Exit theatre

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

A SCENE FROM a play staged in Chennai. - M. KARUNAKARAN

A SCENE FROM a play staged in Chennai. - M. KARUNAKARAN

If theatre in India is to survive the century, it drastically needs to reinvent itself.

THIS century is going to see the extinction of theatre as an art form in India, and our civilisation will be the poorer for it. It has been a part of our cultural dimension for over a thousand years. Sanskrit plays bear testimony to that, but there may have been even earlier forms that were as developed - some scholars have located evidence of this from the seals and other artefacts they have come across in Harappan sites in the country.

Theatre in some form or the other has fascinated audiences through the centuries in India, and it received a great boost in the 19th century as several factors - education, a renewed interest in traditional forms of expression and in Western theatre in different forms - came together and vital theatrical traditions developed in different parts of the country, notably Kolkata and Mumbai.

Devotees of the form studied its regional variations and worked tirelessly to revive them by presenting them at major theatre festivals. They blended forms of theatre with dance, which is very close to it, and tried to capture the physical beauty and dramatic elements of the latter.

But all that and all the interest that some audiences have shown has not been enough. Over the years theatre has been in terminal decline. The advent of cinema was a huge blow; actors, directors, scriptwriters and others from theatre went over to the new form, one that paid them well and attracted enormous crowds. Then, as if that were not enough, came television and another exodus of workers from theatre.

Today, theatre is in the hands of a handful of totally committed theatre lovers, who are devoted to it and lavish much care on it; sadly, they do not always get the kind of response that plays used to evoke in years past. They continue, nonetheless, but one has to face the fact that theirs is an increasingly isolated effort, whether in Kolkata or in Mumbai or anywhere else.

True, there are enthusiastic reports in the press, and sometimes on television, of theatre festivals. These mention packed houses, shows sold out weeks ahead and similar encouraging features. But packed houses and sold-out shows at festivals are not enough. The festivals end, and the theatre groups have then to go back to the bleak existence that is theirs - the eternal search for funds, sponsors and government grants and the no less exhausting search for a space to perform. This, apart from trying to keep actors, lighting designers, sound engineers, costume designers, and so on interested enough to work in theatre. Some of them do - but always after attending to their commitments to television serials or feature films or modelling or the other jobs they may be doing. Theatre does not get the whole of anyone's time and, unfortunately, that is what it desperately needs.

What it has become, then, is something that theatre lovers do apart from the jobs they have to take on to keep body and soul together. A hobby that is more than just that. In Kolkata, many professional theatre people work in government offices or banks - small jobs but, since they give virtually all their time to theatre, those are the only ones they can do. It is nobody's case that they spend all day in their offices like other clerical hands; but they themselves would be the first to say that they do not, that they are theatre people first and last.

Professional theatre people do exist in Mumbai - and there are some extraordinary groups like Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre. Theatre people in Mumbai are paid well - by middle class standards. This is possible because commercial theatre has a huge following in Mumbai, as has the commercial theatre in Kolkata, though that has now to be supplemented by extensive tours through West Bengal. Both are theatre forms that are well set and have certain established elements. These are more or less non-negotiable, so all that happens is that story lines change, not the manner in which plays are presented.

Ratan Thiyam's group is a unique one, where the members of the group stay and work together. It is rather like an ashram, where Thiyam maintains a discipline and the total focus is on the plays and on the preparations for them. In that sense it, too, is a little removed from the everyday world; but one appreciates why he has built up the group in this singular fashion, the need he must have felt to insulate it from the pressures to which it would otherwise have been subjected.

Leaving aside the Chorus Repertory Theatre as an exceptional group, the theatre world elsewhere seems to have lost touch with people in general, which is absolutely detrimental to the survival of the form. The problem here is that set formulae bring in audiences in Mumbai and Kolkata, so that kind of theatre brings in money. And it is that, in turn, that deadens it, because it has no scope for change or any kind of experimentation.

The other theatre, the `serious' theatre, to give it a name that is not really very suitable, has a good deal of experimentation. Some of it is much admired by the few who write about it in newspapers and magazines and can occasionally draw in a fair amount of people. But not enough. The sad fact is that they can never attract the numbers that would make these plays viable, and plays have to be that if they are going to make a difference, and more, importantly, if theatre - this kind of theatre - is going to survive.

And so it inevitably winds down, like an old gramophone. Fewer people come to these plays; theatre groups try more and more experiments, in the process moving farther away from common responses and perceptions. Those who come to see these kinds of plays are bewildered and turn away to find comfort in new films and television, and theatre, in the sense we would like it to be, a vibrant art form, loses its basic moorings in the response of people and begins to die.

Playwrights may be acclaimed, as may be directors and even theatre groups; but acclamation is one thing, success another. To be `involved' in theatre and live at a subsistence level is a romantic bit of nonsense that has done much damage; theatre must provide its votaries with not just enough to subsist on but with enough to give them a comfortable and, in some cases, an affluent life. Not like film personalities but at a more understandable, reasonable level. Otherwise talent will leave and, if it leaves, audiences will too.

There is no easy answer. Festivals are not part of it but consistent efforts to fashion plays to touch people in a manner that brings them to fill not just one show but several, over months, must be the goal. It is this that society as a whole, and those interested in this magical and fascinating form in particular, must address. And so must the state, since the nurturing of the arts is one of its many professed goals.

It is possible. The advent of television had film-makers and devotees of film wringing their hands, but film-making has survived because film-makers changed the kind of films they were making and made films people wanted to see. Changing the kind of theatre now being presented to something people want to go and see again and again has to be the mission for the state and for society. Only then will the form survive.

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