As the Capital becomes more and more globalised and cosmopolitan, traditional art forms, that were once popular, are either declining or being incorporated. Street theatre is a prominent example of this trend. The medium and its message have been twisted to suit government and corporate ends. There are very few professional theatre troupes today, like Jana Natya Manch, Nishant Natya Manch and Asmita, that actively engage with street theatre.
Street theatre or nukkad natak as a concept became popular nationwide through the efforts of Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA). Its effect was also seen in Delhi. “Initially street theatre came out from the culture wing of political parties, mostly left oriented. Nukkad natak became the medium of bringing issues to the people. In the 80s it became more active, to the extent that the system became cautious of its power,” says Arvind Gaur, director of Asmita Theatre Group. In 1989 Safdar Hashmi’s brutal death became a statement of the power and outreach of street theatre.This, Gaur says, attracted more people to nukkad natak.
Interestingly, having understood this power and outreach, the “system” has also incorporated it. “Nukkad Natak, in its true sense should be political and should contain some propaganda therefore some MNCs also promote it, the government also at times has promoted nukkad natak for Pulse Polio campaigning, for instance,” says Samudra Kajal Saikia, researcher, practitioner of theatre and performance and creative director, Kathputlee Animation Studios. However, Gaur observes that, “technically this is not nukkad natak, rather they can only be called propaganda theatre (prachar natak).When MNCs use this to advertise their products, it is nothing more than advertising and road show. However, this does not affect nukkad natak much because people can see the difference.”
In the 1980s and post Safdar Hashmi’s death, nukkad natak was actively pursued by the university theatre circles, for its involvement with social causes. However today, “In Delhi University, unfortunately, in terms of a platform they have very few competitions to perform in, what happens invariably is they perform for each other and their aim is the prize money. Unfortunately even in a university setup where you’re just learning, they start feeding into the audiences, making their plays likable to the judges, making elaborate formations just to impress the judges, there is an audience but it’s a Delhi University audience. They really don’t take it out to the public,” says Gandharv Dewan, student at National School of Drama. Despite that, Gaur says, “the content is current, powerful and socially potent, and what matters is that the issues are reaching the audience.”
To be continually potent, nukkad natak has to adapt to the changing times. Gaur observes, “The public today is new, much more aware and one that at the touch of a button is connected to the globe. The challenge is to convert this awareness into dialogue and possible action. For this we have to change the format, content and use vernacular language. Today characters are more realistic. It is important to be politically correct in this, so that the theatre can remain of the people.”