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PHEROZE L. VINCENT
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CHATLINE Scenographer Nissar Allana tells PHEROZE L. VINCENT how he is forever searching for newer solutions to the age-old problems of theatre

ON A HIGHNaresh Iyer has recorded 150 songs over the last six yearsPHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN
ON A HIGHNaresh Iyer has recorded 150 songs over the last six yearsPHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

The generation that has emerged after the ’90s seeks to reconnect with the global theatre tradition, but faces modern challenges of space and the domination of television. This is the DIF’s target group.

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.

And, through Ibsen, Allana attempts to “build bridges in Indian theatre.” He says, “I interact with participating directors. I don’t tell them what to do, I suggest ways they can fit Ibsen into their scheme. I see it as a mentoring role.”

“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.”

Great dramatists like Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar spent months on scripts. Their writing carried theatre forward. But “For a lot of theatre in Delhi, people create performance texts rather than literary works,” Allana says.

This year’s fest presents groups like Theatre Roots and Wings from Thrissur in Kerala and, Imphal’s Kalakshetra Manipur. These are in addition to troupes from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Norway and the opening production by Kolkata’s Padatik directed by Polish director Wlodzimierz Staniewski.

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.”

The cutting edge comes at a cost. The DIF is one of the most expensive festivals in the Capital. It has often drawn the ire of directors for its extravagance.

Allana says, “We need to go beyond focussing solely 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,”

This, he feels is the only cure to the glut of repetition and familiarity in plays. “When foreign or even Indian directors from outside come here, actors, directors, scenographers gain from the experience. It enriches both groups. You will not sustain an audience if you don’t develop the art. If you create an audience, they will subsidise your existence.”

Allana is currently in consultation with the Ministry of Culture on its scheme to refurbish theatres, as part of the commemoration of 150 years of Rabindranath Tagore. “We want to integrate programming, networking and management of theatre spaces in a comprehensive way. That way when you produce a play, you will be assisted to tour the country with the play. This would definitely help you recover money spent on a play,” he says.

“There’s a feeling that there isn’t enough to get around,” he says. “But if you have resources as festival director, you need to be generous and confident to let great theatre emerge.”

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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