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Will the Theatre Olympics give Indian theatre the boost it desperately needs?

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar   | Photo Credit: Prathap Ravishankar

On the notice board of the National School of Drama (NSD) is a memo instructing staff and consultants not to ask for leave between February and April 2018. Even the three-month embargo seems too brief to me as I try to imagine the mind-boggling task at hand: Theatre Olympics 2018. An extravaganza that has been held across the world every few years since 1995, and will be hosted in India for the first time, starting February 17.

NSD’s New Delhi headquarters and campus are buzzing and even the cleaning women appear to be paying extra attention to the foyer floor they are washing out. On the grounds, under a brisk February sun, a stage is being set up and workers are busy with planks and nails and ropes while students hang about in engrossed knots. In the middle of a path is a contraption that looks like a giant step-ladder but is probably not. Someone is directing a gardener arranging potted plants.

In the lobby, a workman hidden by a screen is painting a giant and sappy mural of a scene from, what else, Shakuntalam. (Ravi Varma and Amar Chitra Katha have a lot to answer for.) I hang about for a while, trying hard to like the painting but give up and move on, a faint sense of foreboding clouding the morning.

For some reason, it has been rather hard to get a firm meeting date from Waman Kendre, the director of NSD, and when a woman tells me categorically that he is “out of station,” alarm bells go off loudly, since I am in the foggy city only for this. I ignore her and plonk myself firmly in the anteroom of Kendre’s office. He walks in within minutes, and I breathe again.

Preparations for the Theatre Olympics are on in full swing.

Preparations for the Theatre Olympics are on in full swing.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Clad in a flame orange kurta with a dark blue sleeveless jacket that has a sort of bright red tassel hanging from the pocket, the short, genial Kendre makes for as dramatic an image as the festival he is busy organising. The wall segment to his right is almost entirely covered by a superb panel in dhokra work, twinning the coffee table in the anteroom.

Once we start, Kendre is attentive and informative, even as he deals simultaneously with a stream of calls and visitors discussing invites, payments, schedules. Preparations are on in full swing.

Dramatic history

It was, aptly enough, a Greek theatre director, Theodoros Terzopoulos, who conceptualised Theatre Olympics, held for the first time in Delphi, Greece. The idea was to gather together the best theatre practitioners from around the world and create a forum for exchange — of ideas, cultures, forms and practices. It was also to be another kind of exchange, between eras, trying to find a continuum between the past, present and future of theatre.

This last makes special sense here in India, with its impossibly rich theatre history going back to at least 200 BCE and flowering luxuriously until 11 CE, with Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, Sudraka and Bhasa producing their masterpieces. Simultaneously, an equally fertile landscape produced tribal, subaltern and folk theatre that morphed and thrived down the ages.

The anti-colonial theatre of the mid-19th century brought in the draconian Dramatic Performances (Prevention) Act of 1876. Later, the pre-Independence Left movement generated vital critical energy through the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, which spawned enormous talent. To this was added the efflorescence of the mid-20th century, with Ebrahim Alkazi and Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Girish Karnad, B.V. Karanth and Kavalam Panicker, Satyadev Dubey, Vijay Tendulkar, Habib Tanvir, Safdar Hashmi, Shankar Nag and many, many more eminences. And now, the more struggling but not insignificant efforts of the modern years.

Will the Theatre Olympics give Indian theatre the boost it desperately needs?

In many ways, thus, the Olympics being envisaged is not just about bringing international theatre to India but Indian theatre to Indians. “We keep saying we have a 2,000-5,000-year theatre history; we have to exhibit it and promote it,” says Kendre. “Indian theatre needs a push, a ‘vibration’, and this festival will do that.”

And it’s going to be quite a gigantic push. Look at the numbers: 465 productions from 35 countries in 51 days across 17 cities. And the exercise will be pulled off on a budget of ₹51.82 crore, a number that sounds like, well, Greek to the country’s largely impoverished theatre community, but which, according to Kendre, is only a “cut-to-cut” budget given the kind of ambition harboured.

Each production will get up to ₹1.5 lakh per show besides travel, accommodation and per diem costs. Plus there is technical support such as sets, lighting, sound and surtitles. Plus photography, videography and publications. “It’s barely sufficient,” Kendre says firmly.

