In need of a push
Does our regional theatre have an identity of its own, or is it a summation of individual success stories? Nonika Singh finds out

» Noted playwright and theatre person Dr Atamjit has won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award for his play "Tatti Tawi Da Sach".

» Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry has just returned after staging "Nag Mandla" at the prestigious Sadler Well’s theatre in London and "The Suit" at Marvellous Reality Theatre and Cinema Festival on the theme of magic realism in New Delhi.

» In Jammu, Balwant Thakur cannot get over the response his highly acclaimed play "Ghumai" received at six international festivals. To cap it all, he has received an invitation from the London International Festival of Theatre to stage "Bawa Jitto".

» Kewal Dhaliwal, recipient of the Ford Foundation fellowship, is a happy man after successfully organising the sixth theatre festival in Amritsar.

» Four members of Chandigarh’s theatre group Abhinet have made it to the Bhartiya Rangkosh, an encyclopaedia of Hindi theatre published by the National School of Drama (NSD) in collaboration with the Natya Shodh Sansthan, Kolkata.

» Himachal Sanskritik Shodh Sansthan Avam Rangmandal, Mandi’s, production "Sakharam Binder" has been chosen for the prestigious Bharat Rang Mahotsava, NSD’s annual theatre fest at New Delhi.

Chandigarh-based theatre group Abhinet’s  “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was well received by the audience
Chandigarh-based theatre group Abhinet’s “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was well received by the audience

So has the regional theatre finally arrived, as these achievements reveal? However, according to Neelam, "There is no such thing as Punjabi theatre. At best, we are individuals working in Punjabi language. Beyond this there is no similarity in context or content. We all work from our own points of view." Does it mean that theatre in the region is a summation of individual success stories and hardy reflects a significant growth of theatre as a whole?

Dr Atamjit doesn’t agree. Rather he takes immense pride that in the recent past, many theatre centres have emerged in Punjab. "In both Jaiton and Mansa, a lot of theatre activity is happening. In fact, 20 years ago there was just one name on the horizon of Punjabi theatre — Neelam Mansingh. But today there is Kewal Dhaliwal, Dr Sahib Singh, Pali Bhupinder, Kirti Kirpal and many more."

Dhaliwal, who has made Amritsar a nucleus of theatre, agrees, "Indeed, right now in Punjab there are nearly 150 theatre groups as well as many auditoriums at many small places like Preet Nagar around here reflecting the grassroot growth of theatre." He holds that theatre today has become part and parcel of Punjab’s cultural milieu and plays are being staged at khed melas and even at gurdwaras.

Another theatre activist Jatinder Brar has come up with Naatshala in Amritsar that has answered the long-felt need for a state-of-the art auditorium in the city. Naatshala hosts at least 100 plays a year.

Dhaliwal attributes this regeneration to various theatre festivals that have been held in Amritsar "It has ensured continuity, which is an integral part of theatre’s development," he adds.

Chandigarh’s well-known theatre director Umesh Kant agrees. He, too, credits these festivals to theatre’s coming of age in the city beautiful. Yet, do these festivals have any bearing upon theatre that is happening in the city and the region? Not many agree. Take the instance of the Haryana Government that in recent times took a lead in organising a theatre festival. But Gurgaon-based theatre person Mahesh Vashistha is not impressed. "The state government is least bothered about propagation of theatre in Haryana."

However, Vishav Deepak Trikha, who has taken over as the deputy director of Multi Art Cultural Centre at Kurukshetra, is determined to change things for the better. He has identified several groups and individuals in the state, who are committed to the cause of theatre. However, even he agrees that the scenario is far from rosy as theatre persons are not given due recognition. Brijesh Sharma, who along with wife Baljinder Kaur Sharma, is trying to keep theatre alive in Hisar with actor-based productions, agrees, "The state is oblivious to the problems of theatre persons. While the authorities bend backwards to honour sportspersons, theatre personalities don’t figure on the government honours list."

M. R. Dhiman, founder director of the Adi Manch, Ambala, is pained at the impasse that theatre is facing, "Theatre groups in Haryana depend heavily upon the government support and have not learnt to generate revenue from the public. Hence they are forced to work in a sporadic fashion".

Even in Chandigarh most theatre groups work in a kneejerk fashion and lack both vision and cohesiveness, he adds. Thus, Chandigarh’s Abhinet, founded in 1974 and credited with many milestone productions like "Ashadh ka ek Din" and "Mitti ki Gadi", seems to have fallen silent today. However, Harish Bhatia, secretary, Abhinet, refutes the assumption that the group is a spent force and argues, "Ten productions in seven years (between 2001 and 2008), including the much-commended "Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?", proves that it is very much alive and kicking."

Still, theatre from Chandigarh, except Neelam’s plays, is hardly creating a buzz.

Kant blames his alma mater, the faculty of Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University, Chandigarh, for this state of affairs.

Dhaliwal, too, feels theatre departments of various state universities can certainly do more in giving theatre the professional push it needs. He also bemoans the absence of professionals in various aspects of theatre activity like music and set design, etc. He also feels bogged down by the dearth of trained actors and says the varsities’ departments should rise to the occasion.

Thakur in Jammu, too, is caught in a similar predicament. Not only actors but even theatre groups eventually move over to commissioned television programmes that pay better. Still, theatre in Jammu has come a long way from the time when his 10-member theatre group Natrang had only five members as audiences. Today international acclaim has translated into local recognition and packed auditoriums.

