The venerated square kilometre around the central Delhi circle called Mandi House used to be the only big hub for all cultural events in the capital till the start of the millennium. Here, on the tree-lined radials flowing out from the circle stand the squat edifices that hosted all dance, music and theatre: Kamani Auditorium, Sriram Centre, Triveni, Sapru House, the National School of Drama theatre, the government Akademi precincts, Sangeet Bharati, Little Theatre Group and the auditorium of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Further away, but still in Lutyens’ Delhi, there was the AIFACS, Mavalankar Hall and Constitution Club. And at the southern edge, there stood India International Centre and the Siri Fort halls. But if someone lived two bus changes away in a distant, grey Delhi colony, well, too bad.

“In the rest of Delhi – east, west, [and] most of north, except the Delhi University campus – there was pretty much nothing,” said Sudhanava Deshpande, actor and director, who has been with the Delhi-based theatre company Jana Natya Manch since the 1980s. “There was no alternative to the conventional centres of culture in central Delhi.”

About five years ago, West Delhi found an answer to the tyranny of Mandi House. It got Studio Safdar, a tiny performing space in the heart of Shadi Khampur, a typically chaotic urban village in Delhi. The working class locality couldn’t be further from central Delhi in look and feel – no wide roads here, none of Lutyens’ elegance, grand old trees or orderliness.

The studio that was established to realise theatre activist Safdar Hashmi’s dream of a lively, democratised and accessible arts centre was different in many other ways too – the performance space was intimate and informal, there was no proscenium and it is near-impossible to tell the actor apart from the viewer in the jammed lobby space. But what it offered was a wealth of varied theatre and performance arts – Qissebaazi by Danish Hussain’s troupe, plays such as Mallika Taneja’s Thoda Dhyan Se, Abhishek Majumdar’s Muktidham, a devised performance such as Mangal Murmu’s Monologue by Neha Tickoo and the Malabar ritualistic art form of Poothan Thira.

A black box theatre, Studio Safdar is intimate and informal. Image courtesy: Studio Safdar.

“Two things were happening at the same time,” said Deshpande, who manages the studio. “Performers were looking for an alternative space where they could host events made specifically for smaller audiences. And audiences were looking for something that was different from the standard fare offered by proscenium theatre.”

Studio Safdar is what is defined as a black box theatre: a bare, no-frills, flat, flexible theatre space that became popular in the 1960s. The appearance is often of a large hall with black walls, the no-fuss settings are easy to rework and make for ideal experimental theatre work for smaller audiences. In Delhi, National School of Drama’s Bahumukh was perhaps the first ever black box but it is dedicated to in-house works.

While Deshpande was hunting for a space, the rising rentals in old culture hubs were pushing other artists out and away from Mandi House. Theatre companies such as Actor Factor inhabited the central Delhi hubs till around 2010, after which they found it unaffordable. Actor Factor’s search for space led the group to the picturesque wilds of Saidulajaib near Saket metro station, then the upmarket home for hip boutiques and trendy stores, Shahpur Jat. But this too was becoming an increasingly boho shopping district and expensive. Ghitorni was where they found a welcome anchor.

Located three stops before the yellow line of Delhi Metro enters Gurgaon, Ghitorni is known now for its furniture shops and seconds stores of big brands. Between Pillar 126 and 127 of the metro line is a narrow lane leading to Kala Dibba.

A narrow lane between Pillar 126 and 127 of Delhi Metro's yellow line leads to Kala Dibba. Image courtesy: Kala Dibba.

The latest entrant into the brave new world of Delhi’s alternative performing spaces, Kala Dibba is the size of a largish salon that can pack in more than 30 without giving cause for claustrophobia. But there is nothing amateurish about the light or sound system of the six-month old space open to musicians, dancers, artists, poets and actors.