That it’s a massive exercise is undeniable. Apart from the main plays, there will be ambient performances — tribal, folk, street, puppetry, magic shows — before each show. There will also be 500-odd youth performances, organised by NSD students, for half an hour each day. So, if all goes well, the Olympics will present roughly 35,000 artistes, a staggering number.

There will also be what Kendre calls allied activities, such as seminars, a living legend series with famous practitioners, master classes, director meets, and workshops. And NSD has decided to be catholic about it. “Traditional, classical, folk, music, dance, modern, post-modern, whatever theatre practice we could include, we have,” says Kendre.

Rehearsing hard

NSD has been preparing for about a year now, selecting, inviting, organising, but to my untrained eye it all still looks a bit raw. Slots are being filled city-wise, and it hasn’t even begun for some cities yet. Then there’s publicity. Ten days away, and there’s no noise on TV or print. If absent audiences are a major bugbear today, surely they need to be drawn in better. Until last week, there was no printed schedule. Arundhati Nag, theatre doyenne and invitee, is clueless about dates. “Tell me when you find out more,” she says.

Waman Kendre, Director, NSD.

Waman Kendre, Director, NSD.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

NSD might not be entirely to blame for this. Participants and invitees haven’t exactly been prompt with responses and dates either. But Kendre looks confident and calm. And in true desi spirit, chances are it will all come together at the eleventh hour, jugaad-style.

The unease I feel with the project’s unwieldiness is shared by Bishnupriya Dutt, professor of theatre and performance studies at JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics, and on the Olympics selection committee. “The number is so large,” she says. Some 1,000-odd entries came in. “And despite trying to be fair, I thought we ended up including a lot of mediocre plays… to meet the number.”

Bishnupriya is also sceptical about the task having been entrusted to NSD, whose function is teaching, a concern shared by Arundhati. In its defence, NSD does a decent job each year with Bharat Rang Mahotsav, a national theatre festival.

And, as Bishnupriya points out, at the helm, thankfully, are Kendre and stalwart Ratan Thiyam, the event’s artistic director: “They are practitioners, not bureaucrats. And passionate.”

Thiyam, the only Indian on the International Committee of Theatre Olympics, brought the show to India. “We need the exposure,” he says. “There is so much richness that’s hidden even to us. I wanted to showcase it.”

Inclusiveness, though, often becomes a sterile laundry list of regions or languages. As Sadanand Menon, arts critic and Olympics advisory committee member, says: “It can become a desultory exercise in pleasing everyone.” He is more concerned with how the festival will respond to political dissent, Dalit concerns or other controversial topics.

Kendre says there’s no censorship: “Only standard guidelines against nudity, anti-nationalism, etc.” My antennae quiver, but he insists the student shows, “usually the ones with dissent,” have been curated by students themselves.

Will the Theatre Olympics give Indian theatre the boost it desperately needs?

Bigger, brighter

I toddle off to festival coordinator Veena Sharma’s office. On the wall is a large planner, with a busy, dense band in the middle that’s clearly the Olympics stretch. On her desk float various lists: schedules, cities, groups. But I don’t get what I came for — Veena tells me groups aren’t finalised yet. But Belgium and Israel, Nepal and Lithuania, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Brazil and Mauritius swill among the names. Anant Nag and Na. Muthuswamy, Soumitra Chatterjee and Rohini Hattangadi, Anupam Kher, Robin Das, Jambe — the éminences grises of theatre are all invited. Some 20 Indian languages are represented.

In some ways, NSD appears to be looking at this simply as a bigger, brighter BhaRang, a point Samik Bandyopadhyay confirms. The former Vice-Chairman of NSD and eminent arts critic says, “There are so many plays sloshed around, some so sub-standard. As with BhaRang, selections are chancy, arbitrary.”

In this instance, some 60 people were involved in the two-tier process. Most plays are submitted on DVD, many of iffy quality. “Regional groups just don’t know how to record theatre; it’s more than a camera propped up before the stage,” says Bandyopadhyay. The sheer numbers mean that viewing is often abandoned in a few minutes, with language and cultural barriers aggravated by distance. The format also tends to neglect thoughtful, text-based plays.

The Theatre Olympics will begin on February 17, 2018.

