Sushma Seth has been felicitated and honored with many awards, the Rashtriya Priyadarshini Award, Bharat Nirman Award, Best Actress Award from Sahitya Kala Parishad, Lifetime Achievement Award from Chamanlal Society, Kalpana Chawla Excellence Award, Sangeet Natak Akademi Tagore Award for her contribution to Indian theatre, and the National Vayoshreshtha Samman from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for Creative Arts.
Tell us something about your life’s journey you have travelled?
Our family was very progressive. When other women were cloistered in purdah, my aunts were encouraged to participate in music, dance, painting, radio plays and perform in public concerts. I learnt classical vocal music from the age of 5. There were frequent music and dance recitals that I had the privilege to attend and appreciate from that age.
My first lesson in teaching children came from my music teacher Shri Vipin Chandra from Gandharv Mahavidyalaya. He would draw a cartoon character for me, as an incentive, each time I learnt a new raga that he taught me. I excelled and stood first in the 1st year music examination, and also ranked 1st in all the competitionsI participated in.
My father Shri Rameshwar Dayal was a sports person, and a great sport! Easy going and ever smiling. Most of the men and boys of the family were also involved in playing sports and excelling. Trophies and cups won by them, and all of us, were lined up the mantelpiece for short periods till new ones were won and thereafter the old trophies got swept into baskets and dumped into the store. My mother, Smt. Prakash Rani was my greatest role model, support and source of encouragement. She fulfilled all her own dreams through us.
I was the eldest among the 12 children of my generation who lived in our huge home, and thereby the director of skits and plays adapted from story-books. Takhats [low wooden tables] were joined together to form a stage, curtains strung across on ropes, costumes and props improvised, but the greatest attention was given to all the edible props! Our mothers encouraged and helped us in all these enterprises.
My first formal appearances on stage were in 3 plays written by my uncle Maheshwar Dayal, who wrote extensively and with great authority on the history of Delhi. The first play was `Yeh Delhi Hai’ which traced the life and culture of Delhi from mid 19th century to the 20th century. This was performed on the Regal stage in New Delhi. I was 8 years old at that time. Several years later I saw Prithviraj Kapoor’s three plays `Pathan’, `Deevar’ and `Ahooti’ on this stage. I was so moved and inspired by them, that I resolved then that the stage was where I belonged, and would pursue as a career.
At 12/13 years, my second play was ‘Bar Dikhawwa’ (The suitor) where I played a 70 year-old nawab! At the age of 16 years, I played a 60-year-oldHaryanvi character. By now, I was convinced that I was happiest in this medium, the stage was where I belonged.
What motivated and inspired you to get into theatre?
The opportunity to begin my journey to become an actress came when I was awarded a scholarship to study at Briarcliff College, New York in the United States of America. With this opportunity came a certain sense of responsibility. I felt that I was representing not only my family, but my college and country as well. I read up on India, its culture, and customs and its political leanings. Suddenly, I was an ambassador of our country among my colleagues. I definitely had to be cautious in my speech and behavior. Their impression of my family, and my country would be gauged by every action of mine. I also resolved to perform well at college to make my family proud of me, to live up to their expectations and faith in me.
I was ecstatic at the range of subjects offered to me as a Drama Major. Radio, Speech, Drama, History of Art, Music Appreciation, Mediums of painting, Drama Literature, Drama Production, and Choral Speaking. I was offered all the plum roles. My speech was admired and considered the standard English for others to copy! Effortlessly, I got straight A’s, was on Dean’s List throughout, was elected President of Student Council, and crowned May Queen. At graduation, I was given the highest award for All Round Excellence. It was heartening that the college Chairman constantly sent letters of appreciation to my family. The Dean raised a scholarship for me to transfer to Carnegie Melon for an advanced degree.
Carnegie Melon had one of the best drama departments in the United States of America. As a Drama Major, I studied direction, acting, speech, History of Dramatic Literature, stagecraft, costumes, make-up, set design, lights, and modern dance! Carnegie Melon prepared a student for a professional career in the chosen field, and gave the confidence to meet the expectations of the competitive world. We auditioned for parts and were only cast if suited to the role. Among other roles, I played Morgiana in Ali Baba. I graduated from Carnegie as a Founder's Scholar.
The 4 years in the United States whizzed by. Exciting and as fulfilling as this period was, there was never a question in my mind about settling down in the U.S. After graduating from Carnegie Melon, I returned to Delhi.
