Theatre director Bhanu Bharti tells why theatre is as important as hospitals and schools

It is a blustery day in New Delhi. But it doesn’t seem so much the chill breeze that gives Bhanu Bharti his slightly windblown look as the thoughts that whirl in his mind. Hovering darkly behind his eyes, they emerge with the unhurried precision born of decades of thought. They also come out with an unforgiving directness. The ironies of the art world are glaringly obvious to the eminent theatre director. “The biggest tragedy of modern Indian theatre is that theatre is a medium of the actor, yet it provides no scope, no employment for actors. In the entire country there are hardly any repertories employing actors. ”The National School of Drama, his alma mater, is regarded as one of the most prestigious repertory companies. It is supposed to be among the best paymasters in this category, he says, but the salaries of its actors too are under Rs.30,000 a month. “And for six years! So an actor gives his best time to the repertory and when he reaches maturity, he is thrown out,” he exclaims. “Therefore we are losing the best of our talent to television and cinema, and then we turn around and blame the actors.” He explains, “Theatre is an actor’s medium. Cinema is not. Television is not.” The irony, though, is that today theatre is known by the directors. “And cinema is a medium of directors and technicians — the cinematographers, the sound engineers, the recordists, the light technicians — but it is known by the stars.” Wryly, he makes a distinction between the stars and the actors in commercial films. “The biggest tragedy of modern Indian theatre is that theatre is a medium of the actor, yet it provides no scope, no employment for actors. In the entire country there are hardly any repertories employing actors.”

Nevertheless, theatre continues, whatever the struggle. Despite the onslaught of TV, cinema and other modes of commercial entertainment, audiences still turn up to see theatre productions. Bharti’s own two large productions — Andha Yug in 2011 and Tughlaq in 2012 — drew massive crowds to the open-air venue.

“Yes, because there is a need. In our times, theatre has become more vital for the society, because we are living in a time of migrations. We are losing our roots. From villages to cities, from cities to metros. And we’ve lost touch with our social bearings. And therefore these incidents, these ghastly rapes and murders. You may hang four people but that will not bring an end to these.”

The inner turmoil that is among the causes of criminality, he feels, can be healed using theatre. “Theatre can be a very significant binding force for migrant populations, not only in small towns but in metros.” This is because theatre is a composite art. “You can write a poem alone, you can paint — you can individually practise these arts. But theatre you can’t practise individually.”

And then there is the audience. “The connection between audience and actor is live, as is the case with all performing arts. But even music can be packaged and sold as recordings, and dance can be solo with recorded music.”

And, he continues, “Theatre doesn’t only address your mind. It’s a total experience. You feel it in your guts. The performance affects the audience, and the reaction of the audience affects the performance. Therefore no two stagings can be the same.” The kind of energy that gets generated in a theatre performance, he maintains, “you don’t get that experience anywhere else.”

Today’s urban lifestyle is such that if you don’t have a particular errand or motive, you don’t meet people, says Bharti. “You don’t need to leave your house, even to buy vegetables — you can call up and order. So you are in isolation.” Isolation leads to insecurity and loneliness. But when you participate in theatre, you discover it is “relevant to not only you, but many, so you are no longer lonely.”

This is why he advocates, “The way hospitals, schools, colleges and universities are needed, theatre too is needed for society. It’s about time we realised it.” It’s not just tamasha, as it is often labelled — ‘mere’ entertainment.

On the other hand, “If it is tamasha, it’s a very important tamasha!” He relates it to leela, the philosophy that life is but the ‘play’ of the sensory world. “It’s a leela. Allow me to laugh, play, give vent to all my spiritual, physical, intellectual needs!”

On working with cinema actors

“The demand made by cinema on the actor is very limited,” says Bharti. Working with actors who have “migrated” to cinema, he found they were losing their skills, “because they are out of tune.” But despite the hard work, “they (his actors who participated in Andha Yug’ and Tughlaq) were most happy, and they said this was a most satisfying experience.” This, in spite of the production not being able to compensate them the way cinema work would have, he emphasises.

Acting on stage and screen

“In cinema I can make anybody act, because I have the facility of placing the camera as I want. I can slap somebody and make him cry and shoot it as if he is crying on the death of his mother. This kind of ‘cheating’ is not the case in theatre. I can use a cloth to show the sea. Everybody knows it’s a cloth. Yet they believe it is the sea, because the actor believes.”

On large-scale productions

“Theatre is also a spectacle, and some plays need that sort of setting. A play like Andha Yug’ or Tughlaq will not come alive in a box setting, proscenium theatre. And if you put them in a historic monument, the moment you enter you are removed from the hustle bustle of everyday encounters. Then you encounter a play set in the Mahabharata or in the 13th-14th Century; you are prepared to receive something which is coming from beyond your time. The eternality of theme is conveyed much more effectively. And then there are plays which will get lost in that kind of setting. So actually it depends on the kind of play. Yes, a mere spectacle is not theatre. The audience has to feel that connection. You have to know what you are doing and why — the kind of play and how you are going to connect with the audience in the most positive and vital way….And why not? Theatre should have the means to explore spaces, the magnanimity of the theme, and have that kind reach which is required.”

On the absence of national or state repertories

“I wonder, I really wonder why not. And it won’t cost the exchequer much. If every state comes forward to run a repertory company, it could have a budget of Rs.25-30 crore, and then the recurring expenses will gradually reduce. Finding Rs.30 crore for a state government is not much. And then we would have 28-30 repertory companies that would give employment to so many.”

The role of NSD and the Bharat Rang Mahotsav

The annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM), the national theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama, begins this Saturday. The extravaganza across several auditoriums of Delhi, whose branch festival also travels to Jaipur this year, is generally looked forward to by theatre lovers of the Capital. Not so Bhanu Bharti. “I still very strongly feel that the roles of these institutions should be clearly divided. This (organising a festival) is not the job of a teaching institution. I don’t know why the Sangeet Natak Akademi is not taking it up. And if they have their hands full with music and dance, it’s high time we had a separate body. Theatre is a composite of actors, designers, directors, writers, and others. So why can’t we have a separate body, which archives also? NSD also does publishing. That’s not their job. They should be publishing textbooks on acting. First of all they don’t have a proper syllabus after so many years. They have a syllabus that is absolutely outdated. You need to develop a syllabus that looks into the needs of present-day theatre.” By way of example, he says, “I go there and conduct a workshop as I like, and somebody else goes and does something else. There is nothing definite to follow. Students say they learn from productions rather than classes. Then what is the need for an institute?”

As for BRM, better dissemination of information is required. For example, the foreign troupes. “Who are they? What are their bonafides?” he asks. Besides, many of the non-Hindi productions play to meagre audiences. Enough advance information should be given out about these plays to bring in spectators, “otherwise a lot of very interesting work gets lost.” He adds, “You need a big paraphernalia, and therefore I say it’s not the job of a teaching institute. It needs a full directorate.”