Waman Kendre talks to Anjana Rajan about promoting India’s theatre traditions to the world

If you ask Waman Kendre what kind of art he prefers, he will tell you, in the arresting baritone and ringing accents that mark him out as a theatre person, that for him, only that art is meaningful which, after once you see it, “becomes an indelible part of you and does not leave you till your last breath.”

What are the ingredients of such art? As we sit in his quiet office, the National School of Drama Director enumerates them with the fluency of the zealous teacher. Arts that contribute to the well being of society in some way are the ones that remain in our memory, he says. “To become meaningful, what is necessary?” In a theatrical production, he says, “First of all its content — that is very important, what is the thought behind it?

Because you would not be able to find a play that is meaningful but behind which there is no thought. It may bring something new at the level of interpretation, or it may bring something at the level of presentation, that which we call theatre expression, theatre language. Or it may be at the level of techniques.” All these elements alone are not enough, since they have to be brought together in an effective way. “That for me is significant art, something that offers an artistic experience, and perhaps takes our samriddhi forward an inch or two.”

This may apply to a novel, a film, to music, dance or theatre, he notes. And since we are living in an age where the commercially viable arts are the fleeting ones, he points out, art without these ingredients may well be popular but will not come into the category of meaningful. “Because until it offers an artistic, aesthetic and meaningful experience, till then it won’t become a part of your life.”

But here we touch the crux of the matter. Year after year, the students of NSD, a Government-funded institution, are introduced to and trained in some of the finest aspects of serious theatre. But over the years, in a combination of rising opportunities in film and television, pervading cash crunch on the live stage and changing lifestyles, the NSD diploma, in the public perception, has become a passport to celluloid success, if not stardom. However, when people are creating meaningful works of art, particularly in the economically precarious field of theatre, “it is our duty to support them,” says the director. “Because they have not been made with commercial motives but with the force of an inner urge and are contributing to the well being of society.” It is not the institution alone that can do this, he adds. “This is the duty of cultural organisations, institutions, electronic media, print media, social communication and broadcasting media.”

As for NSD, which regularly comes under the scanner because it is, after all, funded by taxpayers’ money, one wonders if it is the duty of an institution churning out theatre workers to also work on avenues for their employment. Is it necessary for NSD to create an atmosphere where its students feel confident to remain with the stage arts rather than going for commercially viable streams like film and television? “No I don’t think there is any need to convince them. Each individual comes with a certain internal motivation to an institution of learning,” he says. As each artist develops, along with skills, that artist’s preferences and motivations too are honed. “Some people who come with a certain passion, they have remained with theatre. I can give you hundreds of examples of such individuals: M.K. Raina, Bansi Kaul, Devendra Raj Ankur, B. Jayashree, Ratan Thiyam, there are so many names, who can be called ‘stars’ of theatre. But some need to make ends meet. That is why we are saying that only when theatre becomes a medium of earning a living, only then people will remain with it (in larger numbers).”

It’s true, he concedes, that barring places like Maharashtra, Bengal and to some extent Gujarat, theatre has not become a viable profession. “And we have to make theatre a medium through which artists can earn a living.”

Undeniably, for most young people today, when considering career options, what are the pecuniary benefits is a priority question. Has the time come then, for a body like NSD to think actively about opening up avenues of earning in theatre? “I think that the avenues have begun opening up. It’s not that we can establish a theatre tradition in five years. Take (late) Habib Tanvir sahib. He stayed with the stage till the end, and he made an institution that supported the families of 30-35 artists. This is a success story. There are names like Dinesh Thakur, Om Katare, Bansi Kaul, Nadira Babbar,” he reiterates.

But these and other names he has mentioned so far are all veterans — many belonging to the generation that saw India gain independence, a generation of artists that retained a certain idealism. “No,” he says, “in that case, I am also there. I am not senior.” But then he too has been in the field for 30 years on his own admission. “The question (of earning a living) will always be there. But this is not the job of the institution. It is the job of the entire society,” states Kendre. “The reason we could develop professional theatre in Maharashtra is that there is a tradition of 175 years there. So it’s not that anyone can say I will create a miracle in a year. We have to recognise that it was due to the contribution of many people that that parampara was created. Here too (northern India), Parsi theatre was at one time professional. People were earning their living from it. The duty of creating that kind of professional theatre cannot be just of the cultural institutions, but they can take steps towards it (pehel zaroor kar sakte hain).”

Emphasising the support an artist needs from society, he continues, “I always say, for what percentage of society is watching plays an indispensable part of their life? That is the condition which will decide whether theatre can become a profession or not. In Maharashtra when we did this calculation (biyora nikala), it was found that about 4 per cent of the total population was attending theatre. With 3 or 4 per cent of the population in the habit of watching, we get a situation where a single play gets some 4000 to 5000 shows.” Drawing a parallel, he explains, “The Hindi-speaking belt is very big. Each of the language regions is very big, whether the southern languages or northern, or Kashmiri, or languages of the North-East, so there too, this potential exists. We have commercial companies — the ones we call commercial (economically viable) — in places like Karnataka, and for example, the mobile theatre companies of Assam. After all they are all earning. So the possibility exists.”

However, he admits, “I think that we need to more forcefully think in this direction, which so far has not been done. This is the demand of the times. If you don’t manage to create a professional theatre (environment) then the artists of any institution, be it the National School of Drama, the Bharatendu Natya Academy, or Mumbai University’s Academy of Theatre Arts, or Ninasam in Heggodu (Karnataka) — how will they remain with theatre? So the biggest challenge for theatre today is the need for providing sustenance through theatre for such people.” A number of proposals are in the offing, he says. While candidly sharing them, he also notes that it is for him and like-minded theatre persons to propose, but how far they will be successful is difficult to say for now. “Maybe we will start regional repertories. We are putting this aagrah before the government to start regional repertories, so that directors, designers, actors can be absorbed there. Also, we need to create a network. To know what is happening in, say, Lucknow, in Mumbai, in Jammu, in Chennai? And to generate interest in seeing each other’s plays.”

It is necessary to connect NSD with the public through various measures, he adds. Also, to move in directions that have so far not been touched. “Also the National School of Drama needs to be converted to an advanced study centre.” There is no such facility in the practical field in the country, says Kendre, and this attempt is a priority of his tenure. “There is no agency for the promotion and projection of Indian theatre, in general and in specific, to the world,” he says, and even though we have such a rich culture of ancient and modern theatre, “people still ask is there any theatre in India?” Reeling out a list of names, he points out that in spite of such activity, if people don’t know about our theatre, there must be a problem.

If Britain had not promoted Shakespeare, would we have known him? Bertolt Brecht was held as a symbol of national pride by Germany. Similarly, Norway has promoted Ibsen. India has not reflected the same zeal, despite our having Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhavabhuti, folk theatre works and contemporary arts of a mind boggling range. “But as a State and a society we don’t think about promoting them, or else we are ignorant.”