About the Book
In this unique publication on theatre performance, twenty-two critically acclaimed actors talk to us about their journeys-their lives and aspirations, their in depth training, and lasting stage careers. The range of these stalwarts spannings a period from the 1850s-1990s includes Binodini Dasi, Bal Gandharva, Fida Hussain, Zohra Segal, Sambhu Mitra, Shreeram Lagoo, Utpal Datt, Mahohar Singh, Uttara Baokar, Naseerudin Shah Heisnam Sabitri and Maya Krishna Rao, among many others.
Researched over a decade. The Art of Becoming is set against India’s struggle for independence. Side-by side, this book also explores the complexities of women actors trying to gain acceptance in public life as professionals. In light of the changing political clime, these personal narratives altogether contribute to a riveting account about the encounter with the theatre of the West that was absorbed rapidly by Indian practitioners. Visiting companies from England, the United States of America and Europe provide a template for modern forms of theatre practice. The foundation for the evolution of a national culture and identity that comes into its own with the intensification of the freedom struggle.
Through such vicissitudes, Indian theatre practitioners are compelled to bring social and political issues into the public arena, making theatre a platform of resistance, culminating in the 1940s with the pioneering work of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), as well as individuals like Prithviraj Kapoor and Utpal Dutt. The founding of the National school of Drama in the late 1950s with its dedicated programme to meet the challenges of a fast developing transcultural, international theatre practice is also discussed at length.
The Act of Becoming is a fascinating account of the evolution of modern Indian theatre, putting actors at the forefront of this powerful medium.
About the Author
Amal Allana was born in 1947 and raised in a family of theatre stalwarts. She majored in Direction from the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi in 1968, going on to esteemed theatre companies for training in the former GDR, such as the Berliner Ensemble and the National Theatre Weimar among others. Later, she had the unique opportunity to study theatre forms such as Noh and Kabuki in Japan.
A renowned theatre director of over 60 productions, Allana's plays are meditative reflections on our times, a vision that transcends narrow definitions of culture and nationality, thereby exploring the intercultural nature of human experience. For the last eight years, as Chairperson of NSD, she has focused her creative and administrative energies on spearheading the nation's premier theatre institute.
Amal Allana has earlier contributed to the field through heading the Department of Indian Theatre, Chandigarh, establishing theatre companies in Mumbai and Delhi (The Workshop, Studio 1 and Theatre and Television Associates [TTA]), and setting up a school to impart theatre training (The Dramatic Art and Design Academy [DADA]) along with her husband, Nissar Allana. She writes on theatre, also disseminating its many facets to the public at large through talks, seminars, exhibitions, and workshops.
Allana is the recipient of several national and international awards, including the Sangeer Natak Academy Award for Direction in 1998. She lives and works in Delhi.
The act of becoming' is what we are always doing, as long as we draw breath and have awareness. Even after, in the long sleeps of decline and death, we are becoming what we were not. Theatre is the great human model of becoming. Actors become who they are and who they are not, simultaneously. Their roles are themselves and not themselves. Manohar Singh, in Cherry ka Bagicha, was always 'Manohar' and 'Gayev' at the same time. When he used his pool cue stick to point, to raise in enthusiasm, or just to hold in his hand for security, I saw both the gentle Manohar I knew and the melancholy but empathic Gayev he created. But actors are not the only 'becomers' in theatre. The whole enterprise - managers, directors, designers, architects, even spectators - are involved in the construction of imagination. I say 'theatre' but of course I mean all the children of theatre too: rituals of so many kinds, film, television, the internet - the various realms, some technologically sophisticated, some as simple as a wood block and an idea - that comprise the multiple worlds where 'make believe' and 'make belief' converge.
