Theatre practice in India is like the country itself – vast, diverse, pulsating. Theatre in india happens anywhere and everywhere – in badly designed auditoria, in schools and colleges, in parks and gardens, in restaurants, on rooftops, in the open fields, on the streetcorner, and even, some-times, on moving trains. At times, it gives pure delight and touches aesthetic peaks, at others, it is brazen, rude, outspoken and blunt – or both simultaneously.
In Our Stage: Pleasures and Perils of Theatre Practice in India, leading theater practitioners, administrators and scholars, social scientists and activists interrogate theatre practice in India around the themes Locales, Experiments, Assertions, Pathologies, New Realities, and Training and Institution. They also intrrrogate the implicit and explicit premises and projections of the 1956 Drama Seminar. Together, They give a fascinating insight on how theatre happens in India, as well on the most important issues animating this practice.
Sudhana Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch. Delhi. He has taught at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Centre , Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. He works as editor with leftword Books.
Akshara K.V. got theatre training at the National School of Drama, NewDelhi and MA in theatre arts from the Workshop Theatre, University of Leeds, UK. He is associated with the Ninasam group of organizations as a teacher , theatre director and administrator. He also heads Akshara Prakashana, a prominent Kannada publishing house.
Sameera Iyengar graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge (MA) in Mathematics, and got a Ph.D focusing on theater in India from the University of Chicago, USA. She worked for a dhort while with he Seagull Theatre Quaterly. She is Director Projects, Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai.
Writing in the 'On Stage' issue of the journal Seminar (April 1962), Habib Tanvir lamented the state of our theatre culture, ostensibly 2,000 years old, which seeks to 'revive all that is dead and gone,' rather than 'squeeze out of an old classic contemporary meaning for a contemporary audience'. When not reviving the classical drama through productions 'dead as mutton', theatre workers follow 'the worst sort of naturalistic styles inspired by films or borrowed mechanically from the West'.
Western theatre itself, though, was undergoing 'a great crisis', namely, 'the lack of playwrights who can hold the interest of the modern audience'. The point, according to Tanvir, is not to reject anything out of hand, be it the western naturalistic theatre, or the Indian classical theatre, or the rural theatre, but to try and achieve 'a greater amalgamation' of the various arts music, dance, literature, painting, and so on as well as of the various theatrical genres and traditions. 'For inspiration, we can look anywhere and everywhere, provided we get the liberty to experiment and give ourselves a chance, using aesthetic balance and applying ourselves to the needs and dictates of our times'. The main task, he felt, was 'to provide a theatre which causes the young playwright to write plays on topical themes in new, indigenous and effective forms'.
These words could have been written today. In many ways, the problems of Indian theatre or, more accurately since the field is so disparate and we have many theatres that are Indian, rather than one 'Indian Theatre' one should say the problems of theatre in India, remain the same. We are still casting our searchlights in the dark for playwrights who can write plays on topical themes in new, indigenous and effective forms.
Not that India hasn't produced great playwrights. There was an efflorescence of play writing in India in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Playwrights such as Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, Badal Sircar and Utpal Dutt in Bengali, Chandrasekhar Kambar and Girish Karnad in Kannada did their best work in this time. Many of their plays were translated and performed in several languages within months, if not weeks. Directors like Satyadev Dubey and B.V. Karanth worked in multiple languages across different cities to stage productions that rapidly set the benchmark for Indian theatrical practice. Every new production from, say, Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre or Kanhailal's company would travel across the country to several cities. The National School of Drama in Delhi did arguably its best work in this period. The Sangeet atak Akademi was yet to become a white elephant.
This efflorescence lasted a surprisingly short while. Paradoxically, as the means of travel and communication became faster and more accessible, theatre has tended to become more and more insular. Theatre enthusiasts in Calcutta are no longer familiar with what's happening in Bombay; Bombay theatrewallahs have hardly a clue about the scene in Bangalore; Bangalore doesn't show work from Delhi; and nobody gives a damn about Imphal anyway.
The institutional structure of Indian theatre remains skewed and deeply flawed. The premier institution for theatre, the National School of Drama, is a bloated behemoth with a budget that far, far outweighs either its needs or its output. In fact, it is shocking that the NSD alone commandeers more of the budget of the Department of Culture than the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the zonal cultural centres, and a dozen other bodies meant to promote theatre in the country put together.
There is a severe dearth of performance spaces that are well-designed, functional, have the basic equipment, and are affordable. The last is the key requirement. Too many theatre groups fold up after some years of promising work simply because they are unable to financially sustain their work given hall rentals and advertising costs. Finding rehearsal space is a nightmare. A Prithvi Theatre in Bombay or a Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, theatre spaces run by managements that are committed to building a vibrant and sustainable theatre culture, seem like a boon precisely because there is nothing like them in other cities, or even more of them in their own cities. Corporate support, for the ordinary theatre group, is hard to get and harder still to retain.
