ITF 2nd Theatre Seminar: Welcome Address and Introduction to Spaces
Duration: 00:42:09; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 23.972; Saturation: 0.141; Lightness: 0.343; Volume: 0.248; Words per Minute: 122.288
The 2nd national seminar held by the India Theatre Forum
intended to address the overall theme of "Spaces of Theatre, Spaces for Theatre" in a wider and holistic manner. It was held between 14 to 18 March 2012 in Ninasam, an extremely special theatre space in Heggodu village of Karnataka which has served as a community centre for over 50 years. The seminar intended to cover a gamut of related topics ranging from the relationship of performing "bodies" to space, to the actual physical spaces of performance, to the politics of the spaces in society , to the new virtual spaces opening up and to the future of Spaces. In other words, the seminar built on the understanding that the act of theatre is always more than simply an act of theatre. To think of theatre and its processes is, ipso facto, to think of its temporal and spatial specificities. However, the main approach of the seminar was not to develop an academic theory of the spaces of/for theatre but to sketch the contours of a "spaciology" of theatre as perceived by its practitioners.
Ninasam, Heggodu, Karnataka
Akshara: If you have seen yesterday's performance, a strange thing happened. Just one scene before the interval, the (?) went off. There was nothing for ten minutes until we corrected it and people thought that it's an interval. Then we had another interval. Similarly, I have to do a welcome speech now after Sameera has started. There are so many of the luminaries of theatre, the intellectual. I don't want to name each one of them because it will take a long time. So in one sentence, I welcome all the speakers, all the delegates and all the guests on behalf of ITF, on behalf of Ninasam and on behalf of all the villagers. As it has become clear in the pre-lunch session, ITF is still in a nascent change. We are developing on the ideas that we are getting through these seminars. We had the first seminar in 2008 and many of us have really been benefited by that seminar. The people who came as speakers, as delegates for that seminar, later became regular visitors to Ninasam. They came and directed plays here. And that is how, at least for Ninasam, the group has enlarged its scope by including more people.
The story of Ninasam is also something similar. It started in 1949 as a small amateur drama group where villagers joined to occasionally do a play in the evening, once in two or three years. But then during the seventies, we started doing shows outside Heggodu and we got in touch with other groups and then in the eighties we started the school and the repertory and then we started the Ninasam Foundation through which we have done short-term literary/cultural appreciation sessions for mostly undergraduate students. We have done about a hundred of them in the last fifteen years.
And one guiding principle behind all this is to enlarge the community. We began with the local community of people from villages around ten kilometres. Then it included Karnataka; it included writers and thinkers from Karnataka, it included delegates from various cultural groups of Karnataka. And with the association of Ninasam with ITF, it has enlarged into a larger group. Ninasam was very happy to have the seminar here in 2008, the second time in 2012, and we hope to have the next seminar in 2015. I welcome you all. Thank you.
Sudhanva: My name is Sudhanva, Sudhanva Deshpande. I'm an actor and director in Delhi. I work with a theatre group called Jana Natya Manch. I am also a member of the core team of the ITF and I have been mandated with introducing the seminar and the themes of the seminar, and also making some preliminary comments. You have the schedule of the seminar in the welcome kit that has been provided with you. So let me begin with that. Let me also say that I have a written paper which I am going to read out now. And the paper has already been or will soon be uploaded to the ITF website but in case anybody is interested, we can also make available photocopies of the paper here. So if you want them in hard copy form, please do let me or Akshara know about it. Or Ashish or Choiti or Sharvari - any one of us.
So, how the sessions of the seminar move. The very first space that we consider, of course, is the space created by the human body – the actor in space – as well as the space of the human body. In other words, we must consider space as external, since the actor’s body inhabits a physical space, as much as internal, since the actor creates internal space even to take a breath, let alone walk or move. We will hear of this dialectic between the internal and external spaces in the first session, where the panelists will doubtless draw as much upon traditional epistemologies of space as from modern theories.
space of the human body
the actor in space
From there, we will move to considering the actual spaces we encounter – spaces for performance, spaces for rehearsal. This leads us to a session that will consider questions of design when building a theatre space. In India, it is common to think of the proscenium stage when you think of theatre, and we really do need to rethink this automatic association. Iain Mackintosh, in his talk, will argue that we need to rethink theatre design, drawing upon our traditional resources, particularly the koothambalam
, to enable a vibrant performance culture.
