Text and drama

Published : Jun 16, 2006 00:00 IST

There is a vibrant theatre culture in India, but strangely there is relatively little critical reflection on it.

Indian theatre displays bewildering variety. Recent speculation about the number of theatre groups in the country put the figure at 40,000. Say there are 50 people associated with each group (including backstage workers), we get a figure of 20,00,000 people associated with theatre in India. This excludes those who do plays in schools and colleges.

Two million people, then.

If, on average, each of these 40,000 groups produces two plays a year, that makes 80,000 plays every year. If each play has a run of five shows, you get 4,00,000 performances every year. In other words, at least 1,095 performances every day.

By any reckoning, this is extraordinary. Not simply in terms of numbers, but in terms of range.

Take Mumbai, for example. The city is home to four major language theatres: Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, English. In the first two of these languages, you have both a thriving commercial theatre and an amateur theatre.

In Gujarati, according to another informal estimate, some 60 lakh people pay to watch commercial theatre every year in Mumbai. For Marathi, the figure would be higher.

Mumbai also has theatre in Kannada, Sindhi, Bengali, Malayalam and Telugu. Then there are the large number of students who stage theatre productions in college and school. Mumbai also has active street theatre groups.

Then there are the plays that get done in colonies and housing societies as part of various festivals, Ganesh Puja being the most important. Then there are workers - yes, that species still survives, miraculously, in the face of overwhelming odds - who do plays in their unions and bastis.

In fact, Mumbai hosts the oldest theatre festival in India, the Kamgar Natya Utsav, which runs for over a month every year in January and is organised entirely on workers' initiative, without any state or corporate support. It has been on for some 70 years now.

The variety of performance spaces is also huge. You have the large auditoriums, such as Shivaji Mandir in Dadar or Dinanath Mangeshkar Natyagruha in Vile Parle, that mount mostly commercial plays, sometimes two or even three a day. You have smaller, more experimental spaces such as the NCPA at Nariman Point or Prithvi in Juhu. Prithvi made the lovely Horniman Circle Gardens in South Mumbai its second performance space.

Prithvi and others have also been mounting shows at the Bandra seaface for the past two years. Then there are stages such as the Karnataka Sangha Auditorium, which cater, though not exclusively, to certain language groups.

The Marathi theatre group Awishkar has been performing in a school in Mahim for the past few years, reminding one of Chhabildas, which spawned a veritable movement of experimental theatre back in the 1970s.

However, with such a vibrant theatre culture in India, it is extraordinary that there is relatively little critical reflection on it. There is no dearth of books, but these are typically on either the Natyashastra and other ancient treatises, or on Western and Indian playwrights who are taught in English curricula. The problem with most of these books is that they look at theatre merely as written texts.

This is extraordinary, since in every language of the world, plays are seen. This disconnect between drama as - text, which becomes the object of criticism, and theatre as performance, which carries on merrily untheorised upon, seriously impairs even the former enterprise, that of critical reflection.

For example, some years ago, Delhi University added two Indian playtexts to its undergraduate English literature curriculum. One of these is Vijay Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal. The present reviewer was invited by one of the Delhi University colleges to speak to its English faculty on the play. I began my presentation with some tape recordings of old Marathi natyasangeet and then played samples of Bhaskar Chandavarkar's music composition for the original Ghashiram production. The point was to show that if one wants to understand Tendulkar's drama text, one has also to understand the complex musical text that Chandavarkar created (wherein he repeatedly juxtaposed "sacred" music with the erotic or profane), because that would explain in some measure why Ghashiram became an example of "total theatre" and "theatre of the roots" and also why the play provoked the ferocious response it did from the Hindu Right.

Now, this kind of a musical text was radically different from the older natyasangeet, both formally and because it engaged with Maharashtra's caste politics in unexpected and provocative ways. A critical appreciation of Tendulkar's text would have to consider this aspect, something the English teachers seemed totally unaware of.

Forget about poor English teachers having to turn suddenly to Tendulkar and Mohan Rakesh from their tried and tested Shakespeares and Johnsons. Even in scholarly work purportedly analysing modern Indian theatre, uncritical application of fashionable Western concepts can lead to serious misreadings.

Perhaps the most common of these is the study of Shakespeare in India. A lot of theorising within "Postcolonial Studies" sees Indian translations, adaptations and performances of Shakespeare as examples of "the empire writing back". That the situation is more complex than that should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Indian Shakespeare.

Poonam Trivedi is right in pointing out that "while the study of Shakespeare was an imperial imposition, the performance of Shakespeare was not." The volume she edits with Dennis Bartholomeusz is useful precisely because it looks at the interconnected fields of translation, interpretation and performance.

And yet, while Trivedi and her colleagues help us understand "the extent and depth to which Shakespeare can speak to the people at large and how they can speak back with him", Trivedi's own contribution to the book, "Folk Shakespeare": The Performance of Shakespeare in Traditional Indian Theatre Forms" is too uncritical of what has come to be known as "folk" and championed as "theatre of the roots", even though she notes, in passing, the controversies around these terms.

It is not perhaps her fault; the problem is that no one has really mapped the development of Indian theatre as text and performance simultaneously and related it to the changing modes of theatrical production, dissemination and consumption, and to official policy and the working of cultural institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the National School of Drama. It is this huge lacuna that Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker's superb study fills.

Dharwadker argues that the rubric of postcolonial studies is of severely limited use when studying theatre for three reasons: that theatre is performative rather than discursive and textual; that theatre is necessarily local and contextual, rather than marked by "migrancy" and "exile" that postcolonial print culture so valourises; and theatre is dependent on indigenous languages and performative traditions rather than on Westernised modernity and Europhonic writing. She also does much to enrich our appreciation of Indian theatre as a multilingual field, where practically all major playwrights get translated and performed in a number of Indian languages with remarkable speed.

