Amal Allana talks about her coffee-table book that showcases Indian theatre from the 1850s to the 1990s.
Amal Allana, who retired from the National School of Drama recently, has given the institution a valuable parting gift: a coffee-table book on Indian theatre from 1850s to 1990s with rare interviews, pictures and scholarly material, all presented in the conversational style that she is known for. Titled The Act of Becoming: Actors Speak, the 350-page book priced at Rs.3999 is arguably the first such documentation on theatre.
Twenty-two critically acclaimed actors — including Binodini Dasi, Bal Gandharva, Fida Hussain, Zohra Sehgal, Sombhu Mitra, Shreeram Lagoo, Utpal Dutt, Manohar Singh, Uttara Baokar, Naseerudin Shah, Sabitri Heisnam, and Maya Krishna Rao — talk about their journeys, lives and aspirations, their training, and stage careers. Excerpts from an interview with Amal Allana:
What was the genesis of the book?
I was always interested in the history of Indian theatre. When I was a child, my mother would take me to the National Museum and make me draw the details of costumes of mythological figures like the Yaksha. My father (veteran theatre person Ebrahim Alkazi) would ask me to run around streets of old Delhi to find a particular turban. So, theatre was ingrained in me. In the 1970s, when I started my own productions, I realised that there were no books on stalwarts of Indian theatre. So, I applied for a Ford Scholarship to research four prominent plays including Bal Gandharva’s Aikaj Utpal Dutt’s Kanon, Mohan Rakesh’s Andha Yug. My research generated the idea of a comprehensive book on Indian theatre.
Despite researching for 10 years, many well known theatre personalities have been left out.
Yes, I wish I could have included people like Seema Biswas but there were space constraints and I had to be fair to all parts of the country.
Given the lack of documentation on theatre in India, how did you cope with the lack of references?
That’s why it took so long. Some interviews have been excerpted from autobiographical accounts, others from biographies. I personally interviewed the contemporary actors with the exception of Zohra Segal, especially for this book.
What has been the most interesting and revealing part of your research?
I was surprised to see how much Indian theatre learnt from its British counterpart. The British theatre companies were rich and grand. They had ship loads of mammoth props — curtains, paintings, the crowd needed on the stage, animals… They had tricks like trap door, fire on the stage, colossal curtains with the scenes of floods, night, bazaars and so on. The audiences loved it and thronged to the theatre. Capitalists saw money in it and Parsis invested in theatre. Interestingly Raja Ravi Varma, primarily a man of theatre, started painting beautiful sensuous women in skin-hugging saris and ostentatiously attired curvy deities. People don’t know that he painted the curtain in all of Bal Gandharva’s plays.
Visiting companies from England, the U.S., and Europe provided a template for modern forms of theatre practice. The ‘interaction’ with Indian traditions laid the foundation for the evolution of a national culture.
How did the advent of cinema affect theatre in India?
Theatre companies crashed. Most went into huge loses as the actors, musicians, lyricists all ran to the movies. That’s why most early movies looked so theatrical. Prithviraj Kapoor came to cinema to pay his theatre bills He was the most important product of that ‘cusp’ period. People like Bal Gandharva went bankrupt. He was an excellent classical singer so he earned his living by singing. He died almost penniless though he received some royalty from his plays staged by others.
How did the politics of the age affect theatre?
People like Bal Gandharva were favourites of political heavyweights, so he would do numerous productions. Theatre was used for political reasons as it would pull in huge crowds. Political plays were prominent from the 1920s to 1977. IPTA’s play based on the Bengal famine drew the people as it spoke about their problems. Zohra Sehgal, Prithviraj Kapoor, Habib Tanveer, Sombhu Mitra were like-minded people who spoke of social and political causes. Jawaharlal Nehru appointed Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to do something around such plays and their vision gave birth to NSD in 1959. Interestingly, these four people formed the first syllabus of NSD under its first director Ebrahim Alkazi.