At a very personal level, India has been my key site of becoming. My involvement with India has been immense - its theatre and theatre people, its rituals, and religious practices, its chowks and bazaars, its foods and languages, its rivers, especially the Ganga, its cities and villages, its fabulous street life: there is too much to speak of in a single piece of writing. I first came to India in October 1971, just as the Indo-Pak war was giving birth to Bangladesh. Stepping off the plane in New Delhi, travelling on to Calcutta, I worked briefly in one of the refugee camps, met theatre people right and left - Ebrahim Alkazi, Suresh Awasthi, Shyamanand Jalan (and many more) - and then continued on to places north, south, east, and west, experiencing the kinds of theatre I had not even known the names of: Chhau, Yakshagana, Jatra, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Bhand Pather, Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Theyyam, Bharatanatyam, Tamasha, Odissi . In those first trips, from the tumult of north India to the deep calm of learning yoga in Madras from Krishnamacharya, India literally shaped me. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The shock of my first encounter with Calcutta changed my life. Let me share a few words from my notebook entry of 26 October 1971, what I saw and felt at that moment:
Calcutta. Another world. Inside Grand Hotel - fearful of going out. Not exactly afraid - but wishing to remain unaware. Driving in from Dum Dum Airport - thousands of people sleeping out in the streets, unimaginable poverty, this "luxury" hotel coming apart - or rather desperately trying to hold itself together. Swimming pool with no one swimming. Consciousness of 9 million (!) refugees. [. . ] Beggars in the streets, but more pathetic by far are those who sleep in a daze, barely living, wrapped in heat, rags, hunger, and disease. One Indian confessed to me that it does not take long to shut these people out. [. . ] One goes down the street not seeing - stepping over the dying in fact as one does in consciousness: assigning these people to empty places where they perish in the void.
But that was only part of the story. At the same time as my shock at what I experienced in the streets, was the redemption of what happened to me during my first encounter. with Indian theatre. Again, from the same notebook:
Dr. [Suresh] Awasthi lectures on Ramayan drama [. . .]. We [Joan MacIntosh and] I have been taken over by [Shyamanand] Jalan and his followers. We have no idea whether they are good or bad. They are tied in with the theatre in Delhi. [Ebrahim] Alkazi gave us gifts and phone numbers. We go with the currents which bear us here and there. On Thursday we're out of town to some kind of village celebration. Before and after lots of theatre here - two, three shows a night - [seeing just] parts of each [before moving on to another].
From new Indian plays to productions of Brecht; from Jatra to Baul singers; from the sophisticated worlds of Alkazi and Jalan to the bhajan singers at the place where Ramakrishna entered samadhi.
All of a sudden - and those first several weeks were like a flash, a slap in the face, a deep tug at my guts, an initiation, and more - I was not who I had been; and I never again would be the same. I had seen it 'all' from dying to ecstatic living, from poverty to luxury, from ritual to art, from war's ravage to the enthusiasm of a new nation being born. And I experienced all this from the core consciousness of theatre, of performance - accompanying and learning from theatre directors, scholars, actors, and spectators.
I must leap ahead in time and in the development of my abilities to comprehend. The year is 1976 and I am in Ramnagar, across the Ganga from Varanasi. I am at Ramlila. Even after everything I had seen in 1971, and after the tour through north India of The Performance Group's Mother Courage in 1976, and my trip to south India after the tour was over, nothing prepared me for Ramlila. I did not experience all 31 days, but the few Lilas I attended opened up for me a new kind of mass popular religious/ritual/ playful/dramatic theatre. I began what has become a 37 years engagement with Ramnagar Ramlila. This vast cycle play is a panorama of mythopoetic space, environmental theatre, intense Hindu devotion, role-playing and role-inhabiting' where the five swarups are (for those who take darshan as believers) the Gods Rama, Sita, and Rama's three brothers. Among many things anthropological and theatrical, what grabs me most in Ramlila is the total integration of theatrical modes. Everything is there: audience participation, singing, drama, story-telling, costuming, environmental staging across many locations in Ramnagar, an intense bonding of the Maharaja of Banaras who is Ramlila's patron and the priests, actors, effigy-and-fireworks-makers, elephant drivers . and swarups. Truly the three worlds of the gods, humans, and demons converge in this cross-section of north India including not only devout Hindus but also many Muslims.
The articles in this book are about theatre, not rituals. But the two are intimately linked, especially in India where 'theatre' takes place in temples and mosques, in the streets, in shopping malls and bazaars: an expanded definition of theatre, what is called 'performance'. My academic discipline is 'performance studies' which I (and my colleagues) developed from the 1970s onwards. I could not have devised performance studies without the experiences I had in India.
