Mediating social change
Influenced by Marxist and Freudian traditions, and driven by extraordinarily talented thespians, the 20th-century Indian theatre stood apart in its form and content from what followed and preceded it
"Sometimes the plays speak what everybody knows; sometimes they speak what nobody says. Sometimes they open paths or unveil truths; sometimes they challenge the way things are done or understood"
— Leonard and Kilkelly
The above quote sums up the power of theatre in setting the stage for social change through a dialogic medium of communication where the recipient is as actively engaged in decoding the message as the expressor in coding it. The existence of this common space of interaction between the performer and the spectator sets theatre apart from many other modes of mass or group communication. This commonality of space lends theatre a non-imposing character in the true sense of the term.
Every single human soul is abundant with unexpressed feelings, suppressed angst, deepest fears and whatnot. Theatre, as a medium of expression, has an extraordinary power to catch the wave at its crest, and amplify the emotions multiple times — through dramatization, intense visuals and varying tones of voices, with music and the set-up weaving up a background where reality meets fantasy — with the dividing lines blurred between them. All other mediums lack this scale of intensity.
To reiterate, this change is not imposed — it is made to spring from the heart of spectators, at collective level, and is directed towards achieving communion. None could sum it up more succinctly than Shakespeare himself: "Theatre is a mirror for highlighting man's humanity and also a tool for understanding why man also finds it so easy to transgress that same humanity"
In interacting with spectators, theatre offers all the ingredients required for social change — it forces spectators to reflect upon themselves, invites them to engage with the content and form in real space and time and drives them towards a mutual understanding — with each person filling their own set gaps to commute with the performers, and other spectators, on a shared journey.
Theatre is also an amalgamation of multiple art forms. It has the flow of poetry, depth of literature, charm of story-telling, rhythm of music, strong visual appeal of a painting and, above all, an interpersonal human touch. This encompassing trait of theatre serves as its powerhouse that has an overwhelming capacity to impact change.
Furthermore, nothing has greater potential than politics to drive social change. And theatre, over the past century, has proved time and again that it can break into the political space and rock the world if it's a stage!
Theatre, politics and social change
The political Left had a domineering influence on the modern Indian theatre — particularly throughout the 20th century. A caveat has to be put here that the theatre stalwarts of the age — though aligned with Leftist culture — had elevated themselves to the height of artistic expression that had an altogether independent direction. In fact, thespians of Badal Sircar and Utpal Dutt stature had, in the later part of their career, disassociated themselves with party affiliations.
The turbulent socio-political context worldwide towards the beginning of the third decade of the 20th century served as a breeding ground for the rise of political theatre, and the ripples were felt in India as well. Thespians of global fame, including Romain Rolland and Maxim Gorky, were spearheading the resistance theatre at a time when countries were recovering from the global economic crisis and the world was headed towards WW-II — with Hitler rising to power around the same time.
The ripples of these developments resonated in India with the formation of Progressive Writers' Association (PWA). Communist Party of India was instrumental in the formation of PWA. The association saw involvement of youth like Mulk Raj Anand, Bhavani Bhattacharya, Sajjad Zaheer and Iqbal Singh among others.
PWA is said to have paved the way for establishment of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) — which was seen as the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. The coming of IPTA into existence drew a sharp line that divided the theatre of aesthetics and theatre for political change and cultural awakening. The association attracted rich artistic contributions from the likes of Bijon Bhattacharya, Utpal Dutt, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Prithvi raj Kapoor, Salil Chowdhury and Pandit Ravi Shankar — each a master in his own rights.
The saga of IPTA's rise will be incomplete without the mention of Bijon Bhattacharya's 'Nabanna' (New Harvest). Staged in 1944, against the backdrop of historic Bengal famine, the play touched the cord among millions. It was the able direction of Shambhu Mitra that made 'Nabanna' a resonating sentiment among millions in Bengal who had seen the famine mercilessly engulf at least two million lives, and colonial masters and money lenders doing rest of the injustice. The play earned a humongous revenue which would be utilised for famine relief.
With Nabanna, IPTA became an overnight success and many new faces came into its fold who would define and shape the landscape of Indian theatre and, in fact, will take it to unseen heights. IPTA, in its formative years, nurtured the idea of socialist revolution and discredited imperialism. The nature of activism carried out under IPTA also had a clear nationalist tint.
But, as India gained independence, theatre wizards didn't take much time to realise that the post-Independent India had its own set of disturbing realities. Now there was no empire to fight against, and no freedom movement that would keep the nationalist feelings alive.
It was in this backdrop that Shambhu Mitra of 'Nabanna' fame broke away from Leftist traditions and decided to create 'art for the art's sake'. The medium would be the theatre group 'Bohurupee'. In fact, many others, for their own stated reasons, followed the same trail. The greatest name among those was Utpal Dutt — whose legacy of street theatre would take a couple of decades to reach the pinnacle and transform theatre like anything.
From the proscenium to the streets
As things went by, the impact of theatre appeared to have toned down a bit in the initial decades after independence. Or to say that theatre focussing on family values and structures gained precedence for the time being, will be more accurate. But the 1970s and the 1980s saw the revival of theatrical vigour. This golden era of Indian theatre was again influenced by the ideas of Marx and psychological theories of Sigmund Freud.
The street theatre thrived and challenged the powers that be in the boldest manner possible. As Utpal Dutt, one of the pioneers of Indian street theatre, would put it:
The dwarfs who came on-stage and spoke everyday street-language drove poetry out of the theatre. The bourgeois does not understand poetry and is, therefore, suspicious of it. In his concept of realism, only the mundane slang of the market-place has any relevance. Market-place or stock exchange.
