ITF Not The Drama Seminar: Keynote Address - Sudhanva Deshpande
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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.http://theatreforum.in/itf/meeting/1/
SD: I think Akshara is absolutely right,- Keynote addresses are the preserve of people who have silver hair and a great deal of wisdom. Akshara has the wisdom, I have silver hair. That's the reason I have been thrust into this very uncomfortable situation where I have to speak. So I have written out my paper. And my paper is, I promise you, longer than I will speak. So I would request you, urge you, to please read the paper. Some of you have looked at it, I know. But there hasn't been enough time for everyone to read it and so on. At some point if you feel like it, do read it. Becasue there is a lot here that I have written which I will not be speaking.
SD: One of the things that does happen when we start talking about Indian theatre, is we immediately go back to the past. And we go back to the holy past. Not just the past, not the immediate past. But we go back to ancient India, to Natya Shastra, and so on and so forth. Now, I know they are all very wonderful things, but what exactly that has to do with a theatre practitioner working in a small town or in a big town today, struggling with the lack of performance space, struggling with a lack of rehearsal space, struggling with a lack of actors who keep migrating all the time to Bombay, and so on,...What exactly does the Natya Shastra have to do with any of that? What does the fact that we have a very rich history of theatre that goes back a thousand years, two thousand years- whatever- what does that have to do with the problems that we face today? I'm afraid not very much, frankly. Its not very nice to say this. But I'm afraid it does not really have nery much to do with the kind of problems and the kind of struggles that we as theatre people are going through today. The subtitles of the Not the Drama Seminar is 'The Pleasures and Perils of theatre practices today'. We are all very familiar with the pleasures. We are all people who love the theatre, who do theatre or who watch it and so on. And some of us are also very deeply confronted with the perils of doing theatre practice in India today.
SD: This seminar, or 'not the seminar', is designed to not look so much at the past, but really to think of the last 50-60 years, and to think of where do we go on from here. One of the earlier subtitles which we were thinking of before Akshara came up with 'the pleasures and perils of theatre practice in Inida today', was 'Who we are, where are we, and where do we want to go?' These were some of the questions that we thought are important to pose. And in talking about theatre and the history of Indian theatre it seems to me, that one of the things we need to do is to get away from this preoccupation with the ancient past and to think about the more immediate past. To think about the last 150 years, 160 years, 200 years- that's the kind of time frame that we really need to think about. Because Indian theatre, or the several theatres of India, if you will, have really come into their own, or are still coming into their own in this period. Most of the modern theatre in India today, as it is coming today, as we recognise it today, has really come into being in the 19th century, and not simply in the 19th century- from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The first modernn Marathi play for instance dates back to the 1940's. This would also be true, I think, of Kannada and of ....1849...sorry... and of Bangla and so on and so forth. So its really this last 150 years that we really need to think about. And we need to think about where we are in terms of where these last 150 years have got us.
SD: One of the unstated agendas of this theatre seminar,- but its unstated only to the extent of- it is implicit, and all of us who would have looked at the schedule even, would realise that ...that is very much implicitly a present- in the way in which we have framed the Drama Seminar, is to bring back the centrality of politics. This is one of those words which has unfortunately become a hugely abused words. Its not something that is attractive anymore- if you say that you are 'political', people frown, people are wary of you, people want to run away from you and so on. But really, if you think about the history of modern Indian theatre, there's no escaping it. It is absolutely true that in the 19th century, the time when Modern Indian theatre came into being, it came into being in the cauldron of the anti-colonial struggles. That's where it came into being. I think the imperialist impulse of Modern Indian theatre is what has shaped what it is today. And in one sense, one of the things that one is trying to do in formulating or in thinking about the seminar in the way in which we have done it, is to get back the centrality of politics at a time when depoliticisation of a very deep kind is engulfing us from all kinds of ...in all kinds of ways.
