Theatre with a vision
Nonika Singh

ClARITY of thought and vision not only defines noted theatreperson Devendra Raj Ankur but is also the key to his resounding success. Back in 1969, when he joined the hallowed portals of the National School of Drama (NSD) he knew theatre and theatre alone was going to be his muse.

Today, having occupied the exalted position of director, NSD, he quips, "The problem with the young generation is that they don't know what they want, are not willing to struggle and expect solutions and success to be served on a platter." In fact, with these words he puts an end to the debate that over the years, the NSD standards have fallen. Reasons he, "See, the NSD cannot be viewed in isolation as an ivory tower cut off from society. If in the recent past, society and its value system has changed dramatically, you cannot expect the NSD to be immune to outside influences."

Devinder Raj Ankur
Devinder Raj Ankur Photo: Parvesh Chauhan

However, he is positive that his alma mater, which he has served in the capacity of both teacher and director, is the place that exposes you to the best, provided you are willing to explore. He has not been only exploring but also experimenting and forging new paths for others to follow. More than three-and-a-half decades ago, this student of Hindi literature decided to take literature to theatre.

Thus was born theatre that used short stories and novels instead of dramatic texts. And his plays based on the writings of literary luminaries like Ajeet Cour, Nirmal Verma, Manu Bhandari and many others acquired a life of his making. Today, he has every reason to take pride in not only plays that have taken over 500 short stories and over 20 novels to stage but also the fact that he has set an exemplary precedent that has inspired many theatrepersons. What is remarkable about Ankur's presentations is that he doesn't adapt literary texts, he lets the writing quality shine all the way as it is. Yet the dramatic elements are not forsaken, even though his visual vocabulary remains minimalist, "If you show it all where is the room for audience to imagine?" He elaborates further, "That is the magic of theatre, to transform bare stage into a complete world." Though he may refer to Peter Brook's book The Empty Space, he also reminds that all this was stated long ago in our own theatre tradition of Natya Shastra. Giving lessons to students of the Theatre Department, he thinks the relevance of Sanskrit theatre and plays, many of which he has directed too, can never be questioned.

But don't our theatre departments lay too much stress on western techniques? He answers, "On the contrary, we have evolved a fine synthesis. Moreover, when it comes to training of actors' bodies and their voice modulation, we have no option but to go back to our roots." Our theatre tradition, anyway, he feels, has it all, right from freezing techniques to how to use the space. Besides, it made the distinction between lokdharmi and natyadharmi forms that is realistic and stylised types of theatre. In the modern world, he feels that theatre has to strike a balance between the realistic and creative. So, while his theatre more often mirrors the real problems of the middle class he feels strongly about and can relate to, by no stretch of imagination can it be called realistic or simplistic. With creative ingenuity, he not only energises the space but also the actors, whom he considers the prime movers in theatre. That is why, though he is not against experimentation per se, he doesn't approve of theatre that puts actors in the background. He states, "Use technology, like multimedia, by all means but to enhance the live power of this medium, not to negate actors’ presence." On the experimentation that goes over the head of the people, he questions. "Whom are you doing theatre for? It is a social activity and if doesn't make sense to the viewers it is of little significance."

No, he doesn't nurse any delusions about the power of theatre. "Theatre has never ushered a revolution nor it will ever. Its only purpose is to make life more fulfilling." Apart from doing theatre, his personal fulfilment comes from teaching. Now writing, too. The author of over half-a-dozen books on theatre and criticism, he does feel that that there is an acute dearth of qualitative theatre criticism in India, for much of our analysis is directed towards the narrative and not the visual language of theatre. With his ambitious project Natya Alochan Ke Naye Pratimaan (new parameters for theatre criticism) he hopes to set the record right.

Ever thought of writing a play? "Creative writing is not my cup of tea." But taking it to people sure is. So, having dramatised the literature of several Indian languages as well as of the world, next on his agenda is the autobiography of Harivansh Rai Bachchan titled Kya Bhooloon Kya Yaad Karoon, which he hails as one of the best autobiographies ever written. Ankur's best has been frozen in many ways (from books to directorial signatures, to group Sambhav to students) and acknowledged too with awards like the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Kalidas Samman, Kala Bushan, KK Birla Foundation Award, etc. Any wonder he stands fulfilled, pleased that he has done "Whatever I wanted to." With great aplomb at that.