SYMPOSIUM The Importance Of Being A Festival raised a pertinent question — do festivals enrich a theatre community?
We have never had so many theatre festivals in this country. Which means theatre’s reaching bigger audiences. Drawing more practitioners. Attracting more sponsors. But do festivals enrich a theatre community?
Arshia Sattar, who has served on The Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award jury and writes about classical Indian literature, was moderator of the recent symposium The Importance Of Being A Festival . Triggering a spirited discussion, the symposium dealt with everything from audience development to the question of sustainability. But first, Arshia threw a set of questions at the panel, and audience. “Are festivals true to their intentions?” “Who are they for: practitioners, communities or sponsors?” “Are we enriched by what we showcase?” “How are festival plays chosen — and what is the curating principle?”
Amal Allana, chairperson of National School of Drama (NSD) and artistic director of Theatre and Television Associates, talked of NSD’s annual theatre festival Bharat Rang Mahotsav, popularly known as Bharangam. Established in 1999, this is one of the country’s largest festivals attracting talent and audiences from all over the world. “We decided we had to have something that bound us together. To do more than just showcase the work of the alumni. So we said: let’s open our doors and let the whole of India come here.” Amal described the process of organising a festival of that size. “We run advertisements in every newspaper, inviting groups. Last year, we did 100 plays — of which, one third were foreign plays… We book hundreds and thousands of train tickets to Delhi. Host about 2,500 actors. Hire nine auditoriums in Delhi, plus the three we have on campus. Every nook and corner of the NSD campus becomes a space for theatre. So people can come and watch eight plays in a day, all within a mile’s radius.”
Creative director of META (Annual Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards) Ravi Dubey spoke of how festivals are a celebration. He described how he left the corporate world and got involved with META, which showcases about 30 different regional languages. “Groups come by bus and trains from remote Indian villages,” he said, discussing how important it is to reward good theatre.
Director of DADA and Theatre and Television Associates, Nissar Allana, who is also the festival director of Delhi Ibsen Festival, discussed the process of being a curator. “The festival began in 2006, the 100th death anniversary of Ibsen. I was interested in an Ibsen of the 21st Century,” he said, explaining how they commission productions, and make an effort to work with young directors in an attempt to stage plays that connect Ibsen to mainstream India. About the importance of mentoring young directors, he said: “We look at where they want to go, and take them forward. Our support is not just financial. We bring in research scholars, starting the process of dramaturgy along the way.”
Anmol Vellani, founder and executive director of the India Foundation for the Arts, said: “I’m interested in what happens when an urban festival culture spreads through this country like a turbo-charged virus. This increases the demand for theatre. Not any kind — but theatre of a certain quality.”
Stating that the “same plays circulate — there is so little going around”, he added: “In those conditions, having a curatorial intent is next to impossible. You have to get to the point of commissioning before you can curate.” The reasons are familiar. “Not enough training opportunities, no apprenticeships, a poor infrastructure. There’s lack of economy around theatre, so groups take all kinds of short cuts, make all kinds of compromises.”
Anmol said festivals legitimise plays, getting them media attention, and hence new audiences. “But they still make hardly any impact on the economy of theatre. Festivals need to re-evaluate their role in a larger ecology of theatre. They’re not just show-and-tell platforms.”