ITF Not The Drama Seminar: Conversation - Sudhanva & Sadanand Menon
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Organised fifty years after the original Drama Seminar in 1957, the Not the Drama Seminar (NTDS) brought together theatre practitioners from all across the country to convene at Ninasam, Heggodu in March 2008. This seminar meditated on the nature of theatre in India today, on how we got to where we are. The attempt was to understand 'Indian Theatre' in all its multiplicity and diversity, bringing these several faces of Indian theatre face-to-face, and to problemetise the issues that arise therein. These ideas were exchanged through a series of presentations and discussions over five days, and each day ended with a performance.
Conversation - Sudhanva Deshpande & Sadanand Menon
SD: So basically, we wanted to fight. Or I wanted to fight with you.
SD: I wanted to pick on something that you said in your presentation and that I know has led to a lot of conversations in Bombay, etc. We've all been intrigued by what you said. We all have our own theories about it. The prescriptive one- okay... Now it seems to me and I'm of course I'm completely open to being told that I have misread. But it seems to me that - who is going to prescribe? Who is in a position to prescribe? Who is being prescribed to? Under what constitutional and other circumstances is prescription even possible? These are questions I think we need to think about and carry forward. It seems to me that you were opening yourself up to a reading that you are asking for people to come here, leaving their political sense behind. Surely not. Surely if people like you, me and everyone else, is coming together in this forum, then surely we're expected to bring our positives with us, we're expected to bring our concerns with us, and so on and so forth. So that's one part of what I want to say. And how does a strong statement of politics become prescriptive? That's one part of what I wanted to ask you about.
SD: The other part of what I want to talk to you about is, how does one build networks? Now surely as part of building networks there's one kind of network being built which is let's say motivated by very clear political terms, like the IPT or whatever. So you can have that kind of a network. That network is then mediated through the agency of the party, etc. All that we have seen, we have been through, some of us are still part of t hat thing. So there's that kind of network being built. The other kind of network that one can build is through the funding agencies- Ford Foundation, whatever whatever whatever. And we have seen what that has led to.
Now, if one is trying to build a network of this kind, of the kind that we are building here, which is really to my mind, a coming to together of people who share some common concerns, but who also have their own different concerns, individual concerns, who do different kinds of t heatre, who don't have a common agenda in so far as they don't advocate a certain kind of theatre, all of them, or they don't share performance space. Exactly the same performance space, in that sort of way.
SD: Now if people like us are coming together, and we are thinking that we need to come together because of a felt need on our part. We have to do something so that theatre can not only survive, but flourish. Where theatre can really matter. Now if people like us are coming together, then surely one has to come together with some sort of purpose. One has to come together with some sense of a vision. That vision may be inclusive, as opposed to exclusive. But it can't be all-inclusive, surely not -A. B- the vision may not be something that is decided in a small room with 6 people, 5 people whatever, and then rammed down people's throat. Its a vision that has to evolve. All that one can understand. Its not a vision that is not open to change, or to mutation, to adaptation and so on, All that one can accept. But surely, you are not meaning what some of us read you to mean...that you need to keep this open, you don't need to come with.... What does it mean to prescribe? I mean surely, when Sanjana does her presentation, on what her vision for theatre institutions in this country is going to be- surely that's a prescriptive vision- in the sense that she is going to be talkig about very practical things that she thinks are possible, are desirable. The physical things that she is going to be talking about maybe simpler than the larger philosophy and so on.
SD: ...In other words what I'm trying to say is that surely there are prescriptions and there are prescriptions. In 1956 Drama Seminar, to my mind, is a prescription totally different of a totally different sort. So what are your fears, what are your apprehensions, what are these concerns? This long winded question is really to get you to articulate on it.
SM: But I know that there would definitely be a conversation around this. And I'm glad that its happening like this, and not in a larger forum. I think this is a space of more clear collaboration. And I also knew that using the word....-I was hoping- that using the term 'prescriptive', it would not produce a defensive reaction, because it was not meant to do that. It was said in that spirit.