SD: And that is really the reason why I have tried to go back to the 19th century in my paper, and tried to look at the history of Indian theatre in those times. What I now propose to do is to read very small sections of my paper and hope and trust, that since you have the written paper with you, you will hopefully read the rest. For those who are brave enough, let me also say that there's an even longer version that I have. This is long enough- my written paper; but there's an even
longer version that I have, that is more detailed and that has all the footnotes and so on and so forth. So if any of you are interested or are brave enough, you can go to that at some point. My paper is entitled: 'What is to be undone?'. Now that of course...is a reference to Lenin, its reference to Cherneshevsky, its a reference to Utpal Dutt, and so on. Its a reference in the sense that all of them wrote tracts of various kinds - either novels, or political tracts with the title 'What is to be Done?' Now 'what is to be done' is a question that can be answered by people with grey hair, and wisdom. Since I have only grey hair, I can only talk about what is to be undone.
SD: There's this famous song by Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written and some of us have heard through the incomparable voices of Iqbal Banu- 'Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge, Hum dekhenge Woh din ke jis ka wadah hai'...etc...- the last stanze of it, there's a reference to 'Uthega haq ka nara, Jo main bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho,...' - and the reference is to a Sufi poet who refused to complete a Quranic verse. The original Quranic verse apparently goes: 'There is no God, but the one above'- and the Sufi saint refused to complete it. He said 'There is no God'. When he was summoned by the king and asked to complete the entire thing, he said, "Well, I am a lonely human being. I am a mortal. I can only say what I have experienced, Those who have seen him may complete the rest."
So somewhat in that spirit- though of course not ...you know... I don't claim any Sufi sort of halo around me, but somewhat in that spirit, all that we mere mortals can talk about, is what is to be undone, rather than what is to be done.
SD: Now... one of the things that we find, as I said, when we talk about theatre in the 19th century, is that it generates a great deal of anxiety- in the sense that there is journal after journal, in Marathi at least- that's the one language I know a little bit about- but, in Marathi for sure, there is a lot of anxiety over 'Why theatre?'- Should theatre be done at all or not? And in fact in 1881, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar- who is one of the great conservative thinkers of the 19th century- wrote an eessay entitled exactly that: Should theatre be done at all, or not?- And this is a question that may seem a little strange to us at a time when we assert with pride, that yes, theatre matters. But why was this question being raised? This question was being raised not simply in terms of whether theatre should be done in the sense that do we have the resources to do theatre, etc etc- that wasn't the question. The question really was: Does entertainment of a certain kind that does not have to do with our society and our politics- does that have any space in society at all or not? That theatre entertains, is something that was taken for granted. But what kind of entertainment? Does it tell us something about where we live? Does it improve our mind?...And so on.
SD: Now in some sense all of these questions will seem strange to us, because these are not the questions that we ask of the theatre. But it seems to me that we need to decode what he said, about what these questionss are. These strange seeming questions, to my mind, are really about the relevance of theatre. Who is doing theatre? Why is theatre being done? What kind of theatre is being done? ....And so on. Does this theatre speak to me in my own times? Does it help me in standing up to the colonial master? At the end of the day, that is the larger querstion. And this is the question that gets asked again and again and again. Through the 19th century. An entire discourse on theatre, in the journals and newspapers, in Marathi, is structured around this question. And one of the things that does happen immediately after independance, is that the question that we start asking of theatre changes. No longer is the central question about whether theatre is relevant to our times or not. What kind of theatre, what are the questions that it seeks to ask, and so on. But the question is: What is the form of this theatre? Where does it go back? What are its roots? And so on. In one sense, very broadly speaking, the terrain of poitics is being replaced by the terrain of form, or art, aesthetics, and so on. Now I am not one of those who frowns upon aesthetics, who has nohing to do with form and so on. That's not my argument.
SD: My argument is: Is there a way in which we can recover our tradition from the 19th century that seeks to reassert the value of theatre in a society that is fast-changing, and in a society that is deeply driven by contradictions of all kinds. We are living in an age today, where it seems to me, that the imperialist onslaught on the world is taking unprecedented forms- what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc etc is of course there for all of us to see. But what it also does is, that it makes the rich incredibly
rich, and it makes the poor incredibly
poor. We are now at a stage in our history where we are rapidly reaching the inequalities of the colonial times. Today in India, as of now, one-fourth of our national wealth is held by 36 individuals. This is unprecedented. Unprecedented! 70% of our population holds 20% of our wealth. These kind of inequalities which are assuming proportions that were there during colonial times is alarming! Absolutely alarming! What is our theatre doing in these times? Is our theatre being able to respond to these?
