50 years of drama

Print edition : March 14, 2008

Landmark production: A scene in Girish Karnads Tughlaq, directed by Ebrahim Alkazi.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The debate on the National School of Drama gains topicality as the premier institution begins its golden jubilee celebrations.

SAY National School of Drama, or NSD, and you have a vociferous debate on hand. Theatre director M.K. Raina, a maverick himself, suggests this is a healthy sign. It would be a problem if apathy takes over as it so often does in public institutions. Here you have live, often fiery, fights going on all the time, he says. Ask him what is the justification for the NSDs existence, and he retorts: Do you ask such puerile questions about law schools? Medical schools? With 500 years of theatre tradition this country should have at least 20 NSDs, in all its regions. One school in one city [New Delhi] with 20 students a year for a billion people is rubbish. There are others who blame the government for failing to formulate and implement a clear policy to promote theatre training.

Ramgopal Bajaj, former Director of the institution, says: The question about the contribution of the NSD cannot be answered by the institution. With 60 years of democracy this nation still doesnt have a sound, constructive, forward-looking cultural policy. Why blame the state alone? I ask this society, if you are really worried about the growing violence around us why are you not providing creative areas for youth? Why is there so little cultural exposure and interaction for children? We want to build malls and stadia, not art institutions.

He pauses to add that while classical music and dance and a few forms of sport do get some recognition, theatre remains the unwanted stepchild. Why? Because theatre cannot propagate safe slogans and ideologies. By its very nature the medium questions the establishment. It ridicules conventions. Theatre may turn boys and girls into Molieres. Even the theatres connected to temples and religious functions, such as Ramlila, have never ceased to raise socio-political questions, or comment on social injustice. The debate has gained topicality as the NSD completes 50 years in April. The 10th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual drama festival started by Ramgopal Bajaj during his tenure, kicked off the golden jubilee celebrations. The skimpy lawns of the school in New Delhi and the packed foyers of the theatres echoed with debates about the past, present and future of the institution.

The celebrations held from January 3 to 20 showcased not only productions by the NSD and its alumni but also those from Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Norway, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, making it the biggest international theatre festival.

The NSD came into existence when the Asian Theatre Institute in New Delhi, founded on the visions of pan-Asian collaboration and exchange, was converted into a drama school in 1958. It was affiliated to the Sangeet Natak Akademi, one of the three apex cultural bodies mooted by Jawaharlal Nehru to promote art and literature, before it became an autonomous institution. The new institution was headed by lighting expert Satu Sen, and assisted by theatre scholar Nemichandra Jain, who was to play a significant role in the campaign to Indianise Indian theatre in the years to come.

The school might have stuck to the beaten path but for a lucky accident in 1962. A diminutive man of great genius, Ebrahim Alkazi, was appointed its Director, and under his direction the scope and vision of the NSD were transposed to another plane altogether.

Classes were held in tumbledown quarters in Kailash Colony. The drama school had no theatre of its own. Alkazi taught his subject in live practice, not through academic lectures. So the students were first told to dig in the backyard and put up platforms and steps. Alkazi explains, Since we built it ourselves, we could make our theatre into anything we wanted the backyard of a village hut, a vast battleground, or a palace of pillars and towers. He staged Girish Karnads Tughlaq and Dharmvir Bharatis Andha Yug, among others, in the imposing monuments of Delhi (Purana Qila and Ferozeshah Kotla). Those who saw these plays get animated when they recall their electrifying impact. They continue to astound viewers even as sepia-tinted photographs.

Soon the NSD became synonymous with Alkazi. His students called him Natyacharya, and with reason. With his cosmopolitan background and expertise in the visual arts, Alkazi gave his students exposure to the world without, and made them probe the world within. He taught and directed a range of plays from Sophocles to August Strindberg, and discovered flamboyant drama in Indian plays, until then considered to lack action and movement. His greatest contribution was not just making the drama school visible through fabulous productions, but the professionalisation he brought to theatre practice. He demanded that every student be an all-rounder. No task was unimportant. He set an example by sweeping the stage and cleaning the greenroom toilets.

Under his command, the NSD became a comprehensive centre of theatre craft. His inclusive methodology and integrated design envisaged the woods as well as the individual trees. Classroom exercises were replaced by full-length productions, some of them becoming theatre classics of modern urban drama.

Ebrahim Alkazi: Under his direction the scope and vision of the NSD were transposed to another plane altogether.-

No one knows just why Alkazi left the NSD, though he always maintained that he wanted to reinvent himself in another field, the visual arts. People do remember shouts and murmurs against his regime. The international standards he achieved suddenly became westernisation of Indian theatre.

The man who replaced Alkazi was equally a genius but without his discipline and meticulousness. With B.V. Karanth, man, milieu and moment coalesced to enable the entry of regional voices, genres, assertions and impulsions into the Nehruvian model of a centralised panjandrum.

Karanths main thrust was to enable students to understand and draw from indigenous traditional forms, folk and classical. His Birnam Van transformed Macbeth, astonishing in audio-visual ambience shift where the primeval images of painted, masked figures evoked an awesomeness unknown. Such powerful indigenous motifs could not be introduced ad hoc. So Karanth devised a 40-day immersion programme to send students to train with experts in the home environments of different genres and to produce a play in that style. In his approach, dance, music and the martial arts were integral to Indian theatre, and so Karanth invited traditional gurus to work regularly with students. The focus was less on classroom academics and more on voice/body training, and the artisanic honing of technique and craft.

