Theatre is an art closest to life. Today, Indian playwrights and directors are redefining theatre, characters, audience, in what could be called the Spring of Indian Theatre. They are re-shaping the ‘stage’ and ‘space’ with a refurbished idea of writing, acting and direction. They are laughing at themselves and the chaotic times more than ever. During a Spring, the world becomes a venue. Opportunities rise, creativity ebbs, the audience widens and the proscenium ceases to be the (only) stage. Noted director and actor Rajit Kapoor, who has been travelling for the ongoing Theatre in Motion Festival, an event being held across three cities — Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, feels the time has come to celebrate fresh scripts and new writing.
Mahua a play directed by Rajit is based on a tribal village Bihabund and deals with the issue of displacement. He says, “Today, pieces of new writing are emerging from our country. The audience was beginning to feel fed up of watching plays written 30 years ago. We need plays that would become literature tomorrow. We need a legacy. And for that, we have to give the new directors and playwrights, a chance, even if their works seem unpolished and unfinished initially. Today, there are plays that reflect the grim times we live. There is stage for wider perspectives and contexts.”
Today, Indian directors and playwrights are dealing with grim issues like ‘violence’, and its violence (verbal, virtual and physical), displacement and gender atrocities with a vengeance, with the sharp weapons of words, body movements, language—literal and theatrical, sounds, music, folk and classical dance forms and materials.
Imphal-based director Heisnam Tomba is broadening the representation, from Manipur to that of the entire North East in his plays after a desired residency workshop. Noted actor, poet, director and activist Maya Rao is assimilating untrained actors into theatre after knowing and practising self-direction for more than three decades. “In the year of sounding inchoate”, as Akhila Ramnarayan puts it, she is telling the stories of people “more responsibly” in a multi-genre approach to art through theatre. In Pravah a production, she deals with journey of cloud, rain and river over two excerpts Ganga and Mississippi, the latter set to a verse by American poet William Falk. In a year when flash floods devoured thousands in India, Pravah points at a creative level that is anything but “inchoate”.
Director Abhilash Pillai shall be packing his bags to Ladakh, for yet another workshop with local artistes there, unfolding the layers in their art, narration and a culture of masks, breathing on thin oxygen and serendipity. Digging into the concept of “roots” through rehearsals and plays, he is tinkering the very purpose of theatre, beautifully, in our times.
You have the oldest treatise on acting in the country, the Natya Shastra, and we have only one drama school?!
These playwrights and directors have flipped the chapter, with intellectual ferocity, of the legacy of modern Indian theatre. They have whimsically, with their works, moved ahead of the space and experiments built, brick by brick, movement after movement over primarily, a western thought fed by indigenous values, fuelled by social upheavals and fined by the honest and fluid folk and classical arts in a rock solid foundation set up by the greats like Mohan Rakesh, Ebrahim Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey, BV Karanth, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Safdar Hashmi and Habib Tanvir.
Back then, directors were Gurus first. “Productions” were plays first. Training in theatre began and finished outside the proscenium.
While in Delhi, during the late 1960s, MK Raina carried the brick-load on his head, following his guru, Ebrahim Alkazi to build the Meghdoot Theatre, thousands of miles away and two decades later, Mangala Nagaraj contributed to the construction work at the Rangayana in Mysore, tirelessly, humming the song Solisabeda Gelisayya, under her guru BV Karanth.
Multi-genre musings in Madras
When two worlds you inhabit don’t seem to “communicate” with each other, you identify with both and choose one to belong and begin. Chennai-based theatre director, actor, singer, writer and poet Akhila Ramnarayan did something similar. She brought the two worlds together, in flesh and blood, thought, form and text. Having returned from United States after specialising in Post Colonial studies in 2007, Akhila realised she had to get the best out of the creative and intellectual ebb that visits to Chennai, its rain-washed-sun-bathed simplicity and rich interactions with the core intellectuals, performers, artistes, thinkers, writers and musicians during the previous years would fuel within her. She says, “I realised there was the problem of representing the Post Colonial world sitting in the first world. People live out their lives as Post Colonial beings. Here I was—a writer and a scholar, an actor and a singer trying to seek some answers. How to make the two worlds communicate with each other? How to use language and poetry? How to formulate some kind of a question? What is the role of art in times like ours? Does art seem to serve the dominant interest of the proletariat? These are questions that the best of theatre deals with.”