Dutt's legacy was taken to unassailable heights by two of the trailblazers of that era — Badal Sircar and Safdar Hashmi.
Badal Sircar was the one who had made a transition from proscenium to street theatre, as he chose not to be bound by the limitations of the former. Sircar, a town planner by profession until 1975, became so much absorbed into theatre after he took the street form in 1972 that he left his job under the West Bengal government. Sircar had a twofold vision of transformation — 1) he desperately wanted to evolve the manner in which performers and spectators interacted with each other during the play; and 2) he wanted to awaken the political spark within the spectator that may drive him towards a better future after leaving the theatrical space. While the first vision defined the new form of street theatre the second was a pointer towards the content Sircar's plays would take.
Sircar is known to have despised the props, set-ups and even performing techniques. He didn't stop here. As Sadanand Menon puts it: Sircar "militated against the artiﬁcial divide between the actor and the audience, a ﬁre-wall that was intrinsic to the proscenium stage...His basic concern, till the end, remained exploring the untapped energy of the individual and collective body to create a transformative experience for both, the performer and the spectator"
Regarding the nature of content of his plays, Rustom Bharucha pointed out that "Sircar focuses on the callousness of the middle class and their capacity to watch the suffering of people without doing anything about it."
Badal Sircar had been a textbook example of a Left-leaning artist, who transcended the boundary lines of ideology when it came in confrontation with his art. To quote Badal Sircar himself from Nilanjan Dutta's book, 'Badal Sircar: Ideology Has Not Failed Me': "I didn't join the party under the influence of some dada. I—and many others like me at that time—came to the party from a feeling that this world had to be changed. Even after leaving the party, I feel I am still doing its work—I mean the work I was there for, in the first place. The work of changing the world. That is not finished and I am still doing it. Through theatre"
The other towering personality who served theatre through his sweat and blood was the iconic Delhi theatre activist Safdar Hashmi. Growing in the lanes of Delhi, Hashmi was on the relentless business of adding blocks and pieces to construct something that he had in his vision. He spearheaded the cultural movement through his Jana Natya Manch (or JANAM as it is popularly known). Safdar Hashmi, again, had firm Leftist leanings. His aesthetic sense and political consciousness blended into a form of cultural activism that JANAM is representative of. Hashmi, as is known, was hacked to death while performing one of his popular plays, 'Halla Bol'. The theatre group has successfully absorbed the shock of its leader's death and is carrying forward his legacy.
Though the street theatre was pioneered and spearheaded by the above discussed artists, several other groups also contributed their part in shaping and popularising the new democratised form of theatre.
'Padatik' was another contemporary group founded by Shyamanand Jalan in Calcutta, which took theatre out of the proscenium stage. Its ambit, however, was limited to studios or "intimate spaces".
Other contemporary geniuses
Conformities perpetuate social traditions — good or bad — and confrontations tear them apart to create space for new social realities to take shape. Any discourse on theatre will be incomplete without the mention of two of the greatest playwrights India has ever produced — Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. If the likes of Badal Sircar and Safdar Hashmi staged plays with explicit political overtones, Tendulkar and Karnad untangled the most complex social and historical realities of their times.
Tendulkar was brave enough to pen down unspeakable truths in the crudest manner possible. None can forget the bone-chilling scene from his play 'The Vultures', where a pregnant woman's saree bled green as a result of receiving persistent kicking! Or for that matter his association with the play 'Mitrachi Goshta' (A Friend's Story) — that dared to venture into the forbidden discourse of same sex relations.
It was not just about the varied radical themes that Tendulkar took into his 30 full-length dramas, but also about the treatment that only he was capable of providing. The structure of dialogues in Tendulkar's plays was mostly abrupt, sometimes incomplete — much the same way the expressions of human feelings are!
His real-life experiences as a journalist and, previously, his odd familial relations — compounded by a knack of being utterly honest in expression — lent a non-conformist overtone to his plays. While he may not have been politically directional in his approach like Sircar or Hashmi, his politics was rooted in the reality itself — almost unalienable. In fact, the most famous of his plays — including 'Ghasiram Kotwal' and 'Sakharam Binder' — came heavily under political ire.
A similar breed — though distinct in his theme and treatment — was Karnataka's stalwart playwright, Girish Karnad. Known for (and also criticised for) his historical plays like 'Tughlaq' and 'The Dreams of Tipu Sultan', Karnad had been politically active in the latter part of career — when countering fascist voices became inevitable. Like Tendulkar, he too dealt with violence but his treatment was entirely different. Karnad assumed upon himself the authority to dissect the psyche of human beings, rather than just mirroring it on the stage. In terms of lending transformational touch to the society, one of the striking themes that Karnad addressed through his plays like 'Hayavadana' and 'Anju Mallige' was feminine sexuality.
Before and after
Before politics completely took over theatre in the 20th century, it was Parsi theatre that ruled the roost. Parsi theatre was more institutionalised, followed the Shakespearian tradition and served as a source of inspiration, later on, to the masala bollywood cinema.
The shrinking of Leftist space in the Indian political landscape was paralleled with a decline in the quality and scale of activist theatre within the country. In the name of activist theatre, what mostly circulates today is a type of advertising. While themes may still be relevant, the artistic side has undergone a heavy decline — taking a toll on its impact feature. Under the turbulent socio-cultural context prevailing presently, theatre can again stand up to its repute, if dedicated artists show interest in taking forward its rich legacy.
Views expressed are personal