But conditions for theatre in the region have been far from amenable. Punjab saw the dark chapter of terrorism, yet theatre persons like Dhaliwal worked all through. Neelam remembers days when working in Punjabi itself was considered infra dig. But Dr Atamjit feels that even today conditions are far from favourable. While saluting all those who survive on theatre alone, he states, "As there is no cultural policy in the state, governments act on whims and fancies and reward whosoever they feel like."

Yet, is it fair to blame the government alone? Aren’t theatre groups, especially those who dish out mediocrity time and again, equally responsible for affecting the cause of theatre by diluting quality?

Trikha shifts the onus on NSD alumni for alienating people and creating highbrow stuff, alien to the sensibilities of the common man. Indeed, in Haryana, where the Saang tradition is popular even today, few care to even use the local dialect. Brijesh feels that Haryanvi dialect saps the emotive power of the subject and turns a play, at best, into a comic skit. However, Vashista, toying with a "Andha Yug" in Harayanvi dialect, observes, "Local idiom has its flavour."

Seema Sharma, who has been running a repertory and theatre institute in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, echoes similar sentiments. "How can theatre be cut off from its local roots?’ Working simultaneously in both folk theatre as well as modern theatre she claims, "Local audiences have become more responsive and even appreciate plays, based on the writings of Chekov and Gorky."

Even in Punjab, viewers have become more discerning. But Dr Atamjit, while being happy that audiences have become choosy, asserts, "They have no right to demand quality till they are ready to pay for it." Because whenever groups have tried to make theatre aficionados realise that there are no free lunches, the moves have fallen flat.

Yet despite many difficulties, individual efforts, tales of persistence and undying passion have kept the theatre’s flag afloat. According to Rajneesh Kashyap, a theatre artiste from Shimla, "Theatre has never been a cakewalk. Problems like lack of rehearsal space and sponsors, etc are universal."

Whether theatre is suffering as part of the design of powers that be who want to keep it on the margins or the unconcerned audiences who are ready to clap but won’t pay for the pleasure, the odds will always be against this performing art that is yet to become part of the educational system. However, individuals will always find the gumption to beat the odds. Will individual efforts transform into an identity for region’s theatre? "Yes," according to Dr Atamjit, "With a semblance of common thread yet spurred by individual sensibilities is close to finding a distinct identity and space." Inspired by Natrang in Jammu, many theatre groups have come up in Udhampur, Basholi, Ramnagar, Reosi and other places that are doing theatre in Dogri. While the first contemporary Dogri play was staged in 1935, in recent times, says Thakur, "People woke up to the concept of Dogri theatre only in 1986 when we participated in the North Zone Theatre Festival." Seema’s institute has produced a fair number of enthusiasts, who are doing theatre in different parts of Himachal Pradesh.

The reopening of Gaiety Theatre at Shimla also spells good news for theatre enthusiasts in the state that has centuries old history of folk theatre. In Chandigarh, where theatre’s moorings precede the opening of Tagore auditorium, Abhinet has been recast with renewed vigour and several theatre groups continue to work in the tri-city. In Hisar, Brijesh has discovered audiences, even if select, who are ready to patronise theatre in small ways. Undeniably, the ball has been set rolling. With government patronage and active support it could gather momentum and hit the goal post.

115-year history

A scene from Kewal Dhaliwal’s “King Lear”
A scene from Kewal Dhaliwal’s “King Lear”

Punjabi theatre is more than a century old. While the first Punjabi production "Sharab Kaur" dates back to 1895, stellar contribution was made by Norah Richards, I.C. Nanda and Harcharan Singh. Other stars in the galaxy of Punjabi theatre include thespian Balwant Gargi, Ajmer Aulakh and titan Gursharan Singh.

History of Chandigarh’s theatre is almost as old as the city itself. Initial forays into theatre were made by Champa Mangat Rai and Eulie Chowdhry. The first full-length Hindi play "Konark" directed by Virendra Mehdiratta and NC Thakur was staged in 1957. Gargi set up the Department of Indian theatre at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Abhinet, a group associated with meaningful theatre, came into being in 1974.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the first contemporary Dogri play "Achhoot" was staged in 1935. Vishawanath Khajuria, Ramnath Shastri, Dinubhai Pant and Kavi Rattan are some significant theatre personalities of Jammu. Natrang, which has put Dogri theatre on the international map, was formed in 1983.

Both Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, too, have strong folk theatre tradition. People like Ashok Bhagat, Avtar Sahni, Lakhanpal, Sumar Sharma, Mahesh Vashistha, Brijesh Sharma and Sanjay Bhasin have been actively associated with theatre in Haryana. Adi Manch, which has so far staged nearly 40 plays, was set up in 1976 and its last production "Ek Aur Dronacharya" was staged in Ambala in 2009.

In Mandi, Ramesh Ravi, Professor Kirpal, Rupesh Upadhaya, Lawan Thakur, Naresh Kumar Mastana, Rajesh and Sapna have been active in theatre. In 1984, Suresh Sharma, presently NSD repertory chief, set up Ankur Kala Manch, while in 1990 his wife Seema Sharma started a theatre institute, Himachal Sanskritik Shodh Sansthan Avam Rangmandal. — NS