Bhanu Bharti, director of “Tughlaq”, on the reason he prefers open spaces and why he had to go looking for talent among film and television actors

An innovator, he is bold enough to explore new expressive dimensions of the theatrical art. The sources of inspiration of his oeuvre are routed in the folk, tribal and classical traditions of the country. He reinterprets mythology and history from a new perspective to mirror the intellectual, emotional and spiritual crises of contemporary man. Bhanu Bharti’s latest offering of Girish Karnad’s play “Tughlaq” is a similar creative venture resonating with new life and meaning in the ruins of the historic Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi these days.

Sparing time while busy giving finishing touches to his production, he talks about various aspects of conceptualisation of the complex production of a grand historical play on an epic scale. The first question is about his choice of the lawns of the Ferozshah Kotla. (Interestingly the fort was built by Feroz Shah, the successor to Mohammad bin Tughlaq.) In fact, Bhanu Bharti has always been fascinated with staging plays in the open. Previous productions like “Katha Kahi Ek Jale Ped Ne”, “Chandrama Singh Urf Chamku” and “Andha Yug” were staged open-air and are among his landmark productions. He elaborates, “I have always loved the outdoors and open spaces, which provide ample scope for the flight of your imagination both horizontally and vertically. My outdoor productions have been interesting for vertical explorations,” he continues. “In an open-air setting you can connect with the audience in a much more flexible and imaginative way. The participation of the audience is more transparent and intimate. For example, in ‘Tughlaq’, as you enter the gates of the Ferozshah Kotla, you step into a different time and space, immediately transported away from the hustle-bustle of present-day Delhi. So the environment of the ruins adds to the experience of viewing a historical play.”

One of the front-ranking stage directors of the country, Bhanu has been honoured by several leading cultural bodies, including Sangeet Natak Akademi, for his contribution to Indian theatre as a director. Apart from his in-depth study of rituals as theatrical expression, he studied Noh and Kabuki in Japan on a fellowship from the Japanese government. He has produced outstanding works in the Gawari style, a tribal theatre form practised by the Bheels of Mewar, Rajasthan, like “Pashu Gayatri”, “Rakt Beej” and “Kaal Katha”, which have catapulted him to national fame.

As a theatre practitioner he is much concerned about the dearth of actors. Unable to find acting the talents for playing leading roles in “Andha Yug” last year and now for “Tughlaq”, he has had to look for talent among stage actors who have gone on to join film and television. In “Tughlaq” actors from films have been cast in leading roles. Commenting on the dearth of stage actors, he says, “Unfortunately in India, we do not have many possibilities for grooming good actors. Firstly, we do not have a well-crafted training method for developing professional actors. None of the theatre institutions in India has been successful in evolving an appropriate training methodology in acting. Then, we do not have any scope for financial sustenance in theatre. So whatever acting talent we have is forced to migrate to films and television. Gradually this leads to the decline in acting talent because films and television are the medium of directors, cameramen, editors and sound technicians. It is theatre alone that is the medium of the actor, makes heavy demands on the performer and constantly hones his histrionic talent, which deepens his sensibility. This is only possible if full-time employment is provided to the actors. This is not possible in the country at present. Where are the great actors to play great roles?”

Apart from the interpretation of the play he devotes much time to actors to recreate the living image of the character with tremendous emotional force. He has an interesting experience of working with tribal actors, amateurs and professionally trained actors from films and television. Describing his experience of working with different categories of performers, he says, “I have most enjoyed working with tribal actors because of their living connection with rituals, which happen to be the originators of theatre.”

What challenges did he face in composing scenes in a play that features more than 50 performers? “I have always enjoyed playing with space and actors. Crowd scenes have always fascinated me and it is through crowd scenes that social structures and mass angst against the ruler are expressed. It is a sheer joy to conceive stage compositions on sets with multiple action areas with different heights and width and to thread them all into one grand narrative.”

According to Girish Karnad, the character of Aziz is a comic one and a parody. What is Bhanu’s interpretation of this character? “To me there is no humour in Aziz. If at all there is any humour, it is black humour which disturbs you very much.” To him both Tughlaq and Aziz have a contemporary ring.

Thrilled with the fact that “Tughlaq” will play full house till November 4 with persistent demand for more shows, he concludes, “‘Andha Yug’ and ‘Tughlaq’ have proved that if theatre is really good there is no dearth of audience. All that is required is that we create resources for theatre within our scheme of things and respect theatre artistes.”

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