After coming to India, I wanted my artistic work to engage directly with Indian audiences and artists. In 1976, as noted, I brought my environmental staging of Brecht's Mother Courage to New Delhi, Calcutta and Sinjole, a nearby village, Bombay, Lucknow, and Bhopal. When most of The Performance Group left India, I stayed on. During the summer, I rented a cottage in Churuthuruthy, Kerala, in order to observe Kathakali training at the Kalamandalam; to observe performances of Kathakali and Kudiyattam, the rituals of Theyyam, and the martial art, Kalaripayattu. While in Kerala, I undertook a reading of the Natyashastra and parts of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas (in English translation). From the Natyashastra - and from scholars of the NS such as Kapila Vatsyayan, Pramod Kale, and M. Krzysztof Byrski - I learned about the rasas, the bhavas, and the whole complex system of emotional expression embodied therein. This theory of aesthetic experience as taste, flavour, a bouquet of emotions saturating performance, deeply affected me. It was exactly the non-visual, profoundly embodied theory I was seeking. Over time, I developed the 'rasaboxes', performer training exercises combining the rasa theory from the Natyashastra , Antonin Artaud's assertion that the actor should be 'an athlete of the emotions', and new neurological evidence of a 'brain in the belly': the enteric nervous system. Now, rasaboxes is widely taught in the USA and is beginning to be taught globally.
The work with rasa, combined with meetings with Indian scholars and artists, conferences on specific forms such as the three kinds of Chhau - Purulia, Mayurbhanj, and Seraikella - began to coalesce in my mind and influence the way I was thinking about not only theatre but the whole broad spectrum of performance. I was no longer bound to one genre or one concept or location. The broad spectrum of performance included aesthetics - theatre, dance, music - but it also comprised performance in everyday life, popular entertainments and sports, rituals, and playing of all kinds. This approach developed from the late 1970s onward, driven by my experiences in India and other parts of Asia and my collaboration with Victor Turner, an anthropologist whose fieldwork was in sub- Saharan Africa. Soon enough, the new discipline of 'performance studies' was born. A hybrid surely, and an exceedingly fertile one. From the very first department at New York University in 1980 until now when there are performance studies departments and programs in every continent (except Antarctica).
But I was not the only Western artist learning and borrowing from Asia, and India in particular. While at the Kalamandalam, I found Eugenio Barba's 1963 letter: "My visit to Kalamandalam has greatly helped me in my studies and the research material I have collected will surely be of the greatest assistance to those people working at the Theatre Laboratory in Poland." Those people' meant Jerzy Grotowski and his colleagues. In devising actor training methods, Grotowski adapted face work, head and body rolls, and specific ways of moving through space based on what Barba collected. Yoga too was very important to Grotowski during some phases of his artistic work. Grotowski himself made several trips to India and in addition to the many traditional artists he met, was a decisive audience with The Mother in Auroville. I also met her, and was deeply affected. Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine drank deeply from the fountains of Indian performance knowledge. India is at the very core of how these iconic directors imagine theatre, and not only in the performances of The Mahabharata (1985) and Dndiade (1987). Phillip Zarrilli, though not as well known as the others just mentioned, is extremely influential through his books on psychophysical actor training. Zarrilli's idea of performance is founded on his deep study and mastery of Kalaripayattu. Beyond these masters, are myriad others who carried to the West what they learned in India. So much so that I can write: without Indian theatre, theory, and performer training practices, today's Western theatre would not be what it is.
I do not consider these influences nee-colonial, but rather, arising out of the deep respect many Westerners have for Indian culture. The same in reverse is evidenced in the book you are reading. Modern Indian theatre would be unimaginable without Western input. In India - as this book so richly demonstrates - there is a complex weave of the indigenous and the imported, the traditional and the modern. To give but one example among many, Utpal Dutt - actor, director, founder of theatres, dedicated Marxist - combined in his work, Jatra and Brecht, Left ideology and traditional Bengali acting. Dutt is far from alone in combining inputs from traditional India - what Suresh Awasthi called 'the roots' - with a global modernity. As the reader moves through the sections of this extraordinary volume, she/he sees and reads precious accounts of creative hybridity. In fact, all cultures are multiple, there is no such thing as 'purity'. And when people strive for such purity, the outcome is both dangerous and sterile. Think of the Nazi obsession with racial 'purity' (in the name of the Aryans, no less, appropriating the swastika). And think of today's calls for such purity, 'ethnic cleansing', and the likes.
