Is theatre a dying art in India? Not if you look at the full house that many of the plays have commanded in the on-going NSD Natya Samaroh, itself now an annual event in the capital city. Or at the increasing crowds for Jatra, the folkdrama in Bengal, which is now enjoying an extended winter season. An Alyque Padamsee play still draws ‘em in numbers in aamchi Mumbai and even more in other metros.
Others however contend that those are exceptions, which only go to prove the rule. Eminent artist-director Jabbar Patel told me of times past when commercial theatre in what was then Bombay could sustain three shows a day, all of different plays.
“Today”, he said, “its average take is a mere Rs 6,000 per show, less than half of the costs incurred”. In Delhi, for plays other than those with risqué themes, the audience may comprise mainly friends and family of the cast and crew, apart from a few die-hard theatre buffs.
The aam aadmi seems bored of the boards.
As one of the oldest art forms in the country, theatre had generally been able to ride out the onslaught first of cinema and then of state-run TV. It might even manage that against the cable channels, themselves not doling out the best of fare. But for that, it will have to change with the times, something it has struggled to do till now.
It will have to do more to appeal to the young generation, which now has spending power and is increasingly setting the tone for the entertainment industry.
First, theatre scripts have to be taut, and relevant to the here and now. The current churning in Indian society is throwing up a host of new writers. Why are their thoughts and ideas not being voiced more on the stage?
Second, theatre has to move out of its urban confines and reach out to the mofussil, as has happened in some parts of the country. Why should drama schools and repertories exist only in the four-five metro towns, when a large pool of talent lies outside as well.
Not every Manoj Bajpai or Raghvir Yadav can make the long (and difficult) journey from the boondocks to NSD and beyond.
Third, like any other form of entertainment, drama too has to be packaged and marketed well. Padamsee is both a theatre and an ad guru. So he gets Tarun Tahiliani to design costumes for his latest, Macbeth, and for Louis Banks to provide the music – a combination of Tantra and other mesmerising chants.
Much of the revival of Bengal’s Jatra is due to local cine artistes joining its casts. All this helps to get a full house and even corporates become more amenable to sponsorship.
Steps like these could well lead to a real and lasting revival of natya, as it has been known for long in our country.