Festivals of culture

Published : Nov 21, 2003 00:00 IST

Playwright and actor Girish Karnad, Sangeet Natak Akademi Chairman Bhupen Hazarika and theatre directors Habib Tanvir and Vijay Tendulkar at the inauguration of the Rang Swarn Golden Jubilee Theatre Festival in New Delhi on October 9. - GURINDER OSAN/AP

Playwright and actor Girish Karnad, Sangeet Natak Akademi Chairman Bhupen Hazarika and theatre directors Habib Tanvir and Vijay Tendulkar at the inauguration of the Rang Swarn Golden Jubilee Theatre Festival in New Delhi on October 9. - GURINDER OSAN/AP

An audience devoted to the arts will emerge only when cultural events are organised in such a way as to blend celebrities with young talent and foster the arts, and not individuals.

THIS is a story of three kinds of festivals, and is being told so that we can ask ourselves some basic questions about two of them - whether they need to be held, and if they do, then what would be the best way to hold them. The three I am referring to are the recently concluded International Film Festival of India or IFFI as it's commonly and rather appropriately known; the National Theatre Festival that the Sangeet Natak Akademi recently held; and the Chennai `season', which is due to start towards the end of November and is, in every sense, a festival.

Let us start with IFFI. I did not go to the inaugural ceremony, or to the concluding ceremony, I did not see any of the films nor did I go to any of the numerous receptions and dinners that are always arranged for IFFI delegates. So why, you may well ask, am I talking about it? For one very simple reason. As Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, a post I held some years ago, I oversaw three of these festivals, and the Geethakrishnan Committee, which examined the need to retain certain offices of that Ministry, has recommended that the Directorate of Film Festivals be abolished. I have no idea how the festival held in October this year fared but that is not really relevant. The point is: is the recommendation made by Geethakrishnan valid? In other words, should the government organise IFFI? A very interesting, if limited festival is organised by the film magazine Cinemaya; would it not be more appropriate to encourage that kind of festival rather than have a sarkari event, replete with Ministers and officials who know nothing about films strutting about?

While I was I&B Secretary, the thought had occurred to me a number of times; the trouble was - and, presumably, still is - that the film industry is simply not able to take on the job. There are too many lobbies in the film world, too many egos that come in the way of anything like an organisation being set up. But there is a certain amount of confused thinking here, and it is not only in the film industry; the government too is fairly confused. No film festival is organised by the film industry anywhere in the world; professional bodies do that, with funds coming from a variety of sources like the local civic body - the city corporation or its counterpart - private sponsors and others. I have never been to a film festival outside the country, but did talk to an interesting rather young man who organised a film festival somewhere in Canada. He told me money was not really a big problem; it was a problem, yes, but he did get a grant from the city, and then, as the entries came in, money came with them. The reason was that his festival, like every festival I know about, is also a place where films are marketed and therefore there is a great deal of money involved in all of that. He could get the kind of films that would be attractive to watch and would also sell because he was a professional, a man from the world of films.

No films are sold in IFFI; there may be a number of reasons for that but the fact is that films are not sold, so no filmmaker can hope to use the festival to exhibit his film and get a buyer. Consequently, many filmmakers keep away; sending a film to a festival where it will not attract any buyer or distributor is to many a waste of money. This is a dimension that cannot be ignored by anyone, and is one of the reasons why I think Geethakrishnan is right; the Directorate of Film Festivals needs to be wound up and IFFI organised by a professional body comprising people connected with film, and headed by someone who has organising ability and knows about films. If this is not done, it will continue to be a deadly sarkari do irrespective of whether it is in Goa or anywhere else, and a waste of public money, which we can ill-afford.

THE National Theatre Festival was not the sarkari affair that IFFI is; it was funded by the government (the Sangeet Natak Akademi gets all its funds from the government) but the persons organising it do know about theatre, and theatre people know them. The trouble is they are poor organisers, and succeeded in making a mess of the festival, which it need not have been. They printed glossy posters in several colours, which must have cost the earth, but kept them to themselves. Very few advertisements appeared. If you do not tell people about a festival how will they know what is being presented where?

All this apart, the Akademi made a fundamental mistake in assuming that audiences wanted to see the theatre biggies in short excerpts from plays they had done in the past. People came to see the celebrities, true, but only people like Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher. For the rest, whom the Akademi considered celebrities and provided with the prestigious Kamani auditorium, there were, from all accounts, scanty audiences. On the other hand, full-length plays performed by local groups in theatres located away from the `centre' of the festival had packed halls. And there the organisers had put up a tatty fly-blown set of banners, and sent a small group of people to oversee whatever arrangements were made. The hall authorities themselves had no idea of what plays were to be staged when - they were told only a day before the plays were staged.

If these plays played to full houses the credit must go to the groups, rather than to the Akademi. The great and the good of the Akademi were all over the Kamani, fraternising with celebrities; they had little or no time for the humbler theatre people, the ones who were staging plays to appreciative and large audiences. This, again, is a disease that has begun eating the Sangeet Natak Akademi from within; it is moving away from concern with the form, from theatre, to celebrity actors and directors, falling over themselves to wine them and dine them. They may do that, certainly, but they need to understand that they are organising a festival of theatre, that the form is of paramount interest, not the people, no matter how wonderful the Akademi thinks they are. Theatre lives through its audiences; plays come to life if there are audiences; directors and actors perform with inspiration if there are audiences. This is something the Akademi must realise, and not treat such festivals as events meant for the delectation and flattering of a few.

FINALLY, the Chennai `season', the only true festival of the three. This must be a unique event in this country. Over 40 sabhas organise and present the finest vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers in a series of concerts that last till the first week of January. Rasikas stream in from all over the State, indeed the whole country, and now from other countries in larger and larger numbers to watch and listen. And not one paisa comes from the government; all the money is raised by the organisers themselves. This has its own problems. As Peter Brook says in his book There Are No Secrets, "As government support dwindles all over the world, sponsorship is the only alternative. But the sponsors must be enlightened. ... .enlightenment can't be taught, though it must always be encouraged when it appears." Not that there are no problems or a dark side to the `season', something the late Pattabhi Raman was fond of telling me about; but all in all this is a festival run by people who know about the arts and whom the artistes know well. It makes for that unique combination of organisation and excellence, which the Chennai festival has come to symbolise.

There is much that the Sangeet Natak Akademi can learn from this spontaneous organisation of a cultural event; in terms of organisation, in terms of blending celebrities with young growing talent, in terms of fostering the arts as opposed to individuals, knowing that out of this alone will an audience devoted to the arts emerge. A good deal of this happened when Girish Karnad was Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi; there is, therefore, no reason for it not to happen again. A person wise in the ways of the world once said to me: "People no matter how great, pass away, and become a part of history. But the arts, and the forms in which they are expressed, always remain, and renew themselves." That needs to be, must be our watchword in the years to come.

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