In 1983 I was invited by the NSD Repertory to stage Anton Chekhov's Cherry ka Bagicha (The Cherry Orchard). I had the best team to work with. Nissar Allana designed the environment for the NSD outdoor theatre and surrounding terrain that included a whole house onstage, an orchard of more than 200 freshly planted trees, an outdoor ballroom illuminated by thousands of incandescent bulbs, and a two-horse carriage to carry the family away at the end of the play. Amal Allana designed with meticulous care the 19th century Russian costumes. And the actors! Manohar Singh as Gayev and Surekha Sikri as Ranevskaya headed up an accomplished ensemble. I was able in that production to combine the practice I developed in New York with the experiences I had in India.
This book - in its own unique and powerful way - continues the work of Cherry ka Bagicha. Here Amal Allana brings her vast knowledge of Indian and world theatre honed by having directed around 60 productions. The book you hold in your hands connects this deep knowledge earned by practice with the practice of other artists from the 19th century on to our own days. What Allana has done is to vastly increase our experiential knowledge of what these artists did by presenting them in their own words, within their own cultural contexts. Paradoxically, this India- specific book is an intercultural volume. For the Indian experience,
especially if read across time and the vastly diverse cultures of the sub-continent, is global.
To thrive in the future, we must work in the present. And to work successfully in the present, we must know the past. In doing so, we are each in the midst of the 'act of becoming' .
The theatre is not merely a form of entertainment. It is a way of looking at life. What a theatre school seeks to impart is not the knowledge of techniques, but the creation of a particular vision: the dramatic vision. Apart from offering a course of studies of the highest academic and technical excellence, a school of drama must have a specific attitude to the theatre. This is inconceivable without a purposeful attitude to life. The very syllabus of a school should, even in its barest outline, indicate the logic, consistency, and integrity of its aim.
How and where does one start? Five thousand years of theatre in India is not a matter of history. It is simultaneously past and present, a contemporary scene within which the student has to work and out of which he must evolve a dramatic style reflecting a modern sensibility. We have in India today, existing side by side, primitive tribal ritual in the devil dancers of Bhagvati in the South, the delicate mystique of the masked Chhau dancers of Bihar, and the ritualistic drama of the Yakshagana in Karnataka. We have forms of the Italian Commedia dell'arte in the street shows of Terukkuttu in the South, the Bhavai in the West, the Nautanki and Nakal in the North, and we have the strolling players in the Jatra of Bengal and the Tamasha of Maharashtra. In addition, each region has its own characteristic and charming minor forms of entertainment, such as the dummy horse dancers of Tanjore. All these forms, which are an instantaneous capsule of the whole gamut of theatre in historical perspective, are today alive and meaningful for our people. They are held together by the powerful living myths that have linked the Indian people for millennia in an early blood bond of racial memory.
To experience, study, and evaluate the dramatic forms in this subcontinent, to seek the causes of their vitality or decay, to get the feel of our country and our people, the smell of our earth, the dignity, grace, and poise of our fellow men, the worlds of their imagination, the motion of their minds, the pulse of their blood - these are the very bases for the study of drama.
Beyond this there is the wider perspective of world theatre, of two thousand years of the dramatic literature of the West: the Greeks, the Elizabethans, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, the Romantics, Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and the staggering variety of modern drama. And there is our own dramatic heritage from that in classical Sanskrit all the way to contemporary drama in fourteen regional languages.
To contend with such a vast panorama, the student actor must be alive and dynamic in body, technically accomplished, profound and sensitive in his understanding of the changing forms of art, and highly disciplined in his aesthetic sensibility. The body requires flexibility, grace, and stamina. Yoga provides exercise, concentration, and control of the body and mind. Intellectually, the student actor must be aware of the implicit and symbolic meanings of the theatrical form. He must be able to correlate such divergent styles as the classic comedy of Moliere's The Miser or Tartuffe with the broad music-ha ed folk style of Maharashtra's Tamasha. Here, the stock characters are of the Commedia type. Song, dances, mime, and the bold percussion music give them an earthy probe and power.