There are, of course, new trends. We now have, for instance, plays without playwrights. Indeed, many plays are not even 'plays' in the commonly understood sense of the term; they are what can be called 'performance pieces', most often evolved, not written by the performer and director (and often, the two roles are combined in one person). Often, such pieces are novel and energetic, and many of them use technology, particularly video projection, in innovative and interesting ways, even If sometimes the medium overpowers the message.
We still have plays by playwrights, of course. In many cases, playwrights are an integral part of the theatre group, and work in close association with the actors. The act of writing, in such cases, is more interactive. Actors improvise even as the writer writes, and the final play is the result of this collaboration between actors and the playwright. New themes and new concerns are being expressed through theatre. Same. sex relationships, the pervasiveness of violence in our lives, the twisting of our imaginations because of sectarian hatred, the encounter of the small town and the metropolis, the retelling of marginalized or forgotten histories all these are themes the contemporary theatre is taking up.
Political theatre, in the sense of activist theatre, has proliferated. Some of it is artistically weak and no more than sloganeering, but some is startlingly creative and exciting. The form of the street play, in the hands of some practitioners, has taken on a complexity that was once thought impossible.
And so, miraculously, against all odds, theatre survives. Theatre in India happens anywhere and everywhere in badly designed auditoria, in schools and colleges, in parks and gardens, in restaurants, on roof tops, in the open fields, on the street corner, even, sometimes, on moving trains. A neglected stepchild of the Indian arts, theatre has developed the cunning of the street kid it forages around for morsels, it takes to any space available and makes it its home, it hoodwinks the cop and outsmarts the bully, and, in the hands of someone like Vijay Tendulkar, it is brazen, rude, outspoken, and blunt.
Since the summer of 2006, a number of theatre practitioners, scholars and theatre lovers have come together under the aegis of the India Theatre Forum to try and create a national resource for theatre and a meeting ground for all those who wish to take on the public responsibility of laying the grounds for excellence and diversity in theatrical endeavour.
Theatre practice and livelihood in India is unsurprisingly like the country itself vast, diverse, and often unconnected and unaware of each other's existence. Much theatre practice is also used to subsisting on meagre resources which means theatre somehow manages to survive rather than thrive in this country. It also means our dreams for what we can do with theatre artistically and socially are invariably limited dreams. We neither strive to imagine our utmost potential nor do we see ourselves as important enough actors in this country's social fabric. Of course, there are exceptions people who have thought deeply, believed in the potential of theatre, and shown it consistently in their work. People who have found innovative ways of stepping beyond the struggle of survival and created vibrant theatre communities of performers, audiences and supporters.
The question that led to the creation of the India Theatre Forum was: can this happenstance become the norm? Can we overcome what we see as limitations, can we learn to identify and recognize opportunities and openings, can we think in terms of long-term growth and sustenance? Such work cannot be done in isolation, but requires the coming together of dedicated and experienced people who have an abiding interest in the field of theatre, and who represent the diverse knowledge and experience base of theatre in this country. It requires the constant exchange of ideas and information, as well as intensive and open debate and discussion.
As a step in this direction, in March 2008, more than a hundred theatre practitioners, critics, scholars, social scientists, activists, and theatre lovers came together at Ninasam in Heggodu, Karnataka, to discuss, debate, and critique the state of our theatre. The event that brought them together was called 'Not the Drama Seminar: Theatre Practice in India Today', organized by the India Theatre Forum.
The word 'seminar' comes with too many cliches attached to it. This particular seminar was not meant be an academic affair, attended mostly by academics. It sought to address itself, first and foremost, to practitioners of theatre in different parts of the country. The organizers invited representatives from some of the most active theatre groups in the country, as well as individuals not connected to theatre groups, but active in the theatre. They also asked participants to pass on the invitation. In addition, what the seminar did was to also bring together some of the finest theorists from different fields with the theatre practitioners. This led to a tremendous cross-pollination of ideas. Whereas the usual seminar has an audience of some 30-odd people, this seminar, in every session, saw the participation of about a hundred and fifty.
The seminar was not academic in another sense of the term as well. Too many seminars tend to adopt a mode that is largely theoretical, interpretative, literary what Susan Sontag called 'hermeneutics' in her classic essay 'Against Interpretation'. This seminar sought to connect our enquiries to the materiality of theatrical practice in India 'erotics' in Susan Sontag's essay. In other words, this seminar was fundamentally not about the past, but about the present; not about the present as it is, but about the present as it has come to be; not about what was, but about what might be. In other words, the seminar sought to historicize our current theatrical practices.