SD: I'm obviously not saying that everyone should stop what they are doing and should start doing street theatre- that's not my plea. My plea is not that everyone should become revolutionary, taking a Jhanda
(flag) and shouting 'Inquilab Zindabad!' No that is not my plea at all. At all
My plea is, is there a way in which our theatre can make sense of this? Is there a way we are even able to recognise what is happening around us?...And so on. One of the reasons we have invited people like Aijaz Ahmed and P. Sainath, etc into this seminar, is precisely for that reason. It is, in order that, we as theatre people, should start to make sense of the world around us. And there are ...I'm deeply aware of the act that there are different types of theatres, there are different histories of theatres in this country, and so on, but is there a way in which we can start responding to some of these challenges, and bring them into the centre of our attention? So that is point number one.
SD: Point number 2 that I want to make, is that again to go back to the colonial times, what we find is that, very rapidly, through a process that lasts barely 30 years or so, the predominant theatre- mainstream theatre- becomes an 'urban' theatre. Now what does this mean? I'm afraid it doesn't mean what we take it to be. We assume that when we say it became an urban theatre, we assume that it became a theatre centred in Bombay and Pune for instance, to take the Maharashtra context. I don't think it became that at all. In fact, if you see, by about 1879 (1855), there were at least 8 established companies all over Maharashtra. And this number went up to about 35 by 1879. Now these companies were based in towns like Kolhapur, Karad, Satara, Miraj, Belgaon, etc etc. Now this is what I would call for lack of a better term- I'm not an academic so...it could be a wrong term I'm using- but I would like to call this the 'urban hinterland' of modern theatre. Now this I think is really what sustains theatre to this date. I think we are very fortunate that we are sitting right here.
SD: Akshara I think would agree with me when I say that Kannada theatre today is sustained not by theatre by happens in Bangalore or Mysore, it is sustained by the theatre that happens and the people who go and watch this theatre in a whole range of cities- what he was calling the 'in-between' theatre- neither large metropolis nor a small village. So its this peculiarly Indian notion of the 'urban', if you will, that has sustained theatre to this date. It seems to me that when policy-making happens around theatre, be it policy-making of the state, be it policy-making of the grant-making institutions, or be it policy-making of other kinds of institutions, it is exactly this that we tend to ignore. We tend to think of theatre that happens in large cities, we tend to think of... of concentrating all our resources in these cities. And the actual ...and the larger context that actually has nurtured theatre for the last 150 years in our country is what we tend to ignore. So that's my second point.
So in one sense, you could say that what needs to be undone, is really the lure of the metropolis.
SD: The third point I want to make is about the form of theatre. It seems to me that because of the fact that theatre was a capitalist enterprise, it became a commercial capitalist enterprise within 25 years of its birth in its modern avatar in Maharashtra and so on. Very soon, theatre had to be done in closed playhouse, which automatically meant...the proscenium arch. Now at one level we could argue that the history of modern Indian theatre as we know it today, is the history of the proscenium theatre. Now t hat is true to a certain extent, but also, it is equally true that the history of this theatre is the history of the struggle against the proscenium as well. Now when I say 'against the proscenium', I don't mean it in terms of saying that there were conscious efforts to struggle against the proscenium. No. What I mean is really, that the we took to the proscenium, but it never quite became ours'. If you look at the reality of theatre practice across the country today, especially the smaller towns, you will find that a lot of it happens in spaces that are not quite proscenic. And increasingly now, today we are finding that a lot of theatre, even in the larger cities, is being done in a context that is not quite proscenium.
SD: One of the things that we don't have, for instance, in cities like Delhi, Bombay etc, are actually non-proscenium spaces, smaller spaces for doing theatre, intimate theatre, and so on. We have had a preoccupation with building large auditoria which automatically has implications for what kind of theatre gets done, how it gets done, what kind of funding goes into it, etc. But we virtually have no spaces, apart from Prithvi maybe in Bombay, Rangashankara in Bangalore and so on- but they're not even spaces that you can count on the fingers of one hand for example. We don't have spaces that allow us to do theatre that is non-proscenium based, that is smaller, intimate, and therefore has a chance of economic survival. Now in my paper I have a whole list of examples that are quoted to try and make the point that, our modern Indian theatre has never quite been very comfortable with the proscenium form.
