The Drama of Our Times

Theatre in India continues to be a neglected stepchild of the arts

01 March, 2010

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, the more they remain the same. At least, the problems of theatre in India do (I refrain from using the monolithic term ‘Indian theatre’). The most significant of its challenges are finding institutional sources of funding and discovering original playwriting.

Not that these are new problems. As long ago as 1956, the great actor-director Shambhu Mitra had said:

How long do you believe we can pull on without a morsel to eat and without a shelter to live in? We are ready to work as professionals, we have qualified ourselves to be such. We believe that theatregoers will see that we live and flourish. But how and where may we show them our mettle and to get from them in exchange our requirements? We need a house of our own.

Six years later, Habib Tanvir bemoaned the state of our ostensibly 2,000-year-old theatre culture, 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 classical drama through productions “dead as mutton,” Tanvir said, theatre workers follow “the worst sort of naturalistic styles…inspired by films or borrowed mechanically from the West.”

Western theatre, too, he said, was going through “a great crisis,” namely, “the lack of playwrights who can hold the interest of the modern audience.”  The point was not to reject anything—whether Western naturalistic theatre, Indian classical theatre or rural theatre—out of hand, but to try and achieve “a greater amalgamation” of the various arts—music, dance, literature, painting, etc—as well as 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,” said Tanvir.

Today, decades after Mitra and Tanvir’s laments, the institutional structure of Indian theatre remains skewed and deeply flawed. The country’s premier institution for theatre, the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, is a bloated behemoth with a budget that far outweighs its needs and output. In fact, it is shocking that the NSD alone commandeers more of the budget of the Union government’s Department of Culture than the combined budgets of Sangeet Natak Akademi, the zonal cultural centres and a dozen other bodies meant to promote theatre in India.

Adding to the budget bias, there is a serious dearth of well-designed, functional, equipped and affordable performance spaces. The last—affordability—is a key requirement. Too many theatre groups fold up after a few years of promising work simply because they are unable to financially sustain themselves, given the cost of hall rentals and advertising. For the ordinary theatre group, corporate support is hard to get and harder still to retain.

Finding rehearsal space is a nightmare. Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru, both run by managements committed to building a vibrant and sustainable theatre culture, are rarities precisely because nothing similar exists in other cities—or, indeed, there are more of their kind in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

As for content, India is desperately looking for playwrights who can tackle topical themes in new, indigenous and effective ways.

This is not to say that India hasn’t produced great playwrights. There were some exciting developments in playwriting in India in the late 1960s and 70s. Vijay Tendulkar, who wrote in Marathi, Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, Badal Sircar and Utpal Dutt in Bengali, and Chandrasekhar Kambar and Girish Karnad in Kannada produced their best works during this period. Many of their plays were translated and performed in several languages within months, if not weeks, of their having been written. Directors like Satyadev Dubey and BV Karanth worked in multiple languages in different cities, staging productions that rapidly set the benchmark for Indian theatre. Every new production from, say, Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre or Heisnam Kanhailal’s company, Kalakshetra Manipur, would travel across the country. The NSD arguably did its best work in these years. And the Sangeet Natak Akademi was yet to become the financial burden it is today.

This flowering was surprisingly brief. As the means of travel and communication became faster and more accessible, theatre became increasingly insular. Theatre enthusiasts in Kolkata are no longer familiar with what is happening in Mumbai, whose theatre-wallahs—lay theatregoers and thespians alike—have hardly a clue about the scene in Bengaluru, which doesn’t show work from Delhi. And nobody gives a damn about Imphal.

Miraculously though, against all odds, theatre in India survives. In English, for one, there are many trends that are encouraging for theatre practitioners and audiences.

For instance, we now have plays without playwrights. 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—the two roles often combined in one person. Frequently, such pieces are novel and energetic, and many of them employ technology, particularly video projection, in innovative and interesting ways—even if, sometimes, the medium overpowers the message.

We still have scripted plays, of course. In many cases, playwrights are an integral part of a theatre group and work in close association with the actors. Here, the writing process is more interactive, with actors improvising even as the play is being written.

New themes and concerns are being expressed through theatre:  same-sex relationships, the pervasiveness of violence in our lives, sectarian hatred, the encounter between small town and metropolis, the retelling of marginalised or forgotten histories.

Political theatre—or activist theatre—has proliferated. While some of it is artistically weak and no more than sloganeering, some is startlingly creative and exciting. In the hands of some practitioners, the street play has taken on a complexity that was once considered impossible.

In India, theatre happens anywhere and everywhere—in badly designed auditoria, schools and colleges, parks and gardens, restaurants, on rooftops, in open fields, street corners, even atop moving trains. A neglected stepchild of the Indian arts, theatre has developed the cunning of the street kid: it forages for morsels and takes 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 becomes brazen, rude, outspoken and blunt.

Theatre in India survives and even, paradoxically, thrives, although without a house of its own.