Maya Krishna Rao and Sudhanva Deshpande, panellists at The Hindu Lit for Life in New Delhi, talk about theatre as a statement and a link to society.

At The Hindu Lit for Life festival’s Delhi chapter, veteran director, actor and educator Maya Krishna Rao will be in conversation with Sudhanva Deshpande, who has been involved with the street theatre movement for decades. The title of the discussion is “Theatre — Art of Performance or Provocation”. Through the ages, theatre has been a vehicle to voice anti-establishment views, the kind ordinary people might hesitate to air, or might not have a channel to do so. Deshpande, as a member of the Jan Natya Manch since 1987, certainly represents the activist face of theatre. But does such a thing as ‘theatre for mere entertainment’ exist? “The moment you stand up and say something in public you end up taking a stand,” says Deshpande. “No performance can be free of a certain bias. Even if we say we believe in art only for entertainment, that is also a political stance,” he notes. “To argue that art should be apolitical is a deeply political statement.”

Rao wonders whether theatre for mere entertainment can really be entertaining. In most of the works she has seen, she says, “it can only be entertaining if there is substance.” As for theatre as a voice of protest, India seems to be acquiring a dismal track record of tolerance for such voices. Whether re-imaginings or retellings of legend or mythology, political satire, lampooning or critiquing a popular idol, the effort is often in danger of being frowned upon, otherwise muzzled or violently stamped out. Can tolerance for such artistic freedom be inculcated in a society?

Rao points out, “There are arenas and arenas.” If she is on a political stage and performs something that provokes an angry reaction from an audience member, she will have to take it in her stride as an artist making such a statement knows what she is getting into. However, when performing something on a non-political stage, say, an auditorium, “I don’t expect to be heckled.” But, she adds, “That sort of thing doesn’t happen. In fact the opposite happens.” We are not appreciative enough of an artist who has been performing for the last two hours, she remarks. “We are not very good at clapping and saying Kya baat hai!”

Referring to the history of Indian theatre across languages, Deshpande points out that people have always looked at their folk tales and mythologies and reinterpreted them “according to our needs, predilections, and so on.” He remarks that India’s rural artists, retaining a connection to their roots, feel a sense of ownership with their traditions and, free of the “self-consciousness” of urban practitioners, are able to create “fabulous performances” that reinterpret inherited concepts and beliefs, play with and bring about an intermingling of traditions. “That’s what the beauty of Indian tradition has been.”

Whether this can affect society on a macro level, he observes, is not dependent on theatre alone, but the fact remains that over the past 150 to 200 years, theatre has always had “an open-minded, playful attitude” towards, religion, mythology, etc. He adds that he doesn’t intend to “paint a rosy picture” of what society has been like, since “we wouldn’t have got where we are (in terms of intolerance) if there wasn’t a history.”

But developing tolerance too can be aided by introducing children to drama at a young age, says Rao. “One of the biggest things drama achieves is to help us realise the social self of our personalities.” It helps one learn to understand and therefore negotiate with people of different backgrounds, genders, beliefs, and so on. There is a prevailing notion that the serious arts have been reduced to an elite or niche pastime. To Deshpande who works in street theatre, this may not be applicable, but he notes that across the world, there is a thinking on how the arts can engage with society.

“I look very positively at the idea of the flash mob,” he says. “Unfortunately in India it has only taken the form of people singing Bollywood songs,” he concedes, but across the world artists from genres such as classical music too are engaging in it. The concept of people suddenly coming together and creating art in a public space frees the audience from pre-disposed notions and the artist from the baggage of living up to them. Artists too feel a need to go beyond the exclusive audience, he says. “Artists also need that larger, live audience, people who are willing to look at you for who you are.” When you pay a lot of money to enter a performance, “you feel compelled to enjoy it,” he notes. In a flash mob situation, audiences come without predilections or biases, “and then if you are able to bring a smile to their faces, it’s a pleasure that’s unsurpassed.”

As for what should be the place of theatre in society, Rao says, “I feel drama should be a part of a child’s life right from the time she enters school — not pre-school but when she is six years old.” This conviction has led her not only to work regularly with school children but also to contribute to the formulation of a drama syllabus for schools. “When drama becomes part of a child’s life in school, then the learning converts itself into a deep seated knowledge,” she explains. It goes beyond a cerebral exercise and the learning is carried through the child’s life. “The world is full of all manner of conventions and devices depending on the aim you want to use theatre for,” she adds. From aiding literacy to women’s organisations to projects related to drug abuse, “there’s a whole range for which drama can be used for self learning. This is because drama opens the participants’ “capacity to question, to push their own boundaries and to change”.

The Hindu Lit For Life 2014: Delhi Chapter, February 8, Siri Fort Auditorium, 10 a.m. onwards.

“Theatre — Art of Performance or Provocation”, a discussion featuring Maya Krishna Rao and Sudhanva Deshpande, is scheduled for 3.20 - 4.10 p.m. The discussion will be moderated by Anuradha Kapur, former director, National School of Drama, and a founder member of Vivadi, a group that brings together painters, musicians, writers and theatre practitioners.

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