The act of historicizing implies two other critical processes: the act of contextualizing, and the act of problematizing. As we said above, the field of 'Indian theatre' cannot be understood except in its multiplicity and diversity. Yet, in practice, the many worlds of 'Indian theatre' stay aloof even indifferent to each other. This seminar sought to bring not only many of these different worlds face to face, but also to see the different worlds in context of each other, and indeed in context of the world outside the theatrical. At the same time, it was clear to the organizers that this was going to be a coming together of people who work in what can be loosely called, following the negative logic of the Apoha doctrine, 'non-traditional, non-commercial theatre'. As a result, the various kinds of traditional theatre covered by both those problematic terms, 'classical' and 'folk' did not come under the purview of the seminar, nor did the different kinds of commercial theatre. These 'exclusions' were not ideologically motivated they were partly for reasons of practicality, but more importantly out of the recognition that we, as various kinds of non- traditional, non-commercial theatre practitioners, simply did not possess the competence to deal with these worlds. Our incompetence would not have mattered had the seminar been more academic, geared towards theoretical understanding. But this seminar was not purely academic. G.P. Deshpande, in his closing comments, made a distinction between 'slogans for propaganda' and 'slogans for action'. This seminar was a 'slogan for action'.
Gatherings of this kind are useful if they help us rethink our assumptions, to interrogate our own practice, both artistic and theoretical. There is no doubt that the challenges and difficulties that theatre practice in India faces are monumental. As Sadanand Menon wrote after the seminar:
We should not behave as if 'Indian Theatre' whatever that is or theatre in India, has arrived. It is yet on an evolutionary path, still seeking its own contour, still gazing into the glass, still coming to grips with its complex identity. The question then is about what can renew theatre and performance practice. In the Indian context, it is about where to identify and locate these sources for change in a field of activity admittedly broad and diverse.
Unfortunately, our theatre practices suffer from limiting notions. One of the biggest limitations is segmentation. Even conceptually it seems locked into disciplinary insularity. There is a huge disconnect between oral, textual and physical traditions. On top of it, theatre has been poached upon and denuded by cinema. Yet, theatre refuses to learn from the energising integrations of cinema and move on.
These impediments of practice, policy and implementation stand in the way of the vitally- needed renewal, something that daily threatens our performance practice. It will be tragic if another Drama Seminar, 50 years hence, will end on a similar lament.
A few disclaimers. The book does not include the proceedings of the seminar in their entirety. The India Theatre Forum is committed to putting up the unedited video proceedings on its website, www.theatreforum.in. Work on the site is on as we go to press.
The seminar was divided into six sessions. This book includes all the papers, the presentations by the respondents, and an edited and compressed version of the discussions that followed. In some cases, speakers revised their papers for publication. In editing the discussion, we have not followed strict chronology the idea was to group together themes, rather than tell the reader the order in which people spoke. In some cases, discussion that actually took place in two lots has been presented as a single text here. In a few cases, the discussion refers to something that has been edited. In some cases, where the reference appears mystifying, we have inserted a note to clarify. In other cases, we think the discussion is self-explanatory and has been left as is. On the whole, we have tried to maintain the polemical energy of the seminar, where opinions were debated and discussed over several sessions.
Since this was not an academic seminar, we have limited references in the shape of notes to the very bare minimum. In the seminar, some presentations were entirely written up, some were oral based on notes, some were entirely oral. We have tried to keep the different levels of 'orality' intact while preparing the text for publication. If some presentations read more like 'spoken texts' than others, this is deliberate.
The six sessions were sandwiched by an inaugural and a closing session. Some of the proceedings of these two sessions are also included. Some of the presentations and talks that happened at the seminar are not included in the book for instance, the presentation on the India Theatre Forum website, and P. Sainath's talk on 'Inequalities'. Other talks are included, but as a rule the discussion that followed talks is excluded. The order in which the talks appear in the book does not match the order in which the talks were actually delivered. This, too, is to aid the flow of the book.
An informal part of the seminar were a series of conversations that were recorded on video. These were: George Jose and Aijaz Ahmad on the Indian left and its critics; Sudhanva Deshpande and Sad an and Menon on politics and networks; Sundar Sarukkai and Gopal Guru on the politics of representation; S. Raghunandana and Shiv Visvanathan on the notion of experiment; and Keval Arora and Shanta Gokhale on writing on, and reviewing, theatre. We have included two of these in the book; all five will be available once the website is public.
The schedule of the seminar is reproduced as an appendix to this book, and the reader will note that the seminar combined formal sessions with other presentations, talks, and performances. Also appended is the list of participants who registered themselves. Those who did not register Ninasam faculty, staff and students, residents of Heggodu, members of the teams that performed at the seminar are not included, even though they too attended the entire seminar or parts of it.
Lastly, the increasingly controversial question of place names. Mumbai or Bombay? Kolkata or Calcutta? And so on. As a rule, we have used the form preferred by the speaker/author.
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