Bharat Rang Mahotsav-2014 was marked by a renewed focus on traditional arts as well as themes of intense contemporary relevance

The 16th Bharat Rang Mahotsav organised by National School of Drama came to an end with the staging of “Satvashila Rani Shanguna” (Tamasha) at the Kamani auditorium on January 19. India’s most prestigious international theatre festival that ran for 16 days, featuring plays of multiple forms, themes and varied presentational techniques, featured more than 90 shows witnessed by 40,000 theatre-lovers. The highlight of this year’s BRM was that traditional, tribal, folk, experimental and modern theatrical expressions shared space to make the event appeal to the common theatre goers as well as to aesthetes.

It is interesting to note that while the Mahotsav opened with a classical Indian play, Kalidasa’s “Shakuntala” under the direction of K.N. Panikkar, an exponent of classical theatre, it closed with the most popular folk form of Maharashtra. The classical Indian theatre was promoted and enriched by the ruling class and high caste. In contrast, Tamasha was suppressed and denigrated by the ruling class and high castes. With the patronage of the toiling masses and peasantry, Tamasha not only survived but went on gaining popularity. Of course, during the corrupt reign the Peshwas and British imperialism, its humour became vulgarised and its content decadent. However, during the cultural renaissance launched by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Tamasha became not only a means of entertainment but also a vehicle for social change, incorporating elements of Powada focusing on themes of resistance. Cultural activists like Anna Bhau Sathe and Omar Sheikh, a landless peasant-turned-trade union worker and a powerful singer, greatly enriched the new trend of Tamasha.

Directed by Shambhaji Raje Jadhav, the Tamasha show at Kamani as the concluding piece of the Mahotsav was remarkable for its powerful music, humour and lively and vigorous dances.

However, the mythological story about Lord Shiva with his consort Parvati in quest of the most virtuous woman seems out of tune. It is true that mythological themes have been an important part of the vast repertoire of Tamasha. But the strength of our centuries-old art forms lies in their vibrant forms and the content must reflect contemporary sensibility. IPTA has already shown us the way to evolve the identity of Indian theatre rooted in the consciousness of our people and in our soil, but it must reflect the dilemma of modern man living in the complex changing world.

Delhi theatre-goers have always displayed a keen interest in watching plays from Pakistan. This year there was no play from Pakistan which was a big disappointment for the audience. In the past we have seen some fine productions from that country. Ajoka Theatre, Lahore, is well known for its boldness and commitment to the theatre. It has been staging plays even during military regimes and under terrorist threats. It has participated in various BRMs under the direction of Madeeha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem. Its last participation was “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola”, a tribute to Bhagat Singh who was executed by the British imperialists in Lahore Central Jail in 1931. On the part of Ajoka it was a great step towards the promotion of Indo-Pakistan cultural friendship. One of the most outstanding experimental pieces was Kalidasa’s Shakuntala from Pakistan seen at BRM, in 2010. Directed by Zain Ahmed, it was presented by the National Academy of Performing Arts (NApa) Repertory, Karachi. Similarly, Tehrik-E-Niswan, Karachi, staged Indian playwright Asghar Wajahat’s acclaimed play “Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya” under the joint direction of Shema Kermani and Anwer Jafri at BRM-2009. It stood out for its moving poems by Nasir Kazmi reflecting profound humanism. The same group participated at BRM in 2012 with “Insha Ka Intezaar”, an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Directed by Anwer Jafri, it was an excellent production in terms of acting and interpretation of the existential absurdity of man’s situation against Pakistan’s troubled socio-political history.

Some of the productions seen by this reviewer at BRM-2014 indicated a welcome trend in contemporary Indian theatre. Based on Dharamvir Bharati’s “Andha Yug”, “Hey Manush”, presented by Santipur Rangapeeth, Nadia, West Bengal, recreated this masterpiece in an innovative way to awaken humanity to the threat of total destruction of civilisation in case of a nuclear war, illustrating the thesis of world peace. Directed by Biswajit Biswas, the use of a mask for the character of Dhritarashtra who moves on the stage sitting on a wheelchair, symbolises the hypocrisy, arrogance of countries armed with nuclear arsenals. The character of Ashwthama symbolises the distractive force to world peace. It occupies the central space in the production.

Breaking the rigid boundaries of conventional playwriting, “A kind of true story” by Balaji Gauri presented by Actors’ Cult & Black Boxes Production, Mumbai, captures the multi-layers of life in a metropolis. Every character has a different life experience. There is bitterness with muffled hopes and constant struggle for survival in the midst of hostile forces. The actor’s body and music become the main expressive means.

Based on a novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay, “Nishanga Samrat” explores the life of Shishir Bhaduri, the legend of Bengali theatre, “the greatest master of technique… he has reached such a state of perfection that one just looked at him in amazement.” Presented by Paikpara Indraranga, Kolkata, under the direction of Debesh Chattopadhyay who has also adapted it from the novel of the same title, it is remarkable for its technique to project the turbulent life and times of one of the greatest artists of the Bengali stage who hailed from the bhadralok and lived a life in the theatre and in society on his own terms. The creation of collage, choreography and soulful rendition of lyrics animated the production with rare grace and excitement. In the central role of Shishir Bhaduri, Debsharkar Halder gives an excellent performance. He truly lives his many-faceted character and its inner turmoil.

Renowned director Usha Ganguli follows a conventional style of production with often heavy décor. At this year’s BRM she appears to have reinvented her art, reflected in her production of “Hum Kukthara”. Depicting the heroic struggle of a Pakistani woman named Mukhtar Mai against her powerful rapists, the play is enacted on a bare stage with lyrical movements on the pattern of ballet. In the accompaniment are poetry recitations and backstage music varied in tune to create a variety of moods. The artistic harmony of various theatrical expressive means and performers’ art give the production a collective voice of women to reflect their anguish and strength to resist oppression.