--------OPINION - Mahesh Dattani--------- The changing stage Changing times must bring about changes in theatre. Unlike films, it thrives on fluidity. ----------------------------------------------
Akhila was seeking the answers through an expression involving many genres. “It wasn’t easily doable. The idea was to make the two worlds talk to each other.” There is clarity in motive. “When we use music and dance in our play, they are there to serve the art and not uphold tradition,” she adds.
The hunger to compose and explore multi-genre productions, like the ones directed by her mother Gowri Ramnarayan remains insatiated and the thirst to squeeze every drop of the nectar from music, dance and text into theatre, remains unquenched. “I lay everything at my mom’s lotus feet,” she laughs, adding, “there is a porosity in thoughts and discussions with which we fuel each other’s work.” The coming together of choral music, Carnatic — and acting in her mother’s work Subverse, based on the Poems on The Underground in the 1980s; the convoluted, serpentine journey in Arun Kolatkar’s sardonic Sarpasutra, and Water Lilies that unfolds meetings between a man and a woman from different cultures and Flame of the Forest, based on the historical novel Sivakamiyin Sapatham written by her grandmother, the great 'Kalki'.
“In Sarpasutra, I used snatches of sound. Poetry dialogue and sounds move back and forth in this production. But I think I have missed the bus with music. Had I not rebelled against music lessons during my teenage years, I would have been better on that front.”
At the Short+Sweet Theatre Festival held in Chennai where Akhila presented Alex Broun’s The Voice Behind the Fence, she delved into representation, the pain and politics of trauma and testimony, keeping away from stereotypes and demonising the particulars. “We weren’t there to win awards. I wanted the story of Masooma to resonate with the audience. I made Murielle Lapinsonniere, a French actor translate the dream sequence in French. This totally worked.”
She adds, “I want to do a solo piece drawing upon various areas and aspects of art I have learned.” The journey won’t be tough. Akhila is blessed with a legacy and most importantly, believes in riyaz (practice) in its true all-encompassing spiritual and symbolical periphery. “I look at things from the outside. I don’t sympathise. I empathise.”
The Grand Theatrical Feat
Sometimes, a script begins from where a playwright ends it, or desires to. Theatre, in such moments and madness, ceases to be just art. It becomes a movement. Abhilash Pillai’s belief in Theatre of Roots, a body of work born out of modern theatre’s encounter with Indian tradition drove him to Kerala, to the tents of the Grand Circus to explore the cultural roots of circus in the Indian context. In 2011, Pillai went with Clowns and Clouds, aplay he had written at the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi, where he teaches theatre, to the grounds of the Grand Circus with a bunch of trainee actors from NSD. In Clouds and Clowns, Pillai wove stories from the lives of the circus artistes into acts and movements performed by a mix of circus artistes and NSD students.
He says, “During my formative years as a student of theatre, I would visit the circus with a friend. I realised there were no new stories. The artists would perform their act before the spectators who were drawn to the circus because of the costumes the female performers wore and the show of skin. They would be least interested in the acts. The woman artists would often have to even shed the skin costumes if the situation demanded so. Beautiful aspects, like the circus’ pan- Indian representation, the artists’ nomadic lives, their inherent talent, skills and sense of humour and the ability to put up an act of performance were ignored. It would be total anarchy.”
At the Grand Circus, in 2012, clowns, gymnasts, trapeze artists, animals and birds were awaiting a script and a volatile emotional churning that was as much an outsider to their world, as they were to modern theatre. “Between 2008 and 2011, I travelled extensively to study circus, its roots, the travails and tribulations of circus artists, the poverty and pain they go through. Initially, the circus artists showed little interest in my work. Most of them would say they were fed up with outsiders like me who visit Kerala to study their lives and turn their lives into films or stories they want to sell to the world. Gradually, the artists opened up to me and the young actors from NSD who would share the space, thoughts and food under the tents.”
As a result, spectators turned into audience. Theatre was born within theatre, and a revolution born within tents, an upheaval, which neither the actors were prepared for, nor the audience, and definitely, not Pillai.
He says, “On the day of the first show, the audience totally disapproved of the act. These were spectators who had come to watch the performance expecting the usual circus tricks and the show of skin by female performers. They weren’t prepared for the diversion in the “act”. They began to yell and throw things around.” Noted filmmaker and director Sanjay Maharishi, who was filming the performance had to pack his cameras. The owner of the Grand Circus, a veteran who we had signed the MoU with NSD for this performance said he had expected the upheaval.