The next session looks at what scenographers, lights designers, and directors do with the performance space itself. This will lead us to consider modes of intervention in spaces – the question of the politics of spaces, the space of the dispossessed, the politics of performance, and the interventions of and by technology. The next two sessions are on theatre institutions – sessions that will consider questions of management, sustainability, long term vision, buildings for audiences and the building of audiences as well. The last of the sessions - session eight - is focussed on the future – what will spaces of the future be like?
spaces and interventions
Of course, this is not the sum total of the seminar. We also have four special talks starting tomorrow: on architectural principles that go into the making of spaces that bring people together, by Romi Khosla; on transforming non-theatre spaces into theatre spaces, by Jean Guy Lecat; on a fascinating project that brings together the government and the private sector to develop culture – not just the arts, but also sports – in Brazil; and one talk which considers that particular form of social organisation which we call the city, and how it has evolved over time - that's a talk by Romila Thapar. At the end, we have an open session in which we hope to put together many of the concerns that all of you would have at the end of the seminar, which may or not may not have been articulated fully in the course of the seminar. And then, we have a concluding session in which Rustom Bharucha and Shanta Gokhale will again reflect upon these very many themes that underline the entire seminar. In between all these, we have daily open sessions of which Jehan has spoken in the previous pre-lunch session, as well as one-on-one conversations. Let me just tell you how these evolved. At the last seminar that we had in 2008, we found that in the sessions we were holding here, there were these little teasers that came about that could not be fully explored in the framework of the session itself. And then we thought - why not programme conversations between people who are here which are one-on-one conversations that happen after lunch, which may or may not have an audience. So all these conversations - there are three of them that will happen - they will happen in a hall that is right behind this. It's an open air hall; you can go take a look at it. And every day, between two thirty and three thirty, which is the time that the open discussions are at - at the same time, this will also be happening. And every day in the morning, you will have the notice up here, which will tell you what will be (sic) the one-on-one conversation of that day. And you're welcome to go there and sit in. These are really freeranging conversations between two or three people.
And we have performances every day, of course. In all, friends, we are in for a feast, and I am not thinking only of the delicious food Ninasam serves with such regularity when I say this. The canvas of the seminar is vast, and I will try and tease out some themes that underpin the seminar as a whole, with two very important disclaimers and I wanted to underline these: (a) I am not attempting to cover all the themes of the seminar, and (b) I will speak mostly about urban theatre spaces, not because rural spaces are not important – one would have to be colossally blind to irony to say that, standing here in Ninasam – but because I am not competent to speak about rural spaces. So I'll limit myself to the area I know a little bit about, which is really the city.
Now, one reason we are all here is of course that many of us have built, or are building, or are dreaming of building, our own theatre spaces. The question naturally arises, what kind of theatre space? The irony about theatre spaces is that often, imperfection works. Think of some of the most influential urban theatre spaces we have seen in our country, past and present. In my city, Delhi, the Shri Ram Centre has a basement that was meant to be a godown. Rajinder Nath, when he was director of the SRC, turned it into a performance space in 1976. The space was awful; they had a huge concrete pillar in the middle, so that the view from the back of the hall was always obstructed. The ceiling height was certainly not enough for a conventional theatre space, and the staircase you came down on was visible on one side of the stage. The green room didn’t have walls going all the way up, so the lights had to be turned off backstage if you wanted complete darkness on the stage.
Similarly, in Mumbai, you had to climb three stories to get to the Chhabildas hall, and even after you got there, the noises of the street and the city did not leave you. Noisy fans ran through the show, which had to be turned off if you wanted absolute silence. But that meant, in turn, that the audience had to sweat! Theatre groups then had to think about how many times they wanted real silence. The lighting facilities were not great either. In neighbouring Pune, Sudarshan was originally a marriage hall. It has virtually no wing space, two feet or something, very little height, and the stage has barely any width. There is no parking facility, and no café either. But Chhabildas was close to the Dadar train station, so very accessible by suburban train, and in any case the number of people with cars was limited in the 1970s and 80s.
