Recent years have proved how resourceful Karishma Bhagani is within East African theatre circles. A theatre director, curator, and producer, Bhagani is determined to etch a reputation for diversity theatre and telling the African story.
Holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Drama from New York University, Bhagani is a fifth-generation Kenyan, of Indian descent born and raised in Mombasa. It wasn’t until her eighth grade that she directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a Kiswahili-themed production that paved her way into the theatre career.
Together with Wanjiku Mwawuganga, Sheba Hirst, and other cultural practitioners, they are working on a project to map the Kenyan theatre sector.
Bhagani was recently in Kigali, Rwanda, and together with DRC’s Marie Louise Bibish Mumbu and Carole Karemera of Rwanda, curated a workshop, then staged the Closing Argument, a production giving voice to house-helps.
What has been your experience working in Kigali for the first time?
Special, for it is first time rehearsing since the Covid-19 pandemic hit but also being my first time here too, made me feel like a newborn, constantly pushing boundaries but I quickly settled working with the Rwandan team. The piece by Mike Van Graan points out the social and economic issues East Africans face on how domestic workers are detached from our lives, despite the key role they play.
How has been your experience as an Associate Producer?
Producing is about the people. It is about making sure my colleagues and artists have space to work as freely as possible. Where creativity is at the fore, artists are at the forefront and thrive in the generation of new work. It was a challenging to start with but with mentors like Sheba Hirst, Eric Wainaina and Robarta Levitow, I have grown into it.
How do you describe theatre?
In my religion, Hinduism, the body is what carries the soul forward. All of us are a part of the same ecosystem and our souls are made up of each other’s’ souls, which is why we meet. Theatre is that soul-to-soul connection in a live space, whether it is a ready production, work-in-progress or developmental process. It is about being fully present in the space with or without an audience, and knowing that you will be held aloft by the souls around you.
East Africa’s theatre has evolved, but is it progressing, static, or dying?
There is no straight forward answer, because of the diversity in our region, the influence of the French, British and Germans. As a result, there is a wide and robust body of work that is now considered theatre. As Africans, theatre is a way of life. Right from the womb, to growing up, we listened to stories and so it isn’t necessary to go to a specific space to enjoy theatre.
Colonialism killed pre-colonial performance tradition, but we are past that and have changed our artistic space.
We are developing a new practice as Africans and East Africans, presenting our stories to larger global theatre audiences? In these lies the new wave of East African Theatre since we are creating something that allows souls to connect with others.
How deep has traditional theatre culture been affected?
Unfortunately, the theatre industry took a hit from Covid-19. It has been a difficult time, and most people are trying out virtual landscapes, but nothing can replace live theatre. In that sense, it seemed to have died down due to the pandemic, but there is increasing appetite for New Age theatre.