VASANTHNAGAR:It’s not TV that snatches theatre audiences away but the very structure of our cities, Girish Karnad said at a seminar at Guru Nanak Bhavan here on Monday.
Talking of the 1960s and 70s, the playwright-director said, “When I started off, Indian theatre was at its height. We had great directors like Karanth and Prasanna who established that a play was more than just six actors saying lines, that direction was an art. And Kambar’s writing, steeped in folklore, was very fresh.” This golden era ended in the early 80s when colour television made its presence and the ‘middle class went indoors to seek entertainment’.
However, today TV isn’t what is causing the decline of theatre, he feels. Channels might be signing up well-trained actors for serials so they have no time for play rehearsals, but that seems to be one of the lesser evils, he said at the seminar on Contemporary Indian Theatre organised by Kendra Sahitya Akademi.
“What’s killing theatre today is the state of our cities. We started Ranga Shankara and thought that Kannada theatre would do well, but people just refuse to come,” he said. And it’s not just the one-and-a-half hour journey to watch the play. “The hell begins after the play. People don’t have transport to get back; they have to fight with the auto drivers,” he observed.
So Kannada theatre is paying the price of lack of planning. “In London or New York, you can book your ticket six months in advance.”
He recalled a time when the city’s theatre-hungry audience would turn up for evening shows of plays at Ravindra Kalakshetra that were announced that very morning. And the theatre of the time was city-oriented, strong in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, he said.
“Today a lot of the good theatre in Karnataka happens in small towns like Heggodu and Mandya. The actors are in the towns and villages, but the money is in the cities,” he said.
He also rued that ‘music, dance and colour’ have taken the place of analysis in today’s theatre. It isn’t just directors and playwrights that he feels are lacking, but Kannada literature on the whole. “Only the Kannada short story captures the rhythm of Bengaluru. Novelists seem incapable of creating the city experience creatively,” he said, adding that his last few plays, including Boiled Beans on Toast (Benda Kaalu on Toast) are attempts to negotiate with what living in the city has come to mean.
“I apologise, I’m 77, and what may be contemporary theatre for me might not be the contemporary theatre of today,” he said.
Speaking next at the inaugural session, Kolkata-based theatre and film critic Samik Bandyopadhyay said as he came from the same generation as Karnad -- "If he’s 77, I’m going to be 75 soon" -- the two have common concerns.
However, he believes that the decay or even death of theatre is a problem that cities across the world face. “Our (his and his colleagues’) uneasiness stems from the death of the text; a text, not necessarily written as a play, has to be a reading of a life of reality, a critical reality, and a negotiation with that reality,” he said, adding that this was an unending struggle that playwrights and directors constantly grapple with.
Attempting to recreate real urban experiences could prove problematic too. “The urban experience has become so impersonal and mechanised that it doesn’t flow well with theatre.”
He also suggested that veterans like Karnad and Kambar, who was also present, play a mentoring role in helping youngsters recreate texts. Theatre, to him, is far more than just entertainment, and corporatisation of the art is something that he takes objection to.
“You see performances in pubs where people are eating and drinking. They think of theatre as entertainment,” he said. Performance spaces are endangered too, he opined. “Many are owned by the government, and if they don’t want you to raise a critical voice, they can restrict usage,” he remarked. So cities and small towns are creating their own alternative spaces, creating and their own audiences to overcome the onslaught, he believes.