Actress Ira Dubey talks to Sophia Ann French about her love for the theatre and yoga, and explains how practising yoga has helped her to tune into herself when she’s acting and in real life.
My earliest memory of the theatre is actually something I watched on video — Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was around six-years-old and even though I saw Cats on video, I was fascinated by the costumes, the acting and the exaggerated performances, which inspired me to start going to live theatre performances. It was love at first play. I enjoy watching movies, too, but nothing excites me as much as watching live theatre, which is why I was thrilled when theatre actress Ira Dubey agreed to this interview with SanātanaYoga. Theatre and yoga have been a part of Dubey’s life from a young age and while she has always been very private about her yoga practice, the actress believes that Indians must turn to our traditional practices and culture to become empowered to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and adapt to a new way of life.
Read on to find out more about why Dubey follows the Bihar School of Yoga, how the Indian theatre fraternity is adapting to the pandemic and her reading recommendations for us while we’re sheltering-at-home.
Sophia: When did you first start practising yoga and what inspired you to try the practice?
Ira Dubey: My dad’s brother has been practising the traditional style of Bihar School Yoga for the past 35 years, and I took my cue from him. He’s a very disciplined guy and a corporate head honcho but found time to do yoga every single day, so I was first introduced to yoga through him. I had gone abroad to study and had a very up-and-down experience at university in the States. I was at Yale as I got a scholarship to go there. It’s an Ivy League university and at the time, it was a very big deal and it was supposed to be the American dream but didn’t quite work out that way for me. I enjoyed myself academically and studied and participated in theatre, but when I came back to India, I took a gap year, and that’s when something about yoga drew me to it. I was going through a tough time emotionally, having left school, and trying to figure out what I want to do next. I came into serious contact with yoga when I was around 19. I was going through a turbulent time emotionally and I found that yoga made me feel rooted and grounded. I have never been a gym person and find the gym very boring, but I have been naturally athletic and have a high metabolism. I started practising the traditional style of Bihar School Yoga and to me, it was and always will be a mind-body-soul practice — that quality appealed to me the most. When I came back to India and started seriously practising, I went through a gamut of schools and teachers and I find that yoga is the thing that has kept me sane. Life was a bit of a wild ride in my 20s and the one thing that has really kept me grounded is yoga.
Sophia: How does yoga work for you on an emotional and spiritual level?
Ira: I went through a very tough time when I was in college. I had to go through very testing things that were part of the American system — they labelled me and made me go through therapy. It was a very different culture so in terms of conditioning, it was a tough time for me. I also went through a phase of experimenting a lot whether it was with substances or just trying to find myself… I’m sure we’ve all done that when we were young. It was a very difficult period of figuring out who I am. So at that time, through all the emotional turbulence and all the baggage that I carried with me, yoga really helped me to tune into myself. Emotionally and spiritually it was the thing that I sought the most, but I must admit that I have never been the kind of person who practises every single day, and that’s something I regret. It’s something I’m trying to change and I’m trying to make yoga a part of my daily life.
Sophia: Does the practice of yoga enhance your skill as an actress or affect your craft?
Ira: Yoga is my main form of finding my centre, waking up my body and focusing. I use it in many ways in my craft. And not just to wake up or invigorate my body physically, but also to align myself and to work with my breath and my voice which is so important on stage. Theatre is my first love and my home. The theatre has always been a part of me regardless of whatever else I might be doing in life. I do a new play every year, and last year, I did four. To me, yoga is part of the craft of acting. I use it to begin a rehearsal or before a show, I spend an hour working on a yoga routine which is my own. As I said earlier, I went through so many schools and teachers and figured out a way to know what works for me. Yoga has also been a very private part of my life. I don’t propagate it or talk about it often, but it is a very big part of my life and part of my approach to acting. I am also wary of this new, fashionable trend of practising yoga that has exploded over the past decade or so where everyone is combining styles and everyone seems to be an expert on the subject. I believe in the purity of the practice and tradition. It is an ancient Indian tradition and I feel it needs to be respected for what it is. My resonance has always been with the Bihar School — the pure and traditional form of the practice is what we really need to go back to. I’m not saying we can’t experiment or change or evolve but at some level, it’s important to stay rooted in the tradition of the practice. So that’s what I try to incorporate even in my acting because the routine that I practise before a show or during rehearsals is a culmination of those traditional, classic practices of yoga asanas and pranayama.
