|Saturday, August 30, 2003||
Even if you discount the bias of a theatre person (who, all his life, has done nothing to earn his bread except do theatre), you would have to agree to the fact that theatre is an art form, which has a direct relationship with the living impulses of a given society. It is so because not only is its site of exhibition social but the site of doing theatre, unlike other art forms, is also social. Theatre cannot be done alone, hidden away in a studio or in the solitude of the Himalayas. To do theatre, one has to come down to earth and share spaces with living people. It is a group activity and, therefore, demands creative interaction with other people at every stage of its production. The process is truly democratic, in the sense that many different voices, bodies, minds come together to give form to an expression, which is essentially a group expression. It’s not a solo game. The final product, if there is ever one, is the result of months of discussions held by thoroughly trained and talented artistes. Good theatre demands and results from the co-operative efforts of creative human beings.
Even a quick glance at the 5000-year-old history of theatre clearly establishes the fact that theatre reached its zenith whenever doing theatre became a way of life for certain groups of exceptionally gifted and trained individuals. In the Greek period, it was the groups of performers led by master playwrights/actors like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides who devoted themselves to theatre. They were able to do so as they enjoyed the support of the masses and, more importantly, the enlightened ruling elite.
Centuries later, in the neo-classical period, Shakespeare’s theatre was possible because of the patronage he and his contemporaries received from the royalty and the common people. The third Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s personal friend. Known as a King’s man, Shakespeare was an important member of Lord Chamberlain’s company of players that came into existence in London in the late 16th century.
Our own Kalidasa wrote and produced plays in the court of Vikramaditya of Ujjaini, some time in the first century BC. The historical evidence pertaining to Indian classical theatre is sketchy and somewhat speculative. But no one can disagree that complex and meticulous theoretical texts like Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra and Nandikeshwara’s Abhinaya Darpana could not have come into existence without the long-standing and thriving professional theatre. Great texts of Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudraka and Bhavabhuti bear testimony to a period which was theatrically extremely rich. Later, folk actors of India had the support of both the rajas/zamindars as well as the public.
In Japan, the classical Noh theatre form, first initiated in the open land outside Buddhist temples, could reach its peak only when the Shoguns took the most talented players into their fold. Kan’ami and his son Zi’ami, both masters of classical Japanese theatre, had the benefit of receiving patronage from the emperor.
I am aware that such telescoping of history glosses over all the pain and suffering of enormously talented theatre persons in different parts of the globe at different times. The crushing struggle against the puritanical sections of society has been a feature common to all successful theatrical ventures. Yet, one fact stands out that the professionalisation of theatre was possible when both, the ruling and the ruled, came together to support the endeavour undertaken by actors, directors and writers.
Today, in India, professional theatre is restricted to tiny pockets and can be considered negligible in the national context. It is, therefore, generally true that there is no professional theatre in India. There is only good and bad amateur theatre, which means some activity is there, which is not quality-oriented and well sustained.
With the disappearance of feudal patronage in post-Independence India, theatre persons have become virtual destitutes. We did seem to be moving in the right direction when three central akademis and several state akademis were created under the Ministry of Education and Culture to promote art and culture at the regional and national levels. The government funding, though meagre, helped to create institutions that honed the skills of dancers, musicians, writers, painters and theatre artists. Several interesting developments took place in the Nehruvian era. In Pune, a film institute was established, and to develop alternate cinema, various schemes were considered by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The most visible example of this effort was the establishment of the National Film Development Corporation in Bombay. The creation of the National School of Drama in New Delhi was part of the same cultural thinking.
Further, the UGC was provided with funds to initiate cultural action in universities. As a result, dance and music became part of the college education system and today several universities boast of a theatre department (approximately 30 universities teach theatre in one form or the other, as part of their curriculum). Let us not go into the merits and demerits of theatre-teaching programmes in India. But what can be said with conviction is that besides the NSD, there are a number of institutions which produce hundreds of ‘trained’ actors, directors and technicians every year.
But the irony is that though resources worth crores of rupees go into this massive exercise, what is achieved in the way of promoting theatre is almost negligible. The trained graduates of the NSD and theatre departments have only one place to go to: Mumbai, the tinsel town of India, obviously not to do theatre but to achieve stardom, either on the big or small screen. So, the young people ostensibly trained for theatre are mostly lost to television and, a handful of them, to Bollywood. Theatre remains where it was, at the level of an amateur enterprise in big and small cities.
Who is at fault? The policy-makers, the public, the established theatre persons or the youngsters who, after having enjoyed the benefit of training at the expense of the government, desert theatre and rush to Mumbai? I personally do not think that one can blame the young theatre graduates for opting for greener pastures. The complete absence of professional theatre companies in the country leaves no alternative before a trained and talented young actor. After all, he too is responding to the overall social scenario where success in terms of money and fame is idealised. However, the race to Mumbai has created a glut of actors in that city: many of them are forced to exist in subhuman conditions. With no patronage, the actor has nowhere to go.
Clearly, the initial steps taken in post-Independence India are now proving not just insufficient and half-hearted, but also totally counter-productive. The institutes which were created to promote new art, as a counterpoint to popular culture, are today churning out individuals who are serving the most crass forms of the popular.
This state of affairs should cause
alarm among the policy-makers, leaders in the business community as well
as in the thinking public. For, it is not just the question of providing
jobs to a few hundred people who have spent the best part of their lives
studying theatre. The real issue is to promote an art form, which is an
essential part of all civic societies because it has the power to
mediate in a volatile and changing society even as it entertains.