SD: And it also strikes me, that in all the critical literature that I have read certainly, there hasn't really been an engagement with this issue. We've had histories of Indian theatre written from the perspective of looking at, let's say playwrights or histories of plays, or directors or so on...histories of theatre in different languages, and so on... But this is one kind of study of the proscenium itself- the history of the proscenium in India, that has actually never been undertaken to the best of my knowledge. And this history of the proscenium I think, needs to be related to the history of capitalist g rowth, the cultural growth of our cities, the processes of inclusion and exclusion of various social groups in theatrical activity, the intervention of the state and its cultural insititutions in building ....(cuts off)...and running proscenium stage auditoria,...)
SD: ...the zonal cultural academies, the National School of Drama, etc have paid absolutely no attention to it. Associated with this ofcourse, is the very real problem that I think practising theatre people face, of the lack of availability of rehearsal spaces, and so on. These are the aspects that no state or even private institution has ever looked at, and I think its a big problem.
Then of course there is the question of the folk, which is a deeply complicated question. Akshara has pointed out how who we think of as a 'folk' artist, would not think of himself or herself as a 'folk' artist. I think he's absolutely right. I've had occassions to interract with actors belonging to the Naya Theatre, who worked with Habib Tanvir for several several years. And they all come from the Nacha tradition, and they are very clear- in all the interviews that I have done- I've done long interviews with them. And in all their interviews, they are very very careful to say: "This is what we used to do in Nacha. In theatre, we do this." In their mind, Nacha is the form that they learned in their village, and Theatre is what they do now. Its not 'Folk' theatre. It wasn't then, and it isn't now.
SD: Thanks a lot.
SD: The history of the folk of course, or what gets called the 'folk', is ofcourse a hugely complicated question. And it seems to me that, in all the literature that I have read certainly, and of late there have been books and so on that have appeared on these quesiotns, specially in English. It seems to me that while the role of the Sangeet Natak Akademy, in particular, is something that has been talked about at some length, and so on. The role of the Ford Foundation for instance has not been talked about. Now why that particular case- I'm completely baffled. Because actually the history of the intervention in the folk by the Sangeet Natak Akademy and the Ford Foundation are very deeply intertwined.
SD: To give you a very bried summary of it- and this is a brief, incomplete summary of it- I have to say, look at this for instance-'The Sangeet Natak Akademy organised a Roundtable on the Contemporary Relevance of Folk Theatre in 1971. The impetus towards this came from Suresh Awasthi, who had become Secretary of the Akademi in 1965 and who, along with Nemichandra Jain, was the chief ideologue of the 'theatre of the roots' movement. Of course, the ideologue tends to be more puritanical than the practitioner, and the participants at the Round Table – Badal Sircar, Utpal Dutt, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Ebrahim Alkazi, to name a few – were far more circumspect about adopting the 'theatre of the roots' slogan. In the early 1980s, the Ford Foundation began funding projects to document the vanishing folk forms so that they could be used by contemporary theatre persons in their work. The SNA(Sangeet Natak Akademy) then initiated in 1984 an annual scheme to assist young directors to develop productions using stylistic conventions drawn from folk theatre. In 1992, Ford foundation initiated its Theatre Laboratory Project, which sought to counter the growing regional chauvinism in India by encouraging about a dozen theatre 'laboratories' to experiment with folk theatre.'
SD: While the SNA's Folk Trust has been written about, though not adequately, I'm not aware of a single book-length study of the Ford Foundation's interventions in this area in particular. I was very struck when I found that even somebody like- Vasudha Dalmia, who has an entire section in her book on the nation and its folk, has not a single reference to the Ford foundation. Its is shocking. Now I don't mean to criticise one particular scholar. That's not my agenda. But surely, we need to ask this question- why have we not talked about what the Ford Foundation has done? Its not even as if I have a particular (?) about the Ford Foundation- that's not my point. My point is that if we need to understand what this 'Theatre of the Roots' movement has been, what it has done to Indian theatre, and how it has been a deeply ideologically driven movement. Its very fashionable today to deride the IPTA(Indian People's Theatre Association) for instance, for its interest in the Folk. Its very easy in one sense to say: 'Oh, the IPTA people were all urban, middle-class, educated people, who had a romantic notion of the Folk' and so on and so forth. But frankly, I'm very struck by the fact that the one thing the IPTA did was to assert that artists should have a social conscience.