Pillai adds, “Strangely, I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t anticipate a negative response. The women among the circus artistes began to cry. One of them said to me, ‘Even if we die they won’t care about our skills. They come here to see our skin.’ The third day changed everything. We performed the story of Raja, an artiste who lost his life in the circus. The audience sat moved by the performance and there was a roaring applause.”
Pillai’s quest with “roots” made him discover an unusual artist during a workshop Ladakh with the local actors, mostly villagers. He was a nomad, who had no “image” of “home”. At this workshop, the idea was to make the actors help develop a language with folk theatre, the tradition of masks and gradually, a bit modern theatre. Pillai says, ”For the first time I came across a person who couldn’t draw an image of a ‘home’. He said there was no meaning of a ‘home’ for a nomad. It’s where the search for roots takes you. Even rootlesness has roots,” adds he.
Broadening the representation of North East
While more and more directors and playwrights are shifting, strongly, towards fresh scripts and trying to break away from classics and adaptations, Heisnam Tomba, an Imphal-based director, has added a new dimension to adaptations with Hungry Stones, a play etched out from Rabindra Nath Tagore’s Hungry Stonesand other stories. The play was performed at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav last year. He says, “Working with adaptations has its own joy. There is so much you can say alongside the text. Achieving the artistic motive of using the body and mind together, is easier while working on adaptations, however a lot of hard work and rehearsals go into that. I am particularly attracted to the idea of adapting the works of Ibsen. But I have to boil down the text to a shorter adaptation.”
Tomba’s work revolves around using the body and sounds (more than singing) which he draws from gruelling rehearsals with the actors. The movements and the sounds from the actors, the latter being melancholic and melodious, break away from the story. These sounds, that sometime take the shape of orchestrated lamenting, at other times of wailing, are like an overpowering distraction that narrates a parallel story, sort of an unspoken, ghostly and sordid subtext which never appears on the screens running the subtitles for his plays.
At the core of his work, beneath several layers of sounds and singing, comic situations and a clinical adherence to the classic lies embedded the story of alienation of the people of the North East in general and that of Manipur, its people, lives amidst the violence they face, in particular.
Tomba’s play Disjointed throws up images violence under the looming presence of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). He now wants to work with actors from across North East to be able to say a story, collectively. “I have spoken to a few actors in a couple of states for a residential workshop. They are very excited with the idea. I am reaching out to more actors by word of mouth in order to bring people from all the seven NE states to stay together and rehearse for a play,” says Tomba, who likes to rehearse on the river side.
A movement for the masses and self
Using a classical dance form to explore theatre (not merely using dance in theatre) gives birth to a new genre, vocabulary and expression. Maya Rao fused narration, natya, nritya and abhinaya—using body and mind as the soul and sanctorum to create an expression that would question, provoke and expose the most “unquestionable” notions, practices and incidents of our times. In Ravanama, performed last year, she lets the different heads of Ravana take over each other, talk ahead of each other, to himself and to Sita, the navarasas and the emotions to the sounds of Hindustani music and Pink Floyd.
She has brought together the sacral and the cerebral, the traditional and tyrannical contemporary in theatre of immense social, political and scholarly value by placing and nurturing Kathakali, its silence, grammar and texture within a complex dramatic narration that could be used and presented in the most tragic moments in social history.
In her tribute to Safdar Hashmi, the well-known playwright, theatre-director thinker and activist who was assassinated during a performance in 1989, Maya Rao performed a comedy, using the mixie (from a food processing unit) as a prop and a metaphor of cooking. She says, “It became a challenge. It was about a woman who wants to cook but all she is doing is spouting is politics. One lurking question is how to deal with politics in theatre without doing street theatre? The only way is to dive in the deep end.”
Maya treats words like they were grains in a mortar. She grinds them until they become finer, powdered weapons, flowing out like mercury, erratically and unpredicted. “I pick up something and take on it. It has to be something that can pull off comedy. Will it be on edge? I often ask myself. Comedy is a drug. I became a cookery expert, even to address the events like the IC814 hijack.”
Her impromptu goose-bumping mumble and grumble and the questions she poses to her audience through her thunderous voice procure cheers and slogans from women and men are on issues that are barely or bravely addressed in public.
