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Towards Alternative Theatres in India: a few directions

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Issue No: 96June 29, 2014

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Towards Alternative Theatres in India: a few directions

Jana Sanksriti's theatre in West Bengal

The Victorian legacy of colonialism had grafted in the Indian subcontinent the culture and administration of the British. In the field of culture, in colonial cities like Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, a naturalistic proscenium theatre emerged to cater to the tastes of the colonial masters. Slowly, this theatre culture was absorbed by the Indian elites and it then seeped further until vernacular theatres were also established along similar lines. So, the naturalistic proscenium theatre was an import that began to be copied by the indigenous theatre enthusiasts. However, the fact is that India has had the ancient tradition of Sanskrit drama and the theories of Bharata’s Natyashastra, and the rich tradition of both tribal ceremonies as well as folk forms like the _Jatra _of Bengal, or the _Nautanki _of Maharashtra and many others region wise. It was inevitable that with anti-colonial fervour and post-colonial quest, directors would search for their ‘roots’ through experimentations of form and space.

Moreover, the politically volatile Twentieth century gave rise to newer forms of political theatre that needed newer kind of expression. Even these came to influence Indian theatre. So, there was a simultaneous glancing back homewards and a looking ahead at the international political scenario. Anti-war protests, anti-colonial movements and political activism, especially of the left gave birth to situations where new audiences were being created, new performance spaces were needed. Avant-garde theatre of the early twentieth century also helped in breaking the structures/conventions of naturalistic theatre. So, when I use the term Alternative Theatre, it refers to the alternatives to naturalistic proscenium theatre of the nineteenth century.

A new world order, in a century of wars and revolution, was feeling its way through and this anxiety was there in its search and experiments with form and convention. Raymond Williams has rightly pointed out that “…the history of modern drama is, to a large extent, the repeated breaking and altering of those conventions, to allow a different form to come through.” (Williams 397)

The crisis ridden West was searching for its cultural nirvana in the East, to escape from the ‘dying’ civilization of Eliot’s “wasteland”. Theatre, which can be considered one of the liveliest carriers of culture, became one of the principal vehicles of cultural exchange and influence. Thus, twentieth century experimental or alternative theatres did two things; first, it rejected the conventional proscenium boundaries located at city/metropolitan centres. Second, in a search for ‘root culture’ they travelled far and wide, often crossing continents for gathering inspiration. By this time, with the process of political liberation of the erstwhile colonies of the European imperial powers, a surge of ‘national culture’ (Cabral), a search for indigenous ‘roots’, and a celebration of national/regional cultural forms happened as effect in the new nations.

The general trend of Western alternative theatre practitioners and theorists towards experimenting with Eastern forms can be seen as cultural exchange or can be critiqued as cultural neocolonialism. From Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner to Peter Brook or Arianne Mnochkine , we see adaptation of Eastern theatrical/folk forms like Noh, Kabuki, various forms of martial arts, dance forms like Kathakali, Bharatnatyam etc. In leftist political theatre also, new thoughts about representation had been inspired by Piscator and Brecht, Brecht transforming the perceptions about actor-audience relationship through epic theatre.

In the Indian context, the amateur city theatres were started by the British colonizers and copied by the Indian bourgeoisie. Against this ‘grafted’ entertainment, chiefly due to anti-colonial, anti-fascist cultural movements like the Progressive Writers’ Association, the Youth Cultural Institute and the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association, people’s theatre culture started in India. Especially in Bengal, not only did plays like _Nabanna _voice the exploitation of the colonizers but various popular songs or gana-sangeet of a revolutionary nature were composed and performed in fringe areas for arousing anti-colonial, nationalistic zeal among the grassroots. The IPTA made ample use of folk cultural forms in the service of a people’s cultural movement.

Interestingly, this revival of root culture was initiated much earlier by Rabindranath Tagore in his dance-dramas, for example Chitrangada _and _Shapmochan _etc. while the city-based Group Theatres , which were offshoots of the IPTA, made progressive theatre but confined themselves in the city centres and proscenium stage., and often looked towards Western drama for inspiration/adaptation, following Badal Sircar and his theory of Third Theatre/Free Theatre, a trend started among certain suburban and small town groups to break-away from the colonial/bourgeois cultural structures and ‘return to the roots’. Thus, alternative theatre groups like Sircar’s Satabdi, Pathasena, Ayena practiced what Sircar termed the Third Theatre/Free Theatre movement that placed itself at a distance from the pure folk theatres like _Nautanki, Jatra, _Ramlila _and the city-based proscenium theatre. Similarly, modern directors like K.N.Panikkar, Ratan Thiyam, Habib Tanvir have worked with classical and folk forms. Alternative movements have been taken up by Samudaya, inspired by Badal Sircar’s workshops, by Chennai Kalai Kuzu, Andhra Praja Natya Mandali, and a remarkable experiment by K.V.Subbanna’s Ninasam at Heggoddu, Karnataka. Political street theatre has emerged as another alternative theatre that had been successfully used by Utpal Dutt, Jochan Dastidar in Bangla, and by Jana Natya Manch, Nishant Natya Manch in Hindustani to name a few.

