Why stand-up comedy is gaining popularity in India
Seerat Chabba New Delhi
December 28, 2021
As COVID restrictions are eased, small clubs are bringing people back for stand-up comedy shows. Some producers are using this opportunity to fix the skewed gender ratio in lineups as well as audiences.
The climb up to the Happy High comedy club in Delhi's Shahpur Jat neighborhood is tortuous. Nestled on the fifth floor of an old building in the city, the elevator leading up to the venue can only hold three people.
"Only three people at a time. It's an old lift, please don't trust it — we definitely don't," a sign on the door reads. But that doesn't stop comedy enthusiasts from making the trek.
As India's COVID cases fall to less than 10,000 new cases a day, more people are stepping out to indulge in recreational activities. This is not confined to just eating out or going to the movies, but also extends to newer art forms like stand-up comedy.
With restrictions eased, many comedians are switching to small, intimate rooms — like the one offered by Happy High — after months of viewing their audiences through small boxes on a screen. Holding between 30 to 50 people at a time, these rooms allow the comedians to regain something that the pandemic took away from them: the energy of a live audience.
Safe space for art
More than 10 years after stand-up comedy first arrived in India, the art form is still in its nascent stages. Even in larger cities like New Delhi, the scene is dominated by male comedians.
Earlier this month, the city celebrated the opening of a large comedy club. In pictures posted on social media, there were nearly 40 comedians and comedy producers on stage. All were men.
Comedy producers like Jeeya Sethi are attempting to change this imbalance. Her aim is twofold: to encourage more women to get on stage without fear of judgment, and to get more women to step out and watch comedy.
To do so, Sethi started FemaPalooza, a set of shows in India's entertainment and commercial capital, Mumbai. The concept is fairly simple: These are women-only shows. Women perform and women watch, without any burden of the "male gaze." She has now expanded these open mics to Delhi, to create a safe space for women who want to laugh without inhibitions.
"Small rooms work very well for shows like these," said Sethi. "First, women share social context, they pick up on cues without much effort."
"Performing on a stage is not easy but all-female audiences make the process more fun. They want to laugh, and if they sense something going wrong, they will encourage you to continue without the fear of judgment."
Comedians taking ownership
Comedy clubs also benefit from a larger female audience, according to Ashish Kwatra, the co-owner of Happy High. He set up the club in an office space in 2018, but the rising interest in comedy pushed him to expand operations to a 50-seat venue.
"Smaller rooms have their own audience," he told DW. "The experience is more intimate for the comedian as well as the viewer. This is not a possibility in a large room with 200 people."
Indian female stand-up comedian in a man's world
Kwatra set up the club to hone his own craft. As a comedian, he was always on the hunt for spots at the limited comedy venues in Delhi. "You cannot get better without practice and in order to get that practice, you need spots," he said.
To make up for the dearth, he and his partners host shows on almost all days of the week, often scheduling multiple events on a day.
"Our priority is to pull audiences not just for the big names but also for comics who are still developing their skills. That would be our biggest achievement," he said.
As it's known as the "comedians' club," artists like Sethi return to Happy High time and again for the unique experience the room offers.
Repurposing spaces to promote comedy
As comedy picks up steam, more venues are opening up across the Indian capital. Animesh Katiyar's Fur Ball Story in the neighboring city of Gurgaon began as a dog cafe but quickly doubled up as a small comedy room.
"We set up the cafe to create a happy place," Katiyar told DW. "And stand-up comedy just seemed like the logical next step."
He began inviting comedians to perform in a small room for up to 30 people, an intimate setting that worked well for crowd interactions. The response was overwhelming.
Katiyar is now rebuilding the cafe with stand-up — both lineups and open mics — as one of the main attractions. It will open for a larger audience next month.
But for Indian comedy, the road ahead is long and winding.
"In India, people come to watch a popular artist. We haven't reached the stage where they will step out simply to enjoy comedy as an art form," Sethi said.
She began producing comedy to make more space for people like her and the results are visible for all to see: several FemaPalooza veterans have gone on to make successful careers out of comedy, including popular Indian comedians like Prashasti Singh and Aishwarya Mohanraj.
But getting more women to come out and watch these shows is equally important.
"More women in the audience is the best thing that can happen to a comic because they really laugh their hearts out," Kwatra said.