Her dialogues come across as time-tested war-cries and warnings to a cold and despotic unseen force. These make her theatre a reckoning force, not only within the peace of calm of an auditorium, but also the upheaval of a mass protests—like the protests held in the wake of December 16 gangrape and public meetings held in the support of the Justice Verma recommendations where Rao participated, showing her support to the thousands of younger activists, first-time outrage- enthusiasts and students.
Here she used Walk as a metaphor for her piece and performance going with the mood during the December protests when the “walking” on the roads over rallies became an outlet to anger, tiredness, pent up energy and fatigue from the system and the society on the whole.
She says, “You don’t ask yourself theatre hai, movement hai ya kya hai. You are on your imaginary self. There was no room for comedy in Walk. I downloaded something from Youtube and began to talk between the beats. I wanted to give the youngsters a chance to express themselves.”
Maya Rao has made drama the stage version of myth, and reality. She has transformed it into a socio-political dialogue of the problem and the solution, revelation and revolution that shifts and wobbles between pre-arranged anger, subdued rage against regression, not so much her own but that of the people she is performing for or talking to from the stage, with the bubbling, simmering pride in gender and existence. Her talking with the self and within, echoes through the silence and pauses that the training, performance and realisation of Kathakali gave her.
Seeking “Language” in Marathi
From travel, texts and rehearsals is born the finest and purest language of theatre. Pune-based Mohit Takalkar hopes to “revive the change in aesthetics” and break the language within the language in Marathi theatre. The adherence to text and dialogues, the traditional reverence to words and more words in the “verbose Marathi theatre” find an expression in Takalkar’s work. “I have no problem with verbosity in theatre. But I feel the creative viewpoint to deal with verbosity needs to change. We must understand and amalgamate various dimensions of it and try to develop a new language throughout. Verbosity is part of our tradition. In Mahabharata, when Bhishma is lying on the bed of arrows, he continues to talk and address visitors even in that state. That’s the beauty of words. Even English theatre is verbose. ”
His play Letter to Tendulkar has explored a different “language” altogether.
In 2003, Takalkar had formed the theatre group Aasakta with some friends. He says, “After dabbling with a few Marathi plays in the group I went on to do two one-act plays with two actors in each. Cutting down on the cast helped us travel with the plays. We were young, full of energy and ideas, the response to our plays in Maharashtra added to the reckless excitement we achieved while performing Love kept in the refrigerator. The creative turning point was Tu, a play based on Rumi’s poetry in 2006.”
With Tu he pushed the boundary with language. “The collection of 52 poems was in my hands and I was asking myself, ‘What to do with Rumi? I realised that with me, the text no longer remains what Rumi had wanted to say. At that time, the group was at an amazing creative level. Initially, so many images came up from the text. Gradually, I discovered that the essence in Rumi’s poetry was shared in, uncannily, the language in Sant Gyaneshwar’s works in Marathi. There was a sense of familiarity to Rumi’s poems and the images it created,” he says.
The monotony in sets being created and used in Marathi theatre “gets on” his “nerves.” He adds, “We don’t think beyond living room and box sets. There’s absolutely no attention to detail. The basic motive in theatre is to create an illusion with the set, with and before the audience. Where’s that?”
Takalkar says he is still to arrive at a common ground with the music in his plays. “That’s one aspect where I need to depend on someone else.” Last year, Takalkar directed a film A Bright Day starring stalwarts like Rajit Kapoor, Sarang Sathaye and Sharnaz Patel. He adds, “This particular film opened up aspects that theatre hadn’t. I travelled and wrote and later arrived at the places I had written about.”
Takalkar says he met the noted playwright Mahesh Elkuchwar “quite late in life”. “There’s immense power in the way he feels and understands music. He tries to get into the core of the performance and is the edifice of the vast reading he has done. It shows in his art.”
Well known actor and director Amol Palekar has left a mark on Takalkar’s thinking canvas with the way he “washes a performance clean, understanding every grain of it.” He adds, “Amol Palekar can spell out every aspect of the play openly, with clarity and he loves to discuss every play he watches. It’s so hard to please Ramu Ramanathan. I am hoping to arrive at a turning point where I would hear something good about my work from him.”
Noted playwright and director Vijay Tendulkar’s appreciation for his work is something Takalkar modestly refuses to share. “He was quite young at heart until the time he passed away. I loved to discuss various aspects of theatre with him. Other people who have influenced me are Atul Pethe (he relentlessly performs all across Maharashtra), Shanta Gokhale and Dr Rajeev Naeek.”
