top of page
Screenshot 2024-03-23 at 9.11.43 PM.png
Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 5.15_edited.png

Nimmy Raphel

Actor & Theatre Director

in conversation with Harshita Sethia

Curiosity will follow, if you’re anticipating things

“Everything has a natural rhythm. You cannot plant a sapling and ask it to grow because you don't have time. It will take its own time and you have to align your time towards that.”

Nimmy Raphel embodies a captivating paradox: the fiercest gaze and the kindest smile. Witnessing Nimmy perform is catching a glimpse into years of dedicated practice and rigor. She evokes a sense of petrichor, reminiscent of the Earth after rainfall, balancing fierce intensity and gentle tranquility effortlessly - for she is many things at once.

 

In a world that glorifies speed and instant results, she believes in the potential of slowing down to create value and momentum in creative work. Growing up in a farming community, storytelling and playing shaped most of Nimmy’s childhood. Playing lent her the freedom to create, bend and change things which reflects in her practice as a theatre artist and storyteller even today.

 

A trained dancer in Mohiniyattam and Kuchipudi, Nimmy joined the Kerala Kalamandalam at the age of 13, where her journey as a dancer began. She believes her introduction into the arts truly happened much later when she was questioning.


“My artistic journey began at the age of 19 when I joined Adishakti. Earlier I had a lot of questions and I was disappointed that I was not getting any answers. But when I came to Adishakti, I understood it's not the number of questions that you ask; it is what questions you ask.”

Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 10.30.46 PM.png

Nimmy as a young dancer

At 19, Nimmy joined Adishakti – Laboratory For Theatre Art Research as a resident actor which has been her homeground ever since. At Adishakti, she was mentored by Veenapani Chawla and Vinay Kumar. Veenapani was one of the most renowned pioneers of contemporary experimental theater in India, while Kumar is the current artistic director of Adishakti. Since Veenapani's passing in 2014, Nimmy and Vinay have taken up the reins of Adishakti.

 

An actor, a dancer, a playwright, Nimmy Raphel does it all and how!  She calls herself a reluctant writer, an actor who likes to play characters who speak less on stage, and a director who is fascinated by minor characters.

“We treat minor characters as if they don’t exist, but without them the story is incomplete. I might just be a very minor character in your life but I am playing a very major role in my own life. How do we see them as small stories? ”

The following conversation records Nimmy’s journey towards becoming the artist she is, her inspirations, life experiences and beliefs.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

What were your growing up years like? What kind of a child were you?

 

I am a Malayali. I grew up in a farmer’s community in Wayanad, a hill station in Kerala. Growing up, there was naturally a lot of emphasis on playing. But when you are in a community of farmers, a lot of things are paid attention to, which is the natural way of living. So one immediately learns to observe things. And I grew up in an environment like that with a lot of my cousins around and studying was only one part of our lives. 

I feel a lot of things that I use in my theater right now are an extension of all the playing that I did as a child. Not to approach anything that you're playing with a certain kind of reverence. If you have too much reverence, then you don't want to shake it. Playing allows you to bend certain things, it gives you freedom. And I understood that through my childhood. So it was a lot of playing and observing things, not with the conscious mind of observing, but that's how our community lived. 

In one of your interviews you mentioned how you've always been a storyteller. Could you talk about your earliest memories of storytelling?
 

When you grow up in a village, everybody is telling stories. I grew up in a time where I have memories of seeing electricity for the first time. So storytelling would naturally take place as soon as darkness came, because there is nothing else to turn towards; there is no TV, no radio. Everybody would just be telling stories. It could come as a form of conversation, somebody's reflection of what has happened to a plant, or it could just be asking the children how the day went.

Darkness just brings about stories. It encourages conversations and it makes you alert, which is what storytelling is. Storytelling happens very naturally in a village situation because people are interested in each other's lives in a good and bad way. So all of that creates stories.

 

You said that all the playing that you did as a child translates into your creative process today. Please elaborate on that.

The biggest takeaway for me from my childhood is that everything has a natural rhythm.

When you are trying to create something, it has a time frame. Living in an environment where people are playing a lot tells you about the give and take between individual human beings, with plants, and the soil that you are playing with. And that's what happens to me when I create.