The actor must asimilate the principles underlying the various form of classical theatre and regard them at the same time through the vision of the twentieth century. He must be able to reinterpret the tragic Greek myths as in Euripedes' Medea and peer into the tenebrous depths of the human psyche. He must be able to discern the moral and artistic courage of The Trojan Women, through which Euripede tackled the expansionist policies of Athens. He must relate Greek drama to Greek art, seeing how each in its own way mirrors the human predicament. He must discover for the ancient play a contemporary form. And he must see the direct connection between his dramatic experience on the stage and the social and political situation in which he exists. In the faces he glimpses in new papers and journals of his own time, he must recognise the Hecuba of today, and the Andromaches, the Astyanaxes, the Cassandras, and the women of Troy. He must realise that violence and brutality are man-made, not inevitable; that an artistic act is meaningless unless it is sustained by a social conscience. He must study the other visionaries of his time, the artists, and see how their works bear the same tragic stamp. He must discern the same tragic gestures and spirit in the drawings of his contemporary, Troy Mehta, or in the monumental figures of Kathe Kollwitz, and these experience he must relate to the experiences of his own living myths - those of the Mahabharata, the great war as dramatised in a modern play of tragic dimension, Andha Yug.
Afflicted beings are presented against monuments pitted, scarred, and broken by time. The eloquence of ancient stone walls establishing a dialogue with the winged words of the modern poet. Human action is seen as an infinitesimal part of the inexorable cycle of nature.
The actor must learn to distinguish between different types of tragic experience, between different visions of the universe and the place of man in it, between Agamemnon and Lear. He must learn to exude the vitality which is the hallmark of a classic, ferocious, monumental, masculine power, as in the tragedies of the Greeks and the Elizabethans, or the tranlucent luminosity and feminine grace of the Sanskrit masterpieces. How to evoke, sustain, and control this power, how to project it through the shape of his performance - this the actor must learn. He must sense the essential qualitie of earth and blood in ritual in such divergent rural dramas as Lorca's Yerma and Rakesh's Ashad Ka Ek Din, based on the life of the sanskrit poet, Kalidasa. He must study the vicious satiric comedy of Ben [onson's Volpone and seek to balance it with the Khayal, the satiric folk drama of Rajasthan, featuring episodes of biting wit and an indictment of petty bureaucracy, local customs, and religious bigotry.
Apart from this, a student actor learns to see himself as part of a creative team. He studies theatre architecture from the classical Sanskrit and Greek to the theatres of Minneapolis and Chichester to see the connection between dramatic and architectural form. He learns scenic design to experience at first hand the rapport between the actor and the space around him, between the shaping of silence into words and the carving of space into shape. He supplements his knowledge of Chekhov by analysing the works of the Impressionist painters. In Cezanne, he discovers the crystalline structure similar to that found in the plays of Ibsen. He begins, thus, to establish correspondences - to see how the spirit of an age frequently manifests itself in many art form. He must also know costume design, make-up, and the making of masks, which are essentially functions of the actor - to invest himself in the character - rather than those of specialists serving him. And the knowledge of lighting he gleans from the great Masters - Caravaggio, El Greco, and Rembrandt - to the Modems, rather than from technical handbooks.
Each age demands a new interpretation and evaluation of the past. It is such constant reassessment that keeps tradition alive and vital. It is essential that the current time find its own investigators, its own interpreters. Only one who ha lived our days, suffered our pains, witnessed our crimes, betrayed our faiths, and who has had, beyond that, the passionate need to discover the truth, the good, and evil of our times - only such a one can be our spokesman in the theatre.
The story of contemporary Indian theatre as performance needs to be narrated primarily through visual documentation, as it then clarifies and illustrates the trends of performance that have evolved and developed from the 1840s onwards, a date that is loosely regarded as the beginning of the modernist movement in Indian theatre. Contemporary theatre seen as practice has been a neglected area for a number of reasons, including the fact that scholarship on Indian theatre in general tends to regard practice as an offshoot of playwriting, with academics tending to focus on productions being 'interpretations' of play-texts, rather than assessing them independently within the changing parameters of newly evolving performance aesthetics. In a scenario where newer forms of theatre have rapidly moved onto being extensions of and fusions with other media like the visual arts, music, dance, and, of course, cinema and video, or vice versa, it becomes clear that the discourse on theatre practice in general, and acting in particular, requires theatre to be seen as an evolving, multi- disciplinary art form.
