Politics and Performance
While it is impossible to give an inflexible definition to the street theatre in India, let me start by stating the general understanding of the genre being a form of cultural politics together with being a category of art and performance. It is a politically nuanced theatre that is oriented towards change and needs to be celebrated for its own unique structure and audience reach. Politics here is not just applied to the readymade art; it informs the choice of method, topic, form and style of the performance. It relies extensively on improvisation and theatre being an ephemeral art form, makes use of powerful dialogues as its cynosure. Ever since its inception, it became a popular, new type of agitprop theatre performed on the streets, at factory gates, markets, dockyards, playgrounds, universities, and so on. It did not expect its audience to come to a place designated for performance, but took the plays to the audience, wherever it lived and worked.
Safdar Hashmi, a political activist, actor, playwright and poet, had been deeply committed, to the anti-imperialist, secular and egalitarian values that were woven into the rich fabric of the nation’s liberation struggle. An iconic communist director, he worked extensively with the form of the street theatre in our country, andwas a founding member of Jana Natya Manch (People’s Theatre Front; JANAM for short) in 1973, which grew out of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) defined street theatre as “basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and mobilise them behind fighting organisations.” Hashmi in India was seen as an equivalent to the great Nobel laureate Dario Fo (Italian playwright-actor-director), much of whose dramatic work depends on improvisation and comprises the recovery of forms of theatre, such as those performed by giullari (medieval strolling players)and, more famously, commedia dell’arte. Both made use of subversive humour and real legal battles as raw materials for their scripts, which often changed from performance to performance and incorporated the latest case developments for the audience to be aware of. In their performances, with a circular acting area, actors and audience in close proximity, new dramatic structures and writing skills, new kinds of training, new uses of music, theatre management and small time and space frame, street theatre stands with the people. Safdar was murdered while performing in a street play, Halla Bol, where again his voice was that of the rebelling masses against the powers of the authoritarian regimes.
Over the years, numerous groups and artists have evolved who are experimenting with the form of street theatre in our country and are making use of this platform to voice their concerns. For example, established in 2012 by the above discussed India’s preeminent street theatre group, Jana Natya Manch, Studio Safdar is located about six km west of Connaught Place in a neighbourhood known as Shadi Khampur, where the group has created a small black box theatre, and is an independent, non-funded space for arts and activism. It is dedicated to creating an alternative and affordable space in Delhi for staging and experimenting with the arts. It supports activism that explores the multiple intersections of communities and politics. Next door to Studio Safdar is the May Day Bookstore and Cafe, managed and run by Left Word Books, whose editor Sudhanva Deshpande is also one of the trustees of the Studio Safdar Trust. On the choice of this place for setting up the studio, Sudhanva says: “we are a theatre group that does mainly (though not exclusively) street theatre. The street and its bustle, the mohalla and its chaos, give us life and tremendous energy. We love it. There was no question of going to any place that might be even a little bit ‘elite’. We were also always clear that wherever we settle, that neighbourhood has to become our home, and we have to blend in. We cannot, should not, be seen as some fancy outsiders. Our work has to become part of the rhythm of the mohalla. The other residents have to feel we are one of them; that the space itself belongs to them. There has to be joint ownership. So every time we programme anything here, we are very mindful of how we can draw our most immediate audience into the performance.”
Aatish, a theare group founded by four young Indian women, who are deeply committed to make their radical insurgent voices heard and are now a formidable presence in the street theatre scene in our country also needs to be mentioned here. Picking up issues such as violence against women, women’s empowerment, child labour, children’s education, usage of solar energy, the need to vote, examining the state of democracy, anti-sedition, gender as performance, rights of landless labourers, menstrual taboos, and many more not talked about affairs, the group endeavours to bring forth a dialogue with its intended audience. Through rational arguments and making information available, they seek to create mass awareness and undo myriads of misconceptions and stereotypes. Ankita Anand, one of the founder members of the group, says: “Four of us from college founded Aatish in 2011 when we realised that theatre wasn’t just an extra curricular activity for us that we did in college. We started doing plays on issues that needed attention but wasn’t getting talked about enough. For instance on the face of it many people would agree that dowry is a bad thing. But they won’t find anything problematic in the entire process of a guy coming to ‘see’ a girl for marriage or question the rituals around a wedding. Aatish has been about dealing with all those jagged ends of seemingly ‘normal’ things. We perform in both urban and rural spaces. The form holds immense potential because of its austerity and what you can do with that of bare space and body. The kind of theatre we do is about common people, each one of us, bringing change in our lives. Street theatre fits into that aim perfectly because without lights, sound, make up, props, it relies on a mundane physical space and something as common as the human body to deliver its content. When the routine-ness of that regular body and space is transformed through a street play, it is inspiring. It tells us that no matter how seemingly ordinary we may be, we have the potential to change things.”
Another interesting window to this form of theatre is its employment by the various corporate organisations. These companies are using the form as a way to develop communication skills, creative problem solving, and supportive teamwork abilities that are used by improvisational, ensemble street play artists amongst their employees. They are also cashing in on the social responsibility credits by creating consciousness about various social issues pertinent to the contemporary Indian society. Priya Gangwani, a former employee of ST Microelectronics, and an active member of the company’s street theatre team emphasises on the flexibility of the form. She says: “Since it did not require extensive sets like the proscenium theatre and could be easily performed at unconventional spaces like the office canteen, lawns, conference venue foyer etc, it best suited our needs. There was a direct connect with the audience and we could improvise instantaneously depending upon the immediate in-between audience response. The company did not have to invest in any infrastructural expenditure and could still achieve its objective.”
With the deconstruction of the formal form of representation in theatre, the inclusion of the audience as active participants in the performance presented, street theatre in our county has progressed from only activism to be more all-encompassing form. It stands with the people.
" The street and its bustle, the mohalla and its chaos, give us tremendous energy. We were always clear that wherever we settle, that neighbourhood has to become our home, and we have to blend in
Actor & Director, Jana Natya Manch
" The form holds immense potential because of its austerity and what you can do with bare space and body. The kind of theatre we do is about common people, each one of us, bringing change in our lives
" Since it did not require extensive sets like the proscenium theatre and could be easily performed at unconventional spaces like the office canteen, lawns, conference venue foyer etc, it best suited our needs
Former employee, ST Microelectronics
(The author is Assistant Professor of English, JDMC, Delhi University)