To take one spectacular example: Girish Karnad's Hayavadana was directed by Satyadev Dubey in Hindi in Mumbai, by B.V. Karanth in Hindi in Delhi and Kannada in Bangalore, by Rajinder Nath in Hindi in Delhi, all in 1972, and by Vijaya Mehta in Marathi in Mumbai the following year. In fact, some important plays have been performed in translation before they appeared in the original language of composition - both Karnad's Agni Mattu Male and Govind Deshpande's Chanakya Vishnugupta were first done in Hindi rather than Kannada or Marathi respectively. Also, many leading directors such as Satyadev Dubey, B.V. Karanth and Vijaya Mehta routinely work in two or three or even four languages.

Some of this information is derived - from Dharwadker's detailed and meticulous appendices, which is one of the reasons why her book is so valuable. But Dharwadker is not a gazetteer of Indian theatre, she collects and reproduces data to enable her - and us - to ask the really important questions.

How has the "canon" of Indian theatre been formed? Under what conditions of production and reception has the field of Indian theatre been created? How do notions of orientalism and cultural nationalism relate to Indian theatre? How have Indian playwrights and directors drawn upon Indian mythology and "folk" material? How have these practitioners theorised their own practice, and how have non-practitioner critics - people like Suresh Awasthi (who coined the term "theatre of the roots"), Kapila Vatsyayan and Nemichandra Jain - raised this to the level of dogma? How have playwrights related to history? How has the development of a certain kind of "realist" drama problematised the notion of "home" and "domestic space"?

How do we understand the so-called "folk" theatre done almost exclusively by urban directors and actors, for urban (and often foreign) audiences, in proscenium spaces? What have been the stage histories of some of the major Indian plays of our times? How have different directors interpreted these plays in different ways in actual performance? How has the understanding of these plays changed with changing times?

These are big questions, and doubtless there will be differences on the conclusions she offers. For instance, it is hard to accept that "the qualities of antirealism and anti-modernity allow these plays [she discusses Karnad's Hayavadana, Chandrasekhar Kambar's Jokumaraswami and Habib Tanvir's Charandas Chor in detail, but her point is a general one] to place women at the centre, represent the Indian village as a realm of ambivalent freedom and fulfilment, and offer a serious if not decisive challenge to patriarchy."

This is not simply a somewhat optimistic overreading, but in fact the opposite could be argued.

Take, for instance, Karnad's Nagamandala, a tale of a woman imprisoned at home by her husband when he is not home. The woman, pining for man's love, is visited by a snake in the guise of her husband, and the resulting union leaves her pregnant. When challenged by the real husband about her fidelity to him, she is made to undergo a version of agni-pareeksha: holding the snake in her hand, she attests that if she has touched any male other than her husband and this snake, she may be bitten by the snake. When she is not, she is proclaimed devi by the village folk.

In other words, the woman can be either a whore or a devi, nothing in between. And, as in the Ramayana, the test is only for her, not the man. The man is never criticised or punished for his brutish behaviour.

Or consider Hayavadana. Here, the heads of two men get transposed and the wife of one can now claim both to be her husband since one has her husband's body and the other his head. While this means that she is accorded a degree of sexual freedom, the play is at pains to emphasise that she remains "respectable" until the end. In other words, to claim that the "subversion of patriarchy is all the more effective because there is no open challenge to it", is a rather problematic formulation. Does the festival of Holi "effectively" subvert rural class hierarchies? Dharwadker argues that "women do have agency in the drama of discontent", and she is of course right. But how do we relate to this "agency". Are we to rejoice that women have agency in drama that often works to subjugate them further?

The real strength of Dharwadker's study is, however, the innovative conceptual framework she utilises to study Indian theatre. To look at how the "canon" of Indian theatre gets constructed, for instance, she looks at three "moments". The first is the inception of the left-wing Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), connected to the Communist Party of India, in 1942-43; the second is a drama seminar that was organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1956 in which virtually the who's who of Indian theatre participated; and the third is the multilingual drama festival organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1989 under Girish Karnad's chairmanship. To link together three fairly diverse "moments" - a political cultural movement, a seminar, and a drama festival - is unusual, and maybe the IPTA moment sits somewhat uneasily with the other two, but the strategy is fruitful.

Dharwadker argues that the idea of a "canon" implies not strategies of exclusion, prescription and cultural control but rather the emergence of mechanisms by which specific plays and productions become highly visible over a relatively short period of time and acquire the status of major works and that the events of 1943, 1956 and 1989 "offer some heuristic criteria by which we may identify the significant' playwrights and directors of the period since Independence."

The author's detailed analyses of plays such as Dharamvir Bharati's Andha Yug, Girish Karnad's Tughlak, Ratan Thiyam's Chakravyuha, K.N. Panikkar's Mahabharata plays and Vijay Tendulkar's Kanyadaan are models of theatre scholarship, because she combines a rich and nuanced reading of the texts, places the plays in their larger social, cultural and political histories, looks at how the plays have been interpreted by various directors in performance; and highlights the undervalued contribution of actors in creating meaning in character and the play as a whole.

Dharwadker's study not only is the first to raise the really big questions about Indian theatre in a comprehensive sweep, but will hopefully become the standard work against which future research in this area will be judged.

Sudhanva Deshpande is editor, Left-Word Books, and a theatre director and actor with Jana Natya Manch, New Delhi

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