In Calcutta, Shyamanand Jalan got an architect friend to design one of his spaces. When it was done, it looked very beautiful, but was, it appears, terrible for performing. Then, at some point, Jalan got notice that this theatre violated some building norms. He was delighted, and pulled down the beautiful theatre. In its place, he built something that didn't look half as pretty, but worked much better. Now, Peter Brook puts this well in his seminal work, The Empty Space
, "In other forms of architecture there is a relationship between conscious, articulate design and good functioning: a well-designed hospital may be more efficacious than a higgledy-piggledy one; but as for theatre, the problem of design cannot start logically. It is not a matter of saying analytically what are the requirements, how best they can be organised – this will usually bring into existence a tame, conventional, often cold hall. The science of theatre-building must come from studying what it is that brings about the most vivid relationships between people – and is this better served by asymmetry, even by disorder? If so, what can be the rule of disorder?"
All these spaces – SRC Basement, Chhabildas, Padatik, or even the Mahim School, in Bombay – played an enormously important role in nurturing non-commercial theatre in these cities, because they brought about, fostered, nurtured what Brook called ‘the most vivid relationships between people’. One reason was of course that these were affordable spaces. As an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s, I have performed in the SRC Basement when the rent used to be some 250 rupees or so. If you took the hall only for rehearsal, it was cheaper still. Chhabildas, similarly, was rented by the theatre group Aawishkar, who in turn made it available to theatre groups at some Rs 150 in the 1980s. Sudarshan is available for Rs 1600 plus Rs 25 per light for performance and Rs 200 per hour for rehearsal, plus extra if you use lights. Performing in such spaces gives non-commercial groups a chance to survive economically, while also helping build a new audience - and this process is facilitated, let's face it - by the fact that the tickets are affordable. Chhabildas charged Rs 5 in the 1980s, and Sudershan still has a cap of Rs 50.
Many of us here have experienced these or similar spaces, where, despite all imperfections, we have felt a certain energy flowing between performers and audiences. Perhaps the reason for this is simply that all these spaces were not originally designed and built for performance, but once found and adapted, they fulfilled a massive felt need of performers and audiences. They filled a lacuna, they responded to the times. In retrospect, it is easy to feel nostalgic about the imperfections – to say, for instance, that in Chhabildas you could never forget real life because noises filtered through. But the fact is that when it actually happened, it was awful and you hated it, both as performer and as audience.
I remember, as a kid, watching a production of Medea and at the climactic moment, there was a loudspeaker outside that blared something like a religious song as Medea killed her children, which was very disconcerting.
In other words, there is really no escape from well-designed theatre spaces. Many of us have watched plays at Prithvi or performed there, and really, that joy is special. We will hear the Prithvi story from Ved Segan, so it is sufficient to note here that Prithvi is what it is because of the very special relationship between an enlightened client, who was a performer herself, and the architect.
When it was built, in the late 1970s, the thrust stage was something of a novelty, and its success inspired Arundhati Nag when she built Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. But it would be a mistake to ascribe the success of Prithvi merely to its design, superb though that is. Prithvi has also set standards of best practices in theatre management, and has been the lifeline for non-commercial theatre in Mumbai – in Hindi and English, admittedly, not Marathi – for the last three decades or so. As Prithvi passes into the hands of new management, it will be interesting to see how things pan out.
What Prithvi did was not simply provide an affordable, welcoming, well-designed space for
performers. Prithvi worked very hard to develop audiences as well. And I'm not going into details of that. The same is true, on an even larger scale, about Ninasam, which has educated several generations of Kannadigas in theatre, cinema, literature, and the arts in general. Akshara and Sanjna will talk about these efforts in the session they are on. Their co-panelist in that session is Satish Alekar, who will speak both about the Lalit Kala Kendra of the Pune University which he headed till he retired, as well as about a fascinating initiative to develop audiences for theatre in certain cities of Maharashtra. This was an initiative of the Theatre Academy with funding from the Ford Foundation. Without going into the details of that project, suffice it to say that the effort was to identify theatre enthusiasts and groups in different cities who would be willing to host theatre performances.