Now let's begin at the '56 pace, where in fact there were no prescriptions. It was just an assemblage of people, completely ad hoc assemblage, I think noboy had sat on a drawing board and drawn up a master plan- it just happened. And it just happened that those who had those clarity of vision, which ...or those assurances which come from upper class, upper caste and elitist positions, managed to articulate with force which set an agenda. You will not find any documents, any written agenda. Its just a derivation.
SM:...that a conversation got hijacked in a particular direction and it never was pulled back with any particular force.
SD: Its not even as if it got hijacked in that sense.
SM: ...yeah...just implemented.
SD: Right, right.
SM: It became a signal 2 out of 4 in favour of classicism, and Sanskrit. Bernard, stuff like that. There wasn't yet a voice form outside, or even within, which saw it differently and wanted to pull the string to some other direction. So there, there was no question of prescription, it was just a kind of a thrust in a prticular direction, which had its own snowballing effects, the results of which we are experiencing now. When this meeting was set up, the Not The Drama Seminar, it hasn't come out of the blue. Its come out of certain initiatives that began in the late 90s and early 21st century -and largely the efforts of people like you, Sanjana, coming together, someone like Sameera playing a little facilitator in between- to enable after many many years of void and conflict and confusion and hostility within the performance world. Once again a possibilty of connecting. Once again a possibility of sharing ideas, sharing thoughts. Even that seemed such an uphill task during the time when all this initiative began. And I must say its travelled a great journey and reached uptil here.
SM: As long as it was the notion of a smaller group of people, those 20-25-30 people who had been invited, or on their own volision getting into this act, there was a certain...air of possible points of difference, but essentially a need to be together and to think together. When this is brought to a larger forum like this, and I felt,....
SD: Also at the same time...sorry....I think there was also a danger in that...
SM: So let me finish this....So... My own feeling is that process has not yet been completed. We had those 4-5 meetings and few more that happened later, I wasn't there, but, I have a feeling that process is still on the track. And it needs to come to some sort of a better level of agreed clarity before one can even pose a symposium like this, it just so happens that you want to cut to the mode of the 50 years thing. And itsa fantastic thing to do. You're locating it at this time. When we locate it at this time, and when we locate it at a point where our own articulations are not still clear. I don't think during this course, in the last 7-8 years, anyone of us has made for example position papers on any of the issues that we're taking up here.
SM: Without having done that, without having shared it between all of us, it would be a bit premature I would presume, to bring it into a larger forum like this where there are 3 or 4 times more people who all have been part of that movement together.
SM: For me the tone of the Keynote papers therefore reflected some of that concern that I have, that it should not sound to anybody as a scheme that has been drawn up and some agenda drawn up and everyone is being asked to pull in one direction. I would even believe that for these kinds of things then the Keynote papers should need a certain circulation and a certain comment from the people who are part of the core team to look at and consider. Because otherwise it seems like the vaccuum in the conversation around theatre that we live with is being pushed in a particular direction. This time, it would look like a push, like 50 years ago when it wasn't a push- it just happened and it just had its own muscle to move in a particular way. So one is not saying therefore that don't bring your own political positions, whether the left, right or centre. One should have full freedom to express that from whichever perspective. But then it would have to be stated as a very specific personal journey and expression of that. For example, my critique of the state of Indian economy, the state of the Indian State, the state of Indian theatre might almost match alphabet to alphabet with what you're saying. But I would have to say it then as my position. It cannot be the assumed position of a symposium...that's what I'm trying to say. The moment that happens, I don't think I've had long chats with anybody on the Keynote papers, but wherever I heard the comments, this was in the minds of people, that there is a certain possibility of a directicism in the kind of papers, and it needs to be looked at and debated. Obviously you never dabate the Keynote address. That space is never there. So that's why I think it seemed that I had to mention this. I would still stand by it. Its not a negation of anyone's politics, and I think I might have stronger positions on this. This will not be the forum for me to express it, unless it comes up as a polemic. Then, head-on.
SM: But that polemic has to emerge. One is seeing here lots of wise heads, lots of experiences, lots of people with diverse kind of backgrounds, and still it hasn't developed into a polemic. And unless that happens, unless that stage happens where we can have a public, verbal duel or even a political duel, without losing friendship and without losing that human connect.