In a rather bleak archival scenario where no substantial and organised national or private holdings on theatre are currently available, the process of documenting any aspect of performance is a Herculean task. The materials that have been sourced for this book in terms of photographs for example, have come from scant and scattered public and private collections of individual performers, directors or designers. The same goes for interviews and essays of performances that may have appeared in newspapers, small theatre magazines or books, either in English and/or other regional languages that have been translated and reproduced in this volume. They too have not been accessed from any centralised national or regional archives, but have been collected personally by individuals such as my husband, Nissar Allana and myself. Our modest collection, undertaken since some forty odd years, stems from our interest in piecing together, for ourselves, the vast jigsaw puzzle that constitutes the story of Indian theatre.
Personally, my interest in the story of contemporary Indian theatre arises basically from a long cherished wish to understand the socio- historical imperatives that have driven and had a bearing on the contemporary theatre movement. Secondly, it was very clear that this would help me understand and locate my own position within the movement. It therefore became important to me as a practising director, to trace and discover my own connection to a vast, complex and fascinating theatrical ancestry, but one that lay scattered and unassembled, not rationalised into a cohesive journey.
More specifically my interest is in the thoughts, ideas, and lives of actors, of the performers themselves. Therefore I began to piece together the history of Indian theatre primarily through first person accounts of actors themselves. This way history becomes alive, real. The words of actors are valuable because they are laden with layers of felt and lived experience. Actors may not have the facility of using words and phrases as precisely as academics, but they have a directness and energy that conveys the spirit and passion of their preoccupations. So, in a sense this book is an assemblage of oral histories, memories, confessions of actors (and sometimes directors about actors) about the way they feel about their work, their working conditions, their careers, and their lives. This oral history has never been collated so far, and it needs to be, as it is essentially such first person accounts that form the bedrock of any significant documentation that is a prerequisite for further scholarship.
These accounts by actors are fascinating, because they carry the amazing, bristling energy of people who are in the 'act' of creating something, making history, so that the story of contemporary Indian theatre then is seen to be in a constant state of 'becoming' . realising itself as a kind of performance of itself!
As one moves through the book, across a span of some 150 years, one becomes acutely aware that entire generations of the founding fathers of Indian theatre were primarily actors. Actors have been writers, actors have been directors, actors have been managers! Only about a third of the actors discussed in this book have singularly pursued acting alone, whereas two thirds have played multiple roles. This means that it is actors who have more or less dictated and defined the growth and development of theatre practice in India and not really directors or writers as is normally assumed. This possibly accounts for contemporary Indian theatre directly evolving on stage as it were, as practice. From the very beginnings of the movement, performances did not evolve from page to stage, rather, roles were written with specific actors in mind, while writers scribbled dialogues or lyrics sitting in on all rehearsals. Thus it was not literary play texts, but actual performance texts that were created for theatre companies by persons like Girishchandra Ghosh. Regarded as the father of modern Bengali theatre, Girish Ghosh for example, wrote plays, as well as directed and acted in them. Bal Gandharva was not only a brilliant actor/singer in a new genre of operatic theatre called the Natya Sangeet form, but was also the owner of one of the largest theatre companies of Maharashtra, the Gandharva Natak Mandali. He commissioned plays, managed an enormous company of over a hundred employees, organised tours, supervised sets and costumes, all of which contributed to his eminence of being a practitioner who was remarkable not only for his histrionic and singing talents, but one who contributed enormously to the movement as a whole.
The organisational and histrionic skills of such eminent actors was combined with their intellectual capacity to rapidly absorb new ideas of dramaturgy, staging and technology from the West, and immediately transform and remodel them with creative inventiveness, into a genre of socially instructive, politically conscious, highly appealing and engrossing theatre that was essentially Indian in its sensibility. It is this quality of eclectic playfulness and creative inventiveness then, that characterised much of the new, popular urban theatre evolved in 19th century that one found compelling. In its response to new,
Western ideas, it suggests an attitude that celebrates hybridist, rather than shying away from it. In this respect it is not dissimilar to a postmodern approach.
In fact, it was only in the mid 1970s, while in the midst of trying to collect material related to gender and performance that were my preoccupations as a director then, that I inadvertently stumbled on some texts, but more importantly, photographs, of Bal Gandharva, one of the greatest female impersonators of the late 19th and early 20th century. I was startled and intrigued by a man playing a woman so realistically. The postures, the gestures, the way the sari fell effortlessly from his shoulders, the subtle facial expressions . all this was not part of an Indian tradition of highly stylised theatricality. Where had this come from?
