Theatres in Kerala struggle to keep the curtains up

Nearly three years of pandemic-induced dormancy plunged theatre groups into severe financial distress.
Theatres in Kerala struggle to keep the curtains up
Express Photo

KOCHI: Theatres were once the pulsating heartbeats of cultural life, drawing crowds in droves. However, today, these institutions are struggling to find their footing amidst modern challenges.

Despite a heightened public appreciation of arts, skyrocketing production costs, restrictive performance regulations, and a lack of insurance coverage have made it difficult for drama troupes to reclaim their audience.

“There are countless theatre groups producing remarkable plays, but performance venues are woefully inadequate,” laments Chandradasan, an acclaimed theatre director and founder of the Kochi-based Lokadharmi Theatre. “The absence of a box-office culture means visibility is frustratingly low.”

As a champion of experimental theatre, Chandradasan also highlighted the severe shortage of technologically equipped theatres — a resource that is plentiful in the villages of Kolkata but sorely lacking in Kerala.

Chandradasan notes the efforts made post-Covid lockdown, where the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi provided Rs 2 lakh and two venues for community theatres under a state government initiative. While this aid helped launch new productions, it barely scratched the surface of covering the overall expenses. The situation was further aggravated by a reduction in national festivals, a consequence of funding cuts from the Union Ministry of Culture.

M Sandhya Rajendran, a revered theatre artist and administrator of the illustrious Kalidasa Kalakendram in Kollam, painted a stark picture of the industry’s woes.

“The crises we face intensified during the 2018 floods and the ensuing Covid lockdown. Nearly three years of pandemic-induced dormancy plunged theatre groups into severe financial distress,” she explains.

Despite hefty investments in marketing, the daily returns are dishearteningly meager, often just `2,000 — a figure that is simply unsustainable.

Sandhya also took aim at the government’s apathy, noting that the ruling party’s predecessors, who once rose to power on the back of theatrical performances, have since turned a blind eye to the theatre community’s struggles. She criticised the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi’s inadequate health insurance coverage — Rs 2 lakh for accidents and Rs 1 lakh for medical claims — and decried the abolition of academy awards for Best Comedian and Lifetime Achievements as utterly unacceptable.

Contrasting this grim outlook, Karivellur Murali, secretary of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, emphasised their ongoing support initiatives post-Covid lockdown.

“We are committed to not only promoting the arts but also nurturing the well-being of theatre groups and artists through various measures. The financial assistance totalling Rs 2 crore — with Rs 4 lakh for professional theatres and Rs 2 lakh for amateur theatres — was part of this commitment,” he states. Murali proudly noted that no other academies in India have introduced an insurance scheme for artists with government backing.

Despite the myriad challenges facing the theatre community in Kerala, there remains a resilient spirit among artists and administrators alike. As they continue to advocate for better support, increased funding, and more performance venues, the hope is that the vibrant tradition of theatre in Kerala will not only survive but thrive, inspiring future generations.

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The New Indian Express