SD: And when you say that artists should have a social conscience, what does that mean? It does mean amongst other things, it does mean that you must speak to your own people. And if as part of that, in the 1940s it had found that a large number of people that they were trying to speak with came with their own memories of their theatre, their culture, their modes of expression and so on, what was wrong with the artist also trying to learn some of those? I'm told there's nothing wrong with an artist trying to speak a language that the audience will understand, as long as it is done with the intention of sharing larger concerns.
SD: ...Its actually quite curious, because this whole fascination with the 'folk' in the 1970s especially, starting from about the late 1960s, going into the 1970s and the 1980s, also gets very interestingly intertwined with this other thing called Brecht. Now, the worst thing that I think Indian thatre as a whole has done to Brecht has been really to do him. And you have director after director, who have nothing to do with either Marxism, certainly nothing to do with the Communist movement, no commitment of a larger political or social kind, and so on,- doing Brecht, adopting Brecht as their own, and doing him, in the process very seriously deradicalising and deploticising Brecht. Now this too I believe, is something that has been driven by the funding that came from the Sangeet Natak Akademy and the Ford Foundation. While this may seem like- while it may look like I'm making something of a conspiracy theory arguement, that's not quite my intent. My intent is to say: 'Look this is how it happened. And why have we not really investigated what happened?'
Now all of this is there in great detail in my paper, so I'm not going into all that.
SD: The last point I want to make, and I will end with that, is ...as Sanjana put it- we are faced with a situation where there are dangers of various kinds that confront us. Again and again we find that we have to respond to attacks of one kind or the other. And when that happens, when we are attacked, there is a great sense of almost- of indignation, at the fact that we've been attacked. Now this indignation is something that I understand is something I also feel and so on and so forth. So I think one of the questions that we all face at the point that we are attacked, is- why doesn't the rest of scoiety care? Now why is it that when a theatre group or a theatre person is attacked, why is it that it doesn't result in a great deal of anger and so on, in the rest of the society?
SD: Now it seems to me that, that also has to do with depolticisation that has happened at both ends. I think of course that there is a larger depoliticisation that has happened in our society. But frankly after a point it doesn't matter- Who gets attacked...how many times they get attacked... you know... In yesterday's paper was it? Or today's paper I think...one painting of Hussain's gets auctioned for 1.4 million dollars or something like that; there's demonstrations by Hindu chauvenist groups outside at the venue where it happens and so on. And we take it as routine. We are now used to the fact that Hussain and his work will be attacked. It doesn't really bother us one way or the other very much. We take it as routine that some theatre people doing some theatre in Gujarat,.. for instance will get attacked. So if Dakxin gets attacked, if Sameera gets attacked, its routine. We don't care frankly very much. And so on.
SD: Now all that is of course very true. At the same tie, I do want to ask the question: Why should society care? This is a question that goes back to the 19th century. I'm very struck by the fact that when Tilak is imprisoned for writing editorials in the Kesari, he is imprisoned for 6 years, and the working class of Bombay goes on strike for 6 days- each day standing for one year. Its the first really big political movement of the Bombay working class. And teases me about it, at a personal level is the fact that the editorials for which he went to jail were not written by him at all, but were written by Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar, who was his right-hand man, was a very leading Congress ideologue of that time, but who was also a leading playwright of that time. Now how is it that in the early 20th century when the vast majority of the Bombay working class, who does not know how to read, why is it that they go on strike for 6 days, faces attacks, loses life, and so on, for editorials written by a plarwright, for editorials that they themselves cannot read? Why does this happen? Surely there is a lrger connection that people feel. There is a larger connection that the working class feels with the right of Tilak to write those editorials, irrespective of whether they can read those editorials or not.
SD: Now is there such a freedom of ownership that we are able to create through our own work? It seems to me that if theatre is going to withdraw more and more into an arthouse kind of activity, then surely, our expectation that people should feel outraged if we are attacked is an unfair expectation.
That's really it, fankly. These are the main points that I've raised in my paper, as I said, its there in written form. Do please have a look at it.