Salim Arif on theatre in the Hindi heartland, sustaining movements, and the need for local support
Salim Arif on the brand of theatre that is emerging in North India, especially the Braj region, the growing reliance on a brand of forced minimalism and why large-scale productions are a positive development in the art form
Theatre movements cannot be sustained by a single individual, says Salim Arif.
Hindi theatre works on the basis of volunteerism, which is to say that without volunteers, theatre in Hindi cannot exist, Arif explains.
I would like to invest my energy and time in Agra because a fertile ground is being created here, in theatre, says Arif.
I met Salim Arif in a guest house in Agra where he was staying for a couple of weeks. This was Arif’s third theatrical visit to the city. Two years ago, he staged his acclaimed play Paansa adapted by Gulzar from Pavan K Varma’s poem, which featured actors Lubna Salim, Amit Behl and Bakul Thakkar, in the first ever theatre festival hosted by the local theatre group Ranglok Sanskritik Sansthan.
Last year he staged his popular show Hamsafar written by Javed Siddiqui and enacted by Lubna Salim and Harsh Chhaya. This time around, he was not directing a play but was in town to conduct a theatre workshop in collaboration with the Ranglok group. The convenor of the group is Dimpy Mishra, a protégé of Arif, who has been trying to revive professional theatre in Agra and the neighbouring region for the past decade or so. Arif has been actively supporting his effort in trying to bring quality performances and performers to the city. In this workshop, his aim was to groom young theatre enthusiasts not only as performers, but also in other aspects of theatre like production and direction.
The workshop culminated in a performance of the play Bakri written by Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena. Garima Mishra, who has learnt theatre alongside her elder brother Dimpy and is now pursuing advanced studies in theatre from Hyderabad Central University, directed the play.
This interaction began as an interview about the prospects of Indian theatre, especially in smaller cities and newer spaces, but soon expanded into a larger conversation about different aspects of performing arts in India. The conversation also touched upon the state of literature and the media in the country.
What was the idea behind this theatre workshop, and how did you find the experience of conducting it?
I felt that it is important to bring local young talent from Agra into the foreground. Dimpy Mishra has been directing for a while now, but other people should also be prepared, besides him. Because a movement cannot be sustained by a single individual. For a movement, there should be a concerted effort of many people coming together as a group.
So, the idea was to groom the youngsters; besides the workshop, we got an opportunity to talk about other things as well. But the process should include exploring on their own. Too much emphasis on production makes the process too production-oriented, which may or may not yield adequate learning.
Now it is time to groom the next generation, especially here in Agra. For the past three or more years, there has been intense work going on in the city. Now groups from outside have also started coming here. And the good thing is that people from the city have also been supporting the movement, which has made a difference.
In your opinion, how do theatre movements sustain?
All the theatre movements in the world, if you notice, materialise when about 25 to 30 extremely creative people are associated with them, be it Rangayan or Dishantar in Delhi, or elsewhere in the world, like the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Theatre groups or movements move in a cycle of seven or eight years, historically speaking. Because people join in the beginning, reach a peak level after five or six years and then start dispersing to other places. There is not much scope for stability in theatre anyway, because after a while it begins to get stale.
Ironically, if an actor keeps acting in theatre only for a long period of time, their growth begins to get stunted. This is because they run out of options in terms of directors. That’s why if you look at the West, particularly Hollywood, those who are constantly growing are the ones who come back to act in a play in Broadway after every three or four years, specifically in England. But then they have an advantage because they work in the English language, so they work in the same medium in both places.
The problem Hindi artists face is that they have to uproot themselves and travel all the way to Mumbai. Although recently there has been some work coming up in this region, these actors only get inferior roles. But when the same actors go to Mumbai, they get recognised for their talent, like Brijendra Kala who is from this [Braj] region. Today he is counted among good actors, and rightly so. But imagine if he had stayed back here, then he would be standing third from the left or second from the right in the crowd, or allowed to speak two lines at best.
Is the structural makeup of theatre such that those working in it cannot — and shouldn't — circulate within it for too long?
