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The 50 Crore Plus Theatre Extravaganza: Time To Seek An RTI?




Deepa Punjani



There is a mega theatre event underway in the country. It is called the Theatre Olympics, and true to its title, it had its beginnings in Greece in 1993. The ongoing 8th edition in India, which was inaugurated on 17th February, will last till 8th April. Scheduled across 17 cities, it will culminate in Mumbai. I shall not go into the details of the Theatre Olympics, or the who’s who that the festival is hosting, or the number of performances, or the participating countries and artistes, or the allied activities, etc. surrounding this theatre blockbuster. Suffice it to say that it has been organised by the National School of Drama (NSD), courtesy the Ministry of Culture, Government of India – key information to note for anyone seeking to file an RTI to explain the budget allocation and expenditure. The RTI though would only be periphery to a more soul-searching exercise concerning the larger state of theatre in the country and the various issues surrounding it.

Who owns the theatre in India? It is not just any question. It is the main question. It is not a philosophical question. It is a straightforward question.

The simple answer is that theatre in India is a community enterprise. This artistic exercise exists in multifarious forms spanning regions and languages belonging to a people whose ownership is evident in their cultural microcosms, each of which can be unique and distinct. These little worlds have thrived on stage and off stage over centuries, sometimes with patronage, often not. In post independent India, there was a great attempt made by our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to propel the modern State of India to claim joint ownership with the manifold communities in a spirit of cultural renaissance which lead to the formation of the NSD in 1959. It was a momentous time with the institution being led by yet another renaissance man, the visionary Ebrahim Alkazi – the right man at the right time for the job. The avowedly socialist Indian State thus cemented one of its earliest commitments in the area of the Arts and Culture.

The State had taken ownership of a vital artistic form in that it would support and encourage it. The NSD meanwhile would be the place, which would best reflect this collective of communities and cultures, and their theatres which span the urban and the rural, the folk and the classical, the modern and the contemporary. This was not a transactional ownership. The Indian State with its emphasis on a welfare state was not only meant to be a benefactor but a serious champion of the theatre. But this grand vision (some say it was too idealistic) was deflected as time went by. Bureaucracy and nepotism became the norm enmeshed with the politics of language and the hegemony of Hindi. The NSD was no longer the institution that Nehru had envisaged. The State kept falling back to the point that it nearly abdicated its responsibility towards the Arts, of which theatre is but one among several disciplines, and not the worst off by the way. The indigenous crafts are actually one of the most endangered.

The role of the State apart, theatre practitioners, especially city-based, tend to work in a vacuum. Most of them are removed from other co-existing realities, which also tends to reinforce apathy in an oblique way. The mounting pressures of sustaining their theatre in the challenging circumstances of costly cities, further drains their mental and physical resources. It is a vicious circle that also directly and indirectly leads to a lukewarm theatre, abundant in quantity, but more often mediocre in quality - this being independent of the unholy sum spent on the Theatre Olympics, and is not a question that the RTI can answer.

Other larger inconsistencies emerge such as the universality of the arts vis-à-vis the parochialism of artistic communities that can be myopic as well. They are often the ones to cry foul but have completely missed the seismic change. Some great masterpieces, especially in music, were produced during Adolf Hitler’s time. In fact the Third Reich actively and determinedly set about putting out a culture policy and institutions in place, which would reflect their intellectual ambitions and hyper version of Aryan purity.

That the artistic community should be a guiding light and set an example in times when conscience is a prerequisite is an exception and not the rule as it has been generally presumed. We see this happening in India now.

Post Partition the moral compass was better preserved by the artistic community in India and it was best demonstrated in the theatrical sphere by organisations such as the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) and the PWA (Progressive Writers Association). Eventually the PWA lost its relevance while IPTA became an antiquated entity post liberalisation. Today that moral compass has come completely unhinged.

The point is that theatre like anything else is perfectly capable of being coopted by the dominant ideology, as it exists at any given point in time.

But maybe now than ever before this turmoil is good. It is a time for a greater reckoning after all about the very “Idea of India”. In all of this tug and pull theatre perseveres. Little and big gems still prop up, overcoming challenges, and even the barriers of censorship, both overt and covert. In those moments there is always joy and hope. One of the great beauties of theatre in this great country of ours is the sheer versatility in language, which is not just an outcome of the official languages, but also the hundreds of dialects that this country is home to. India is truly an unusual theatre destination in this respect. Our theatre in spite of the big leaps and exchanges fundamentally remains a theatre of the spoken word. Here again there is a dire need to translate our rich treasure trove of regional literature and to make those beautiful stories accessible.

Good stories are often those that provoke us. The words move us, and the songs stir us. Theatre Olympics will feature a variety of plays from India apart from the performances from abroad. There are over 400 plays and other kinds of performances. Indeed one of the mainstays of the event is to display the diversity of our theatre, but in all this diversity, strong protest performers will be missing -performers considered too radical or even “anti-national” in these times.

Voices that must be heard won’t be.

Planning in India takes on its own trajectory, oxymoronic, as the statement is. Around 1100 entries from India were received. And wonders- the videos were all up for screening before 12 selection committees of three members each. Each committee’s target was to see an average of 10 plays per day over 11 days. There was a second screening round as well and there were separate committees for the foreign entries. It appears there was no need for any targeted initiative or qualitative differentiation that could have been undertaken prior to the massive screening exercise, and by which the selection process could have been more fruitful, thorough, and eventually helpful to the committees’ members.

Who will watch the Theatre Olympics?

A lot of invitees certainly and NSD students. In spite of the grand scale of the event, there has hardly been any publicity undertaken by the Ministry of Culture though the opening at the Red Fort by Vice President Venkaiah Naidu may have attracted some attention.

While the Theatre Olympics lumbers, we live in a time of cultural hegemony and even tyranny. Yet this is not a recent outcome as theatrewallahs are desperate to declare, and where principles have fallen by the wayside. This has been a long, long process of slow burn.

We theatrewallahs have been in denial. Not to mention our pathetic state of disarray as more formidable forces have risen against us.

Now that the ghost is out we are calling it a monster, the 50 crore plus behemoth notwithstanding.

Deepa Punjani is the editor of this website.

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