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Note from a theatre wallah | The Indian Express

Note from a theatre wallah | The Indian Express

Note from a theatre wallah

Why I won’t be participating in the 8th Theatre Olympics that opens today

Written by Sunil Shanbag | Updated: February 17, 2018 1:24 pm
The 8th Theatre Olympics begins today
The 8th Theatre Olympics will span 17 Indian cities with 450-odd performances, seminars, youth forums, in which 25,000 artists will participate from 31 countries (twitter.com/8thTO2018India)

By Sunil Shanbag
The 8th Theatre Olympics organised by the National School of Drama, supported by the Ministry of Culture, which opens today with a grand ceremony dominated by politicians, at the Red Fort in New Delhi, will be the beginning of an extravaganza. It will span 17 Indian cities with 450-odd performances, seminars, youth forums, in which 25,000 artists will participate from 31 countries. The who’s who of Indian theatre is expected to participate, barring a few. Theatre Olympics Some theatre practitioners say they were not invited, some found the organisers unwilling to work outside a one-budget-fits-all template.
Some of us chose not to participate on principle. Successive Indian governments have contributed virtually nothing to the theatre ecosystem, nor had a cultural policy worth talking about. Theatre art remains invisible as far as the Indian state is concerned. It is oblivious to global trends in which countries humbler than India in their aspirations to be super powers consider the arts critical both as a social force, and a driver of their economies. We did not wish to be part of an effort by the government to appropriate cultural capital built by individual and groups of theatre makers against great odds.
Theatre in India is diverse and varied and includes folk, classical, and urban forms in virtually every part of the country. There is a commercial theatre where profit is sought, urban theatre companies which fall in the grey zone between commerce and art, and traditional forms closely linked to the life of the community. A lot of theatre is made by part-timers, amateurs — the shaukeens. But the hurdles that theatre practitioners face are similar across the country.
Talk to any theatre-wallah and you will hear of the lack of funds, no access to formal training, poor infrastructure in terms of spaces to perform, rehearse, and store theatre materials, out-dated and corrupt licensing procedures, and in some states, even a formal censorship of theatre texts.
Let’s look at Maharashtra that prides itself on its long and rich theatre tradition. An informal survey of theatre activity in Mumbai estimates the number of performances at 1,500 a month, in more than six languages. There is a huge pressure on performance spaces, and it is common for popular auditoria to have a shift system and pack in three to four performances in one day with barely an hour in between.
The government has built auditoria across the state to one standard design, and most of them are poorly maintained, and lack proper technical resources. One of the most powerful Indian experimental theatre movements originated in Maharashtra in the mid-’70s, and yet the state has not built one auditorium for an alternative theatre vision in terms of design or economics. Tamasha theatre companies are in dire straits. Their pleas for government support fall on deaf ears. In Uttar Pradesh, the fate of nautanki is worse. A lack of formal training facilities is a huge issue. The NSD is an island of privilege. For most theatre hopefuls, training is on the job, patchy, often outmoded, or at over-priced private acting schools.
It seems a miracle that a vibrant theatre scene does exist in parts of the country. The credit for this goes to the persistence, conviction, and resourcefulness of the theatre community. In small towns, local theatre groups stubbornly produce plays year after year despite an audience reluctant to pay. In Bangalore, a small group functions as a facilitator for theatre companies wanting to tour with their productions.
In Chennai a theatre company establishes a fund to help new companies incubate an idea. Small, intimate performance spaces have blossomed in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad, and Hyderabad. Privately organised theatre festivals in smaller cities like Lucknow, Bareilly, Jaipur, and Pune draw large audiences. More and more Indian theatre practitioners are touring other countries on invitation from prestigious venues.
All this without an iota of government support. On the other hand, the GST of 15 per cent slapped on tickets above Rs 250 has struck a body blow to the economics of theatre making and viewing. Surveys has shown that the arts sector has tremendous potential to create jobs, especially among the young, not to mention its value in supporting social cohesion and cultural diversity. Instead, we have plans for smart cities with no thought given to human interaction, or value building, and cynical appropriation of people’s common wealth, instead of recognition and support.
The writer is a Mumbai-based playwright and director
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