SM: You have to make the space for it. It has to ... I think that responsibility rests on this group that has taken so much pains to put it together, it shouldn't be filtered away through just one act or statement, which while valid in itself, can bounce in a different way.
SD: That point I see. My concern though is, how else to do it? In other words what I'm trying to say is that if you are thinking- as long as you are limited to 20-25 people, or a smaller group of 10-20 and so on, that looks too much, at least to me, as a clump. Frankly.
SM: It was a clump, and it still is a clump.
SD: Right right.
SD: So the idea is that, in a very real sense I think, there are very many different positions within the smaller group. Now surely, it is interesting to me personally, it certainly is interesting to me, that ...that somebody with a background of Akshara and the entire history of Ninasam including its political history, comes together with somebody like Sanjana Kapoor and Prithvi theatre. And that includes me, with my history and my troup...its a much longer history than.......(?). Now this conflict is something that ought to indicate, to my mind at least, to a careful observer, that there is a wide variety already- even in 3 names there is a wide variety. The moment you extend it a bit further, you will see all kinds of other contingencies. Now isn't it interesting that people with such diverse histories, and such diverse concerns, and at one level, theoritically speaking, even opposing points of view, feel the need to come together and feel the need to share some of their concerns with a larger group, and feel a need to listen to others as well. Now that's a process that one has to also go through.
SM: Yeah, that's what I'm saying, that its already happening. What I'm saying is that it is still in its infancy. And one need not test it unnecessarily, I think the point is not just to retain energy, but to keep adding to it.
SM: And what's the scene now? I'm pretty sure now after 3 days, I'm pretty sure, this, needed to be the opening session, whereeven before your Keynote presentations, this statement had to come out....a good half an hour of explaining how we arrived at this point. Where all these different tendecnies, feeling the need to share ideas, share time, share concerns together. Arrive at this moment,- don't take it lightly...this is not to be taken lightly, its a fairly historic moment- even if we are saying it also. And therefore the need to situate in a manner where those who are not careful observers, those who are don't observe things so carefully but have come into it because it seems to be a fantastic forum to be in, need to follow that last few years of history in a more engaged sort of way, and feel that that door is opening up to them also. Otherwise if I come as a person who is invited to be here, either presenter, or respondent, or a participant, it could seem like the conversation is coming from somewhere, but I don't know the origin of it. And some of it might sound like somebody is trying to tell me something, which would spell an early death to ventures like this. So I think the responsibility to guide this along, and I think much of it would lie on you because one sees you as someone who is absolutely a turn-out of it with all your energy and all your activist mode, and the ability to keep much of what you personally believe in politics little bit to the side. And from your side its a great act. And to come into this space and be part of the thing.
SM: This responsibility will also delve on you, to see the politics of it in a little more complex way.
SM: To me, therefore also in your presentation that... the last portion, seems to be coming from somewhere else. It seems to be coming from- even during the last days of the IPTA, one did not see an articulation like this,- because it has a directicism which is not what you really are- that's the feeling I get- its coming from somewhere, and I think needs to examine that other self altogether. That, while the need is there to politicise theatre, while the need is there to express what is anyway being expressed in any act or performance, while the need is to state it little more directly,- one needs to redefine that politics. And it cannot be the politics only of a certain kind of textual contention, because the politics lies in everything- in gesture, in its tone, in everything. And this is the time. After 50 years of that experience, today one is in a position to make that sharper, more complex, instead of taking it back to that- you know. That is a homework then. That's why I used the word 'homework'. That's a homework we need to do; we clearly need to do it. We can't escape it. In that sense then you can't deny your past also. It will keep on bouncing back, you can't say that: 'I'm going to shut my eyes to that; I have to look only at this moment.' Because this moment was born in the womb of that. There are so many riches which are going to certainly..- we've got from Chandradasan, the Karnabharam thing that you can, ...the inversions of that are not only possible, they are powerful. They have a power which we don't have to labour too much with.
