Perfection at any cost

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Theatre Scenographer Nissar Allana speaks about how he is forever searching for new solutions to the age-old problems of theatre

Ever found yourself bored in theatre imagining what you could do with the lights, the sets or, the play itself? If you’ve ever left a theatre with nothing left to think about, then you have a friend in Nissar Allana.

Organised by the Norwegian Embassy and Nissar Allana’s Dramatic Art and Design Academy, the Delhi Ibsen Festival (DIF) features plays of Henrik Ibsen performed by a range of avant garde troupes and directors from across the world. And, why avant garde? Because that’s the only way Allana would have it — to connect Ibsen to the Indian context and allow adventurous dramatists to catalyse the evolution of contemporary Indian theatre.

The roots

Allana’s roots lie behind the stage. A medical student in 1970, he hitchhiked his way to Berlin from Mumbai, where his future wife Amal Allana was studying. So excited was he with the theatre practised at the Berliner Ensemble, Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer and the Volksbühne, that he returned in 1974 to apprentice under Karl-Ernst Hermann, who was acclaimed director Peter Stein’s set designer. “Set design in Europe was not taught the way it was here. The potential of beauty and totality of set design was actively worked,” he explains. Now, a visiting lecturer at the National School of Drama, Allana attempts to create the same excitement he experienced as a rookie in Berlin.

“I try to get students to open their minds to various aspects of theatre. It helps me too. When we were younger, the older generation rarely encouraged us. They even felt threatened by us. You’ve got to have a positive attitude towards youngsters if you want to work with them,” he says.

“Urban theatre groups are the most handicapped,” he explains. “There is no space for rehearsals and it’s hard to find people who are willing to commit to a project for a long time...But in smaller towns people offer spaces and actors are available as a group for a longer time. Survival there is not as expensive. These groups are able to develop their styles better.”

It has taken Allana three months of recceing — watching DVDs of productions abroad and networking with theatre connoisseurs world over. “I’ve watched the work of many directors. Those that make some headway and develop new insights to theatre are contacted. We don’t immediately engage anyone. If we find a good director, she or he may get a chance in a couple of years,” he says.

Commissioning plays is a risk, Allana explains. “You don’t know where they are going till the last moment. But this is imperative if you want cutting edge theatre. That satisfaction you get is from seeing young directors emerge or older ones making new inroads.” Allana says, “We need to go beyond focussing on actors and directors with sets of just four or five chairs. We have not had money in theatre. We work with less because funds are not there... That is using half the body, of using only actors and direction without attention to sets or lighting or the scene. We need to work towards finding money to use the whole body of a play,”

Allana is currently in consultation with the Ministry of Culture on its scheme to refurbish theatres.


Nissar Allana’s best shot

The eminent stage and lighting designer is best remembered for designing the sets of Richard Schechner’s production of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in Delhi in 1983. Schechner, a professor of theatre at New York University, is renowned for coining the phrase inter-cultural theatre. “We wanted an environmental or site-specific production,” says Allana, who apprenticed in scenography at Germany’s leading theatres in the ’70s. For the orchard, he planted 200 trees in Rabindra Bhavan’s Meghdoot theatre. He built a full fledged house and he lit up the party scene with 2000 light bulbs.

The audience moved from scene to scene.

For a lot of theatre in Delhi, people create performance texts rather than literary works




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