Oddbird Theatre

The weekend is here in the capital and the general consensus is “let’s do something different”. After a few rounds of the table however the options tend to fall into two camps: a new bar or restaurant, or a film that should have never been made.

Dig a little deeper though, because there are little gems that linger in hidden corners of every city, from rock climbing institutes and aerial art studios, to communal co-working spaces where you chance upon like-minded people and professionals. In Delhi, there is now a theatre that’s redefining the world of the performing arts. In an unlikely oasis, just off the main Chattarpur Road, nestled within a high-walled compound, is Oddbird Theatre.

This new performing arts space bridges a glaring gap between proscenium theatres we see in droves across the city or those unbelievably intimate basement spaces you’re only privy to if you’re part of the inner circle. A former warehouse, Oddbird sits tall in Chattarpur’s Dhan Mill Compound, retaining its original high ceiling and open floor plan, but refined with floor-to-ceiling picture windows, a polished wooden bar, a communal attic, and an unorchestrated symmetry with black steel vents and pipes that glide along at angles. Loosely divided into two sections - a staging area and the main performance enclosure - the interior blurs the lines between the sacrosanct backstage meant only for performing artists and a communal space where onlookers gathers, creating a sort of harmony in this collaborative experience.Initiated by two childhood friends, Oddbird was born of the idea of “creating a kind of space that we and our friends wanted to have in Delhi”, says Akhil Wable, one half of the founding duo and the inspiration behind the name Oddbird. Shambhavi Singh, his business partner, a Sociology and Theatre graduate chimes in, “We really enjoy the performing arts but the way we get to consume it at most places can be quite clinical, so we thought about how we enjoy it, and how we’d like to see it”, and Oddbird captures that sentiment with a space that’s surprisingly home-like with just the right dollop of professionalism. The duo, in a serendipitous encounter, crossed paths with Virkein Dhar, who was then the festival director for Ignite, and had formerly (as part of the GATI dance forum, and as an architect) visited and catalogued a bunch of performing art spaces within the city. “Virkein seemed in charge, and knew what the hell she was doing”, adds Wable. What was meant to be a short term collaboration, unexpectedly morphed into a founding team that’s so tightly knit together. The trio approach the concept from similar ideologies, imagining Oddbird as a community space where collaborators — programmers, artists, and the audience — come together for a shared experience in an informal setting.

With collaborations at the heart of Oddbird, the founders take an immersive interest in their programming, a rare occurrence since venues usually take a step back after letting out their space. Fashioned as a black box theatre, artists can express themselves within a minimum number of constraints; they get to tinker with the space, customise it, and really get creative with it. Neel Chaudhuri, the Artistic Director at Tadpole Repertory, and a performing artist at Oddbird says, “I find the space and the people who run it, generous to the demands and exigencies of independent artistic work”, referring not only to the dynamics of programming, but the technical and spatial adaptability of the space as well. Such an immersive collaboration comes with its own set of challenges of course, where both artists and the venue itself can open themselves up to disappointment. “With few theatres like Oddbird, an artist can believe that access to this space is vital to them and perhaps even unquestionable because of the conviction they possess in their work. As a programmer, you try to reach a compromise between featuring work that you are certain about and work that is unknown. These two positions can inevitably clash”, adds Chaudhuri. While such collaborations veer away from the transactional, Wable believes they’ve made a conscious effort to shy away from the whole “We are the venue, you are the artist” mindset, to jointly create a rewarding experience for the audience.
“I think what’s been really valuable to us throughout the endeavour is approaching the concept through an audience member’s perspective”, explains Singh. Odbird places the onus on each collaborator -- the artist to create a compelling narrative, the audience to be present and curious, and the venue to design a blueprint perfectly suited to its ecosystem. While we’re all looking for new and interesting things to do, with access to free cultural activities at festivals and institutions, the audience tends to take the performing arts for granted. Chaudhuri adds that for a performance arts ecosystem to flourish “the audience must contribute to the economics of running spaces and performances”, while the venues and artists take into account the “spending power of the people with student discounts and scaled ticketing.” But according to Dhar, the performing arts haven’t flourished as much not only owing to the economic stronghold films and restaurants possess culturally, but because “there’s a sanctity when it comes to the classical”, she says, to which Wable adds, “The arts have this seriousness attached to them; that mindset that you need to be a connoisseur to enjoy it, and we want to change that.” The trio’s efforts have been largely realised. Within a span of a year they’ve won the hearts of a loyal audience, who’re quite vocal about Oddbird’s oddity in the cultural realm of things. Nirmal Kaur, a voracious advocate of Oddbird, has visited the theatre on nine occasions, and enjoyed performances that range from the classical to the experimental. “I love that Oddbird is so inclusive, in that I don’t have to think of ‘the arts’ when I visit”, says she, praising both the programming and the very approachable demeanour of the owners. “Art often assumes a very in-your-face sort of activism, and these guys manage to make it thought-provoking without being patronising,” finishes Kaur with a smile.

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In the global scheme of things, Oddbird certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, but as Dhar rightly puts it, “every context of an idea is different, and the moment the context changes, the idea evolves too.” The team’s had their fair share of teething problems, but as they continue to build a concept that’s new to Delhi, all sans the existence of any sort of cultural policy to prop them up, they’re intent on furthering what they’re really about-great programming and a great experience. The experience has been largely satisfactory for both the performing artists and the audience, and Kaur’s parting words, “Oddbird feels like a space where friends can chill, and bond over the arts without any pretenses involved”, hits home with the very first words Wable uttered.

For a peek into Oddbird’s upcoming performances and to buy passes, visit their website or follow them on Instagram. Neel Chaudhuri will be performing at Oddbird in October, and you can read more about his production Tadpole Repertory here.