Theatre critic and thinker Samik Bandyopadhyay, who will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life this Saturday, shares his views on tradition and the path of the contemporary Indian arts with ANJANA RAJAN

A casual look at the cinema and performing art mainstream would indicate that it has over the decades, been increasingly catering to a commercially driven agenda, where the amorphous ‘masses’ are deemed to demand a peculiarly nuance-free and uniform definition of entertainment. It is not food for thought that is required, but at one end of the spectrum, a prettified escape from life’s current trends, and at the other, fodder for the baser instincts. Observing the unfolding of the contemporary Indian arts since independence, Samik Bandyopadhyay, theatre and film critic, editor and author has always offered a voice of clarity, erudition and uncompromising adherence to the values he holds dear. At The Hindu Lit For Life fest this Saturday, the former chairman of the National School of Drama — besides a host of other literary and academic designations — will be in conversation with celebrated writers K. Satchidanandan and Paul Zacharia on the topic “Mythology - Repossession and Rereading in Art”.

We know that tradition is a flow, and literature and the visual arts have seen the same stories and images reappear in different ways down the ages. From the Vedas to the Mahabharata to the poetic dramas of Kalidasa, for example, we have seen characters like Shakuntala and the celestial Urvashi take on different hues according to the ethos in which the work was written. While through today’s eyes we might see their personality is significantly combed down and prettified to suit the image of the heroine that Kalidasa’s courtly patrons would have wanted to see, it could also be argued that at least he felt at liberty to take the myths and handle them according to his artistic sensibilities. However, the veteran critic does not take this as a sign that flow and evolution are built into our approach to inherited stories and myths. Here he answers a few questions in an email interview.

Would a trend of re-possessing and re-reading inherited stories, symbols or images be the sign of a healthy society that allows a churning of its own thought processes? (— Even if sometimes it seems that the re-possessing of myths done several centuries ago seems not to agree with our notions of, say, right and wrong, or of liberality, today?) Also, are India’s artists (performing and otherwise) doing enough of this churning?

Does the tradition really flow freely? I have my doubts. As a matter of fact, the gulf between the traditional/mythological and the contemporary present yawns wider day by day. Any negotiation with tradition now has to be a critical engagement which is generally lacking in the performing arts where there is a spate of the puerile celebratory and ceremonial, with very rare exceptions like Kanhailal’s “Draupadi”, where contemporary history, politics and literature converge theatrically.

Do you think we as a society today are open to the idea of multiple interpretations of the myths handed down to us, or have we become too involved in preserving and repeating?

The freedom of multiple interpretations endures, in spite of newly emerging resistance, in the South and the East, with a new orthodoxy raising its ugly head in the North and the West, and already becoming a threat to the other regions too. The new festival agenda and State support/patronage are falling into the orthodoxy grid. The print media could play a role in restoring the required criticality, with professional reviews which have been steadily going down in critical values/standards.

Does our education system encourage an attitude of research and questioning of our past that could bring about clarity and improvement in the present conditions?

There is a gap between the academic research in the universities (in the better ones at least) and the minds and concerns and motivations at work in general in the performing arts — and in mainstream literature too. Maya Krishna Rao’s works, Ratan Thiyam’s “Karnabharam”, the Bengali “Pratham Partha” (from a play by Buddhadev Bose) by Koushik Sen, would be some of the outstanding exceptions.

You saw the growth of Indian theatre, cinema and arts at a time when, it would seem, idealism permeated most fields and artists seemed to play as much a role in nation building as the administrators and social reformers. What role do you feel literature, theatre, and the arts in general should play in today’s India? Are practitioners playing/being allowed to play the role they ought?

I would blame the media primarily for the crass commercialisation of the theatre, cinema, visual arts scene, with the print media valorising the supposedly popular at the cost of the critical values that quite a few generations of outstanding critics and columnists had upheld with impeccable discrimination and commitment — a tradition trivialised today in facile, indifferent, uncritical reviews!

The New Indian Theatre, the New Indian Cinema and the New India Art of the ’60s-’80s were to a great extent the construction of the new critics they organically threw up, and who created the space for the new aesthetics.

The panel discussion on “Mythology - Repossession and Rereading in Art” between K. Satchidanandan, Samik Bandyopadhyay and Paul Zacharia is scheduled from 2.15 - 3.15 p.m.

The events related to Lit for Life Delhi chapter take place at Siri Fort auditorium, February 8, 10.15 a.m. onwards.