SM: For me, essentially it was that.
SD: And... my last question is, how does one go on from here? Its all very well to say that one has to problematise it, one has to look at it more complexly, etc. All that is there, and that point is well taken. But, how does one go about it? Surely one cannot defer the moment of coming together indefinitely. Surely there's an urgency- The fierce urgency of now. Now surely if that urgency is something that we feel, then how does one come together simultaneously? And simultaneously articulate what one as an individual, as well as what several people,... as some kind of a ...a collective maybe, a loose collective maybe. A conglomeration of points of view maybe. But there has to be kind of articulation, isn't it? And there has to be some kind of statement of purpose, of vision, of larger strategy...- a roadmap, if you will. How does this happen without getting into problems of contention?
SM: For me its fairly simple, just like the forum existed all these years without that contention. The attempt should be to expand that numerically or horizontally. Contention arises normally when someone's intention is suspect. I don't think here anyone's intention is suspected. Its absolutely transparent and therefore that kind of contention might not happen. But like Sanjana was saying in her opening thing, that to repeat this again and again is a huge issue of resources, and energies, and some people's energies, and so on. Its not going to happen everyday.
SM: It may never happen again also. So then point is, what will be the methodology, what will be the technique through which people stay connected in wherever they are and doing whatever they are? This certainly needs putting heads together, maybe on the last day. But I think from here there will have to be a ground plan as to what those methods would be. You can actually start a process I think now of these kinds of convocations where a critical discourse can happen without personalising it, to be able to honest with each other, to say things... and seeing that as an act of friendship, rather than an act of hostility or so, which has been bothering and continues to bother... all performance, not just theatre, every performative act per se. I think a kind of suffiecient level, or plateau of trust and openness has to be set up- that's all you need to do. There's nothing else. And then its an issue of talking about each one and their own resources. What do I have that I can share with this? What can I give to this? Like for example, in Chennai I have a space. Its a very good space, its something like this. Its available for any kind of work under the sun. People just have to share things, bring it over, and then slowly work out a stragtegy of some kind of periodic meeting. Because essentially what this is, is an energy bag.
SM: Its nothing else. For those 4 people to to have sat here this morning and to have been able to speak to this audience- its going to boost their energy 50 times more than them getting a 50 lakh grant. So its a fanastic energy boost.
SM: This needs to be sustained in some manner. I'm sure its not going to be very difficult to sustain. One-off kind of thing. But essentially to stay in this conversation, where you're constantly redefining, sharpening, reinvestigating, the idea of what Poilitical theatre is about. And to know that we are in it, we are going to do theatre(?), but let's start on it, either through sound or through word or through body or through even the spaces that one begins to use. One short word for this, which I have learnt from Chandra, is 'energy'. There has to be energy in it and energy cannot be let to flag(?). I think this is a high moment, and this energy one needs to just keep working with. We can't take it to an ascesion; at least not to make it descend. It has to stay there. That's the only feedback we can also take. For me itsa great energy booster, just to see these people and be a part of the extraordinary network of t hings that's going on. One can have differences with people who are within the group, but then that is the whole point- to be able to say this in the manner that it needs to be said.
SM: So I think maybe midstream also, I don't know, whether we have any slot in between, but midstream even if you or Sanjana or Sameera or Akshara can bring this stroy of this journey and how it arrived here. Now its being pitched as this response to the '56 drama seminar. But its not that.
SD: Its not that. Its not that, exactly. So you have to take that stroy from a little earlier. ...So that's it. I just feel its a moment that poses tremendous problems and one needs to have 3 or 4 things emerging out of it. One is the sense of connectivity. The other is a sense of collective energy. Third is a sense of possibility of conversations which are kind of no holds barred, which are transparent. And fourth, will have to be- I'm completely convinced about it- there will have to be some initiatives towards theorising it. It will happen in its own way. It will have to emerge from all that is being discussed and spoken and read out and all that. But it will also have to be independant. If you're talking about catching the moment, and the urgency of the moment, then the urgency of the theory cannot be underestimated. Its very very important to build in all these different things.