Coronavirus Outbreak: India's theatre practitioners view crisis as time to introspect, reinvigorate stage ecosystem
Even outside the context of a lockdown, theatre in India operates as what could be termed a grossly underpaid gig economy, with actors and technicians buffeting their slender takeouts with earnings from television, digital media or film projects.
A lone garden-chair is placed at an angle near the edge of the stage, as if waiting for a thespian with a welcome profusion of words and expressions to occupy it. A solitary halogen light fixture stands before it like a street lamp evoking memories and connections not yet far gone. And, an audience, conspicuous by simply not being there, is supplanted by empty seating, poised and lit, in a photograph released by Prithvi Theatre on its social media pages. “We will NOT be dark!” reads the caption emphatically, a nod to theatre’s age-old adage: “The show must go on”.
If one were to look hard enough, one might spot the venue’s resident moth, inveterate gatecrasher of Mumbai drama’s most gratifying moments, or hear the collective heartbeats of generations of theatrewallahs, left behind like sighs and whispers. It’ll take much more than a catastrophe to quell those voices, the image seems to be saying. The question it raises though is whether we can return to this longstanding and beloved ethos unchanged and undaunted.
Barring its annual breaks for renovation and maintenance, Prithvi Theatre has boasted of perhaps the longest uninterrupted spells of live theatre, not just in Mumbai but in show-business the country over. Programmed to the hilt, six days a week, and attracting hundreds of theatre-lovers every day, the space has come to a rare standstill, and the denizens who populate its ramparts in times of peace and harmony are now scarcely to be found.
Around 10 days ago, even before governmental diktats were announced, many cultural venues brought their calendars to a premature halt, throwing into disarray a rather fragile arts ecosystem. Even outside the context of a lockdown, theatre in India operates as what could be termed a grossly underpaid gig economy, with actors and technicians buffeting their slender takeouts with earnings from television, digital media or film projects. The busiest and the best who manage to eke out a living purely from theatre are therefore likely to take the biggest hit from the current closure, while others will see their alternative means of subsistence dry up.
Unlike countries with organised arts regimes, where hardship funds are being raised to support those in the arts in need of financial assistance, such measures haven’t entirely been forthcoming in India — although the Producers Guild of India has set up a relief fund for daily wage earners in cinema, a colossal industry that depends heavily on its foot-soldiers. Recent years have seen the theatre fraternity organising themselves over issues like funding, copyright law or plagiarism, and perhaps this lockdown might allow for the introspection much needed for a total revamping of the theatre scene in terms of its work ethic, labour practices, and indeed, creative outlook.
As Sangeet Natak Akademi honouree Sunil Shanbag, who has co-founded groups like Theatre Arpana and Tamaasha Theatre, says, "One thing is for sure, there are great human tragedies unfolding outside."
"It’s going to take a while to figure out how to respond. There may be a period of unlearning, of breaking old habits and expectations."
Shanbag is noncommittal about whether to look at the situation as an opportunity or a calamity. Tamaasha has suspended rehearsals on a new play, and it’s taken them time to get used to the idea of complete uncertainty engulfing us all. “It’s almost as though the slate has been wiped clean. But now I’ve slowly started thinking. There is a script to edit, a new project to read for, and some older plans have been dusted and retrieved,” says Shanbag, always the warhorse.
To many, this period of inactivity might certainly provide the opportunity to take a good hard look at their own practices, but thinking about work or finding ways to continue being productive might well be a luxury at a time when information about the actual spread of COVID-19 in India is still thin on the ground, given the official decisions taken early on regarding the targeting and testing of the infected.
On the other hand, well-intentioned cheerleaders want more than just a semblance of the creative reality they’ve always known to keep ticking, staying alive in the face of adversity. Cultural institutions have attempted to take a lead on this by opening up archives. In Mumbai, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has begun sharing videos from their classical repertoire — conversations with santoor virtuoso Shiv Kumar Sharma and vocalist Ghulam Mustafa Khan, concerts by the Symphony Orchestra of India, a dhrupad recital by Chintan Upadhyay, and a lecture-demonstration on Manipuri dance by Darshana Jhaveri.
An official statement reads, “While concerts, performances and events remain cancelled, for the time being, we at the NCPA strongly believe in the role of art as a unifier in trying times and its ability to bring succour when little else can. We bring the performing arts to patrons in the safety of their homes.” Theatre-wise, the NCPA’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business, directed by Adhaar Khurana, earlier slated to open on 9 April, remains indefinitely postponed.
In Delhi, the Black Box Okhla (BBO), a fairly new venue that’s quickly carved a niche for itself in the world of experimental arts, announced an interactive engagement with their patrons and followers on Instagram, called BBO In The Clouds, a ‘virtual theatre of conversations and creations.’ Beginning 20 March, they’ve been posting polls and queries on Instagram Stories, and based on the responses, their creative team have been working on a virtual play that will be unveiled on 31 March.
BBO’s latest posts, for instance, are already taking pointers on the play’s climax, an avenue interestingly open to both those who’ve interacted with the plot from the very beginning and those who’ve come in late and could be potential disrupters. It remains to be seen how the play ultimately shapes up as — whether it is a performed piece streamed live, or a script that can be downloaded and read.
One archive that is already proving to be of great value to theatre-watchers is that of the Pune-based Aasakta Kalamanch, who have started uploading high-quality videos of their plays online. The first was made available as early as last month — Mohit Takalkar’s Uney Purey Shahar Ek, the Marathi adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Kannada play, Benda Kaalu On Toast. They have since added Takalkar’s production of Makarand Sathe’s Charshee Kotee Visarbhole, and Pradeep Vaidya’s production of Sagar Deshmukh’s Shillak, a play that shares its themes with Manav Kaul’s Ilhaam. All the plays are in Marathi, with English subtitles. The overarching motifs include urban disaffection and class disparity, that have now come brimming to the surface in an India ravaged by a pandemic, that might not have been of its own making, but whose eventual devastation would owe much to the management of the crisis by the powers-that-be.
“When there is hopelessness, and people are in despair, it is heartening that art brings people together,” says Takalkar, one of our noted contemporary stage auteurs, of the viral videos from Italy that feature musicians and singers performing in balconies like they were concert halls suspended in mid-air.
“The best of literature, and art, and music were created in the troubled times that followed the great wars,” he says.
This is a well-documented aspect of art's history. In theatre, an entire genre – Theatre of the Absurd — owes its genesis to a generation moored in existential angst. Takalkar is reclusive even in normal circumstances, so his routines under lockdown might not seem any different, but he finds his approach has changed when it comes to the books he’s reading, saying, “I find myself returning to the very fundamentals of theatre with fresh eyes and a renewed focus. I am eager to return to my work once this ends.” This would certainly ring true with many for whom theatre is a passion rather than a sidelight. However, the economics of staging a play in an ethos ready for it, is something that might need to be drastically reconfigured post lockdown.
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