Friday Review

‘Without an audience there is no theatre’

Mohammad Ali Baig’s “Spaces” has been premiered in London and Istanbul.

Mohammad Ali Baig’s “Spaces” has been premiered in London and Istanbul.   | Photo Credit: 30dfr Baig

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Noted theatre director Mohammad Ali Baig is concerned about self-indulgent theatre and the lack of original writing.

Recently, Mohammad Ali Baig and his play, “Spaces”, travelled to Delhi for the Old World Theatre Festival, after its international premieres in London and Istanbul. Directed by Baig and co-written with his actor-wife Noor, “Spaces” explores both the physical and metaphorical meaning of spaces, highlighting the conflict between the young and the old, the modern and the tradition. Baig, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014, has carved out a niche for himself and his initiative, The Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation, dedicated to the memory of his father, now in its 10th year. The annual festival of the Foundation kicked off on October 27, in Hyderabad. Edited excerpts

This is the 10th anniversary of the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in Hyderabad. Tell us about this year’s line up?

This year the theme is “adaptations”. Every year, we have a theme. One year we had women directors of the subcontinent, another year we had love stories. The adaptations this year include Mahesh Bhatt’s “Hamari Adhuri Kahaani”, adapted to film and now stage. Then we have the adaptation of my wife’s short story, “A Friend’s Story”, Akash Khurrana’s Hindi adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play, “Mitrachi Goshta”, and many more. The plays include anything adapted for the stage — a short story, a complete novel, a film.

And why this particular theme?

You know what’s happening off late? More and more directors are finding a dearth of original Indian playwrights, contemporary ones. You still have those ten plays and some handful of playwrights everyone has been repeating for ages and ages. Everyone has been taking pride in doing the same work, but the scenario has changed, and like with any art form, the taste of the audience has changed. As a result of the dearth, we rely on the West, and due to our colonial hangover, anything the west thrusts upon us is to be grabbed. So there will be the 500 director doing the 5000th show of a Shakespeare play, instead of doing an original play by a local Indian writer.

So, are people not writing original plays, or are directors and producers reluctant to risk making them?

It’s both. If you look around Indian writing today, there is hardly any good new material. Either there are enthusiastic but amateur works coming up, or there are those writers who still practice the archaic way of playwriting. Often, what is being written is very vernacular, so that it fails to have a widespread reach. That’s not what should happen. Theatre should transcend barriers of language, culture, boundaries.

We performed “Quli”, written in Urdu, to a European audience, where the crowd was made up of 70 per cent non-English speaking people. There were Polish, Swedish, Hungarian people there. They sat through it without moving, and later, they said that the play’s structure, the story telling, the structure, told them the story.

What about the material that is coming out though? What do you make of it?

The material is pretty archaic today, and what’s presented as stark and bold is many times distasteful. You have to consider the taste of the audience. Unlike a painting, which you can just paint and hang in your home or museum, theatre is not like that.

Without an audience there is no theatre. There is a lot of self-indulgent theatre today, and then there are political ideologies, vernacular beliefs, thrust upon the audience. There are also two or three parts of the country from where even the mediocre stuff is considered great.

But there are also conversations about the role and responsibility of theatre in society. So isn’t it about the balance between this responsibility and the audience’s taste?

I don’t know how much change theatre can bring about in society. It’s not film, it’s not television. I mean, we dwarf in front of these two, for the sheer reach, the sheer canvas is multi-fold larger.

Coming back to adaptations, tell us about adapting the story to a play. What was How the process, and what were the considerations?

The first premise I work on is that theatre is for audience, not for my own creative kick, not for the faculty of a drama school. Thereby it has to touch a chord with the audience. That’s what “Spaces” does, that’s what it did at its London and Turkey premiere. People walked up to us and said, ‘hey this is our story’. Women came to us and said that the monologue — when Aziza talks to her father —brought tears to their eyes. That’s what theatre should be. The premise on which the play is based is very important. Even while its heritage based, it has to be very contemporary to the audience, it has to be palatable.

You’ve worked with different mediums of communication — ad films, documentaries, theatre. Tell us about how things change from one medium to the other?

What communication and advertising teach you is to connect with your audience. First thing you define is who you are addressing, so I have to put myself in the audience’s place and say, this is what I’d like to see. Today when everything is available at a feather touch of your phone, why should someone drive for an hour to reach the venue, spend a couple of hours and drive back? There has to be some takeaway. There should be something that should touch a chord with them, so that they say, okay this was worth the time spent.

And is this why your plays are not just about the stage and what is going on there, but also about the entire venue — a kind of trip back in history with monuments and heritage buildings as backdrops?

We present theatre as an experience for the audience. As it is, theatre has very little archival value. I make an ad and it is seen in several countries for years. A documentary is forever, as long as the medium it is made on survives. Films are forever. But the play which happened last night is out already, no matter how many months you’ve spent preparing it. That is what used to hurt me earlier, when I saw Baba rehearsing for two months; directing, arranging costumes, sets, and then in two nights, the production was out. So there was a bit of a heartburn there.

That’s why it is especially important that the audience lives the experience, the story, the time. All the venues, the Falaknuma Palace, Chowmohalla Palace, the Golconda Fort, they’ve been inspired by my father. He was known for those venues, palaces and forts. I emulate him, he has been my role model professionally and personally. These iconic venues are not just venues for me. They are the ways in which I recreate history.

But doesn’t that make the play hard to travel with?

Yes, one disadvantage is that when you are travelling with these plays, it is difficult. There are horses, camels, a whole paraphernalia attached. “Spaces” was not such a play, though. Set inside the haveli, it was easier to travel with.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 3:17:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/without-an-audience-there-is-no-theatre/article7819195.ece

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