Sophia: Do you think yoga can empower people to cope with situations like the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ira: I could actually do a thesis on anxiety and stress (laughs). Our generation of young people are exposed to a multitude of stimuli — more than ever before. This leads to layers of stress and anxiety. Having said that, we know that these emotions are a part of life. Any spiritual philosophy, religion, mystic or book talks about struggle being a part of life and it is. Life is tough and it has challenges and we have to go through them but that’s exactly how we can grow and become strong and evolve. But stress and anxiety covers a wide spectrum — there is a fine line and if not checked, it can become very severe. So I think we have to learn how to manage these feelings. Yoga is one of the most beautiful and holistic ways in which one can actually come to be in tune with the self or find balance within. For me, since yoga is such an ancient tradition and such an integral part of our culture, I feel it can be used to deal with stress and anxiety on a regular basis and it’s what we should use instead of turning to the West to find solutions in therapy or some fad of healing. We should look to what we already have — this tradition that is such a big part of our culture. These are very unprecedented times and a lot of people are feeling lots of uncertainty. Lots of people are not used to being alone or dealing with solitude and I think yoga is perfect to tackle all of these emotions. I have never imposed yoga on anyone else but during these times, I do recommend it to people because I believe it will really help.
Sophia: In addition to acting, you write poetry, sing (at least on Instagram), and model. Would you agree that the Indian performing arts can be a form of yogic sādhanā?
Ira: Of course. Whether you call it riyaz or sādhanā — these are a part of our ethos, and particularly story-telling is the oldest form of art in the world. It is as old as life itself. Telling stories is part of our culture — we do it through dance, music, narratives, books. There are people who take their craft very seriously and devote their time and effort to their art form, and you have to in order to be any good. Indian classical music and dance require and demand high levels of riyaz and discipline. In today’s world where there is so much influence from the West, it is on us and our generation to preserve the Indian art forms. I think yoga is also a part of that. The Nāṭya Śāstra, for example, is our ancient script for the arts and we must make an effort to preserve those traditional art forms. As artists and performers, we should draw from what we have.
Sophia: What’s your favourite play to watch and to act in?
Ira: At the moment, it is a play that I do myself. It’s a one-woman show called Nine Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo, and it’s about nine Iraqi women. The play follows the universal themes of love, loss and desire, and it’s one of the plays I found most challenging to act in, so I really enjoy doing that show because it challenges me as an actress. Having said that, I love so many plays but I feel in India, theatre is neglected. We’re like Bollywood’s poor second cousin, but I’m still excited by the theatre. My favourites would include Death and the Maiden, Waiting for Godot, and of course, the work of Shakespeare.
Sophia: How has the pandemic affected the theatre industry?
Ira: It’s a very scary time for the theatre community. Theatre is a live medium and a performance that requires a live audience. It’s not something that is meant to be seen on a screen. However, many people in my fraternity are trying to find new, inventive ways of doing theatre in an online format. We don’t know when people will even want to go to the theatre or any public space again. It’s the reality we are in. But that said, the show will go on. That is the motto of the stage and we will find ways to keep it going. We have to adapt.
Sophia: You recently did a virtual performance reading. How do you adapt theatre to a virtual medium?
Ira: We’re all trying to figure that out (laughs). I think there are only a few places in the world right now that have figured out a way to do this. The National Theatre of London and in India, Zee Theatre — they are trying to record theatrical productions. It is a new language altogether because a film is a film and theatre is theatre but when you combine the two, the audience knows that they’re watching a play but they’re watching it as a film, so that’s a new language of performance which is challenging and exciting.
Sophia: Who is your favourite Indian playwright and why?
Ira: Two of them. One is Girish Karnad whose work is inspired from mythology and his structure is powerful and metaphorical. The second is Mahesh Elkunchwar, a Marathi playwright whose work is very socially and emotionally driven.
Sophia: List some of your favourite plays or books that you think we should all read while we’re sheltering-at-home?
Ira: Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett), the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and also anything by Milan Kundera and of course, P. G. Wodehouse, for a good laugh.
Ira Dubey is a Mumbai-based actress. For updates on her plays and performances, follow her on @iradubey