During our last meeting with Suresh Nampuri, we took a tour around Lisbon’s famous Prazeres Cemetery, which is close to where he lives in Campo de Ourique. At the time of the meeting, we knew very little about Suresh, and by the time we finished our conversation, we felt that we knew a whole lot more but a whole lot less simultaneously.

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Suresh was born in Bombay, studied physicsis in Europe and is a string theorist, proposing that everything in the universe is made up of tiny vibrating strings, rather than point-like particles.

By all accounts, he is a successful string theorist working as a researcher at Instituto Superior Técnico. In the past year alone, he has traveled to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan to speak on the topic. “I’ve shifted my focus in recent times from black holes to wormholes. Nobody writes papers about wormholes. It’s the type of thing they talk about in Star Trek.”

However, besides his academic pursuits, Suresh is also a story writer, playwright, and theater director. In the past year, he has traveled to Finland, Bulgaria, and Spain for those crafts.

“I’m a storyteller first and foremost,” says Suresh. “It always starts with words. The words are used precisely as a way to distract audiences. The magic exists within the words.”

This week, Suresh is staging JÁ Fest, a theater and arts festival, through his JÁ International Theatre company.

Speaking of the theater company, he says, “It’s a creative ensemble that wants to push storytelling to its limits in the theatrical form by combining genres in various radical fashions to see if we can produce new organic pieces. The primary purpose of JÁ is to tap into the uncertainty of the human condition and create a story that moves you.”

It’s an obvious question, but why JÁ? What’s in the name? “It’s like ya ya ya. It’s short, snappy, catchy and universally optimistic.”

We wonder, why has Suresh Nampuri made the leap from staging theater to putting on a festival?

“We got a European grant from Europa Creativa to see if we could create an organic, holistic, European storytelling experience, along with cultural organizations from 11 other countries. But because there were so many artists coming here as mentors from all over Europe, we thought why not try staging a festival. The Dutch bring movement and dancing, the Swedes bring in virtual reality, and the Finns bring in puppetry. Each brings an exemplary embodiment of their own strengths. It was an unmissable opportunity. They are exposed to the Portuguese stage, and the Portuguese stage can learn a lot from them. We want to jiggle the pot a little bit and see what comes out.”

The week ahead is busy for Suresh and the JÁ team. We decide to have a quick look through the program of events. There is a lot going on. On Monday and Tuesday at Teatro Do Bairro, Elena Vertegal & Maeva Lambert are putting on a show called “Fixe.” “It’s a dynamic embodiment of chaos,” says Suresh. “It’s two years of work by a truly international coming together – Ukrainian, Belgian, and of course, Portuguese talent.”

On the same nights at Teatro Do Bairro, Zid Theatre will be staging shows called ‘Historia’ and ‘Cyrcels.’ “They are from Amsterdam. We have a love affair with them now. They send artists here, and we hope to send artists there. It’s what JÁ is all about.”

Throughout the week, JÁ will be staging various workshops on movement, puppetry, set design, yoga for dancers, and poetry film. “We are focusing on underexposed but vital theater skills,” says Suresh. “We are also having an online masterclass on raising funding for the arts. It is crucial information. We have experts who can address these fields. We have 20 artists coming from 10 countries for these masterclasses.”

Suresh at the Prazeres Cemitery where he sometimes gets inspiration. Foto: Rita Ansone

On Wednesday, Sílvia Almeida stages a show called ‘From Above/Do Alto’ at Teatro do Bairro. “She is an immersive performer. You can only experience her show in a one-to-one mode. Call it performative autofiction if you wish. It is a show that moves you to silence for the right reasons,” explains Suresh.

Also on Wednesday, Noah Hellwing stages a show called ‘Multiplex Realities.’ “He is using technology to immerse the audience in a world where reality can have different meanings. It’s an exploration of presence. It’s what it means to be somewhere.”

On Thursday at Prisma, there will be an exhibition called ‘4 Journalists Interrupted Lives.’ “It’s dedicated to four female journalists who have died in the line of duty. You may ask why a theater festival is having an exhibition like this. But it’s all about narratives. There are multiple narratives in these stories. Journalists have very interesting lives. They have to speak truth to power. These journalists made compromises at the jagged edge of fear.”

At Casa Fernando Pessoa, JÁ will be staging a poetry short film festival on Thursday and Saturday. “We had almost 80 entries from 4 continents. The theme is separation and belonging… and disquiet of course. We are in Portugal after all. There will be screenings and discussions about poetry film.”

At the time of writing, it is the night before the festival is due to begin. How are those jitterbugs for Suresh? “It’s like that feeling right before an army goes to battle. There is a beautiful pregnant silence. I can feel the nerves of all the artists who are coming here – artists who have put so much work into coming here to electrify the stage. Some of them are not even in the country yet. There will be disasters, of course. But it will be a hell of a ride. I feel electrified. Like a lightsaber.”

And there we were thinking Suresh was a Trekkie. “I am a Trekkie – but I can bat’leth my way to a Jedi temple any twin-sunned dawn on Tatooine.'”

The JÁ Fest runs from the 12th – 22nd of April.

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