On the 13th and 14th of June, DSM Batch 2018-19 performed in their school for the very last time as students. This is a short review of the event and their year-long learning. Aadyant.
Aadyant and the preparation leading up to it. Photo Credit: Poulomi Dey
Each year, the PG Course in Acting & Theatre-making comes to an end with Aadyant. Aadyant (literally, from beginning to end) is a showcase of the students’ learning journey. In a lot of ways, Aadyant is what the whole course leads up to. It pulls together skills accrued across weekly theatre-making labs, various scene studies, a design module, and the annual production.
Kathryn Doshi is one of the Core Faculty at DSM. She observed that ‘the pieces were very different. They reflected the interests and passions of the ensemble.’ The pieces ranged in variety from a kitty party to a fairytale to a zombie political drama. Aadyant was mentored by DSM faculty members Sheena Khalid, Iravati Karnik and Kalliroi Tziafeta.
Kalliroi Tziafeta mentored three of the final pieces. The first was Checking in. It was a story of 3 people experiencing loss. The students treated the piece almost like a film with a very realistic setup and convincing characters. But the direction played with techniques, allowing the audience to see the passage of time in a non-realistic fashion. The use of parallel action and intertwined conversations created pathos and kept the audience engaged through the piece.
Another Aadyant piece was about fairytales. It spoke about how children perceive fantastical stories and how that defines a lot about their life. With this piece, students explored a very deep theme very skilfully, with a lot of humour and solid acting. This wasn’t a large-scale production, but everything nonetheless, came to life with the impact of a Westend musical.
Irawati feels, ‘All pieces showed that the students had learned how to turn something important one wants to say or an important question one wants to explore into something performative and theatrical.’
Perhaps that was best demonstrated by the surprise hit of the evening, Hell of an Election. Political satire is difficult at the best of times, but this piece set the tone by being set in hell. A hell where if you stay long enough you start enjoying the torture. The piece got huge laughs and despite the zombie makeup, left the audience with a pinch in their hearts and minds.
According to Kathryn, ‘Aadyant is meant to give students the full experience of creating original work. Ideally, they will feel empowered to leave school and then create more work rather than just depend on finding a director who will cast them. They do not need to wait on the sidelines for their chance. They have a process that they can use and adapt to make the work that they want to see in the world.’
And we are sure the audiences who attended the 2 days of Aadyant could not agree more. We could hear collective reactions so often. A very well-timed light change drew focus to how things move in slow motion and there was instant applause. The audience gasped as one when they realized the kitty party they were seeing was actually children at play. And of course, there was constant laughter throughout the evening. All of this made Aadyant 2019 a most memorable experience for audiences and performers.
This year’s student production it Rakt Kalyan and has been directed by Sunil Shanbag. It is the Hindi adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Taledanda. And if you just did a backflip to see those two names together, we don’t blame you!
Taledanda is a significant piece of Postmodern Indian literature. Though set in 12th Century Karnataka, Taledanda was originally written in 1989 when the Mandal vs Mandir crisis was beginning to escalate. It explores the intersection of religion and politics during the Bhakti Movement and juxtaposes our history against our present. Like it did nearly three decades ago, the DSM student production hopes to compel audiences and examine parallels between past and present.
Rakt Kalyan tells the story of a man called Basavanna who assembles a congregation of poets, mystics, social revolutionaries and philosophers. Together, they decide to oppose idolatry and reject temple worship. They even speak out against the caste system and demand equality of gender. But when they act on their beliefs and get a Brahmin girl married to a non-Brahmin boy, everything changes. And thus a vibrant, prosperous city plunges into anarchy and terror.
The play gives us insight into how any attempt to change the system comes with heavy consequences. And how individuals and societies navigate change across the ages.
Rakt Kalyan opens on the 9th of March at Drama School Mumbai. After shows in Mumbai, the team takes the production on the road, performing at Bangalore, Ninasam and then back to Mumbai for a final leg of shows.