Despite being born in Bombay and having lived there till I was 16 years old, I was not familiar with either the names of great performers like Bal Gandharva or Jaishankar Sundari, who had been very much part of the theatre history of Bombay, nor was I aware that an operatic form of theatre like the Natya Sangeet, that Bal Gandharva practised, had ever existed. I did not realise that even as late as the 1960s, the Natya Sangeet continued to be performed (and continues even till today) in the not-so-posh quarters of Bombay, relying on the middle class or mill workers as audience. I am ashamed to admit that 'we', the so-called intellectual class of people who were doing English theatre in Bombay the 1950s, d id not frequent such theatre performances at all.
My ignorance quite simply stemmed from the fact that I had grown up in a family and an environment that was cosmopolitan in outlook, English speaking, and one that at that time totally debunked and rejected this genre as 'commercial' theatre activity. The generation of 'progressive'/internationally-aware artists who were among the young intellectuals, be they dancers, theatre artists or painters, viewed all forms of 'popular' art or 'bazaar' art, as 'cheap', 'tawdry', 'vulgar' and 'crass'. The Hindi films were also regarded as part of this subculture, and so 'we', were never encouraged to see 'Hindi' movies! Commercial theatre and commercial films were regarded as 'impure', lowly forms that did not deal with subjects or aesthetics that 'meaningful' art aspired to. For art of any variety to pander to 'popular' tastes was deemed unseemly.
Ideas such as these were commonly held by the artists and actors who regularly visited our home. Instead they actively supported a new internationalism in the arts that was winning worldwide attention. It was global and inclusive in nature and was in protest against divisive and exploitative forces that had been responsible for colonialism, exploitation, and the devastation caused by the two world wars.
However, a decade and a half later, I shifted from Bombay to Delhi along with my parents. By the mid 1960s Indian theatre workers, in a postcolonial bid to reassert their cultural identity, vehemently refuted, overturned, and rejected the influence and impact of Western theatre and its aesthetics on Indian theatre. Instead they made a major bid to embrace and reforge links with Indian folk theatre traditions in the cause of supporting an 'Indian' modernity.
By virtue of belonging to a theatre family I was not only witness to heated discussions around the dinner table by artist friends and my parents, regarding the pros and cons of these systemic shifts in the theatre movement, but as my own career as a theatre director intensified, I began to question the impact of these constant readjustments on my own work. It was clear that I was the next generation and that my preoccupations centred around different issues of identity.
I became increasingly conscious that as an urbanised, postcolonial Indian, I was intellectually a product of two cultures, both Indian and Western, and that I could not lay claim to a single, monolithic, 'Indian' identity. The 'back to roots' movement of the 1970s intensified my sense of shame of not belonging, of being suspended in a kind of no-man's land. It took me some time to admit, even to myself, that I was no thoroughbred, blue-blooded, 'traditional' Indian. My ancestors did not hark back to some remote village in India that had its own folk theatre traditions intact that I could retrieve. In fact, I was genuinely of mixed parentage, Arab and Indian. I was born and brought up in Bombay, I went to a Protestant School and I spoke English at home! I had to accept that I was a hybrid, one of bastardised identity. These were the facts of my birth and my circumstances. So was I not to be regarded as a true 'Indian'? Were other urban Indians such as myself, not Indians?
Questions such as these preoccupied me from the 1970s onwards, as at that time I was surrounded by a movement on the part of theatre people to virtually reassert their 'Indianness' by returning to tradition in order to validate their authenticity as being culturally rooted. The shrill and strident voices that were vehemently rejecting Western theatrical legacy invalidating its usefulness did not entirely convince me. I did not feel that it was possible to erase its footprints entirely. I gradually realised that what I was searching for was perhaps a more integrated, intercultural approach, an approach that is at the core of our postmodern culture.
As a postcolonial director then, what I needed to construct for myself, was a performance language that would indeed reflect my cultural instability, the instability of the post colonial, my inbetweeness, my lack of belonging to any culture/language/ ethnic group, specifically. In theatrical terms this was ultimately translated into my attempting to create a constantly shifting, vacillating identity on stage, one that would dynamically reflect my constant state of uprootedness. So, unlike those before me who were searching for rootedness, I needed to assert my lack of it.
