Archiving Indian Theatre

Parul Rana

Theatre is a branch of performing arts associated with enacting different stories in front of a live audience using a mix of speech, music, dance, gestures, body language, etc. Indian Theatre is one of the most ancient forms of theatre, the tradition goes back to the Vedic times.

Ever since its emergence, Indian theatre has undergone several reforms. The act of passing down of performing arts from one generation to another has always been preferred to be done through oral instruction. The best way of preserving and handing down of these art forms is indeed through teaching and transmission through performances.

Another common way in which the theatre performances are recorded is through writing and photographic documentation. But would this be enough to fill the void in the knowledge and history of theatre in India? Therefore, there is an urgent need to document and archive the theatre performances in a more efficient way to prevent it from diminishing.

Now the question arises whether it should be documented or not because the very essence of performing arts which distinguishes it from other entertainment forms is to perform it live in front of an audience.

The very nature of performing arts is ephemeral, it is of transformational nature, it is constantly changing and evolving which makes it difficult to record and archive.

The presence of an artiste's body and the audience plays a vital role in the most accepted definitions of Theatre performances. This centrality of the ephemeral presence has prevented and limited the practice of performance documentation globally.

Different methods of documenting including recording the process, rehearsals, audience reaction, a combination of interviews, personal experiences are some of the effective ways of documenting the art form instead of just maintaining written records.

"There is an urgent need for theatre in India to be documented. Theatre researchers, scholars, writers, and young students of theatre find it very difficult to access the rich and diverse practice of theatre in India because the practice of documenting theatre for posterity is not taken seriously. There are several ways in which theatre can be documented - through interviews, capturing the process of rehearsals, recordings of shows, audience feedback, biographical films on theatre artists, travelogues of theatre companies, or in the form of a documentary film, etc. The best platform for a theatre archive today is on the internet, in the form of an open/public website which makes available theatre practices in India in neat categories according to region/state, folk/tradition, period (pre/post-independence), language, etc. There could be dedicated sections for theatre songs, costumes, set designs, scripts and folk-tales, and sections for artiste interviews, play excerpts, photographs, biographies etc." says Amitesh Grover, a performer, director, writer, and curator and at present assistant professor at the National School of Drama.

He also shares, "NSD has a dedicated department for recording and archiving theatre in the form of photographs and video recordings. The NSD archive catalog lists over 3000 plays on video from the last two decades, and thousands of photographs of plays from the last 40 years. NSD exhibits the archive regularly in the form of public exhibitions, especially during theatre festivals like the Bharat Rang Mahotsav."

In conclusion, theatrical presentations if documented and archived properly can be used to maintain a sense of history and theatre legacy. Maybe by breaking a few rules, allowing the performances to be documented and preserved will help present it to the future generations. It can also play a major part in promoting a better understanding of theatre as a vital part of cultural history.

In India, other than the National School of Drama, organizations like Natarang Pratishthan, Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation work towards the preservation of the theatre archives in India.

*Parul Rana is a theatre enthusiast and movie buff.

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