It was a remarkable project, and today, for instance, Kankavli on the Konkan coast has become one of the most vibrant centres for theatre in Maharashtra. Of course, it is true that Maharashtra has had what I have called elsewhere an ‘urban hinterland’. This ‘urban hinterland’ has sustained theatre for a century and a half. It is estimated that by the early 1880s, there were as many as 35 or so theatre companies located all over the state, in towns like Sangli, Kolhapur, Karad, Satara, Miraj, Belgaum, etc, and not just in Bombay and Pune. Even today, when commercial plays are performed in Maharashtra, only about 30-35 per cent of their total performances take place in Mumbai or Pune. The rest are all in this ‘urban hinterland’.
Of course, what Alekar and his colleagues were trying to do through the Theatre Academy project was something quite different. They were trying to build a critical, intelligent audience for non-commercial - what gets called in Maharashtra, experimental plays. Partly as a result of those efforts, partly because of other impulses, non-commercial theatre today has a real audience in Maharashtra.
Consider the heart-warming example of Govind Deshpande’s play Satyashodhak. Based on the life of the nineteenth century social reformer Jotirao Phule and his wife Savitribai, the play was commissioned by Jana Natya Manch in 1992. The Kolhapur-based group Pratyay, itself a participant in the Theatre Academy project, then produced it in Marathi. The play then remained unperformed for some 18 years or so. Last year, the Pune-based director Atul Pethe decided to direct the play for the Safai Karmacharis’ (sanitary workers) union of the Pune Municipal Corporation. There is a certain poignancy in safai karmacharis playing the life of Phule, because Phule, as is well-known, was the most radical opponent of the caste system in 19th century India. It is also true that Phule himself has become a larger cultural and political icon, growing in stature over the past couple of decades.
After six months’ rehearsal, the play opened in January 2012. No one, however, was prepared for
its fantastic success. The play has travelled to several towns and cities, of course, but also to villages. In fact, about a week ago, they played at a village called Naygav, which is on the Bombay-Bangalore highway, close to Satara - this is Savitribai’s village. It played to an audience of about 5000, drawn from several neighbouring villages.
Now, clearly, when a play travels to so many small towns and villages, the idea of performing on a proscenium stage with all its paraphernalia goes out of the window. In fact, you can only keep a play like this alive if you are prepared to perform in any space, built or unbuilt, at any time of day or night, with or without a light design. As they are doing. They have an invitation from Kolhapur, where the local trade unions have invited them to perform in a massive wrestling stadium – which is fitting, because Phule had once mobilised the wrestlers of Pune to agitate in favour of the Marathi language as opposed to Sanskrit – and on April 11, Phule’s birth anniversary, a large open-air performance is planned at Pune’s historic Shanivar Wada, the seat of the Peshwas. The meek, I must say, are inheriting the earth, even if in a play.
Now the point of the story is not to extol the virtues of the play or of the production, but to say
that this is possible because Maharashtra has a real network of interested spectators who want to watch a play like this, and they are, moreover, trained in how to organise it – from raising money, to arranging the logistics, to taking care of performance needs, to arranging for food, and publicity
and so on and so forth.
In talking about spaces for theatre, we sometimes neglect to pay attention to this very vital
aspect – audience building – and we hope that in this seminar at least, we will spend time
discussing this very vital aspect of the larger theatre ecosystem.
In Jana Natya Manch, we perform very often on the outskirts of Delhi. In the past decade or so, however, it has become harder and harder to figure out what the outskirts are. Where does Delhi end? Certainly not at the toll gates that separate the administrative entity that comes under the Delhi Government from its neighbouring states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The experience of driving from Delhi to Ghaziabad or Noida or Gurgaon is somewhat strange, because it is really hard to see where one ends and the other begins – or even where Noida itself ends and something else, say Greater Noida, begins. One we call Delhi. The other we struggle to name. This dialectic, between Delhi and not-Delhi, is recognized in that official nomenclature – the National Capital Region. This vast territory is, by one estimation, the world’s second largest urban agglomeration by population (approx. 22 lakh, second only to Tokyo) and the largest by area (about 33,578 sq. km). In fact, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata all feature in the list of the top ten urban agglomerations in the world.
