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Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Theatre of Life


In India, the stage is a difficult taskmaster. But for those serving its cause, the highs far outweigh the challenges. Arundhuti Banerjee meets four theatre pros to figure out what motivates them to march on in the face of the many obstacles they encounter
ARUNDHUTI BANERJEE | Issue Dated: December 30, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : Theatre in India | Drama schools | National School of Drama | Delhi International Ibsen Festival |

Passion, not money, drives Indian theatre. It is therefore easy to see why acting and directing for the live stage is a tough vocation. Raising funds to produce plays, keeping the faith through thick and thin and expanding the audience base represent challenges that a theatre professional in this country must face at every step. If the medium continues to survive, even thrive, against all odds, it is because of the never say die spirit of sturdy souls who revel in swimming against the tide of popular perceptions.

The stories of the following quartet of Indian theatre professionals exemplify the highs and lows that come with the territory.     

Sankar Venkateswar, Kerala
He started as a stage hand. Nearly 18 on, he directs and produces his own plays. But the ride was never easy. “My parents weren’t convinced about the scope of this vocation until they saw a play in which I was involved,” says 33-year-old Sankar Venkateswar.

Sankar’s troupe, Theatre Roots and Wings, staged When We Dead Awaken at the recent Delhi Ibsen Festival.
He says: “What draws me to theatre are the awe, mystery and immediacy that the live human body evokes on the stage.”

Sankar studied theatre at Calicut University School of Drama (2002) and later joined the Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP) in Singapore.

He acknowledges the many obstacles that theatre faces In India. It lacks infrastructure and social encouragement. On his part, Sankar constantly strives to draw a wider audience into the fold through his experimentation with the medium.

“I am embarking on a new experiment in theatre in my next work. The idea is to invest both the creative capital as well as the financial capital to evolve patronage and build an integral audience,” says Sankar.

Since his group works without any institutional support, he has to start from scratch for every production. “The story always starts with disappointing months of fund-raising exercises,” he says.

Sankar issues a warning: “I will discourage all aspiring theatre artistes at least three times and apprise them of all the potential risks inherent in the profession. If they still insist on taking the plunge, I would say that they are absolutely fit for this vocation.”

Heisnam Tomba, Manipur
H Kanhailal dropped out of the National School of Drama (NSD). The reason: he couldn't speak Hindi well enough. That is when he started searching for a new language of theatre. In 1969, he established Kalakshetra in his home state of Manipur to promote ‘non-verbal theatre’.

The renowned theatre director’s son, Heisnam Tomba, has carried the tradition forward. The choice was natural for him. “I took to the stage being a member of an active theatre family”, he says.

Struggle, he asserts, is a part of any creative field, and theatre is no different. “Money is not everything in life. But theatre artistes do manage to survive, if not particularly comfortably,” says Tomba.

For the young man, theatre serves a much larger purpose than making money. “Theatre is always associated with the human civilisation and it leads and instructs the society. What is important is to create a living theatre,” he says.

He adds: “We can classify theatre into two categories: theatre that follows the society it springs from and theatre that leads the society that it belongs to.” Tomba was in Delhi with Kalakshetra to stage an adaptation of Enemy of the People at the Ibsen festival.

Chetna Jalan, Kolkata
Shyamanand Jalan, his wife Chetna Jalan and co-actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda formed Padatik in 1972. They had broken away from Anamika because theatre had become just a social activity there.

“There was too much pressure to do only ‘decent theatre’ then. I remember how Sakharam Binder was banned because my scenes with Kulbhushan were considered too “steamy” and because of the language,” recalls Chetna Jalan, present director of Padatik, one of the oldest and most respected theatre groups in Kolkata.

Theatre has frequently been a medium for protest. But Jalan, who is also a celebrated Kathak dancer, has a different take on the social and political role of the medium. “Theatre can only highlight problems and suggest solutions before audiences,” she argues. But societal change is brought about by activists.” At Padatik, she adds, “we tried to create an atmosphere where creativity was not hindered by conservatism."

Gauri Dewal, Mumbai
Though born and raised in the city of dreams, Gauri never hankered after fame and money. She chose theatre over film and television knowing full well that life wouldn’t be a bed of roses. She has no regrets. Nothing gives her more creative satisfaction than performing on the stage before a live audience.

She packed her bag and headed to Delhi to pursue a career in theatre. “I am a Marathi girl. It would have been an easy step for me to try my luck in Bollywood. But acting on the screen couldn’t have given the thrill that live performances do,” says Gauri. She has already acted in two films – Dilip Mehta’s Cooking with Stella and Raj Kumar Gupta's No One Killed Jessica.

After graduating from NSD in 2005, she spent more than a year in a futile search for work. “The situation was going out of hand and it was frustrating and humiliating. When you are away from home it is important to run your kitchen and fulfill your basic needs of food, clothes, room rent, etc. But I was not ready for a full-time TV or film career,” she says.

So Gauri worked as a makeup artist and occasionally conducted workshops on body language and other aspects of stagecraft. “It helped me stay involved in theatre, and earn a living while waiting for my first break,” she says.

Many challenges and a little hope
When the theatre bug bites, as it did in the case of Gauri Dewal, there can be no escape. Those who commit themselves to the struggle of making ends meet as a theatre professional, the joy of connecting with audiences is the incentive.

“Higher professional standards are certainly being fuelled by a greater awareness about Indian theatre groups as well as the evolution of the audience, but we are still far away from professional theatre in India. Infrastructure, management and programming are the key words in the move towards professional theatre in India,” says Nissar Allana, director of Dramatic Art and Design Academy (DADA), which organised the Delhi International Ibsen Festival.

Can the audiences be brought back to theatre? “Yes most certainly. However, there are no festivals in India that would commission people like me to produce my kind of work. Here is Mr Allana who is keen to bring new concepts and relevant ideas for an original Ibsen adaptation. This is rare and a very hopeful step. Such opportunities not only allow groups like mine to showcase our work, but also to grow, and feel confident of exploring new territories without fear,” says Sanker.

This year, the Ibsen festival witnessed a special initiative in terms of a three-way cultural interaction: a Norwegian playwright, an Indian company and an international director. “Such collaborations are always exciting and both sides widen their perspectives,” says Chetna Jalan, whose Padatik staged The Muster Builder, helmed by Polish director Woldzimierz Staniewski.

Sankar urge Indian society to acknowledge the role of theatre. “Theatre building is as important and essential for a society as schools, public libraries and public parks.”

Says Chetna Jalan: “Theatre survives on support from the state or private institutions. There is now an increasing corporate support for the arts and theatre in India. Hopefully it will increase.”

Allana is worried about the declining involvement of youth in theatre. “I don’t think young people are inspired enough by the kind of theatre they see in India”.

Tomba says: “If I had the power, I would include theatre in the school curriculum in order to inspire children to do professional theatre in the future. You know theatre should be as a big as cricket in India.” He cannot
suppress a smile. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017