I think they shouldn’t because like in the genetic pool where constant shuffling leads to strengthening of genes and too much inbreeding within it leads to problems, in theatre as well being too involved within that world is not productive. Writing begins to get weaker because no fresh thoughts are making their way in. Our work is to become catalysts for those ideas which are injected and for the youngsters to work upon them; it is important to take them into confidence. And theatre is a composite art. It has painting, dancing and many other forms within it and knowledge about all those elements should be strengthened. Only then you get an idea of a higher aesthetic. Otherwise one just picks up a script and performs it the same way as one has always performed it. There is no interactive growth.
How do you see theatre doing in the Hindi heartland? What are your observations regarding theatre in the various cities in this region?
Hindi theatre works on the basis of volunteerism, which is to say that without volunteers, theatre in Hindi cannot exist. Most people involved in Hindi theatre are those who are not reliant on theatre for their livelihoods. Their bills are being paid with money from other sources. And I don’t hold them in high accord who take government grants and run their repertories and keep doing things within their limited milieu to justify their grants. There is very little innovation and moreover there are a lot of malpractices involved. I think it’s very important today that the entire art scene of the country gets restructured. It is time now to reorganise and revitalise all our institutions and also to end some of them, because they have started decaying.
In the 70s and 80s, when a lot of funding in cinema was being provided by bodies such as the FFC and the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), there was a paradox that even directors felt whereby they were accepting funding from the State but also trying to represent voices against the State in the films. If there is an excess injection of institutional funding, how do you think it will impact theatre?
Institutional funding will invariably be accompanied by institutional guidelines. But I feel that while there is nothing wrong in staging politically or ideologically-oriented plays, often we do it at the cost of the aesthetics of the play. There should be a good script, good writing and good presentation with good visual values. Only then can we make it an experience. Theatre is basically an experience which involves a lot of things that make it so. If I want to oppose a certain policy of the government, I can use my play to project that idea, but my play will first have to fulfil all the conditions of being a good play. If then the idea emerges from it, it’s fine. But if we build the entire drama around that idea, if the drama itself lacks substance, we may feel that we have done a very socially or politically relevant play, but for me it is unimportant because it does not fulfil any condition of a good play. It is only making a statement.
With regards to contemporary writing in Hindi theatre, what are your observations?
In Mumbai, a lot of youngsters are following the tradition of writing their own plays and then performing them. From this tradition, some very good plays have emerged from writers like Makarand, Manav Kaul, Ramu Ramanathan etc. I too have written some scripts by piecing together some of Gulzar sahab’s works. There is an ongoing struggle to create new and fresh content in Mumbai.
Are you witnessing some developments in this [Braj] region in the same vein?
In Hindi theatre, people are either adapting stories into plays or practising the new form of kissagoi (storytelling) here. The experience of theatre which used to emerge from an ensemble cast play, which is what theatre originally is, is not prevalent. Short story adaptations, or kissagoi which is like a stand-up comedy act, are alternative forms of theatre. There may not be anything wrong with that but I cannot give it the same status as mainstream theatre.
Because there is nothing like a well-made play. If you go through the works of Arthur Miller, [Henrik] Ibsen, Badal Sarkar, [Girish] Karnad etc. you will see that the tightness of good theatre and its ability to capture the audience. The alternative forms are good for changing the flavour of your palette. The reason why people have started to acknowledge these forms as genuine genres is because often in theatre there is a lack of resources. One doesn’t need a set, lights etc. One can work with four chairs and a table.
So they're employing a kind of a minimalism?
Yes, but minimalism should be arrived at. Minimalism is something which cannot be used as an escape route. You can’t say that we have to make do with four chairs and a table. One should arrive at four chairs and a table only after weeding out the props which are inessential to the play. Unfortunately, the resort to discretion and choice in arriving at that minimalism is done away with. An important reason behind such theatre is the lack of content in our writing, which is because theatre people are not willing to reimburse the writers in Hindi. Often, they don’t even mention the name of the writer whose work is being performed. They are negating the very people on whose contributions they are staging their events.
What are the foundations for innovation and evolution in theatre writing, vis-à-vis narrative and aesthetics?
Evolution comes with practitioners. Badal Sarkar, [Vijay] Tendulkar, Karnad and also Mohan Rakesh — these people shared a great camaraderie with the theatre artists when they were writing plays. They were also understanding how theatre works. For instance, recently Gulzar sahab watched two of our plays after which he decided to write a play for us. After interacting with us and understanding the various aspects of theatre, he wrote a new original play after five years. For a film writer, it is difficult to bring together everything within the confines of the limited stage of theatre, because in a film you can transport your scene wherever you like. But it’s a different craft to tell a story using that limited space.
