I Believe That No Art Can Be Inherited - Gurumurthy Rathnam

1. How and when did you choose comedy as a career?

Right since my childhood, I had a desire to get on stage and at the same time, I had stage fright. So I had zero stage experience before venturing into standup comedy. I used to crack a lot of puns during my school days, most of which used to irritate my classmates.

This continued in college also, and one fine day in 2016, I decided to compile all my puns and perform in a standup comedy competition organised by another college. I had huge expectations and visualised myself making so many people laugh out loud. But in reality, people started booing 20 seconds into my performance.

I still managed to say whatever I had prepared for the next 10 minutes, but no one laughed. That's how it all started. I then joined the Dramatics club of my college, and it took me more than a year to understand what comedy was, and the dynamics of the art form.

In 2017 April, I started performing in open mics and shows in Chennai, and I'm still continuing performing. In August 2019, I quit my job as a film critic and decided to do a standup comedy full time.

2. What type of content do you enjoy producing the most and is the most challenging?

I love writing and performing jokes that are based on various forms of structural violence in the society like patriarchy, caste system, ableism, class, race, sexuality etc. Since I am a person with a lot of privileges, I try to question all these privileges instead of placing the onus on the victims.

Of course, there are plenty of topics to joke about and it is an artist's choice. When I look at the world around me, there are acts of violence every single day. Even if I try to stay away from it, my friends are subjected to such violence regularly.

I have friends who have been victims of caste discrimination, some have been abused at some point in their life, and the list is endless. When the world around me is burning I cannot ignore it and make art about something else.

The most challenging part of coming up with such material is that I should make sure it is funny also. It shouldn't end up as a TED Talk. I want to strike a fine balance where the audience laughs at places I want them to laugh at, and also take away something home, preferably hope that the world will become a better place for all of us, soon.

3. Do you prefer digital as a medium or do you enjoy doing live gigs more and why?

I would prefer to do live gigs, but right now we don't have a choice because of the pandemic. I don't subscribe to spirituality, but I've felt cut off from the rest of the world when I'm doing a live gig. I know it's a good show when I get that feeling.

It's like creating a small new world where it's just me and the 40-50 odd audience members. That intimate space gives you an incomparable high. But not everything goes as per your plan. Something happens and you adapt your life to it.

And I've found it comfortable while performing in digital shows as well. I hope all this gets over very soon and I'm waiting for the stage to embrace all the artists.

4. People, who are interested in taking up stand-up comedy as a profession, do they need a funny bone or they can develop one?

I believe no art can be inherited. Be it dance, or music or comedy, anyone can gain mastery over the craft. It's like any other profession like IT or Medicine or sports. None of them was born as engineers or doctors. They put in the effort to become one and that pays off.

The same applies to artists also. It's not necessary that you have to be funny off stage. I have irritated more people off stage than making them laugh. But the same people laugh at my jokes on stage. My work as a standup comedian starts when I get on stage, and ends when I get off the stage.

Now along with the traditional standup comedy format, there are other formats such as improv and crowd work shows where your spontaneity will be tested. Your personality plays a huge role in these formats. If you are someone who is introverted, you can do standup but you will find it tough to do crowd work.

When you take comedy as a whole, everyone will have their space and can be accommodated.

5. How stable is being a stand-up comedian as a profession in India? And what is the future of this profession?

Being a standup comedian is unstable right now because the pandemic threw everyone off-guard. There is no certainty about the future. For instance, I quit my job around 6 months before the lockdown was imposed in India, and since then income has been low. I have been surviving on whatever I saved during my previous job.

Once the pandemic ends, I think the digital shows will still continue along with stage shows. Monopolization of art has also not helped independent artists like me. When any corporate starts controlling art, artists get exploited, because of which, the entire industry takes a hit, and many artists vanish from the scene.

So if you're planning to take up standup as a profession, make sure you have saved a lot for the worst times.

6. What impact do you want to make in this world?

I don't know if my art can change the world. It's more about me trying to become a better person every day. But I want my art to reinstate the fact that we are humans and mere humans. We should start looking at other humans as humans and not exploit them on any basis.

This is all that I've been trying to work on. I recently organised an art festival where most of the artists from oppressed castes, women, people of LGBTQIA+ community were given a non-judgemental safe stage where they can showcase their art. This art festival is called Kalai Va Nee.

We need more such people in art spaces, and I want to create more such spaces. Soon, their voices will also be heard and I think that's the first step for change. This is the impact I want to create.

7. Which is your favourite book and why?

My favourite book is actually a non-fiction book called Periyar on Women's Rights, which is a compilation of articles written by Periyar, a social reformer and humanist. The book was translated to English by R Sundara Raju, and the compilation was done by K Veeramani.

I got this book in a festival for less than 50 bucks, and it's one of the most inspiring books I've come across. Most of these articles were written 70+ years back and they're still relevant. In addition to this, reading Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste also helped a lot.

Both of these books gave a lot of insights, and they reflect in my art. Most of my standup jokes will have an angle of social justice to it.

Interview By - Benil Joseph

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