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All the world’s a stage, quite literally

Kitchens, terraces, courtyards, libraries, even a bus is substituting the stage. Expensive performance spaces are forcing troupes to jump off it.

brunch Updated: Aug 12, 2014 16:19 IST
Asad Ali
Asad Ali
Hindustan Times
Indian theatre,Badal Sircar,stage

Badal Sircar would’ve given a wry grin.

One of the foremost personalities in the history of Indian theatre, Sircar felt more strongly than most the constraints of the proscenium or formal stage. And that was in the late 1960s. But today’s crop of theatre artists is also pushing the boundaries of creativity – using kitchens, terraces, courtyards, libraries and even public buses to stage plays.

In the early Seventies, Sircar set up his own theatre group Satabdi whose first production Spartacus (1972) was staged in a small courtyard at Kolkata’s Academy of Fine Arts. Next came Michil (1974), performed open-air in a village in West Bengal. Other plays that sought to break the mould of stage-based performances followed.

The idea was to do away with all that was unnecessary to the core performance by actors. Using a formal stage was also expensive. Even today, a disconnect with the audience, lack of space and financial issues compel contemporary Indian performers to shun the hallowed proscenium space.

Also read:Is theatre a dying art in India?

“As a people, we have had a history of performing our folk arts in open spaces,” says Suresh Sharma, who helms the Repertory Company, the performing wing of the National School of Drama, New Delhi. “Then came artists who experimented. But for the majority of performers today, experiments happen by way of compulsion.”

The compulsion, Sharma explains, is financial. Though cities like Mumbai and Delhi have proscenium halls built on land sold by the government at nominal rates to promote the arts, renting these auditoria is expensive.

“Whether it’s Kamani Auditorium and Sri Ram Center in Delhi or any other place, the rent is extremely high, making them an unviable option for most,” says Sharma. “As much as a lakh is needed to stage a performance in a place like Kamani. Even big directors such as M K Raina and Bhanu Bharti are unable to opt for such spaces without government support. Hence the need to seek out newer, unconventional spaces.”

Indian television’s ‘Badki’ from the small-screen drama Hum Log, Seema Pahwa, says that even if the tickets were priced at Rs 1,000 a seat, the production would need to have a popular face among its cast to pull in crowds and make up for the investment.

(Photo: KR Vinayanan)

Shobha Deepak Singh, vice chairperson of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra which administers Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi, offers a different take: “Artists can’t have their cake and eat it too,” she says. “They want fancy lights and sound systems, but want it cheap. A lot of money goes into the upkeep of the auditorium.”

Financial concerns apart, sometimes artists need a non-stage space simply because the confines of an auditorium will not work for their production.

That’s why Pahwa’s production of Bhisham Sahni’s play Saag Meat made such news when it was staged in April this year. The play is a satire on the middle class, and Pahwa wanted to give it a more tangible treatment. So she actually cooked the saag meat during the play and served it to the audience at the end. This, of course, meant she had to work with fire, and none of the auditoria that Pahwa approached gave the required permits. Frustrated but determined, Pahwa held the first performance on the terrace of her house, and soon experimented with other spaces like courtyards.

Also read:Govt is not promoting theatre, say artists

Clearly, experimentation has its own price tag, and acclaimed Kerala-born theatre director Roysten Abel, of The Manganiyar Seduction fame, knows it all too well. Abel’s most recent production, The Kitchen, is a grand presentation that tries to use the act of cooking as a metaphor for life itself. The concept came to Abel when he visited the shrine of Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi in Turkey. “Rumi’s kitchen space has been preserved the way it was. It had a raised platform where Rumi and his dervishes meditated, while the food cooked beneath them.

Novices who wanted to join in had to kneel and wait, without food or water, sometimes for weeks. So their souls were being cooked in a way besides the actual food, while Rumi and his chosen dervishes were ‘cooking’ on a cosmic plane,” explains Abel.

First performed at the Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru, in August 2013, the production is now on an international tour. It also has twelve mizhavu musicians on stage, seated inside a structure similar to the traditional pot usually used to prepare payasam. This means higher costs and numerous permissions.

“A proper show involving three or four days of set-up can be expensive,” says Abel. “Ranga Shankara is probably one of the best spaces available that way. It’s affordable and there are fewer hassles to deal with in Bengaluru.”

Non-traditional theatre spaces have their share of problems. Martin John Chalissery, a Kerala-based theatre director and India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grantee, knows all about them. Having grown up in Thrissur, Martin went to Chile in 2002 to build on his physical theatre skills. He collaborated with a wide array of artists there and once he returned, set up Sadhana Center for Creative Practice – a cross-cultural initiative comprising like-minded artists looking to innovate. In 2013, it produced Odichodichu – Oru Bus Natakam, a musical performance on a bus, refurbished so that its right side, back panel and roof could transform into a mobile stage. The musicians and artists interacted with the audience in what Martin calls a “bus carnival.” local transport authorities clamped down when Martin tried to take the bus across the state, saying that because it was a performance vehicle it couldn’t be randomly driven around. But Martin remains optimistic despite the niggles. "Many artists complain about spaces, which is true to an extent," he says. "But they should create the spaces they want."

That’s exactly what Arundhati Ghosh, executive director of IFA, urges theatre groups to do. “Instead of looking at newer spaces, one could also look at spaces which were meant for the arts but now lie completely unused,” she says. “Or city spots which can be easily converted into a performance space with minimal investment. In fact, one of the objectives of Project 560 that IFA started was to get artists to find spaces in the city which they felt are most conducive to the arts or their performances.”

As part of the project, Bengaluru-based theatre group Rangasiri put together a performance based on the life of monarch Kempegowda I, the founder of Bangalore. The performance was held, fittingly, around one of the four watch towers built during Kempegowda’s reign to demarcate the outermost boundaries of the city. As part of the same project, Mallika Prasad and Ram Ganesh Kamatham of Actors Ensemble India Forum converted a climbing wall inside a popular city mall into a sort of vertical stage for their unique performance.

“It’s a compulsion at times to experiment, and it isn’t always a creative choice,” says Sanjana Kapoor, who was at the helm of Prithvi theatre for close to 20 years. “But all experiments in the realm of theatre and the performing arts should be seen as a sign of exciting times for theatre lovers. Theatrewallahs will always sniff out opportunities and spaces to perform. They always have,” adds Kapoor.

Site specific theatre worldwide

Closer home: Slick off-the-stage experiments don’t just hold true for current times. One simply has to look at India’s most popular site-specific theatre - the Ramlila (pictured right). Ramnagar in Varanasi district transforms itself into an expansive open-air theatre every year.

Beyond borders: British theatre company Punchdrunk (formed in 2000) has gained massive popularity for its radical site-based performances. One of their most recent performances (in July) was held at an old medical research centre.

From HT Brunch, July 27
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First Published: Jul 25, 2014 14:01 IST