Actors are like plants. You can't hurry them to get into something. They have to understand something in order to grow. To make  a fruit bear the sweetness for the audience is the performance. All of this has its natural time cycle. And as a director, your biggest quality should be to understand that natural time frame. When you hurry, the intended result is not something that you get. It becomes a shriveled fruit. 

Given the fast paced world we live in, how can the young people today take time with their creative process?

 

For every generation, what you're born into is your natural cycle, because there is no referencing of before or after. If you are born into an era which tells you that this is what your natural cycle is, then you tend to move along that. On the other hand, we are anticipating a lot of technology that is about to invade our lives and we are pacing our life against something that we don't know. But if we teach ourselves the forgotten art of slowing down and taking time, that might result in something. For performance in particular, a lot of our archive is how we experience certain things; a performance or  an interaction with an actor or the experience of reading something. The experience of turning your practice into a performance requires time and I, as an actor, am interacting with that time.  If I don't get that time, then I might propose something but would it be significant and what I want? This is a question that we have to all ask ourselves.

I believe there's nothing wrong with going fast, but then the details get missed. It's like going very fast in a bullet train. You won't register the details. But on the other hand, if you were to take the same path on a cycle, you will see it. You will remember it and therefore it becomes an experience. How do we understand this time that we live in because

everybody has information. How does it become experience?

How does it become knowledge? That's where slowing down time will work.

As an artist, what are the creative rituals that are important for you?
 

I keep time where nobody can reach me, that is early in the morning. So I keep those three hours in the morning where usually people won't wake up. From 6 o'clock in the morning, I have already put in three hours of work that is just for myself. This will include the things that I am preoccupied with. Because as a performer, your body is also involved. So, how do you culture your body, voice, and mind to reach that space where you're not thinking about the body or voice, but they lend themselves to whatever content at hand is? 

Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 10.41.05 PM.png

Nimmy rehearsing at Adishakti

Then there are the preparation rituals that take place before a performance, through rehearsals reading the script every day, even if you know it at the back of your hand. You do it every day so that you know this repetition does something to you. One performance ritual that I do is I always wet my feet before going on stage. Cold water does something to me; it immediately opens my eyes.

 

So rituals are important  because they give you precision, a certainty to what you will do in a day,  in a performance, and during the course of rehearsal. 

What are the things that make you curious?
 

 Everything generates curiosity in me, so curiosity is constant. It can just be the movement of a leaf or the hand or somebody's intonation  when they speak; all of it could generate curiosity but for that to happen, you need to always anticipate.  Therefore, more than curiosity, I use the word anticipation in my life  because if you don't put your right leg forward, you won't walk.

 As I put my right leg forward, my left leg is already anticipating. So, there is the anticipation that gives movement. Curiosity is also about movement forward because it's not a static space; it takes you forward. So, nowadays, I work more with anticipation than curiosity because curiosity will follow if you are anticipating things.

Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 10.44.34 PM.png

“The moment you become observant of your life and the people around you, you become curious.”

You say that your introduction to the art world was very late in life. What was it like, and at what point did it happen for you?

 

I joined an institution called Kerala Kalamandalam at the age of 13 as a dance student.  Art is a 24-hour engagement in an arts institution, and especially if you are a child staying away from home in a hostel, in the environment of the institution, it offers a lot of possibilities for you. At the same time, sometimes it could be very frozen because there is no space for discussions and conversations. So I would say my real artistic journey as a person who  was asking questions, happened at the age of 19 when I joined Adishakti. I remember earlier I had a lot of questions and  I was disappointed  that I was not getting any answers. But when I came to Adishakti, I understood it's not the number of questions that you ask; it is what questions you ask. I learned at Aadishakti to ask the right kind of questions. For the right questions to emerge, you need time to stay with  them for a very long time, otherwise they are just surface-level questions that won't further your artistic journey in any way. Hence my curiosity has taken a very different shape from 19 onwards; it's been a very focused curiosity.

[ In the legend of Ramayana, Urmila was married to King Dasharatha's third son, Lakshmana. When Lakshmana joined Rama and Sita in their exile, Urmila was ready to accompany him, but Urmila slept continuously for fourteen years. It is believed that during these fourteen years of exile, her husband never slept to protect his brother and sister-in-law, but he instead gave his sleep to Urmila. ]

Your play Urmila had a new take on Urmila’s life. How did it occur to you that you wanted to work with something that she went through?


