In a dusty corridor of a decrepit building in North Delhi, one can see a newly formed theatre group, Shwaas, rehearsing lines. Unable to raise funds to hire an auditorium for rehearsal space, these artistes have been looking out for empty buildings where they can practise in peace. They are worried that their play may never see the light of day. “Booking an auditorium takes money, and we haven’t got any corporate sponsorship. There is very little money in theatre these days. Let’s see for how long we can sustain our group,” they say. Already, two members have begun to talk about shifting to Mumbai to try their luck in Bollywood. Their story sums up the sad state of theatre today. But if all goes by plan, theatre may soon get a fresh lease of life, thanks to new schemes announced in New Delhi by the Union Ministry of Culture recently.
Jawhar Sircar, secretary, Ministry of Culture, brought much cheer to theatre artistes by proposing new schemes for performers at the opening ceremony of National School of Drama’s (NSD’s) 12th Bharat Rang Mahotsav earlier this month. The proposals include setting up a studio theatre assistance scheme, doubling grants for performing theatre groups, and establishing an archival portal for India’s rich drama heritage.
“According to veteran theatre personalities, good theatre requires compact space. Hence we are adding a studio theatre assistance scheme to our existing building grants scheme for performing arts,” says Sircar. These studio theatres, or black boxes as they are called, would provide theatre groups with much-needed rehearsal space. They would come equipped with their own lighting and technical equipment, thus allowing groups to hold shows for smaller audiences of 100 to 200 within that space. “The Ministry could support nearly 60 per cent of the construction costs. The details are still being worked out. But it is definitely an improvement over the existing building grants scheme,” says Nihal Chand Goel, joint secretary, Ministry of Culture.
The Ministry’s decision to double the grants has also been welcomed by performing artistes. “Before last year, we were supporting artistes to the extent of Rs 3,000 per month, which will now become Rs 6,000 per month,” explains Goel. Theatre groups, earlier getting Rs 5,000 a month, are now going to get Rs 10,000 per month. “Part of this decision was put into effect last year itself,” he adds. According to the Ministry, at least 200 groups across the country depend on the salary grant scheme, and newer groups might well be included in this scheme this year.
But the scheme that has overshadowed all the rest is the setting up of a single archival portal for all theatre groups across India. This move could potentially salvage the nation’s rich heritage of traditional folk theatre, and give posterity something to marvel at. Besides the history of theatre, the website would also carry articles, critiques and reviews, thus becoming a forum for people to exchange ideas. The website would also offer information about the plays running in your city and facilitate booking of tickets. “In the present age, when the new generation is so tech-savvy, it is important to engage them with theatre through a digital archive and portal,” says Goel.
Theatre director and actor Sudhavana Deshpande estimates the number of theatre groups in the country at nearly 40,000. ‘Say there are 50 people associated with each group, this means that there are nearly two million people associated with theatre,’ she writes.Two million—that’s how many people these schemes are likely to benefit. Though how well they work isn’t known yet, many hope that they might rejuvenate an art form long neglected. Theatre has always served as a tool of social reform and reflector of middle-class pathos. There was a time that radical ideas were disseminated with effective vivacity and vitality this very way. Over the years, however, the vehicle began to gather rust as debt came knocking at its door.
Even acclaimed groups like Prithviraj Kapoor’s travelling theatre couldn’t escape the shackles of debt. Though Prithviraj witnessed unprecedented success well into the 1960s, staging some 2,600 performances in 18 years, he had to disband the company because his liabilities kept piling up. According to an article that NSD Chairperson Amal Allana wrote for the Goethe Institute, such closures were symptomatic of the cash crunch that had begun to haunt theatre in general, even as cinema played the moolah rogue. ‘The Parsee natak companies, the Marathi sangeet natak companies, the public theatre of Bengal, all faced a gradual withdrawal of investment by financiers who shifted over to cinema. The exodus of famous and talented theatre actors, designers, scriptwriters, lyricists, musicians and dancers was the final nail in the coffin of commercial theatre,’ she writes.
Theatre stalwarts hope that the financial grant’s doubling will bring people back at least to commercial theatre. “We are very grateful and also very excited. It is a very fine move by the Ministry. The grant would allow a lot of groups to now be able to pay their actors and technicians,” says Anuradha Kapur, director, NSD.
Veteran theatre director Alyque Padamsee also welcomes the move, but hopes that the grant won’t just go to Delhi groups, as has often dishearteningly happened in the past.
Observers also complain that no one, so far, has mapped the development of Indian theatre or studied its changing modes of production and consumption. “Theatre is a temporal art form. Unlike art and music, which have been well archived because of effective technology, theatre has not had the same privilege. Hence this move to set up an archival portal is extremely welcome,” says stalwart playwright Mahesh Dattani.
A well-preserved archive will answer many vital questions: how have Indian playwrights used folk material? How have changing social scenarios affected the sensibilities of Indian directors? What effect has cultural nationalism had over theatre? “And that’s why it is very important that the archiving director be a person of sound artistic sensibilities. Archiving is not a dead job—it is a living entity. Inspiration can be drawn from the works of the past. That’s how archiving paves way for works of the future,” says Padamsee.
BOX OF MAGIC
Black boxes are fairly new to India. And amateur theatre groups love them. The idea came up in the West in the 1970s, when groups would transform any abandoned warehouse or café into a studio theatre. With limited sets, simple lighting and flexible seating, these spaces focus more on performance than the technicals. “I remember how much we used to struggle for rehearsal spaces… a black box works well because it allows you to experiment with different formats and settings,” says Kapur, who hopes the studio theatre assistance scheme will elicit fresh, new concepts from young artistes.
LIFE IS LIVE
Despite these announcements, a theatre revival is likely to take much more effort. Some like Rahaab Allana, curator of Alkazi Foundation, want schools and colleges to play a more active role in sharpening people’s theatre appreciation sensibilities. “Theatre courses should be part of the syllabus at universities,” says Allana, “We need performance-based experiences right from the formative years.”
In a country of such linguistic and other diversity, theatre can address region-specific issues. Bangalore, for instance, suffers from a big divide between the vernacular and English speaking, which theatre could bridge. State government funds often go the regional way, ignoring English playwrights. Central funds could come to the rescue, offering to close such gaps.
Others, like Ramgopal Bajaj, wish to see theatre thespians lead commercially viable lives. “All the publicity goes to the playwright and director, but who hears of the actors in the play? The theatre actor is surviving only because of alternate options in radio and TV. However, it is not possible for him to sustain himself solely on theatre,” he sighs. Passion is passion, but it needs money too.
That, of course, depends crucially on audience response. Which, in turn, depends on the revival of theatre in India. Cinema may have run away with all the attention and money, but so long as there are performers around with a passion for this art form, theatre cannot really be headed for oblivion. There is nothing quite like the intimacy and immediacy of watching a performance live. As the band Opus put it, Live is Life.