The Delhi group Atelier recently staged at Kala Dibba Jean Anouilh’s take on Antigone with a Sufi twist to it, watched with rapt attention by an audience that wouldn’t normally frequent the old, incestuous soiree circles. A mask-making workshop by Shehla Hasmi was also held there, as was a jazz concert of the Golden Era of the 1920s and 1930s.

New cultural spaces in Delhi are open to a variety of musicians, actors, dancers, poets and artists and host a diverse range of performances. Image courtesy: Kala Dibba.

“There is a new breed of performers and audiences that is simply not excited by the idea of Mandi House the way earlier generations were,” said Shashwat Srivastava, an associate member of Actor Factor. “These viewers aren’t awestruck by the big names of that world, the legends of theatre or music or dance that we grew up with. They like to experiment and hungry for new experiences.”

A couple of stations ahead of Ghitorni is Chhatarpur, once Delhi’s farmhouse destination for the very rich. On the road to the famous Katyayani temple and right across a cremation ground is the Dhan Mill Compound. The mill complex is undergoing a transformation: there are still a few working warehouses, a few upmarket outlets and a large, high-ceilinged hall with minimalist interiors. Set up in 2016, Oddbird is the brainchild of Shambhavi Singh, a former marketing professional, and Akhil Wable, a software engineer. Over the last couple of years it has become a popular hub for alternative events. And increasingly for mainstream events as well.

Oddbird is as likely to stage an Akarsh Khurana urban comedy as it is a work-in-progress like Contempt, in which a law student scripts theatre out of the battle of words between the judiciary and those against IPC Section 377. A Shubha Mudgal concert on Kabir is as likely here as a new literary collective’s reading of poetry in Indian languages.

A performance at Oddbird, Chattarpur. Image courtesy: Oddbird.

“We never set off to be an alternative space really,” said Singh. “We enjoyed performing arts ourselves and wanted to create an intimate, flexible space which would allow artistes to work with more freedom than the proscenium allows.” Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre was somewhat of a conceptual blueprint when the space was being designed.

The adaptability of the black box is something that grand halls cannot offer. It allowed Nimmi Rapahel’s Nidravathwam, the beautifully choreographed story of Kumbhakarna’s unquenchable need for sleep and Lakshmana’s 14 years of sleeplessness, the dark warmth of a womb to play out. It allowed audiences to view Mandeep Raikhy’s landmark work on gay sex, Queen Size, from different perspectives.

The offerings at Oddbird have been eclectic enough for audiences to take a chance with whatever is being staged, even if it is a work-in-progress or the artiste is unfamiliar. “We have people who aren’t regular theatre-goers but are curious walk in with the attitude that says ‘yeh jagah hai kya, yahan hota kya hai (what is this place, what happens here),” said Singh. The theatre though is a fairly long walk from the two nearest metro stations.

Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre was a conceptual blueprint when Oddbird was being designed. Image courtesy: Oddbird.

The late Tejeshwar Singh – the deep-voiced publisher, theatre enthusiast and Doordarshan news reader – had wanted a warm and encouraging performance space that didn’t intimidate, but allowed talented amateurs to find their feet before they could dream of taking the leap to a big stage. The memorial trust named after him set up Downstairs@47 in the basement of his home in a quiet South Delhi locality, which has hosted everything from a classical western guitar concert to a film screening on Faiz or a soz khwani, which are songs of lamentation. It’s also the place where a brave young theatre director with an original script can possibly catch a break.

Further afield, at the farthest edge of south Delhi’s Okhla industrial area lies Black Box, another offbeat establishment for the arts. This became a venue for the India Arts Fair in 2017. It also staged The Shakuntala Project, which reimagined the romantic epic in modern times.

Despite these spaces flourishing, it would be premature to write off the grand old spaces of Mandi House, the India International Centre or the India Habitat Centre. Except Studio Safdar, every new space is located in South Delhi, an area often associated with the adjective posh. But they also offer the chance to inventive new performers to tell their fresh stories to an audience that doesn’t have to switch two buses anymore.

The adaptability of the black box theatres is their biggest strength. Image courtesy: Studio Safdar.