A decade in theatre: Barring a few troupes, India's dramaturgy didn't quite mirror the tumult in nation's polity
Arguably, one feature of theatre eco-systems across India, with some exceptions like those fostered by the Budhan Theatre or the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch or the still buoyant Jana Natya Manch, is how cosily they seem to be ensconced in their liberal echo chambers, whirring along insulated from the political heave-ho outside their turf.
The past decade’s ‘In Memoriam’ includes prime movers and journeymen, visionaries and stalwarts, who industriously propped up the theatre scene as we now know it, when it was at its most inchoate.
While commercial theatre has branched out into lavish musicals like Mughal-e-Azam to attract those willing to pay Broadway rates of admittance, children’s theatre has moved in another direction — more plays are being made for babies and toddlers than ever before, with groups like Gillo at the forefront of creating works specifically for younger audiences.
Perhaps, from all the headlines that dominated the airwaves in the past decade, the single-most impact on theatre was made by the nationwide protests that accompanied Jyoti Singh’s unspeakable fortnight-long ordeal in December 2012.
The 2009 Delhi High Court verdict reading down Section 377 opened the floodgates of queer expression in theatre, notwithstanding the legal blips that followed.
It isn’t easy to summarise a decade in the theatre, because there is always a sense of us still living in it. It is hard to break away from the continuum that Indian theatre has been. Never monolithic, remarkably diverse, and constantly reinventing itself, but never losing its connection to the past. Cinema keeps moulting, but theatre has a way of holding on to its roots even while forging new ground. The past decade’s ‘In Memoriam’ includes prime movers and journeymen, visionaries and stalwarts, who industriously propped up the theatre scene as we now know it, when it was at its most inchoate. More than people, they are institutions. Some might have been better known for work in cinema, but their contributions to theatre have been as significant if not more.
The veritable Who’s Who includes matinee idol Shashi Kapoor, the co-founder of Prithvi Theatre, which has kept experimental theatre resuscitated for decades; his predecessors who kept the flag flying at the pioneering Chhabildas space, Sulabha Deshpande, Shreeram Lagoo and the indefatigable Arun Kakde; actors Om Puri, Tom Alter, Dinyar Contractor, Vijay Chavan, Sudha Shivpuri, Shaukat Azmi, A K Hangal, Geeta Siddharth and Farooq Sheikh, all with heavy-duty stage resumes; creative forces like Habib Tanvir and Veenapani Chawla; redoubtable prima donna of post-Independence theatre, Zohra Sehgal who completed her century before the final curtain call; regional stalwarts like Heisnam Kanhailal, Badal Sircar and Kavalam Narayana Panicker; directors Alyque Padamsee, Habib Tanvir and Satyadev Dubey; literary figures like Mahasweta Devi or Vijay Dan Detha whose works have fed theatre for generations; and of course, playwright Girish Karnad, whose last play, Crossing to Talikota, came just months before his passing.
In theatre, names live on in posterity much longer than what one might expect from an industry that archives very little of itself (although the digital revolution is changing that gradually). However, endeavours such as the Alkazi Foundation’s brilliant exhibition on the theatre of living legend Ebrahim Alkazi, that captures the history of modern subcontinental theatre itself, might go a long way in keep the legacies of directors like Tanvir or Dubey, whose contributions are more evanescent but no less potent than that of playwrights, alive for their teeming successors, and there are many who have emerged as significant figures in their own right in the past decade — playwrights Manav Kaul, Abhishek Majumdar and Neel Chaudhuri, directors Mohit Takalkar and Sankar Venkateswaran, impresarios Quasar Thakore Padamsee and Akarsh Khurana, and making a dent on this all-boys club, theatremakers like Faezeh Jalali, Purva Naresh, Jyoti Dogra and Yuki Ellias. This is just a partial roll-call, and far from definitive, but they do indicate that the falling of giants never takes place in vain.
Theatre bloodlines are not genetic, but forged on the anvil of the sweat and tears extracted by the stage.
Among theatre trends that have made an impression, short-lived or otherwise, in the past decade have included a proliferation of devised physical theatre works, forged in collaborative set-ups, where actors, writers and directors worked in close collusion in a manner vastly different from the auteur-driven model of the past (which persists, of course). Adishakti, the theatre foundry founded by Chawla, has brought us explorations like Nimmy Raphael’s Bali and Nidravathwam, works in which parables from the Ramayana provide grist for inventive movement theatre. Many groups, notably Crow and Visual Respiration, in the past decade have attempted to work in the field of immersive theatre, in which audiences move along with the rhythms of a performance, one with the performers. These works often include site-specific elements, taking place in locations that vary from industrial warehouses to private boudoirs. The works of Deepan Sivaraman have been exercises in path-breaking scenography, and one of the most remarkable in his oeuvre has been Khasakkinte Ithihasam, the Malayalam production based on OV Vijayan’s epic novel that harnesses the 'panch bhuta' (or five elements) of live performance.
