Theatre in India driven to desperate survival measures
New Delhi: Theatre, the oldest genre of performing arts in India, seems to be waging a losing battle against the silver screen, which is powered by more money, cutting-edge creativity and greater visual appeal.
In a desperate measure, the art form is trying to lure viewers back to the stage with creative initiatives, innovation and socio-cultural connectivity.
Director Bhanu Bharti, who recently retold, ‘Andha Yug’, a classic 1954 verse play by Dharamvir Bharti, said he chose the classic because it had a recall and people could connect to the play based on the epic Mahabharata.
"Large operatic ensemble plays in exotic venues also transport audiences to another time and space, away from everyday concerns," director Bharti told reporters.
The play, staged in the remains of the 14th century Ferozeshah Kotla Oct 15-23, drew packed houses.
Another play, ‘August: Osage County’, a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts, brought to the capital a galaxy of cast last week and helped pull audiences to the Siri Fort theatre. The contemporary grandeur of the play was transcreated in an Indian milieu by Lilette Dubey. Presented by Ballantine, the family drama starred Sandhya Mridul, Kitu Gidwani, Meeta Vashist, Suchitra Pillai and Ira Dubey.
In a world where the big and glamorous are beautiful, theatre needs to go beyond the ordinary to survive in the war against screen, the actors agreed.
"Over the years, the space for performance arts has shrunk because of the media`s intolerance and the lack of funding. Really talented people no longer want to come to theatre companies," actor Mita Vashist told reporters. They prefer the fanfare of the silver screen instead.
"I was rehearsing in my drawing room for the last play," Vashist said. "I could not book space for Rs. 500 an hour. The absence of good scripts is another stumbling block."
Actor Suchitra Pillai said: "The poor quality of scripts could be blamed on a virtual absence of theatre education in the country."
"Writers do not have access to libraries and resources to develop new scripts," Pillai told reporters.
A creative initiative, ‘Short & Sweet’, in Mumbai Oct 2-9, helped aspiring playwrights pool in their ideas.
"We staged 20 short plays -- each of 10-minute duration," stage actor Ira Dubey, a part of project, said in Mumbai,.
"Nearly 70 percent of the 20 scripts we shortlisted were Indian and two of them were in Hindi," Dubey told reporters.
The project -- which was launched in Australia 10 years ago -- will debut in Delhi next month and then move to Chennai and Bengaluru, she said.
Actor Kitu Gidwani puts the qualitative decline to lack of money.
"We lost our way... we are completely dependent on corporate finance to fund stage productions. I do not see a resurgence in mainstream theatre in the next 50 years," Gidwani told reporters.
The focus of the stage in Mumbai was on regional productions, she said.
"The National School of Drama, which has kept theatre alive for the last 40 years, celebrates faces who have made it big in Bollywood like Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor and Anu Kapur, when they want to recognise alumni or promote them. The smaller actors are usually forgotten," Vashist said.
"The cloistered nature of personality promotion has created a tight club of celebrities, which is difficult to breach," a Kolkata-based NSD alumnus told reporters.
"In many countries, there are different levels of theatre," veteran theatre personality Nissar Allana said, elaborating on the dynamics of the theatre.
"Grandeur is part of commercial theatre. The recent production of ‘Andha Yug’ must have cost the director a lot of money, which was made available by the government," Allana told reporters.
"The whole issue needs to be debated: whether it is justifiable to spend so much money on one play. I am sure the money spent could have funded two festivals and given a chance to new plays and younger directors," Allana said.
Allana, the man behind the annual Ibsen festival in the capital, said he had created a niche in the urban festival space with the Ibsen festival.
"This is also a way to carry theatre to a new level of innovation to make sure that the genre survives and remains creative," he said.
"Theatre may be struggling but there is no dearth of talent in the country," Allana said, predicting "a slow revival".