I have always been very fascinated with minor characters because we treat them as if they don't exist, but without them the story is not complete. While I was researching for a play, I came across this one liner, which said that Urmila slept for 14 years and therefore even Sita said that she is the most devout wife. This stayed with me for a very long time. Slowly, the questions started forming in me: What is the notion of consent in all our marriages? Physical violence is something that leaves a mark, emotional violence does not, it is only being felt by the person who's encountering it. If nobody is sympathizing or empathizing with you, then the struggle just remains your own and  that's why we need allies. When we talk about feminism we need allies who understand. How can anybody else take your own right of living your life? It is your life. It doesn't matter if it's good or ugly. So all of these aspects came for. 

 

Here we interpreted it as what if she doesn’t sleep for 14 years. And if we were to give her an agency. How do you portray her struggle? And only in recognition, we can understand somebody else's struggle.

We have to show it in order to understand. Otherwise, it just becomes an individual battle. And therefore I thought it was important to show the battle that she would have fought. Sleep is a fundamental right. How can that very fundamental thing be taken away?

What is your research process like? Is it different as an actor and as a director?
 

So I read a lot in the initial place, whatever I can lay my hands on.  Then I keep it away and don't touch it for two-three months. I'm a very reluctant writer. I am not a writer but at this point, I feel I can't direct anybody else's words. I can only depend on mine. Hence, I write. Much before words, images come for me. I always first see images and then I need to arrive at words that will justify the image. So that's how it happens for me.

There are two kinds of witnessing that happen. The first kind is just you with yourself. Nobody has access to that space and that is where words, thoughts and a lot of things form within yourself. The moment you speak, it becomes another kind of witnessing because somebody else is hearing and  perceiving it the way they want to.

For Urmila, I wanted to check what was that interior space before she arrived at her words to speak? So the movements have arrived from that space and when she begins to speak it becomes the space where we see her. So that is the movement possibility that I explored for her.

What's the importance of having a mentor for a growing artist?

 

Having a mentor is not about shaping somebody but to say that the potential exists.  Sometimes the artist is in conflict with the mind,  and emotion, they  are not capable of seeing that potential. When you are in the middle of the storm, the person who can see it is the person who's outside of it. So to steer the artist in a direction through the difficulty is what a mentor should do. Once you find your mentor, you should surrender. There is nothing wrong with it, to say ‘I am willing to learn’. At the end of the day, you are experiencing an entire lifetime of things which are not written. It will only come through  this time that you spend with them and through that interaction, you will also know  the kind of aesthetics that you want to form. It could be in conflict with your mentor too  but the mentor should be okay with it. So, it is a give and take process that  forms a friendship which can then take many different shapes. A mentor should  show possible paths that could be taken and the mentee should be willing to submit to that without judgment. 

How did your time with Veenapani Chawla transform you as a person, as an actor?

 

I think what I learned from Veenapani is the rigor that you have to put in order to become an artist. She showed me that to become an artist, you have to constantly work yourself as a person first. They are very interlinked.
She and Vinay always worked in collaboration with each other. She taught me about certain aesthetics and how cultivating  them will directly impact the way you make your work.  More than anything, she taught me to look for the possibility in another person. She told me how to mentor someone because she and Vinay were the best mentors I have had.  I think what benefited the most was living with them. The lived experience of conversations which are not tailored. Conversations that can happen randomly. Best mentoring would mean that you are seeing that person in front of you. The learnings have been immense.  I think what benefited the most was living with them.  The lived experience of conversations which are not tailored. Conversations that can happen randomly. And also to be confident to take time. You take time doesn't mean that you are wasting time, you are taking time would mean that you are in search of something.  Taking time is the best thing that you can do as an actor. 

Screenshot 2024-03-22 at 10.50.29 PM.png

Nimmy Raphel with Veenapani Chawla

Adishakti has been such a significant part of your journey. How has that journey been for you? How has that evolved over the years?

 

When I came, Adishakti was not as developed as we see it right now. We were a small group of people working together.  There was only Veenapani's house where all of us were staying. Those first eight years were the best time of my life. I was the youngest at that time, and I found the freedom to make mistakes. I had the freedom of making as many mistakes as I wanted to. Time was never measured as an outcome.