Immediately, I was offered the assignment to teach speech by the Natya Akademi to Administrative Service officers. I was also cast to play Gurdafrid in Rustam Sohrab, an Urdu play written by Agha Hashra Kashmiri, in the Parsi theatre genre, and directed by Habib Tanveer in a superlative production. A thoroughly enjoyable experience and my first acting experience on the Delhi stage – as an adult actress.
Mr. Tom Noonan, the Cultural Affairs Officer of the United States Information Service in New Delhi was holding auditions to cast for ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ written by Robert Penn Warren, and ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder, to bring American history and literature to Indian audiences. A number of us who were also English –speaking actors performing on the Delhi stage and in colleges, were cast in the two productions. We performed for Delhi audiences and in major cities all over India .
We rehearsed and traveled in comfort, a rare treat for stage actors on shoe-string budgets. What we developed as a team was excellent work ethos. We pooled together the renumeration we had earned and founded Yatrik. With Joy Michael as the Director, Rati Bartholomew, Roshan Seth, Kusum Haider, Marcus Murch, Sneh Dass, Nigam Prakash, and I formed the core group. The objective was to form a repertory company which brought plays in Hindi, English and Urdu to the Delhi audiences every weekend, and to tour to the hill towns in the summer vacations.
“We were overjoyed at the prospect and the schedule of performing every weekend, rehearsing the next production, and reading for a third play.”
I was extremely fortunate that all the favourite roles every actress yearns for, came to me effortlessly. From 1960-1980, I acted in over 50 plays in Hindi, English and Urdu for all the Delhi theatre groups. Naya Theatre, Abhiyan, Dishanter, Unity Theatre, Natyadwai, Little Theatre Group and Yatrik. Some of my favorite roles were Sabrina in ’Sabrina Fair, directed by Joy Michael, ‘Rano in‘Ek Chadar Maili Si’, directed by Rajindernath, Kate in ’Taming of the Shrew,’ Shen Te in ‘The Good Woman of Sezuan’, and Gurdafrid in ‘Rustom Sohrab’ all directed by Habib Tanvir, Susan in ‘The Little Hut’, and Champa in ‘Sakharam Binder’ directed by Sai Paranjpye.
I directed over 25 plays, designed sets, costumes, make-up and did other production work. Founded Children’s Creative Theatre. Simultaneously, I performed in plays for television soaps, among them the most popular ones being ‘Humlog’, and ‘Dekh Bhai Dekh’. Also directed children’s plays for Doordarshan.
I acted in over 100 feature films. The aesthetic and popular hits among them being ‘Junoon’ and ‘Kalyug’, produced by Shashi Kapoor and directed by Shyam Benegal, ‘Prem Rog’, directed by Raj Kapoor, ‘Silsila’ and ‘Chandni’ directed by Yash Chopra, ‘Tawaif’ directed by B.R.Chopra, ‘Nagina’ directed by Harmesh Malhotra, ‘Elan-e-Jung’ directed by Anil Sharma, ‘Dhadkan’, directed by Dharmesh Darshan, Vinod Chopra’s ‘1942 A Love Story’, Ismail Merchant’s film’ ‘Muhafiz’, ‘Diwana’ directed by Raj Kanwar, ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham,’and ‘ ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ directed by Karan Johar.
How did you manage your professional and personal life?
All of us actresses were married, some with children, and excellent supportive husbands and families, without whose love and indulgence, the intensive theatre activity would have been impossible. My husband Dhruv Seth not only saw every play, but also sent me flowers on opening nights, with ingenious notes.
For me, my family was and is extremely important and it was because of my family that I have reached to this level. I had three children, and they were looked after by my mother in my absence and my husband never objected as he was very confident and secured person. But I never moved away from Delhi, I always used to travel back and forth as I always knew, there is a family which needs me.
“Whenever I was shooting, I paid full attention towards my work but when I was at home I was only with my family and liked to spend time with them.”
How can a woman who has just started her career can make a difference in her respective field ?
A woman should become a role model for her own children. Women already have the potential , they are the nurturers and are caring. There is a will inside her to achieve success in career and profession and balance in their home.
She needs to secure herself physically, emotionally and professionally. She should never compromise her values and self esteem.
Do you think women lack financial education and should they have financial education?
Most women do not have financial education because, if they are earning , they save it and put it back into the expenditures for their children and home. When they save money they don't know how to invest wisely. So , it's very important for women to have financial education in order to become independent.
I believe that understanding human behavior is very important. Having compassion and concern for our own community and particularly for the underprivileged is must. It is the economic disparity which is the cause of violence , aggression and unrest. We all need to address this and bring about peace and harmony in our environment .