Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Theatre Culture (Tradition, Challenges, Censorship): JLF 2012 and Beyond

[Published in Pravasi Bharatiya -- forthcoming issue, IANS Publishing, for the Ministry of External Affairs]

I drifted to the Front Lawns at Diggi Palace that afternoon, lured by the prospect of watching Girish Karnad and David Hare in conversation. Of course, there was the added enticement of sitting in the sun in that winter chill, so unlike last year when Jaipur was already warm in January.

Girish Karnad, David Hare, Arshia Sattar at JLF 2012, Stage by Stage
Girish Karnad, one of India’s best-known playwrights, filmmakers, and actors, is a Padma Bhushan awardee, and has also won the Bharatiya Jnanapith. His works are available in Kannada as well as English.
With twenty-eight plays to his name, David Hare is a well-known name internationally. Sixteen of his plays have been performed at Britain’s National Theatre, and ten on Broadway. What can one say about a man who successfully did The Wall, a one-man performance on the Israel-Palestine issue, besides turning down a Seven Spielberg film because he was too excited about a play on the privatization of the British Railway system?

The twain did meet at the Jaipur Literature Festival, to discuss theatre and its several ramifications – both in India and in Britain.

Quite obviously, passion and dedication are the only horses that pull the chariot for artists such as these. As Hare mentioned, ‘A middle ground is difficult. In theatre, people either make a fortune or nothing, but what they can’t make is a living.’

Theatre culture in Britain has always been robust. Even when television took over, the BBC kept a slot for a new work by a playwright as a regular programme, watched by eight million people. Hare said that in the nineteenth century theatre was probably a mainstream commercial activity; now the commercial pressures have changed.

According to Karnad, India’s diversity of languages has kept theatre alive. He said that though theatre’s been a part of Indian history and culture forever, and plays continued to be performed, for almost a thousand years no plays were actually written here. It was only after Independence that the major plays began to be written. Theatre did come to the metros at the time of the British, but by that time folk theatre was more or less defunct.

There are several challenges that theatre in India faces today. Earlier, theatre groups existed at every corner and one person could sponsor a play. Now the costs of production have escalated; sponsors are hard to come by. There are other distractions to keep people at home. Almost everybody agreed that traffic snarls are a major factor that dissuades people from leaving their homes to watch a play, etcetera.

Is the theatre culture in India disappearing? When asked, a few other well-recognized figures from the field expressed their views.

Jayant Kripalani

‘People who claim that theatre is a disappearing culture are those who are too tired or too old to write, promote and/or perform. Or just damn lazy,’ said Jayant Kripalani, a name from the Bombay film industry that needs no introduction. ‘Of course staging a play can be a struggle, but personally I find watching television or the majority of films that are released these days, a bigger struggle.’

Rajyashree Dutt
 ‘It's a complex subject, but I would not say that theatre is dying. It is sick and needs a dose of resources,’ said Rajyashree Dutt, and actress who has worked with Jagriti (the Artists Repertory Theatre, in east Bangalore. Some years ago Rangashankara was set up in the south). ‘I have been pleasantly surprised to find that there are several young people in this city who make their living from theatre. There is not enough money in it, so they have to supplement it with other work in TV or voice-overs. But they are following their passion which is theatre.’

Chippy Gangjee, another brilliant actor-director from the same film industry said, ‘You speak of the disappearing Theatre Culture.
I disagree!
Impoverished – Yes!
Unpublished – Yes!
Chippy Gangjee
Un-sponsored – Yes!
But disappearing – Me thinks not! To clarify: Who does theatre?
Children in schools, young adults in colleges, working people in organizations, clubs, community organizations, NGOs with street theatre, village communities (jathra/nautanki, etc); and all this is happening, all the time, all over this magnificent country. Thank God!
Also there is the “form” of performance. Why should it remain as Proscenium Arch? … Again, there is what is erroneously dubbed as regional language theatre. Some amazing plays! I've done a few of them myself; was completely bowled over with the power of the writing! And what of our neighbours? Both immediate and farther afield – some incredible scripts! There's no money in it? So when has that ever deterred the avid/passionate thespian?’

Spoken like a true theatrician!

However, there also seem to be larger issues theatre professionals are pitted against. The issue of a curb on the freedom of expression/censorship, for instance, is not limited to the likes of Rushdie or Lelyveld or to Literature alone. According to Jalabala Vaidya of Akshara Theatre in Delhi, this freedom has been curtailed for theatre performers since the Entertainment Act of 1876. Performers need sanctions from the Entertainment Acts office/police, especially for political plays. Much time is spent running from one office to another, obtaining all the requisite stamps on the papers. The scripts need to be submitted to them every time. She added that there are about two hundred and twenty redundant laws from the time of the British that still continue to hound Indian Theatre. Nothing has been done about it. The most recent example happens to be the arrest of Asmita actors for staging such a play.

Jalabala Vaidya

 ‘Street plays are acceptable within the university campus,’ she said. ‘But where are street plays really supposed to be performed? In the streets!’

There are also restrictions on ticket charges. How are they supposed to sustain themselves?

Most believe there is an interested audience even now that comes to watch a play if it is intellectually stimulating. Theatre in India may be sick, may be gasping, but is certainly not dead. All it needs is a booster dose from some caring people around.