Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane, written and directed by Manav Kaul, is a poetic play enacted onstage by the exceptional Kumud Mishra. An inspiring theatrical experiment, it holds appeal for a wide range of audiences.

 By Vidhi Salla

A work of art sometimes charts a path not only for itself but for its creator as well. Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane is writer, theatre director and actor Manav Kaul’s debut play that is now in its 20th year, but as he admitted in my interview, if the play had not worked, he would have had an entirely different career path. A key catalyst in the play’s genesis is Kumud Mishra, an actor par excellence, for whom this marks his only solo stage performance. A monologue of an ordinary man, the play features Rajkumar who talks about his unremarkable life and the five grains of sugar, which is how he refers to the five people that make his life somewhat remarkable: his movie-buff mother, her poet brother Pundaleek, the school stud Raghu, a Gandhi-obsessed old man Radhey and an anonymous ‘Truckwala dost’.

The writing sets up Rajkumar’s existence as banal and not worthy of any attention, yet as the performance progresses, you eagerly follow the trail of his storytelling just like ants follow grains of sugar. The only interesting event in his life, or samasya (problem) as he calls it, is a request from a publisher to submit a poem written by him. The entire monologue is Rajkumar explaining to the audience the absurdity of this request because of the kind of person he is. He introduces every important character in his life with simplicity and an unpretentious flair. “Rajkumar’s entire life is a poem, and in this poem, he is trying to find another poem. It is like our body is a peaceful structure, which is why we are surviving. The moment we start looking for peace in this structure, we are disrupting the peace itself,” says Kaul.

Kaul is prolific and has published about a dozen books, several short stories and poems. He has, on principle, made available all his writing for performance in the nonprofit or experimental space. Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane has been staged and directed by different artistes all over India in various languages including Bangla, Marathi and English. However, the Hindi production of the play by Kaul’s theatre group aRANYA has been performed only by Kumud Mishra since the play’s inception in 2004. “This is not my play anymore, it is Kumud’s because he is the one who has been carrying it. The interpretation of this play is actually Kumud’s interpretation and his way of saying everything. He is such an amazing actor, he always sticks to the words and lines as they are written, and it is because of Kumud Mishra that this play is running. He is aRANYA.” Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane marked the beginning of Kaul’s career as a playwright and director, and it also birthed his theatre group, but more importantly, it was a prelude.

A poetic beginning

Around 2003, Kaul and Mishra were acting in different plays and, as the former candidly expressed, they were bored with the kind of work they were doing. For Kaul, the antidote turned out to be a complete break from acting. “I needed to understand what I wanted to do rather than crib about it. I hate the idea of doing that. It’s like criticising the food that you are eating … I remember all of 2003 I sat at home doing nothing. Mostly I read good literature, wrote terrible poetry and my audience were my friends, among whom was Kumud Mishra. I wrote a bigger, three-page poem and Kumud’s reaction was that it was almost like a performance piece. He suggested that I develop it further. And that’s when I realised that this is what I really want to see onstage. Some good poetry and good language. One Sunday afternoon, I started writing Shakkar ke Paanch Daane and wrote almost 75 per cent of it in one go and within the next two to three days, I finished writing the entire play.” His friend and producer Tushar Raut was instrumental in getting the first show on the stage of Prithvi Theatre the following year.

The rehearsal journey for the debut show, despite everyone’s earnest attempts, was leading the play nowhere. It was Kaul’s first show as a playwright and director, Mishra’s first solo performance and throughout the rehearsals, the play was not working as the team had envisaged. Mishra vividly remembers the uncertainty of the final rehearsal night: “For the zero show, we called some close friends. As soon as I began saying my lines, I could sense that nobody was able to understand what was happening. So, I paced up my delivery like an insecure actor and whatever little the audience could understand also became out of reach. When it ended, everyone’s reaction was awful, and their feedback was that it didn’t feel like a play at all. There was no structure, beginning, middle or end. To them it felt more like a reading than a performance. As an actor, I was completely disheartened.” Subsequently, Kaul’s only brief to Mishra for the final show was to say the lines really slowly for the first 10 to 15 minutes and then take a call based on the audience response. The debut show was sold out owing to Mishra’s popularity, which heightened the nervousness of everyone involved. Mishra believed in the director’s word as final and performed as he had been instructed. “When I first began talking, the response from the audience was incredible! Suddenly a few minutes into the play, I was blank. That was the first performance where I was so stunned onstage. Because my mouth was shut my mind started racing but I also felt confident in the moment that the play was being received well”.

To this day, Kaul is surprised at the reception and fondly recalls how he thought people were being complimentary out of courtesy. “It was a surreal experience. I remember Swanand Kirkire came to meet me, shook my hand and didn’t let go for a long time. I was so young, I couldn’t grasp it, I thought they were all just being very nice to a first-time effort.” Since then, Shakkar ke Paanch Daane has travelled all over the country and has been described as an important new-wave drama.

Director’s actor

Fifteen years ago, when I watched Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane, I observed how Mishra carried the weight of this solo act lightly onstage, drawing the audience in with every word, every gesture and enacting other characters without disturbing the lyrical flow of the play. Performing solo is no mean feat, he admits. The biggest challenge is to remain fully present, which Mishra has achieved with the perseverance of an ascetic. “When you are performing solo and there are no other actors onstage, you don’t have the liberty, even for a moment, to wander outside of the play. The moment you do that, even if you remember your lines, the words you speak lose their meaning because your mind is elsewhere. This also creates a disconnect with the audience. The fear of going blank in that first show has become so ingrained that I carry a copy of the script in my jhola at all times. The superlative writing also makes for enjoyable reading during travels.”

Mishra’s most memorable audience interaction was with a gentleman for whom Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane was the only play he had ever watched. Four years after that experience, when he encountered Mishra at an airport, all he spoke about was the actor’s performance in the play, which for the gentleman eclipsed all of Mishra’s other work. This is testament to everything the play was conceived for: great writing, fabulous performance and a lingering theatrical experience.


This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of the On Stage.