In its pursuit of evolving a theatre of relevance, the Experimental Theatre Foundation (ETF) has completed its 25 years’ journey under the creative direction of writer and director Manjul Bhardwaj who defies the concept of conventional dramatic art. According to his artistic credo, theatre has nothing to do with entertainment and treats the concept of the fourth wall as the biggest impediment to the growth of theatre of relevance, seeking to establish a direct dialogue between the audience and the performers. It treats audience as the biggest creative force, seeking to expose existing political and moral values shaped by market economy which brings miseries to the masses. Breaking from the conventional theatrical art is a tall claim. In fact, new trends in the theatre are linked in one way or another to earlier traditions.
Based in Mumbai, ETF brought its three productions to Delhi as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. It staged two plays at Muktadhara this past week to a packed hall mostly attended by those serious theatregoers who love to see experimental theatre. The Delhi event is organised by Smriti Raj.
The festival opened with the presentation of “Garva”. We watch foetus making movements in its mother's womb. It is in a dilemma whether to take birth or not in a world where exploitation and vices prevail. The production shifts from one idea to another to illustrate its thesis that the world is being debased by dark forces. We hear references to the Mahabharata's characters like Bhishma, who did not raise his voice against injustice and Abhimanyu, who just listened about the martial art of Chakravyuh and because of his incomplete knowledge of this complicated war strategy, he got killed at the hands of the Kaurava warriors. The foetus reflects on a variety of facets of human life outside the womb of its mother. It resolves to come out of its mother's womb and combat dark forces to uphold its conviction about life which is after all beautiful.
“Anhad Naad” with the subtitle “Unheard Sounds of Universe” is featured on the second evening of the festival. It makes an attempt to liberate artist and his creation from the decaying market forces. Writer-director Bhardwaj uses sketchy and unconnected images from society and nature to inspire artists and create a high form of art. The production exhorts creative people to free themselves from the psyche of formless, aimless and chaotic crowd and listen to the fine, tender and life-affirming voice within and to the music of nature. With his will power and sensitivity, creative mind should resolve Shakespearean dilemma “To be, or not to be, that is the question”.
Then the production shifts to another point to bring home its inspiring message to the artist. It talks about flowing river beginning from the rocky hills in the shape of a rivulet and gradually acquiring great dimension, finally merging with the vast sea. Like river, artists should not be cowed by social, political and economic obstacles. Then it refers to high sounding phrases like progressive, development and revolution, commenting that these are mere high sounding words meaning little. It ridicules the talk of development and asks whose development?
To express his aesthetic idea, he declares “we are alive, let us celebrate it.”
As far as the structure of the script and the style of presentation are concerned, both the productions follow the same pattern. There is no such thing as storyline and character building. The language is highly Sanskritised. Verbosity and preachy tone are the main features of Bhardwaj's theatrical craft. In fact, it appears that he has penchant for dialogue and wordy narrative. Before the show begins, he tells the audience about the concept of his theatre and why there is need for a relevant theatre. Again, after the show, he invites the members of the audience to the stage to comment on his productions.
However, his form is visually fascinating. The performers create a variety of choreographic patterns. The movements are imbued with lyrical beauty, trying to interpret the high sounding dialogue, describing forest, sweet chirping and twitter of birds among the trees. Other significant aspects of productions are the subtle use of offstage sounds and lighting effects. Bhardwaj's productions are high on the presentational style which creates at places abstract image making viewing tedious. To make his Samvaad with the members of the audience Bhardwaj should impart certain amount of cohesiveness to his content rather than bombarding them with high sounding phrases.
Viewed as a whole, all the five members of the cast — Ashwani Nandekar, Sayali Pavaskar, Komal Khamkar, Yogini Chauk and Tushar Mhaske — give fine performances. Together, they create beautiful poetic images. Though they are all Marathi speaking, they deliver Sanskritised Hindi dialogue in a flawless manner. Their voices are aptly modulated; we can hear even when they whisper.