Kinetic theatre

Published : Oct 19, 2007 00:00 IST

The book answers many questions that sceptics and fans have asked about street theatre.

Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience

THIS is a slim but rich collection of interviews and essays on the drama group of the Students Federation of India. The editor of Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience feels they can be read in any order but it is best to start with his crisp introduction explaining the books tripartite arrangement: histories of Jana Natya Manch (Janam); two pieces by Govind Deshpande and Sudhanva Deshpande on the practical, theoretical and (for non-practitioners) mysterious business of creating a play; Arjun Ghosh on the language of Janams plays and Dia Da Costas comparison of them with Fair & Lovely advertisements. We learn about Janams use of music, verse, folk theatre, mobile space, and improvisation that is mistaken for amateurishness. Safdar Hashmis 1988 article on 10 years of street theatre prefaces the collection.

The book answers many questions sceptics and fans have asked about street theatre. What is it? Where is it? Why is it no longer as visible in Delhi Janam is inseparable from Delhi as it was in the 1970s and 1980s? Does it thrive only in oppressive regimes? What is the definition of an oppressive regime, one mans oppression being anothers liberation? How is street theatre different from traditional or proscenium theatre? If improvisation is the staple of street theatres acting material, does this mean its productions are always fleeting and amateur?

Street theatre is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and mobilise them behind fighting organisations, says Safdar Hashmi (page 13). We learnt in college that real art is for contemplation not action, but street theatre is kinetic, to use a term that was still bandied about in the 1960s, and should lead to action. Of course, until Western liberal education was formulated, art was always propaganda. Hitler knew this. Following his example, extreme right-wing organisations have used populist left-wing terms effectively to mobilise support for their cause. It is surprising, therefore, to find Hashmi using militant political theatre of protest and fighting organisations as if they could mean only the fight of the Left.

Safdar Hashmi is sure that street theatre is not a generic term for semi-informal performances in improvised areas like street corners, not in India anyway. It traced its lineage to the years immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917, when Vsevolod Meyerhold produced Mayakovskys Mystery Bouffe, in which he combined elements of the tent show with revolutionary poetry and performed it in the city square before several thousand people. It became a popular, new type of agitprop theatre performed on the streets, at factory gates, markets, dockyards, playgrounds, barnyards, and so on. It did not expect its audience to come to a place designated for performance, but took the plays to the audience, wherever it lived and worked.

For a country that suffered acutely during the Second World War, Soviet theatre gave a mind-boggling half a million performances at the front, in dugouts, bombed buildings, hospitals and on warships. Hashmi says that street theatre has taken much the same route all over the world, though in different circumstances. He mentions performances by Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese communists, Spanish Republicans during the Civil War of the 1930s, and other more recent ones in the United States, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Sweden, and Australia. There is no reference to street theatre used for propagating non-political ideas, or non-leftist ideas, though surely it exists, often as what has been called the NGO-isation of street theatre.

Safdar Hashmi was

The book is marred by occasional historical vagueness. For instance, the head note to Hashmis essay says it was written for a roundtable on street theatre on October 29, 1988, but where was this held? Why? Who organised it? Who participated in it? In an interview a few months before he was killed, Hashmi spoke of Badal Sircar, Habib Tanvir, the effect of the 1964 split in the Communist Party of India upon the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA), the birth in April 1973 of Janam, whose growth and shape seems to have been defined in relation to the Congress. This is interesting, but he makes some odd statements, as for instance that the problem of theatre since Independence has been to find a true Indian idiom and a search for Indianness (emphasis added).

Later, asked about placing street theatre in the context of a cultural revolution, Hashmi maintained that it would be a struggle against old values, adding that churches and church agencies have done so much of mischief in our country (page 37), as if the Church was the only bearer of old values, whatever these may be. Neither he nor the editor explains what he is referring to. Essentialising of this sort goes against scientific historical analysis. Hashmi is interesting on the formation of the IPTA, though he collapses into clichs of the Left while talking about it, such as that the IPTA allied itself with the democratic forces which were continuing the fight against the economic and social oppression of the people (page 12). Quite apart from who is to be included in the people, generalising democratic forces takes real people out of the description. As Marc Bloch said, history should concentrate on the people behind institutions of all kinds.

