Nissar Allana tells about the Delhi Ibsen Festival and the trajectories of Indian theatre

Ever found yourself bored in theatre-imagining what you could do with the lights, the sets or, the play itself? If you’ve ever left a theatre with nothing left to think about, then you should look out for the Delhi Ibsen Festival (DIF).

Organised by the Norwegian Embassy and Nissar Allana’s Dramatic Art and Design Academy, the DIF features plays of Henrik Ibsen performed by a range of avant garde troupes and directors from across the world. Five of the seven plays, to be staged from December 1 to 7, are new plays commissioned for the fest. And, why avant garde? Because that’s the only way Allana would have it- to connect Ibsen to the Indian context and allow adventurous dramatists to catalyse the evolution of contemporary Indian theatre.

“We are engaging with the post ‘post-colonial’ generation. They have a very different sensibility,” explains Allana. The first generation of post Independence dramatists, like Utpal Dutt, Sombhu Mitra, Shyamanand Jalan and Allana’s father-in-law Ebrahim Alkazi, were greatly influenced by western theatre and the constructivist movement. The generation that followed and gained prominence in the ‘70s , returned to roots using folk theatre and music. These included giants like Ratan Thiyam and Habib Tanvir.

The generation that has emerged after the ‘90s seeks to reconnect with the global theatre tradition, but faces modern challenges of space and the domination of television. This is the DIF’s target group.

“Urban theatre groups are the most handicapped,” he explains. “There is no space for rehearsals and it’s hard to find people who are willing to commit to a project for a long time...But in smaller towns people offer spaces and actors are available as a group for a longer time. Survival there is not as expensive. These groups are able to develop their styles better.”

Great dramatists like Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar spent months on scripts. Their writing carried theatre forward. But when rushed, “People create performance texts rather than literary works,” Allana says.

This year’s fest presents groups like Theatre Roots and Wings from Thrissur in Kerala and, Imphal’s Kalakshetra Manipur. These are in addition to troupes from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Norway and the opening production by Kolkata’s Padatik directed by Polish director Wlodzimierz Staniewski.

It’s taken Allana three months of recceing- watching DVDs of productions abroad and networking with theatre connoisseurs world over. “I’ve watched the work of many directors. Those that make some headway and develop new insights to theatre are contacted. We don’t immediately engage anyone. If we find a good director, she or he may get a chance in a couple of years,” he says.

Commissioning plays are a risk, Allana explains. “You don’t know where they are going till the last moment. But this is imperative if you want cutting edge theatre. That satisfaction you get is from seeing young directors emerge or older ones making new inroads.”

The cutting edge comes at a cost. The DIF is one of the most expensive festivals in the capital. It has often drawn the ire of directors in the city for its extravagance. Allana- a scenographer by training- says, “We need to go beyond focussing solely on actors and directors with sets of just four or five chairs. We have not had money in theatre. We work with less because funds are not there... That is using half the body, of using only actors and direction without attention to sets or lighting or the scene. We need to work towards finding money to use the whole body of a play,”

This, he feels is the only cure to the glut of repetition and familiarity in plays. “When foreign or even Indian directors from outside come here, actors, directors, scenographers gain from the experience. It enriches both groups. You will not sustain an audience if you don’t develop the art. If you create an audience, they will subsidise your existence.”

Allana is currently in consultation with the ministry of culture on its scheme to refurbish theatres, to commemorate 150 years of Rabindranath Tagore. “We want to integrate programming, networking and management of theatre spaces in a comprehensive way. That way when you produce a play, you will be assisted to tour the country with the play. This would definitely help you recover money spent on a play,” he says.

“There’s a feeling that there isn’t enough to get around,” he says. “But if you have resources as festival director, you need to be generous and confident to let great theatre emerge.”

Nissar Allana’s best shot

Allana is best remembered for designing the sets of Richard Schechner’s production of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in Delhi in 1983. Schechner, a professor of theatre at New York University is renowned for coining the phrase inter-cultural theatre.

“We wanted an environmental or site-specific production,” says Allana, who apprenticed in scenography at Germany’s leading theatres in the seventies. For the orchard, he planted 200 trees in the Rabindra Bhavan’s Meghdoot theatre. He built a full fledged house and he lit up the party scene with 2000 light bulbs.

The audience moved from scene to scene.