“O my good lord, the world is but a word: / Were it all yours to give it in a breath, / How quickly were it gone!” wrote William Shakespeare in his lesser popular play Timon of Athens.
But the transience of those words or the moments of the act hold least significance for students at the School of Drama, Thrissur, as they go through reading sessions of the play for their annual production.
The students here are more worried about the existence of the school itself. Day after day, they find their dreams turning bleaker due to official apathy. For the authorities, it is almost always the same excuse: “the university has no funds”. The School of Drama functions under the University of Calicut.
That air of uncertainty hangs heavy inside the School of Drama premises, more so inside the grand performance space designed by the legendary Laurie Baker. In fact, the condition of the theatre captures the reality of the school better than any other imagery.
It has been designed in keeping with the spirit of theatre training – a main performing area and auxiliary network of rooms that are interconnected. The costume and make-up room are cobwebbed and leaking. Used properties are dumped in one of the rooms.
The ambience in no way reveals that this was the foremost institute that ushered in a ‘new wave’ since its inception in 1977.
“These theatre and fine arts institutions were launched with the sole aim of promoting a new culture. But once it was established, vested interests came into play. The school is now fast losing its organic connect with society,” says P. Balachandran, renowned playwright, theatre person, actor and teacher. He was a student of the first batch of Bachelor of Theatre Arts (BTA) course at the school and a disciple of G. Sankara Pillai, who conceived the concept of a drama school.
Though he suggests steps like revising the curriculum to include farming to keep students rooted in their cultural milieu, Mr. Balachandran does not see any positive turn in the near future.
To begin with, the premier theatre training institution has been without a proper director for the last two years. No posting has been made since G. Kumara Varma stepped down a couple of years ago. The institution is now handled by a team of five young theatre trainers, all of the designation of assistant professor.
The university meanwhile is sitting over a list of ten leading theatre persons, suggested by the School of Drama, including Anuradha Kapoor, Ram Gopal Bajaj, S. Ramanujam, A.S. Rajendran and Usha Ganguly.
“This is not just the case with the School of Drama. More than 200 posts in the university are lying vacant at present as we do not have the funds to meet their salaries. The university is limping and is barely able to make ends meet,” says M. Abdul Salam, Vice-Chancellor, University of Calicut.
What is lacking is not just financial support, but a vision for theatre training. The authorities need to accept theatre and fine arts as a part of social commitment. “Literature and culture should be treated as part of life. In all avenues of academics, science subjects are being given preference,” notes Mr. Kumara Varma, former director of the school.
During its initial days, the school used to share the 18-acre campus with Department of Economics. But now, the space hosts many other departments.
“One of the allegations against drama students is that they do not maintain academic decorum or stick to schedule. How can our students, who start physical exercise and yoga sessions at 7 a.m. or who stay back till midnight during productions, maintain a regular class hour schedule,” asks Najumul Shahi, assistant professor in children’s theatre, who heads the school now.
Almost all senior theatre practitioners point out that training process is never complete without actual productions and interactions with leading figures in the art.
“But the rules say that we can give only Rs. 100 for a session of guest lecturer and a guest lecturer cannot have more than two sessions in a day. How then can we invite leading theatre personalities from outside to train our students? Right now, we rely on the extension programme of the National School of Drama (NSD) to get experts. The problem with that arrangement is that the NSD will bear the travel expenses and fees of only those associated with them,” says Sreejith R., assistant professor in acting.
Faculty at the school complain that the university authorities releasing only half the funds assigned for organising workshops and seminars.
“We manage to organise camps by asking those we know to come over or else we will not be able to expose our students to the new and the latest trends in the industry,” the members of the faculty say.
The irony however is that the courses offered at the school are still much in demand.
Last year, more than 50 applicants turned up for just 15 seats in the degree course and more than 20 for the 10 post-graduate course.
“In my teaching career of about 40 years, I have never seen students who are so dedicated for the art. These students often leave everything behind to join the course and if we cannot support them at this juncture, it is unfortunate and unfair,” says Mr. Kumara Varma.
But then, as a character named Stranger says in Timon of Athens, “Men must learn now with pity to dispense; / For policy sits above conscience.” If authorities fail to get their act together, only time will tell what lies in store for one of the State’s premier arts institution.