While commercial theatre has branched out into lavish musicals like Mughal-e-Azam to attract those willing to pay Broadway rates of admittance, children’s theatre has moved in another direction — more plays are being made for babies and toddlers than ever before, with groups like Gillo at the forefront of creating works specifically for younger audiences. That Indian plays can be popular internationally was demonstrated by Atul Kumar’s much-travelled Piya Behrupiya, but the weaker Indian currency has made it difficult for Indian plays to tap into markets overseas, even if festivals like the ten-year-old International Theatre Festival of Kerala have attempted to become a conduit for international access.
Arguably, one feature of theatre eco-systems across India, with some exceptions like those fostered by the Budhan Theatre or the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch or the still buoyant Jana Natya Manch, is how cosily they seem to be ensconced in their liberal echo chambers, whirring along insulated from the political heave-ho outside their turf. However, the insidious polarisation of polity in the country is proving difficult to ignore for many, and although it cannot be said that theatre in India is distinctly political as a whole (the opposite might well be true), pockets of unorganised radical expression have sporadically emerged, that collectively might speak of a stance even, albeit preaching to the converted, and serving as little more than a panacea to the pricked conscience that is now tired of unwitting collusion. For instance, the spate of plays dealing with Dalit upliftment, or the less-than-muted response to the ongoing Kashmiri lockdown, or the personal politics of queer identity and women’s liberation that continue to rankle.
These plays don’t always emerge from the affected communities, so the problems of ‘white saviour’ optics and the patriarchial gaze persist, but thoughtful cognizance of real-world issues is still refreshing, even if they’re not always conducive to great box-office receipts.
This is after taking no notice of the pat-on-the-back lip-service to contemporary politics that many practitioners insert into their facetious sound-and-light ventures, that leave us with no doubt of their privileged neutrality. Of late, of course, online political petitions have attracted large numbers of open signatories from within the theatre community, and it remains to be seen if this fervour reflects in their work. One heavyweight whose plays possess an unapologetic political outlook is Sunil Shanbag — this was evinced from the back-door intrigues that coloured his being recently awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Directing.
Perhaps, from all the headlines that dominated the airwaves in the past decade, the single-most impact on theatre was made by the nationwide protests that accompanied Jyoti Singh’s unspeakable fortnight-long ordeal in December 2012. She became an international symbol of resistance, and the incident has been referenced and reframed in several stage explorations veering from the sensational to the sensitive. While Yael Farber’s Nirbhaya showcased performers who staged their own stories of abuse, Mallika Taneja’s Thoda Dhyan Se spoke powerfully of how oppression reconditions women. Solo performances by female practitioners emerged with prolific regularity, wearing angst and vulnerability on their sleeve, the survivor’s testimonial becoming protest theatre that audiences bore witness to. One fallout of this, particularly in the hands of younger practitioners, is the disturbingly ceaseless depiction of rape on stage, which focuses on the dramatic ‘event of violation’ rather than the emotional trauma that survivors endure. On the other hand, the #MeToo movement hasn’t inspired theatre as potently. While Zubaan Books’ collaboration with Taneja and Shena Gamat, titled Allegedly, brought forth the ‘credible witness’ who might as easily be discredited, there have been minor works that call the movement’s ostensible lack of ‘due process’ into question.
The 2009 Delhi High Court verdict reading down Section 377 opened the floodgates of queer expression in theatre, notwithstanding the legal blips that followed. Community-owned plays like Panmai Theatre’s Color of Trans 2.0 or Saggherr Loadhii’s Hijada brought in a raw unabashed sensibility replete with lived experiences and first-hand distress, even as mainstream theatre made do with token characters and ersatz sub-plots that nonetheless earned them points for visibility. Some works like Mandeep Raikhy’s intensely intimate Queen-size took us into same-sex bedrooms where nocturnal liaisons played themselves out in a way that was more open-hearted than clandestine. Other notable plays include Neel Chaudhuri’s sensitively drawn gay romance Still and Still Moving, and Sharanya Ramprakash’s Akshayambara, that locks horns with the male bastion that is yakshagana. Similarly, while many plays about caste took us back to star-crossed Romeo and Juliet style romances, Sushama Deshpande has given us Aaydaan, an adaptation of Urmila Pawar’s eponymous autobiography. Pawar was one of the first educated Dalit women, and Deshpande’s bitter-sweet evocation of her life cannot quite alleviate the burdens of the past, but the deep pain of Dalit existence comes swathed in an undeniably transformative uplift. These works reflect a transition, both in society and in the mindsets of those seeking to become agents of change. Whether theatre can escape its niche remains to be seen, but at least, it can never be dismissed, despite its death knell being sounded ever so often.
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