To Karanth, creativity sprang from spontaneity and improvisation. He believed in collective discipline where everybody was expected to shoulder responsibilities without strict allocations of specific tasks. This resulted in either magnificence or mayhem, spectacular shows or fiascos. As Raina puts it, Alkazi had a vision, a programme. Karanth reversed it without a blueprint. Standards came down.

Theatre scholar Samik Bandyopadhyay, Vice-Chairman of the NSD, says, After Alkazi and Karanth, the NSD had administrators as directors. Remind him of renowned director Ratan Thiyams brief, stormy headship, and Bandyopadhyay replies: I feel the opposition had to do with Thiyams ethnicity. A Manipuri couldnt be accepted in a predominantly Hindi set-up. Wasnt Heisnam Kanhaiyalal, one of the greatest theatre directors of India today, kicked out of the NSD as a student?

A visiting professor at the NSD, Kanhaiyalal laughs as he recalls his expulsion after three months in the school as unfit because he could not speak Hindi, despite pleas for time to learn.

What is the use of a drama school if it is not a centre for training in acting, direction, stage design, lighting, script-writing? I have serious doubts about its efficacy now, admits Bandyopadhyay, and answers the unspoken question, I came on board because we are now thinking of decentralising the institution. Id be happy to play a role in this complex process. So far we have launched only one centre in Bangalore, where we hope to start functioning in two years time.

Alkazi hoped the alumni would return to work in their home towns and villages. Some have done that, but most of them have veered towards Bollywood and television. Critics accuse the institution of feeding the film industry.

But Ramgopal Bajaj counters, What does society or the state give actors for persisting with theatre? On the contrary, lets appreciate the fact that Naseeruddin Shah returns to the stage having made a name in cinema and TV and does serious theatre. Students know that without the stature earned from small and big screens they are not going to be respected. Therefore, they are not interested in early morning classes of kalaripayattu and chau. These are immaterial for TV.

As he talks we recall Alkazi declaring at the inauguration of Mahotsav 2008 that the institutions syllabus should be revised to help students earn their living in the glitz media. Only then could they indulge in their passion for theatre.

Bandyopadhyay has his reservations: In the past five years I havent seen significant creative work emerging from the school. The kind of thinking that Alkazi brought in it doesnt show up now. The repertory is competent, tours a lot, but no striking productions have come up. Is it making any difference to Indian theatre as such? He sees the need for revamping the syllabus to include cogitation and analysis, not the stuff that is useful for brief notes in tests and viva voces.

The NSD has to be a training school for ideas, not skills. Students are paid to study here. They must be trained to think. He adds that this aspect must be carried over to the regional schools that the NSD wants to help build, along with grooming in techniques, manual and electronic. Other experts too warn that these regional schools, if and when they do come up, must keep their doors and windows open, and not become bottle-tight parochial hubs.

Raina believes that the most significant contribution made by the NSD is the extension programmes it has persisted in conducting over the years in remote places, from Jammu to Madurai. The workshops have created awareness about design, direction, acting. Where it has failed dismally is in developing culture-land-region-specific modules in voice, movement and action. It is easier to adapt readymade models from the West.

Marathi playwright Satish Alekar, former Vice-Chairman of the NSD, adds: The NSD remains Delhi-centred, it has not carried out its main objective of setting up branches. But undeniably, it has provided inspiration for regional theatre workers.

At the end of 50 years what has the NSD achieved? It has shaped some fine actors Manohar Singh, Om Shivpuri, Uttara Baokar, Surekha Sikri, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, B. Jayashree, Rohini Hattangady, to name a few and trained some fine directors Ratan Thiyam, Mohan Maharishi and Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry.

Alkazi and Karanth also trained audiences to respond to the magic of the theatre in wholly new ways. The NSDs theatre-in-education programme, launched during Kirti Jains directorship, overcame the initial uphill struggle of persuading schools to allow their presentations, to become a programme with huge demand in Delhi schools.

The NSD has created an awareness that theatre is not an easy extra-curricular activity. It needs whole-time absorption for training. The school has underscored professionalism as a key ingredient for that magic on the stage. It has suggested that theatre can survive not through realistic productions but with stylisation. Its productions may have ranged from good to bad, but through them all, the NSD has consistently shown that metaphor and image are the springboards for that lasting, haunting impact on the stage.

Despite complaints of discrimination, the NSD has created an awareness of the rich cultures of the north-eastern regions, familiarising audiences to motifs from Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Foreign directors have introduced students to forms such as Noh and Kabuki, as also to the stylistics of European theatre.

The NSDs failures are many. Some are mainly owing to the short-sightedness and incompetence of those who have been in charge, but far more because it offers a diploma course with no promise of employment or demand. Though Kirti Jains decisive action effectively ended the intermittent strikes that plagued the institution until 1988, she is the first person to admit that students have cause for anxiety.

How many among the over 700 students who have passed out of the institution are visible in the world of theatre? What benefits have accrued to society from this training? Why has the state not thought of the livelihood of the youth it has taken the trouble to invest in? Regrettably, the nations policies have not allowed for the inclusion of theatre in school and college curricula. Dance and music, the components of natya, are better recognised on all platforms, while theatre is left to lurk in the shadows.

For the first time, the NSD has women as Chairperson (Amal Allana) and Director (Anuradha Kapur). As mature, forward-thinking and creative individuals, their greatest strength is that they know they must face new challenges in the new millennium.

And the NSDs success? Why, the fact that it exists.

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