Then we came to a juncture when Veenapani passed away, and then we had to work in order to sustain the place. There was this responsibility of running the space and possibility that it offers which meant bringing in programs, festivals and workshops . There is also the responsibility of taking care of somebody else's creative needs. If it is you as an individual, you're not answerable to anyone but when you have people who trust you, then you have to take care of their artistic needs. All of these responsibilities exist, and within that, you have to find time to push your creative needs.

 

It's a challenging time for us right now, but I think we have taken that challenge. This is something that I really like doing, so it never feels like work for me. I can actually work for 24 hours without taking a break. This is my home, and I will do everything in my capacity to run  this space to the best of my ability. 

Can you talk about the acting workshops at Adishakti?


We call our workshops ‘Source of Performance Energy’. They are aimed towards giving certain aspects of how you negotiate life. In life, you could be a carpenter, a painter, an actor, or a director. But all of this needs a certain tool to channelize creativity. And what we teach at Adishakti are these fundamental tools for the multiple creative possibilities that exist within a person.

 

In theater, sometimes we lack techniques. Sometimes they are borrowed techniques. So the workshop is mainly aimed at slowly inculcating this sense of how you view yourself as an actor. What does it mean for you to be an actor in this current time? What are emotions that will propel you to get to a space where you have to express your script? How do you want to express yourself? All of this comes in the workshop. So, that would mean learning certain tools and staying with them for some time in order for the tools to inform you.

 

So, these are the few things that we teach. And it's a full day, it starts at seven in the morning and it ends sometime at nine o'clock in the evening. Because differences are always allowed to exist in Adishakti, different kinds of people attend these workshops. 

Screenshot 2024-03-23 at 1.28.05 AM.png

Nimmy with SoPE workshop participants 

Adishakti is situated in Auroville. Has that ever created a silo effect or has that helped in retaining the sanctity of the place? 


Adishakti was founded in 1982 in Bombay, so it existed in the city landscape for a very long time before it moved to Pondicherry, where it is right now. Moving away was a very conscious decision. You will never ask a writer as to why you are isolating yourself to write, and I think the same questions shouldn't be asked to actors as well. To create something substantial or to give momentum to the search that one is on, a certain kind of isolation is required. That's also the reason why Adishakti moved from Bombay to Pondicherry. But one thing that the move did was that it gave time for us to evolve the methodology that is widely recognized all over. It has created a campus that is lush and beautiful. Now we come in contact with actors, thinkers, and dancers daily. We have people coming over and staying with us 365 days, we are never isolated. We are surrounded by people. We don't have to go to them; they come to us. So it's been a foresight that can only happen if you already know what the time can provide. And it wouldn't have happened in a city. You can nurture yourself anywhere, but  the city  is stealing time from you and  you can do nothing about that. When something is stolen, you don't even get to know about it. You get to know about it  much later. We are all mortals. We don't know what we can achieve in life without time.  So, if I know that my time is going to be stolen away from me without my permission, then I wouldn't allow it. 

What does success mean to you in day-to-day life or what is it something that you want to work towards?

 

I am a great believer in failure. I believe a hundred percent in failing. I believe in falls. I feel you have to fall in order to understand that there is a hard ground. We always think that this in comparison to that, but as individuals we all come with our own emotional, physical and mental makeup and our own way of responding to things. Success is somebody else's idea of success. So I don't think we should be too bogged down by success. Success becomes like a formula that you have to keep following. Failure gives you multiple options. Failure is like, when a glass of water falls, it splinters into different directions. All those different directions tell you multiple different possibilities. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

All photos courtesy Nimmy Raphel

Miscellany Bowl

Nimmy fills the bowl of her current musings, interests and recommendations!

bowl-02_edited.png

Nimmy Recommends: Farming. Sunrise. Music. Interactions. Pencils over pens. Metaphors.

 

Films:  Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. Clockwork Orange by Stanley kubrick. Three Colors trilogy by Kieslowsky.  Padmarajan movies.

 

Music: Obsessed with Philippe Jarousky, Bindumalini and Francisco Tarrega.

 

Writers: Sara Joseph, Madeline miller, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín

bottom of page