But this begs a more fundamental question. In what recognizable way is Delhi a ‘city’? Romila Thapar is going to speak to us about the city in history. Is the Delhi of today – the NCR – a city? Henry Lefebvre, the French activist-philosopher-sociologist, in his magisterial work The Production of Space, argues that the city has ceased to be a meaningful entity in modern life. The process of urbanization – what he calls the ‘production of space’ – has effectively superseded the city itself, so that the historical relationship between town and country, with the former feeding off the latter, no longer holds in quite the same way. We could say that the new megapolis today feeds off its vast urban hinterland.
Yet this doesn’t seem quite right either, because on the one hand the term ‘megapolis’ still brings to mind one entity, however large, which Delhi no longer is, and on the other the urban hinterland is actually all kinds of things – parts of it are totally integrated into the most technologically advanced segments of the world economy, while parts of it seem like they belong to the nineteenth century, if not earlier. The fact is that we haven’t yet coined a word for the vast agglomeration of settlements – some hyper-urban, some indisputably rural, and many at various levels in between – that the modern city has become. We may also note that the history of this urbanisation is, almost without exception, the history of tremendous violence and dispossession, wherein poor communities are driven off their land to make way for speculative development, led, most often, by the real estate mafia in collusion with financial corporations and local politicians.
And while this vast urban agglomeration spreads like a malignant growth, the historic city itself is on the brink of collapse. What you have, in its stead, is the ‘Bypass City’ – integrated townships farther and farther away from the historic city. These townships are really like huge bubbles, sealed off from the realities of the rest of the country – a bubble where you don’t have to encounter heat, dust, and, most important, poverty. Driving into these fiercely guarded, gated communities, you could be excused for confusing them with similar townships in, say, Florida or LA. And this is hardly a specifically Indian phenomenon. City after city in Asia, Africa and South America is developing along that axis – Shanghai, Manila, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Mexico City - the list is virtually endless.
The Bypass City is the Disneyfication of the urban space – an island of hyperconsumerism in a sea of slums. As Romi Khosla has argued, this sort of urbanisation is also ecologically unsustainable, but I won’t go into that. And it is around these hyperconsumerist bubbles that real estate – land – magically transforms into unreal estate – which is what speculative finance really is. It is not coincidental that the biggest financial meltdown since the 1930s came about when the housing bubble burst. No wonder that the slogan of our times, ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is a ‘spatial’ slogan that targets unreal estate by invading real estate!
What we actually need is to disentangle real from unreal estate. We need to regenerate our historic cities. We need to resurrect and put back in order systems and services – health, education, recreation, public works, culture – so that residents feel that they have a stake in their local communities. When residents are stakeholders, when they see tangible benefits coming their way, they are motivated to give something back to the community, to reducing crime, to keeping streets and public spaces clean, to reducing pollution, and so on. In all this, culture, and particularly theatre, can play a critical role.
The space where the act of theatre takes place is never really empty. Around this space is society, with its contestations, its history, its politics. The best theatre often relates to these contestations, histories, politics. Of all arts, theatre is the most spatially particular. For exactly this reason, theatre charges space politically. This very special ability of theatre, to charge space politically, is not to be suppressed or rejected. It is to be embraced.
Let me conclude with sketching a hypothetical scenario. It is common to hear the lament that the whole of Mumbai has only one Prithvi, or Bangalore only one Ranga Shankara, or Pune only one Sudershan. These cities had nothing like these theatres before they were set up, but after they were set up, we find that more or less rapidly, they each pulled their own kinds of audiences and plays. Prithvi, I believe, struggled a little bit in the beginning to draw an audience, but once it got going there was really no stopping it. Ranga Shankara, when it was being built - it was common to hear people say - JP Nagar, are people going to come to JP Nagar to watch plays? But all these fears turned out to be unfounded because it's really thrived as a vibrant venue. And Sudershan, of course, from the time that it opened had audiences and performers.
