While the lack-lustre stage theatre scene in India tries to rise from the ashes of mediocrity, the audience and practitioners at major venues throng to showcase lifestyle more than love for the art.
India has produced numerous actors and theatre art practitioners in the past who have enriched the legacy of acting, storytelling and audio-visual art over a century. Street plays used to be a political language and every state in India excelled in its quintessential form of stage plays; whether its Jatrapala (a Bengali form of open-air stage play) in West Bengal or Tamasha (a Marathi form of road shows) in Maharashtra.
However, the present scene of art connoisseurs seems to be more interested in the canteen food and the fashion statement they make while they go to the theatre in India. “They don’t go to the Prithvi Theatre for good plays anymore, it’s the canteen that draws more crowds nowadays,” said Saif Hyder Hasan, a playwright and an independent theatre practitioner based in Mumbai.
In Kolkata, plays combining social commentaries and political anecdotes are allegedly seeing a depreciation as well. Manish Mitra, a theatre director and a playwright based in Kolkata whose plays have travelled nationally as well as internationally said, “Theatre in big cities of India is dead, and it has nothing to do with lifestyle. The demand of the time is only Organic Theatre. We are pursuing this new Philosophy and we call it Organic Theatre, knowing well that it is a misnomer. Every theatre practice should be organic.”
Theatre in metros
Although it will be harsh on the regional theatre scene of the country especially in various districts and semi-urban locales, the metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata or New Delhi have now become a hub for outlandish lifestyle expression than observing the art form.
Prithvi theatre is known for the legacy of acting stalwarts. Still considered as the mecca of theatre lovers and practitioners in India, the presence of the new age audience has unknowingly posed rhetorical questions on the intention.
Whether the art requires sponsors and whether the glamour has a potential to attract funds for this ailing art is a different contention as well. However, finding a balance between organic theatres and adding a layer of chic glamour at least to grab the right set of eyeballs is getting difficult in the metros.
“The plastic layers of the urban consumerism are now extending the boundaries of the global market to the remotest villages of the country. It is time to rejuvenate theatre practice with a gush of fresh oxygen, it is time to focus more on the ethnic roots and get connected. Even in this age of niche marketing, such a minority practice can never be a lifestyle,” added Mitra.
Joyraj Bhattacharya, a young actor and a theatre practitioner who has vehemently been an active part of alternate voices in the theatre art industry in eastern India said, “I do not see any theatre is happening actually. In metros, people are busy exploring their newly bought smartphones.”
“But you can make a film using your phone, you can be a fantastic photographer, you can write poems, even if you want, you can record your singing and upload. But for theatre, there is no chance. So this is not their problem, I believe. This is the problem with their phone,” Bhattacharya added on a sarcastic note.
The time frame that goes beyond mere Shakespeare or Brecht adaptation also found mention in Joyraj’s voice. He said, “I think, I can’t blame a generation for this; not as an audience and not even as a practitioner. Actually, in the 80’s and the 90’s the audience and the mediocre theatre productions destroyed the theatre scene of Bengal. I sometimes find it very intentional.”
Rural/tribal theatre: an antithesis
Quite opposite to the metro cities, a visit to this immaculate campus called Tepantar in the Birbhum district of West Bengal will tell you a story of a village that has evolved over the last two decades serving as a rural cultural centre. One would experience this unique theatre village as a place where tribal repertory theatre and performing arts has become the main means of survival.
Kallol Bhattacharya, the founder of the theatre group Ebong Amra in Satkahania, the theatre village asserted, “To run the centre we needed to generate income and we gradually started poultry, fishery, mango and guava orchards, with the help of local banks. The idea was to create a rural theatre and cultural centre here, as there are not many academies in rural Bengal which provides proper training and opportunity to practice alternative art forms.”
“We arrange a comprehensive performance every weekend in our campus here in Tepantar. Not only theatre, we also exhibit various cultural programmes, such as tribal dances performed by the locals and folk music concerts. We are trying to develop an art and culture-oriented tourism infrastructure here,” added Bhattacharya.
The lifestyle here is closer to the soil and rooted to the basics of the art. As the bifurcating ideologies of one of the most aesthetic forms of performing arts in India long for healthy debates, the fashion, money and glamour associated with the city-based theatres are perhaps the goals that keep the timid artists true to their journey.
“Theatre has to either exist at the centre as the systolic-diastolic vibration of the social existence or perish altogether. But theatre is eternal not because it has no death but because every moment it has a re-birth,” Mitra concluded on a hopeful note.
Rajat Kapoor, an actor, playwright and theatre director was in Kolkata for a show last year and the conversations we had with Kapoor also depicted the lack of quality work in India. The audience, he believed has all the rights to reject the kind of work that is predominant in India. He said in an interview with MIG, “I am not very fond of theatre in India generally; I don’t think we are doing very cutting-edge work, I don’t think we are doing very innovative work or even very rigorous work, unfortunately. So, I don’t think we are ready to compete with the theatre of any other country.”