I will digress here briefly, using my own directorial preoccupations as substance to illustrate the emergence of a split identity, a fragmented sense of self that was gradually becoming the apparent and defining feature that separated post-colonialism from post modernism, which was eventually the trajectory that Indian theatre began to move towards from the 1990s onwards.
Although from the 1970s to the early 1990s my productions from Brecht's A Man's a Man (1971) through till The Good Woman of Setzuan (1973 and 1984) dealt with themes that exemplified this uneasy state of the divided self, it was finally in 1993, with the casting of Manohar Singh, a male actor in the role of Brecht's Mother Courage, that the divided self theme manifested itself as one of dual gender in my work. For me this was crucial, as I had finally found an 'image', a visual marker, that contained the sense of a fragmented identity that I wished to foreground. A man playing a woman was expressive both of my uneasy postcolonial cultural identity, as well as my predicament of being ill at ease with a single, stereotypical feminine identity as a woman.
Once I understood that a man playing a woman is in essence the 'performing of gender', I realised that I belonged to a theatre tradition that essentially foregrounds performativity as a metaphor, a symbol. With this understanding I suddenly felt connected to an entire universe of Indian performing traditions. Doors opened up, leading me to older performance traditions like Kathakali, Noh, and Kabuki, in which gender was performed. More importantly I wanted to know more about the beginnings of the modern movement in theatre, where the interface between 'presentational' styles and 'representational' styles had taken place; where the cross over from actor as symbol, to actor as actual embodied character took place in the mid 19th century. When famous female impersonators like Jaishankar Sundari and Bal Gandharva continued the older tradition of men playing women, they simultaneously tried to portray female characters in palpably recognisable renderings under the influence of Western naturalism. Their performances were life-like and 'real' and no longer conventionalised and stylised versions of depicting the female. Their popularity was in exact proportion to their skill in accomplishing an exact and believable external verisimilitude of female characters. More than the realistically conceived sets painted in receding perspective, more than the reality of the social, everyday contemporary themes that were introduced in this era, it was in the uncanny ability on the part of great male actors to accurately portray the woman, in detailed psychological as well as physically accurate terms, that the 'illusion' of theatre as 'reality, was most intensely and effectively realised.
For me this was a supremely historic moment in theatre where Indian theatricality was effectively married to Western realism, where the East and West met and fused together seamlessly, but interestingly where there was a frank acknowledgement of the act of impersonation. I was very keen to mark this first encounter between East and West, and examine it more closely, as it constituted the very roots of modern theatre in this country.
Section I: Staging Desire
Actors, Society, Self: Image and Identity
The Birth of Realism and the Training of the Actor
Girishchandra Ghosh. The Garrick of Bengal
Binodini Dasi: The Prostitute as Saint
Bal Gandharva: The Idealised Woman
Jaishankar Sundari: The Eternal Feminine
Gubbi Veeranna: Scaling the Heights
B. Jayashree in conversation with Amal Allana
Fida Husain Narsi: The Runaway Star
In conversation with Anis Azmi
R. Nagarathnamma: The Valorous Male
Section II: Staging the Nation
Consolidation of the Nationalist Project
Prithviraj Kapoor: The Patriarch
Joan L. Erdman and Zohra Segal
Zohra Segal: The Comic Chameleon
Sombhu Mitra. Poet of the Soul
Tripti Mitra. An Enigma
Section III: Staging Hybridities
Utpal Dutt: The Analytic Actor
Shreeram Lagoo: The Natsamrat
In conversation with Amal Allana
Om Shivpuri: A Classical Colossus
Sudha Shivpuri: A Director's Actor
In conversation with Uttara Baokar
Manohar Singh. The Duality of Being
Uttara Baokar: A Spirit of Endurance
Surekha Sikri. The Fractured Self
In conversation with Amal·Allana
Naseeruddin Shah: The Acerbic Wit
B. Jayashree: The Indigenous Modern
Sabitri Heisnam: Embodying Resistance
In conversation with Sumitra Thoidingjam
Essay by Heisnam Kanhailal
Maya Krishna Rao: Engaged Theatricality
Actor Biographies and Play Lists
North Indian Music (285)
Original Texts (60)
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