The Theatre Olympics will begin on February 17, 2018.   | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

Worst though is the absolute absence of context, not just in selection but in presentation. Plays are deeply rooted in local cultures, languages, custom. Without grounding, they are lost in translation.

In Germany, for instance, with its hefty theatre culture, each play, howsoever small, comes with a booklet. “You need an entry point for every play, even our own,” says Bandyopadhyay.

His suggestion? NSD could have created a small group of people to go around the country and pick the best plays, then present each with research and back-stories. “Olympics! The word implies enormity, but size alone doesn’t serve theatre.” Without context and access, it is counter-productive, he says, a glamorous jamboree.

That the Olympics is bulky and ungainly is evident, but we needn’t yet dismiss it. Any exercise like this cannot help but irrigate what is increasingly becoming a rather parched ground for good theatre. Kendre says it’s a way to create audiences, build the urge to watch theatre. But much, much more, this event has willy-nilly become the very first theatre census conducted in the country, an invaluable research project.

Santanu Bose has been cast out of his ‘Dean-Academics’ room in NSD because it’s all being painted for the big event. We find a small classroom, where the sun streams in through a door he throws open. The quiet Bose, who teaches World Drama, is practical but optimistic. “The impact of Indian drama on world theatre has been immense, especially through the 80s and 90s,” he says, “but the contribution was never looked at holistically.”

The extensive documentation planned around the Olympics, thus, stands to become its single most significant legacy. Catalogues, brochures, papers, videos, a documentary, and “there will be live streaming,” says Bose, “recordings of thousands of hours of performances and talks. It’s a first, a way to find out what exists.” For practitioners like Arundhati, it means access: “It means we now know them, we can network with groups.” For Bose, it’s oxygen. “We need this,” he says. “We can use it to create new policy.”

National School of Drama prepares for the Theatre Olympics.

National School of Drama prepares for the Theatre Olympics.   | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

With submissions from across the country, can this enormous archival exercise indeed help clear the cobwebs, help create our first truly post-colonial theatre policy? That remains to be seen, but that it’s an ambitious beginning is undeniable, nor that it’s long overdue. “It’s high time we had a comprehensive theatre map,” says Menon, “a database of groups, performance spaces, technicians.” If this exercise creates even the bare bones of such a map, it might be worth the ₹50 crore spent. As it is, it’s the largest curation of theatrical performances in India so far.

Space or show?

One point that keeps coming up is the shows-versus-spaces debate. It’s incredible that our cities are not filled with more Ranga Shankaras, SPACES and Prithvis — intimate, accessible, experimental places. If you notice, though, each one has a colossus behind it, one individual whose vision keeps it going, rarely backed by a movement or by the state. But, to quote Brecht, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Are the Olympics a lost opportunity to have set up or refurbished at least a few such places?

Arundhati points out that NSD has largely stuck to government auditoriums across cities, even though Ranga Shankara or others would have been more than delighted to play host. One suspects a bureaucratic lethargy here, something Bandyopadhyay flags. “Why choose available spaces alone,” he asks. “One could have created temporary stages, fairground squares, outside the proscenium, broken out...”

Nobody is even arguing for large, European format auditoriums. In fact, the idea behind bringing the event to India was to challenge the Euro-centricity of theatre. As Thiyam says, “I wanted to move the centre to Asia, propagate theatre from here.” So, one agrees with Bose when he says we need solutions that suit our theatre. But, for the time being, performance spaces don’t seem to have figured at all in the picture.

Kendre argues, “Our concern was to project theatre. This event can boost awareness and therefore infrastructure. Let’s create users first.” Perhaps he is right, although Bandyopadhyay questions if much buzz is created even by the annual BhaRang.

For NSD, this exercise is as much a political statement as a cultural one, a chance to flaunt “our soft power”. The jury is out on whether that is even necessary, but whether in showcasing, archiving, or just enabling performances, even granting all its holes, the Olympics promises to be a shot in the arm for Indian theatre. As Bishnupriya says, “In this neo-liberal era, any money injected into culture is important and significant.”

On Day Two, I am early for my meeting, and wandering around NSD, I stumble into a black box theatre, prepped for a rehearsal. It is absolutely empty, a flight of steps the only prop on stage, and large silver tablas and harmonium at the side. But all the spotlights are ablaze, in readiness for the show to begin.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 11:07:20 AM |

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