Shakeel Ahmmad was born in Loni, a village in the southern state of Karnataka, India. He obtained a Diploma in Education from DIET College of Mysore and worked as a government teacher for five years before pursuing a Bachelor of Arts with the Karnatak University of Dharwad. Prior to ITI, he received professional actor training at Ninasam Theatre Institute, where he became versatile in traditional and contemporary techniques: Yakshagana Traditional Theatre, Kalari martial art, Yoga, Kolata folk dance, theatre design and contemporary acting. As an actor, he has also toured Karnataka with professional theatre companies before training in ITI. Shakeel is a recipient of an Asian scholarship sponsored by a private philanthropist.
Q: How did your journey in theatre begin?
I’m from a village where there’s a lot of folk theatre and as a child, I’ve loved watching them… I’ve never seen my father perform, but his friends were always telling me that he was a popular folk theatre performer.
I applied to the Ninasam Theatre Institute, which is a well known theatre school in my state. That’s where I had my first training in theatre at age of 23. After that, I worked for four years as a government teacher. But whenever I was on vacation, I’d practice theatre.
Q: So theatre had always been your passion?
Yes, a passion further encouraged by the festivals we celebrate in India; there were some rituals that involved trance, which lasted for up to 10 days. After that, children would celebrate the same festival by mimicking it. For example, they would imitate that trance. I’d do that too, and I think what I did at that time is the same as what we do on stage now, only now we do it consciously and with full awareness… That was what pulled me into theatre. I believe that the unfulfilled desires of my childhood have drawn me to the practice of theatre. Because theatre gave me the possibility of being everything I could not be as a child.
In India, there were some rituals that involved trance, which lasted for up to 10 days. After that, children would celebrate the same festival by mimicking it.
Q: Why did you decide to come to ITI?
When I was a student in Ninasam theatre school, I met a TTRP student [ITI was formerly known as Theatre Training & Research Programme (TTRP) until 2011], an alumnus from 2003, Sankar Venkateswaran. He was invited to Ninasam to teach and direct a play. He asked me what I wanted to do after that course, and I told him I was going to work in theatre, and perhaps do some research. I was really unsure then. I didn’t know the world. Then he told me about TTRP’s re-opening [as ITI] and that it was accepting applicants. Since I had language difficulties, he helped me with the application.
Before that, I was working as a primary school teacher; I felt comfortable doing that job but it didn’t allow me to work professionally in theatre so I hated that job. I wanted a way to escape that. But I was hesitant because my family was depending on me for that income, amongst other reasons. I applied to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, but I was rejected. In that same year, I realised that I shouldn’t feel bad about resigning my job. I made a decision and I had to go through with it, even if I had to sacrifice a lot of things.
Q: How has your experience here been like after that bold life leap?
It is an amazing programme, there’s no doubt about that. When I was in Ninasam, I also learnt a traditional form only taught in my state, but here at ITI, we are taught performing traditions from all over Asia.
In the past two years in ITI, we have met four great masters. Not only did we learn the different forms, but we also learnt their culture, because these forms don’t exist by themselves. They have a background, which is the master’s culture, language and traditions… that’s the only way to truly understand them. And when we understand the background of the form, then we can make it ours and start to apply it to our own culture. The most important learning aspect here, to me, is the intercultural element. Before coming here, I wanted to be an actor, and it is the same now. But, now I feel confident; confident enough to stand proudly on stage and call myself an actor.
Before coming here, I wanted to be an actor, and it is the same now. But, now I feel confident; confident enough to stand proudly on stage and call myself an actor.
Q: After you graduate, what do you think would be the most important lesson that you would take away from ITI?
In relation to life in general, it would be all I learnt about adjustment and negotiation with different people. What I learn in ITI, I can apply to my whole life. In terms of theatre, I have gained a new appreciation of traditional art forms, theatre and training. I want to learn as much as I can, and once I have finished this course, I will return – back to my own traditional performing art forms and aim to master them.
Q: How does it feel to be performing in the graduation shows?
It’s really great, because we have to perform in front of a real, paying audience. It was different from our curriculum presentations at the studio. It’s not new to me, but it is my first time here in Singapore. All in all, it is an amazing opportunity.
Q: A little teaser about what we can expect from Cloud Messenger?
When we were devising it, we were asked to write about ourselves, about our journey, about our life before and during our time in ITI. We were then told to improvise on that. So there’s a scene where we reenacted the time we first arrived in Singapore, how we reacted to our surroundings, who we met, how we met.
Q: Any advice for actors and actresses?
Yes – to those who want to act, do come to this programme. If you want to learn about theatre, there are a lot of forms to learn in the world, but they need full dedication and commitment. This may seem a long programme, but it takes 20, 25, or even 30 years to master any form, not just traditional forms. Considering that investment in time needed for perfection, the training here, comparatively, isn’t a long period at all.
This three year period is very important because it offers you a turning point. Whether you choose to come to ITI or to go to other theatre schools, you have to be aware of the traditional forms, especially your own. You have to at least learn that, because to me, that is where the basic answer lies.
Becoming an actor is difficult, but it is not impossible. And there’s no such thing as natural born talent; it just doesn’t exist in theatre. Of course there is “lack of talent”, but we can solve it with training, and that’s it. Anyone can become an actor.
It takes 20, 25, or even 30 years to master any form … considering that investment in time needed for perfection, the training here, comparatively, isn’t a long period at all.
Q: Any final thoughts?
I am really grateful to the school. ITI really gave me a new hope for my life in theatre. Now, all I want to express is my gratitude to ITI. Thank you!