In India post-IPTA agit-prop and experimental theatres have shown a general tendency to break away from the received colonial cultural formations of the naturalistic proscenium theatres that were a legacy of the Victorian ethos. Often modern directors have used folk forms to give the performance an indigenous feel and to drive home the content in a more suitable way banking on the familiarity of the form with the audience.

In West Bengal, groups like Satabdi, Pathasena and Ayena through their Third Theatre/Free Theatre have tried to bridge the gap between the actors and the audience through breaking away from the naturalistic proscenium and taking performance to found spaces and trying to build an intimate interactive space for greater effect and sensitization. Since the 1970’s, Badal Sircar’s group Satabdi has been performing in city parks, halls and classrooms, villages etc. before gathered, free crowds, without any fixed ticket system. This has been an effective step towards making theatre accessible to the masses, especially in the peripheries and at unconventional locations as well as made theatre non-commercial and not-for-profit. Doing away with the professional proscenium auditorium and the costly paraphernalia like extravagant lighting, complicated sound system, costume, machinery, scenery etc. has made it possible. The close proximity of the audience, especially in the Arena format of Third Theatre/Free theatre has given the performance an irresistible intimacy that enhances the power and intensity of the performance manifolds.


Badal Sircar's group Shatabdi

A step ahead in alternative attempts of theatre that target to reach out to potential audiences and to bridge the gap between audience-actor has been successfully evolved by Augusto Boal, which has been generally termed Theatre of the Oppressed. The sub-form of Forum Theatre has been successfully used in Badu, West Bengal by Sanjoy Ganguly’s Janasanskriti since 1985, and has spread in other parts of India. The form of Forum Theatre has given the scope and freedom to the village spectators who are also the oppressed ones represented in a Forum play and empowered them to act out their own solutions. This has made the performance process dialogic.

While all bourgeois art forms have been monologic and one-sidedly dictated or preached conclusions, Alternative theatre, in the version of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Forum Theatre has been interventionist, where a “Joker” character instigates the passive audience to arise and enter the arena of action and perform the change they want to bring to the society or perform one or many solutions.

For instance, we can refer here to the practical experiences that Jana Sanskriti had with rural communities with their plays Sonar Meye (Golden Girl) and Amra Jekhane Dariye (Where we Stand) and how the audience participated in the action. (Ganguly Jana Sanskriti) Here the passive, receptive spectators have been transformed to active “spect-actors” (to use Boal’s term) in an activist theatre which has endeavoured not only to bridge the actor-audience gap but has tried to make the performance a form of political activism.

So, in India, the practice of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, successfully and according to local needs by Jana Sanskriti, reaching out to the peripheries and empowering the oppressed to speak out is an encouraging scenario against the sweeping dominance of global capitalist machineries of saleable culture. Jana Sanskriti’s work or the work of Third Theatre/Free Theatre is non-aligned and non-commercial as against the dominant force of consumer culture. Forum Theatre in particular gives a space or platform to the marginalized; the subalterns to use the performance as a vehicle for socio-cultural and political liberation from oppressive forces that exist even within domestic walls, especially for women. So, here is a cultural movement which is also socio-political activism at the grassroots level attempting liberation of the oppressed. While Piscator and Brecht had initiated a movement in which the theatre became the forum that put cultural forms at disposal for the socio-political liberation of the proletariat, and while experimental theatres/alternative theatres and “Happenings” destroyed the distance between actor and spectator and tried to create an intimacy, Boal’s revolutionary theatre has transformed the passive spectator into the active “spect-actor”, and completely revolutionized ‘acting’ and realized it into ‘action’. So, theatre truly became a rehearsal for revolution– cultural and political. In India, Sanjoy Ganguly and the Federation for Theatre of the Oppressed have taken it to the interiors and the grassroots. People’s theatre has reached out to the people.

Debayan Deb Barman is Asst. Prof. of English at THLH Mahavidyalay (University of Burdwan). He is pursuing his research from Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. He has participated in many national and international seminars and workshops. He has published articles on Indian Writing in English, Indian Theatre, Postcolonial Studies etc. African Literature, Postcolonial Studies, Films, Theatre Studies and Bangla Literature enthuse him most.

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