There was a time when actors who appeared in a different kind of cinema were those who did theatre. How do you now see the relationship between cinema and theatre?
Even now, they come mostly from theatre. You can name any actor of today and their training would have been in theatre, barring a few exceptions. Even people like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have two or three years of stage experience. They too have learned the basic sense of emoting from theatre itself. But their training has not been as organised as it has been of actors like Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui etc. from the National School of Drama (NSD).
How does theatre influence the story writers of today?
Writers are born, especially those who write plays. It is most difficult to write plays because there is a lot of constraint needed. To use a time frame of two-and-a-half-hours and utilise the limited space of 30 by 20 dimensions to create an entire world such as to evoke the imagination of the audience is not an easy task. The great thing about theatre is that there is an audience which is willingly surrendering its power to you. There is a suspension of belief. So if someone goes to watch a play, they have come convinced that whatever the director is saying, will be true. If the director says that in the wing there is an entire city or there is a mountain there or the moon has risen, then the audience wouldn’t see all these things, but they would imagine them through the director. Our purpose is to suggest an idea and evoke an image in the audience's mind. Once that image is evoked, you are transported there.
So there needs to be a reconciliation between what you are seeing and what is desired to be evoked?
How you evoke that imagination or create that experience becomes key. It’s not that you have to believe what I say. I have to keep giving you sufficient clues and signals for you to believe what I am saying.
Like you said, for theatre to grow there needs to be a collaborative effort whereby local cultures also need to support it. In which cities do you see this kind of development in theatre, especially in the North?
In the North there have been cities like Lucknow where theatre has been traditionally going on for long. In Chandigarh people like Neelam Mansingh and Channi sahab used to do theatre. Practically speaking, theatre has been happening in all cities. It’s just that the intensity of these efforts varies. In the 70s, the theatre scene was the most vibrant because after the entire seeding period of the 60s, it was flourishing in the next decade. We were the last bit of the 70s theatre scene, where we entered towards the end of it. I have been fortunate to see all that.
We were able to see the great performers, writers and directors of 70s. But now that intensity is not found. At that time, fortunately, such a great set of actors had accumulated in one place and time, which normally doesn’t happen. If there are even five of them, it would be a great thing. But in the NSD repertoire, there were 15 such people, like Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, Pankaj Kapur, KK Raina, Vijay Kashyap, Annu Kapoor, Manohar Singh etc. Even if they performed small roles, they made an impact because they were essentially very good actors. And then the mind of a person like Alkazi sahab took them to a different level by grooming them.
That development translated into satellite movements in smaller cities. NSD graduates like Bansi Kaul went to cities and furthered these movements by doing workshops and plays. That brought in a new flavour. For instance, in Agra even if a lot hasn’t happened, local audiences have been able to watch some plays from outside the city and from within it because of people like Dimpy. A varied palette is presented before you.
The materialisation of this facility in Agra is, to me, a big thing. That’s why I would like to invest my energy and time in Agra because a fertile ground is being created here. And a big reason behind it is the local support. Because you can get performers anywhere, but you cannot get people to support those performers everywhere. Agra, as a city of such historical importance, should have been the cultural capital of the state. But it couldn’t. In the 60s many big personalities in literature came from here, but they ended up migrating elsewhere. Imagine the first ever film appreciation club was founded here by Satish Bahadur, the person who started the film society movement in the country. A journalist like Bishan Kapoor had to migrate from here to join Blitz in the 60s.
There is a new trend of big Broadway-like productions, such as Mughal-e-Azam, in India. How do you perceive it?
I welcome that because it has brought the joy back to our theatre. Mughal-e-Azam has very successfully fulfilled the role of celebration and spectacle in theatre. I am also very happy because everyone is getting paid well. I like the fact that the audience is forced to pay more. At least they are paying Rs 10,000 to watch the play because that’s what they spend at Broadway to watch a musical. And the play justifies that because Feroze has made a lot of effort to give that kind of feel. In theatre there needs to be glamour, a spectacle and a respectability from the upper middle class. And if the play becomes a talking point, I feel happy. At least people are going to make an effort to watch a play. This scenario did not exist for a while.
Forward movement has commenced and must continue, though in an organised and planned manner, rather than haphazard as they are on currently
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