes I just don't like the whole attitude, but I guess that exists everywhere in the world. Also the kind of things theatre that's done... if you take British plays and American plays and do them the way the British or the Americans would do it, and get your accent American, what on earth are you trying to achieve? This is the question I've been asking myself and sometimes others as well. What kind of positive contribution are you making to theatre in general?

As a director, how do you allow your culture to come through in the midst of the restrictions of the play you are working with?

Well, I'm doing more Indian plays, translations from various languages, though. I am also adapting and rewriting, because it's not just the 'Indianness' so to speak that's important, but the relevance in terms of the audience and where you're at in your immediate surroundings. The last play I did was called Procession, which was based in Calcutta. It has various references to Bengal and Bengali culture. It's not such a big task to adapt that to Bangalore, it's not such a big deal. But by doing that, the relevance and the contact you make with the audience becomes more full of impact. We had a scene in the play with a bus with the conductor shouting "Shivajinagar! Shivajinagar!". We can understand that so clearly. It makes so much sense, you know? Suddenly the audience is there and says to themselves, "Yeah! I know this." For theatre to be truly alive it has to be in the 'now' and I believe the only way to do that is to actually write your own theatre, which is what I know I'm eventually going to do. I don't think I can just go on directing people's plays. I'm adapting, rewriting, even taking mainstream Western plays and doing them differently. It's helping me learn how to make a very sensible and systematic progress towards writing my own theatre. I have no education with theatre, I only have a formal education in music, and so I learn with what I do. There are various aspects of a play that one needs to learn. So when I take a play I try and push the production design out of the box and see what happens. The next time I cast differently. With each play that I try, I do small things so that I confront a new situation.

Do you see a merging of your music and theatre at any point?

Yeah, possibly, maybe not yet at my own creative level, but now I'm going to start taking musicals more seriously. They also make a lot of money in this city. Everybody likes song and dance. It's easier to get a couple of lakhs for a big musical than it is to get fifteen thousand to do a play at the Alliance Francaise. I think in India, we have song, dance and music in our blood.

Tell me more about your production company Black Coffee.

Black Coffee is just a name. There's no formal group as such. It's just a name under which I operate and whoever works with me operates. It started about 4 years ago in 1999.

How difficult has it been running your own production company?

Well, the main difficulty has been with money. Some say it's not difficult. You just have to get people who know how to get money out of others. I've never been a very money guy, nor can I sell stuff. I've tried, but I'm just really bad at it. I think it's written all over my face what I think of the whole thing (laughs). But, for me, the key to making a living is getting sponsorship.

Have you ever thought of expanding Black Coffee into a group of people who can handle all these things for you?

Yes, eventually I want Black Coffee to become self-sufficient, to become a place that could actually offer the possibility of making a living out of theatre to somebody who's interested. There are so many people who have such a lot of talent, but if they say I want to do music or theatre their parents will kick their arse. But if you know that a viable profession like this exists that actually pays salaries every month, it would be easier.

Realistically, do you see theatre becoming a salary-paying job?

I think it's possible. We need to work at it very hard and it will take a long time. At the moment, I just barely make a living. Sometimes I just have no money. I was borrowing from all over the place last month (laughs).

In these situations have you told yourself that you should give up and continue teaching?

No, I wouldn't do that. I've told myself, "If you can't make a living out of it, then you die!" It's not that it's not possible. I know that it's possible but it just needs very purposeful, disciplined work. I'm also genetically lazy (laughs). I just don't have the discipline to get up in the morning and work the whole day like the guys who go to office. I think that if I work like them, I will probably achieve something. I need to get my act in order basically. But it is possible.

Anand Varghese

Published on 17 May 2003

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