This year's Prithvi Theatre Festival was a reminder that there is more to Indian theatre than the metro-based experimental ones.DEVINA DUTT
The Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai decided to its credit, to play it very unsafe this year, importing styles and groups of theatre which would challenge the tastes of its regular viewers.
Called Theatres of India, the focus was on three distinct styles practiced by groups from separate parts of the country. NSD graduate Sanjay Upadhyaya set up Nirman Kala Manch (Patna) in 1988. It has promoted folk theatre and the classics as well as original scripts for the mainstream. Ninasam (Sri Nilkanteshwara Natya Seva Sangh) is the core theatre group consisting of villagers based in and around Heggodu in Karnataka's Shimoga district. It's rural itinerant theatre company, the Ninasam Tirugata which completed 25 years this year, comprises alumni of the Institute. Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research, established and run out of Pondicherry by Veenapani Chawla since 1993, offers a visually perfected and intense theatrical experience. Adishakti's productions borrow diverse cultural influences which include selections of music, mythology and dance in a bid to create a composite theatre that seeks to go beyond the word.
Esoteric but appealing
Though it is often referred to as esoteric and therefore presumed incapable of drawing mainstream viewers, virtually all its plays ran to full houses. “Impressions of Bhima”, the oldest production from the group and superbly performed by Vinay Kumar is a soliloquy, part playful and part disturbing, anchored in a hero's slowly intensifying search for inner triumph.
“The Hare and the Tortoise”, was conceptually more complex; though it could be, and was, enjoyed at a simpler plane too. It takes inter-civilisational race fables like “The Hare and the Tortoise” as well as other competing pairs like Ganapati and Kartik, Ekalavya and Arjuna and combines shadow play, physical theatre, and its customary truncated dialogue, to explore the significance of residing in the moment and self-actualisation. Frisky and thought-provoking at the same time, such theatre will always elicit intensely inward and subjective responses, which is both its strength and its weakness.
Alternating between flashes of understanding and periods of incomprehension, “Ganapati”, an older play that claimed to use music as a text, was on the whole difficult to grasp, with even the programme notes proving to be not very helpful. “Ionesco's Rhinoceres”, directed by Vinay Kumar, on the other hand was a very powerful production, the hybrid theatrical approach complementing the clear strengths of the script beautifully.
Chawla says the group spends up to two years rehearsing and perfecting works till they reach their performance potential and are ready to be presented thereafter as works in progress. “There are varied audiences today. There are many people who come to a play and want to be challenged,” she says.
At theother end of the spectrum were the unabashedly naturalistic plays from Nirman Kala Manch where expansive storytelling and verisimilitude were the cornerstones of the theatrical experience. “Neelkantha Nirala” on Hindi poet Nirala's life was a heartfelt portrayal backed by good performances. “Kahan Gaye Mere Ugna” provided audiences with a feel of the folkore of Mithila by celebrating the life and work of its greatest poet Vidyapati.
“Bidesia” was a Bhojpuri presentation on the recurring theme of migration from an entirely human perspective, those who leave their village for the city and those who get left behind. The artlessness of the performances was unusual for urban audiences.
Ninasam Tirugata offered its Kannada version of Shakespeare's “Merchant of Venice” in “Venissina Vyaapara”, a self-assured and intelligent adaptation. A yakshagana performance and a Kannada adaptation of Piyush Mishra's Hindi play “Gagan Damama Bajau” as “Aakasbehari” and “Aakashabutti” based on three stories by Jayant Kaikini comprised the rest of their shows.
Commenting on their experience with adapting texts from diverse sources into Kannada, Ninasam's Akshara KV shared some critical insights on inter cultural borrowings. “Our experience is that as long as culturally alienating aspects of a 'foreign' play are made accessible, even the most uninitiated rural audience will appreciate any play. At the same time we normally do not adapt a play completely, but do partial adaptation so that the 'foreignness' of the play is also retained”, he says.
A special category was created at the festival for younger theatre practitioners. Theatre Roots and Wings from Kerala presented “Sahyande Makan”, “The Elephant Project” in Malayalam and Japanese with English subtitles flashed on a screen high above the stage. The spare plot about the plight of an elephant driven out of its mind in atemple town during a festival was a means for the exhibition of some virtuoso performing skills along with the characteristic inscrutability ofNoh theatre by the Japanese performer Micari who played the part of the elephant. Impressive as it was, its theatrical impact was limited by the fact that it at all times a presentation.
Amitesh Grover's “Hamlet Quartet”, was advertised as raw theatre with influences from video art and sounded edgy. His fondness for technology with resolute attempts to splice the live stage action with pre-recordedfootage and speeches relayed by mobiles into microphones with cameras and an LCD TV ranged on stage could not generate even momentary novelty. The audience waited for the director's larger view but were all lost in the wasteful energy and clutter on stage. Not much could be made of this frenzied and soulless production dogged by a poor display of acting skills.
Equally disappointing was Vikram Iyengar's “Equus”, which was meant to be charged with the spirit and form of Kathak. The fairly lavish production seemed to be split right down the middle into the parts with dialogues and the silent scenes showing the raw power of the horses. The latter section had “dancers” in surprisingly inelegant costumes displaying the most basic footwork by way of showing a token connection with Kathak. All this, while the cast apart from the psychiatrist and the boy, spoke incorrectly enunciated English revealing an ignorance of the import of their own lines. In an otherwise naturalistic presentation set in England it was hard to ignore this flaw.
New and experimental work particularly from the young is to be encouraged. However these efforts need to be reviewed and guided intelligently by the institutions involved and the larger theatre community. Otherwise they have a nasty way of dissipating into a theatre that tends tomeasure its efficacy in terms of the budgets and the associated gimmickry it is able to deploy on stage at the expense of the very basics of theatre.
Coming from younger metro-based practitioners who receive generous media attention for every professed “experiment” this is disappointing. Thankfully, the festival also reminded us that there is infinitely more to Indian theatre.