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India’s theatre culture is undergoing a sea change

Theatre people and audiences have realised that they need to find more intimate and direct ways of reaching out to one another

analysis Updated: Dec 31, 2018 17:23 IST
Sanjna Kapoor
Sanjna Kapoor
Two decades ago, it was inconceivable for actors to be shared between theatre groups. Today that Laxman Rekha has dissolved(Aalok Soni/ Hindustan Times)

We are living in times of collaboration. Not to say that collaborations never existed before but today I believe that prevailing technology is the perpetrator of this sharing on a mass scale. Where sharing knowledge systems and ways of being are at the fore of the younger generation’s culture. And this has impacted theatre in India too.

Two decades ago theatre groups were zealously protective of their group members. It was inconceivable for actors to be shared between theatre groups. Today that Laxman Rekha has dissolved and actors, technicians, directors and writers share their skills among various theatre groups, even across cities.

Two decades ago it was difficult to convince theatre actors and directors (less with writers) that they needed to hone their skills and seek new training opportunities. Today this has become the norm and even mid-career actors are attending workshops as well as conducting them.

Today given the abysmal infrastructure for theatre across our country, more theatre people are creating their own spaces with scant resources but enormous passion. These spaces are nurturing a greater sense of camaraderie. And life is being breathed into these spaces in wonderful surprising ways. These alternative spaces are becoming home to a much greater nurturing engagement within the theatre community and its audience as well. From workshops to readings, talks, rehearsals and performances, these spaces are forging more engaged, curious and invested theatre practitioner as well as audience member.

Knowing that we can easily get drowned out in the massive clutter of noise that permeates our lives, theatre people and audiences realise that they need to find more intimate and direct ways of reaching out to one another. And this seems to be happening. We not only have communities of sharing within the theatre practitioners’ world but also within the audience world too. Urban theatre’s audience in India is growing and I believe it is getting younger. This generation of youngsters craves this social engagement, the communal connect, and better still they have the means to pay for theatre today.

There is also a growing sense of what we need to address in theatre today. Interestingly, commercial Marathi theatre is facing a crisis that it is refusing to address. And one of the main reasons for the crisis, I think, is that they are not looking at the content of their plays with an eye on their audience. They are moving with the trend of the television-format, episodic nuggets of stories that do not grip you and take you on a journey of depth.

My high point in recent times was a conversation with an auto-rickshaw driver in Mumbai where he complained bitterly about the inability to watch Marathi theatre anymore because he did not want to go to watch “comedy, comedy, comedy!” He wanted social drama that moved him and gave him new ideas to contemplate.

Marathi theatre is unable to reinvent itself and is harking back to successful productions of the past in a dangerous nostalgia that will not enable anything new to develop.

Whereas with Hindi and English and some regional languages across the country, the small alternative spaces have given birth to more daring, risk-taking content and styles of theatre, which is ideal for today’s more generous and encouraging urban audiences. As Sunil Shanbag says of his alternative space in Mumbai, Studio Tamasha, it has provoked his own group, Tamasha, to consider what sort of work they will create as their audience is a curious one.

Atul Kumar’s Theatre Company space in Kamshet is used by various groups as a space to create work, train and experiment. A new space is coming alive in Pune through Expression Lab that will cater to the need for rehearsals space and intimate performances. I look forward to seeing how such a space in Pune in addition to the valuable older Sudharshan Hall space will be received by a vibrant younger generation of theatre workers and theatre-goers eager for a comfortable adda. More such spaces and attitudes are spreading in non-metro cities across the country.

Our work at Junoon delights in joining the dots, introducing people, building relationships and curating engagement across the country to nurture this opportunity for the performing arts to become an integral and natural part of our weekly lives.

Sanjna Kapoor is cofounder of the theatre-based social enterprise, Junoon

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 31, 2018 17:21 IST