The joke is that the minute they finish their course, graduates of the National School of Drama catch the first train out from Delhi to Mumbai to seek their fame and fortune in films and television.
Fifty per cent of the 758 alumni of the NSD are, in fact, in Mumbai. But it is also true that if it weren't for NSD graduates fanning out all over the country, perhaps the state of theatre in India would not be as healthy as it is today.
Consider a few of the estimable names: Ratan Thiyam in Manipur, Waman Kendre in Mumbai, Bansi Kaul in Madhya Pradesh, Neelam Mansingh in Punjab, B Choudhary Jaishree in Bangalore, Bhanu Bharti in Rajasthan, Amal Allana, Roysten Abel, M K Raina and Ranjeet Kapoor in Delhi, dedicated to the world of theatre. <b1>
And there are film actors Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher, Rohini Hattangady and Atul Kulkarni, who always make time do plays.
This is NSD's big year - it's the golden jubilee of an institution which has survived half a century despite the mandatory problems endemic in a government-funded organisation, autonomous though it may be.
Indian showbiz is the richer for it, since students coming out after three years of rigorous training, have fanned out into television (Jyoti Vyas, Kumud Chaskar, B K Giri), filmmaking (Sai Paranjpye), scriptwriting (Ranjeet Kapur, Sutapa Sikdar) and of course, acting.. of high calibre.
Current director Anuradha Kapur points out that the NSD was set up at a time of Nehruvian vision, which gave considerable importance to culture. Inevitably, for an institution that has lasted this long, periodically there are questions about its relevance. A ‘vision committee' was, hence, set up to find ways to rejuvenate the NSD.
To go into a sepia-tinted flashback, the National School of Drama was set up by the Sangeet Natak Academy in 1959. It began with an office at Delhi's Pragati Maidan with an annual grant of Rs 9500. It moved for a while to a Nizamuddin address, before getting its sprawling Bahawalput House campus - that now also houses other branches like the Repertory Company, Theatre-in Education and the Children's Theatre wing.
The annual grant is a substantially higher Rs 11 crore. <b2>
Easy.. not any more
"In the beginning," recalls Jyoti Vyas, who was in the second batch of graduates, "I would be asked, ‘Why is a nice Gujarati girl doing natak?" Today the NSD confers a kind of stamp of quality on its alumni, and opens doors more than a crack for them.
It was perhaps easier 50 years ago to get into the NSD. Today, the demand far outstrips the supply. Only 20 students are accepted out of thousands of applicants. As director-actor Salim Arif says, "In the northern belt, just getting into the NSD has meant that you are a celebrity."
The stalwarts as well as junior NSD graduates grad testify that the rigorous training they receive in every aspect of theatre, is ideal education. Says Arif, "NSD teaches commitment to excellence, and exposes the students to a variety of forms by the top people in their fields. After that you can do anything - stage design, lighting, costumes."
There is general agreement over the fact that the NSD was given its shape and direction by Ebrahim Alkazi, theatre pioneer, whose daughter Amal Allana is now the chairperson of NSD.
He was strict and instilled a discipline in the students. Anupam Kher recounts an incident: when Alkazi had spotted his shirt button undone from a far-off distance, he came up to him, buttoned it, and told him that an actor should not be sloppy.
Jyoti Vyas recalls the time when they went to perform at a place where the toilets were dirty. "And we cleaned them.. no job in theatre was beneath you is what we were taught."
Actress Kanika Dang belongs to the post-Alkazi period, but says the training is still as thorough: "I used to have a problem with crying. Bansi Kaul, our teacher, told me to keep doing a scene till I could cry. Eventually the tears came out of sheer frustration. He asked me to remember where that came from."
Students talk about waking up at the crack of dawn and going to bed exhausted at the end of the day, but learning and imbibing so much that it stays with them forever.
NSD has had its share of problems like the strike during Ratan Thiyam's time, and more a few years later. There have also been complaints about the syllabus being outdated.
During the recent NSD Festival, there was some grumbling about the NSD frittering its resources on big events and inviting foreign groups, when its focus should be on teaching –which was the institution's original purpose.
There is also criticism of drama training being centralised in Delhi, where there are hardly any employment opportunities for actors. That's why through extension programmes, NSD reaches out to other places.
"We have had workshops in the North East and Sikkim," says Kapur. "In some places, young people had never been exposed to theatre." She also talks of more interdisciplinary exchanges between the arts and of student exchange programmes, which will enable NSD students to train abroad.
Amal Allana has been in regular talks with theatre people on how to improve matters, since it is time to look forward after 50 years. Today more than ever, progressive theatre is essential to counter the cultural erosion caused by television.
The good news is that very soon theatre will be a part of the school syllabus all over the country. That means NSD will be involved not just in preparing the curriculum, but also in training teachers.