Takalkar says that he “makes no money out of doing theatre”. “But that’s fine. I don’t own a car. I edit two films a year. I spend six months editing one film. It helps me,” he adds.
Making History with Politics
For decades, Indian theatre directors have used politics for provocation. Pondicherry-based V Arumugham uses it as the “person”, the precursor, prelude and pivot to his plays. He is a sea away from the strife in Lanka, but the metaphor of war and anarchy from the Island trickles into his repertoire. The pain of people as actors, and mere actors in the political and authoritarian context screams the nerves out of you.
Arumugham, who teaches theatre at the Pondicherry University, extends the context to India. And he can be very magnificently destructive in the process. This, we best understood at the Bharatrang Mahotsav in 2012, where Arumugham presented Actors Not Allowed, a play, in Tamil, part at the Meghdoot theatre and part at the adjacent lawns. In this play, material, in the form of plastic, was the hero.
Even before the audience could realise, it became part of the play, and moved about, following orders from actors (students from the Pondicherry University), dressed as soldiers from an autocratic regime. Rebuked by the “soldiers”, the audience involuntarily moved from one location to another, through claustrophobic inflated tunnel of plastic into a huge inflated plastic dome. They land with 200 odd members of the audience who come to terms with the meaning in this entire exercise, as they are made to sit in the dark, interspersed with screams, acts of force and atrocities, bizarre video flashes and images.
The way out for this writer happened after a coughing fit and tears on that cold January evening. One stumbled upon actors scattered, like dead bodies, in a room, smeared in fresh acrylic paint that depicted blood.
Several incidents of conflicts and the chaos in the country’s politics during the last two years feel like a scene straight out of Actors not Allowed.
Arumugham’s lastest play Mandhiran takes a flight from the metaphor of Lord Hanuman carrying the Sanjeevani hill in Ramayana and puts it within the Lankan context of people hurt, ravaged by war and wounded. “Mandhiran delves into the grim context of displacement, depletion of natural resources and its effects on the tribal people,” he says.
On the same ground with feminine pride
In South, gender pride and its expression through theatre have seen a confluence with tradition, poetry, lyricism, music, regional sensibilities and a legacy. Bangalore-based theatre director Mangala Nagraj has moved scripting and direction in Kannada theatre and Indian theatre in general, ahead by miles with the subjects she picks and the scripts she writes. Her play Vanity Bag based on the poems of Vaidehi is a piercing tributary of veteran playwright and director BV Karanth’s boundless legacy. The actors in Vanity Bag carry the fibre of a systematic, lyrical, well-tailored, neatly trimmed script, dealing with poem after poem, over the raw and masculine outpourings of a harmonium for musical accompaniment.
In plays scripted in the North, Sita, (unless she arises out of Akshara Theatre) continues to tread along conventionality in pompously-designed drama and sets, bearing more, questioning less, walking behind, ahead less.
Urmila (her sister) continues to be off the directors’ and artistes’ creative radar as a subject. Mangala has accelerated the thought process with her Urmila, a play based on Lakshmana’s wife in Ramayana. In the play Dhareyolagina Rajakarana based on Kumaravyasa Bharatha, she has built a narrative between Draupadi and Kunti to bring home the complexities of the “male politics” around them. They sit together, stitching a quilt and go back in time. Towards the end, Draupadi emerges as the stronger woman. Kunti lunges on to her, sapped and weak.
Mangala was part of the era that bloomed out of the veteran BV Karanth’s autumn in Karnataka. She says, “When renowned theatre and film director and playwright B V Karanth returned to his homestate in the 1980s, and initiated Rangayana, an institution to propagate and preserve Kannada Theatre, I was one of the 25 odd students who had been selected out of 500 applicants to learn theatre under a disciplined, democratic and free set up. He asked us to try and do what no one has ever done before. He always discouraged the habit of resting.”
She now has the character of Surpanakha on her head. “I would like to explore Supanakha’s character through Yakshagana.”
“Dependence on self” as Maya Rao puts it, is the key to draw the best from the principles of art and theatre. She says, “When I joined NSD as faculty I questioned what relevance or value does education in theatre have for a contemporary. I was dealing with lesson plans daily, reading up, but method acting had nothing to do with it. You start making your own shows and you glean from the theory and practice, the scene work. You lay it in a pedagogical practice, how you put it. Deal with a solo. In theatre you have to continue to cajole and coax prepare that ground.”
The ground is prepared. It’s blooming. It’s a Spring.