Of course, these are not all the same type of venues. Prithvi and Ranga Shankara fall into one category; Chhabildas and Sudershan and the Mahim School into another. The sort of audiences each type attracts, as well as the sort of theatre one sees, is broadly similar. Of course there are differences – Ranga Shankara has managed to attract Kannada theatre and its audiences in a way Prithvi never managed with Marathi – but, clearly, they have more in common than there are differences.
In other words, I would hypothesise, had Prithvi been located in Bandra or Andheri, it would still have attracted a similar sort of theatre and audiences. Similarly, if someone were to convince the management of a school or college in Matunga or Vile Parle to allow theatre, I would imagine that the fare you would see would be pretty similar to the Mahim school or Sudershan.
The reason for this is simply that our cities are woefully short of theatre venues. Andreas Lübbers is here, and he will tell you that Hamburg has some 50 theatres, each of them active and programmed for the whole year. I’m not sure how many theatres Mumbai has, but Delhi most certainly does not have even 10 active venues, not even five, which are exclusively devoted to programming theatre and live performance the year round. As a matter of fact, the Stein Auditorium in India Habitat Centre has more conferences than performances.
Now, suppose, Mumbai or Delhi did indeed have 50 theatre venues. I won’t say 50 Prithvis, because that brings to mind a certain class character, but simply 50 active theatre venues – big and small, closed door and open air, proscenium and non-proscenium, some built as theatres, others improvised. If these 50 venues were to be spread across the city, no matter where you were, you would have an active theatre venue within about a 5-7 km radius. If you lived in Goregaon, for instance, you would need a very special reason to travel all the way to Juhu to watch a play, because you would have a theatre much closer to where you stay, maybe even within walking distance.
In such a scenario, it would become harder for each venue to pull an audience, because the audience would always have more than one option. What would venues then need to do? They would need to invest time, effort and energy in developing an audience loyal to itself. To do that, venues would have to carve out identities which are unique, or at least fairly distinct – some might specialise in classics, for instance, some might offer mainly musical fare, some might programme cutting edge, experimental work, some might offer politically challenging work, and so on. So, if you stayed in Goregaon you might still want to hike across to Juhu, because the Juhu venue gives you something that the Goregaon venue doesn’t.
This, by the way, is exactly the opposite to what happens with the movies, where easy accessibility is one of the keys to commercial success, in terms of having a theatre within a certain radius and putting out a number of prints. My guess is also that many of these venues would need to do intensive outreach in their own immediate environs. In such cases, these venues would reflect and give voice to the joys and sorrows, the aspirations and frustrations, of their own immediate community.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a narrowly political argument. I don’t mean to suggest that only what gets called ‘community theatre’ would get done. What I mean is simply that the community within which the venue is located would feel a sense of ‘ownership’ over it. This community would have a strong stake in not just the survival, but in fact in the flourishing of the venue. I am thinking, for instance, of what Ngugi wa Thiong’o talks about in the second chapter of Decolonisng the Mind, of working in the Kamiriithu community, in the local language, Gikuyu, with local traditions, which led to the community not only coming together and shaping the play, but, in a very deep sense, claiming ownership of the theatre itself. Such theatres, embedded in their communities, can become locuses around which neighbourhoods can be regenerated, rather than be allowed to decay and fall apart. Rather than ‘Bypass Cities’, we need what I would call, following the work of the urban theorist Garth Myers, ‘Relational Cities’, where the interstices between neighbourhoods signify not the hard boundaries of exclusion and separation, but a liminal space across which hands can reach out to help each other – Myers tells us that there is a phrase for this in Swahili, ‘sisi kwa sisi’, which means ‘us for us’ or, more generally, doing for each other. We need to think very seriously about building cities that foster social relationships; about the need to produce
a social fabric, rooted in cultural production, for new kinds of cities. In this time of the
‘occupy’ movements, we need theatre to occupy the city.
Were this to happen, theatre will find space for itself in society, and society will, in turn,
value the space that theatre occupies. It is time for some audacious thinking.