Forty-five years ago, theatre practitioners in urban areas across India began looking at the varied, rich folk performance traditions in their immediate neighbourhood. From there they moved on to study them, and drew on their rural roots to revitalise urban theatrical forms.Among the most prominent of these were Habib Tanvir and his group of versatile Chhattisgarh performers, and
B V Karanth, who creatively built on the Yakshagana traditions of rural Karnataka. Charan Das Chor, Habib Tanvir’s delightful folk tale of a rural scoundrel, toured the world; while Karanth, in his productions of Girish Karnad’s Hayavadan and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (retitled Barnam Vana), liberally drew on his own folk traditions.
Already by this time, the National School Drama (NSD) had produced the moving and powerful Jasma Odan, a contemporary retelling of a traditional bhavai from Gujarat, and the delicious Saiyyan Bhaye Kotwal, based on Marathi tamasha traditions.
Two extremely talented alumni from NSD, Ratan Thiyam from Manipur and Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry from Punjab, broke new ground in their states in the 1980s in this genre. Ratam Thiyam established the Chorus Repertory Theatre in Imphal that called on Manipuri folk and martial art traditions. Among his notable productions were the exploration of the Mahabharata in Chakravyuh, Urubhangam and Andha Yudh. While first of these was Thiyam’s own take on the story of Abhimanyu, the second drew on the Sanskrit play by Bhasa and the third was a reworking of Dharmavir Bharati’s contemporary classic.
Thiyam went on to serve as the Director of NSD for several years, and it was only last month that he retired from serving another term as its Chairperson.
Neelam Man Singh, his contemporary, returned to Chandigarh after her training at the institute, and there she drew on the rich folk legends and traditional performance styles of Punjab. Here she created the Company Theatre that has travelled across India and the world with her signature productions in the past three decades. Last week, she presented her latest production, Dark Borders, in Delhi.
Neelam’s work is marked by themes of gender, oppression and violence. The stage is peopled by characters who rush across the bare surface, using mud, flour, fruit and water as weapons to annihilate one another. This is a nihilistic world of people living on the very desperate edges of society. It is a world of exploitation and greed. The characters frantically search for food and money in the pockets of those they have killed for no reason. Children’s verses and games take on a macabre hue and are accompanied by strange percussive rhythms beaten out on kitchen utensils, traditional instruments and old water bottles.
Totally dispensing with a written script, Neelam’s last three productions have originated in images being created by the cast members. These telling images of the world that surround us today present a very bleak picture. Certainly from her roots in exploring the more lyrical texts of Lorca, the Spanish playwright, or the love legend of Heer Ranjha, her pre-occupations today seem to have come a long way.
The writer is a Delhi-based theatre director firstname.lastname@example.org