Hashmi is best on how and why Indian street theatre differs from its counterparts elsewhere. On the whole, there was not a strong tradition of theatre-going in Indian cities, and what there was during 1977-1988, the decade he writes about, was basically proscenium theatre catering to a select group of theatre-goers, but it was not a living, popular art form reflecting the hopes, aspirations, and struggles of the people. Street theatre opened up the unforeseen possibilities of a full-fledged art form with a circular acting area, actors and audience in close proximity, new dramatic structures and writing skills, new kinds of training, new uses of music, and theatre management. Presumably he meant new in the context of a small time and space frame. Elizabethans could pay to sit on the stage and set up a dialogue with actors while a play was in performance. It was not, he says, a rebellion against proscenium theatre as many people believed; nevertheless, proscenium theatre was escapist, anarchist, revivalist, meant for meditation and reflection, whereas street theatre stands with the people without being a political advertisement or a mobile poster.

A performance of

But what is a poster play? G.P. Deshpande says that a poster play may be a political statement but it is not a political play. The poster is a phenomenon that is typically late capitalist. An exhibition happens and the poster becomes more important than the art being displayed. A poster hits you with a message, killing the playfulness of the whole thing. More importantly, it denies the complexity of reality. Why should we waste our time watching something that says everything that is wrong is merely a part of a conspiracy? If all problems are understood as conspiracies, then all social phenomena will be understood as accidents.

Scripting and performance are normally ignored in academic study of drama, but here we have two playwrights and producers, Sudhanva and Govind Deshpande, on the craft. In Sculpting a Play, Sudhanva Deshpande describes the practical problems of writing for a politically committed theatre. In his editorial introduction, he says that the books focus is the rootedness of Janams work in the political, social, and cultural milieu of India, North India, and in fact the city of Delhi (page 8), a statement that captures the paradoxes of street theatre as well as the book. Politically committed theatre is bound to be particular and local with a density of allusions. This is its power and its weakness, as Deshpande found while sculpting Andhera. The very particularity that gives street theatre its attractive energy can bog it down in issues of the moment. The problem in Andhera was how to talk about the experience of being a worker without being preachy. Every experiment they tried ended in dramatic limpness. They resolved it eventually by showing the workers creating something (a window) through which the chief action, the beating up of a worker, was seen, and the dialogue became natural and dramatic.

The best thing about such writing is that theory does not precede practice but derives from it. Sudhanva explains why they chose this play, summing up a contemporary history terrifying in itself and because it is out of the sight of many of us. About 20 km from Delhi, in Noida, is the National Export Promotion Zone, which workers call zone, with tight security required ostensibly because production in the zone is exclusively for export (at least on paper). Housing about 140 factories, the zone spreads over several acres. Its huge boundary wall has a single point of entry and exit. All workers are not on the official rolls but they all have identity cards which they have to show at the gate. When the management wants to dismiss a worker, the gateman is instructed to take away his ID card. Without it, and without his name on the rolls, the worker cannot prove he worked here. Even labour inspectors have to wait for a couple of days to gain entry, but what would they inspect when the worker has no proof of employment? The zone that is a prison for the workers is every capitalists dream with its centralised security, an array of concessions for promoting exports, no unions, no labour laws (page 104). Janam listened to the workers stories, but anecdotes are not a play. The script had to move beyond this particular situation to the wider process in operation all over India, such as the contract system used in much of Delhi. How they did this is the meat of this excellent piece.

Where is street theatre today? In 1988, Hashmis utopian dream was to have a self-sustaining theatre institution with 200,000 workers on campus and a small repertory that would do nothing but theatre. He did not live to realise his dream. According to Govind Deshpande, today all over the world street theatre is losing its momentum, its utility or such utility as it may have had (page 97). To become a socially useful phenomenon, street theatre assumes that there is a rebel in society, and that the contradiction that the street theatre talks about in a given play extends outside the play as well, that the audiences are aware of, or can be made aware of this contradiction, and that they can be mobilised to oppose this contradiction.

This is a sense one does not get today. One got this sense in the 1950s and 1960s. The reason for this, I think, is that Left politics in that period was much more in the oppositional mode. . . . street theatre is not a primarily theatrical phenomenon. The health of street theatre is directly related to the health of the Left movement. . . . while the Left as a political party has grown, the Left as a political movement has declined. If that is the case, then the street theatre is happening in a vacuum (pages 97-98).

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