He shares a love-hate relationship with Mumbai, the city which is at the heart of most of his plays. She has been lighting, directing, and conducting workshops all across Mumbai. The two collaborated for Ambu and Rajalakshmi, officially. But unknown to Ramu, she has lit most of his play-productions for the past few years.
Gurleen Judge and Ramu Ramanathan kick-start the Conversations@theDSM series, a celebration of the guru-shishya tradition in theatre, at Purandare Hall in Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh.
“As a writer you have an obsession to say something that is true. This has to be backed by the rigour to follow the truth,” says Ramu Ramanathan. And this is a common thread that runs through his plays. Words bring to fore the intertwined social, cultural, and political realities of the time – most times bracketing the plays as historical, political, social, and documental. Be it Postcards from Bardoli (2013), Cotton 56, Polyester 84 (2006) or Mahadevbhai 1892-1942 (2002).
Mahadevbhai was the playwright’s response to the phase of anti-Gandhi plays in Maharashtra. “The anti-Gandhi ideologies that Gandhi Virudh Gandhi, Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy, and Gandhi-Ambedkar followed, affronted me. There had to be a necessary response. You respond as an artist, a playwright,” he says.
It is post Mahadevbhai, Ramu Ramanathan says, that he was expected to wear a political hat. “The responsibility weighs you down. You feel you are bound to write serious plays.”
Another play in point, Postcards from Bardoli, set in post-Liberalisation India, puts the spotlight on India’s agrarian crisis. Is the play addressed to the middle class, and challenging their smugness, asks Gurleen Judge? Not all says Ramu. “I was worried with the right wing appropriation of Sardar Patel in a crude nationalist way. There was no understanding of the larger Gandhian context that Sardar operated in. Secondly, it was about familiarising today’s young city audiences about the Bardoli satyagraha.”
Ramu Ramanathan’s idea is to reach out – to fit the writings in a module that is accessible to all strata. For this, he takes cue from capitalism. There is a clear shift in how the middle class is consuming; earlier what the middle class saw as wastage is now a necessity, thanks to the capitalist module. “The assessments and reading of situation by the capitalists is sharp. HUL introduced shampoo sachets priced at Rs 1 as part of Project Shakti. Thus, a commodity which was considered a wasteful indulgence and western, is being used by 70% of the population. If the capitalists can solve the ultimate socialist paradigm, then there is something that they are doing. And in a sense, as artists we neither understand nor are we catering to it.” The idea, he says, is to create that Rs 1 work of art which reaches out to the bottom of the pyramid.
Postcards from Bardoli is bound to make the middle class uncomfortable when an ebullient Mihir, taking a cue from the historical Bardoli Satyagraha – and drawing inspiration from its hero, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, embarks on a perilous journey. All this, while his helpless, flawed and muted father (is it all of us?) watches his son.
The language of theatre
Theatre is ultimately about the spoken. Playwrights will borrow from what is around them, words being created around their community, the lingual dexterity of its people. Languages are dying and the society is growing more inarticulate. Half of the 6000 languages which the planet speaks will die. Over 50 languages have only one speaker left. Then, how does a playwright write?
Ramu Ramanathan quotes two examples from the 1990’s, both adaptations, of Indian English playwriting – Rahul daCunha’s I’m not Bajirao (1995), adapted from Herb Gardener’s I’m not Rappaport) and Naushil Mehta’s A Suitable Bride (1996), an adaptation of Madhu Rye’s Gujarati novel Kimball Ravenswood. He says, both daCunha and Mehta (and to some extent Adi Murzban and Dinayar Contractor) experimented with language and gave legitimacy to Indian English speech. This is akin to the tribe of Indian English writers who were NRIs – Salman Rushdie, V S Naipaul, Rohinton Mistry. Rushdie followed an unusual track and picked up his lingua franca from Star & Style magazine and even Shobha De. “What Indian English literature had achieved 20 years ago, playwriting had achieved it and subsequently many more people – like today’s stand-ups and TV anchors – have started experimenting with it.”
Ramu draws a parallel to another Indian invention, Urdu. He says, Urdu has succeeded because it has been a language of urbanity and communication and it always managed to adjust. Another advantage Urdu and Indian English have is, both are pan-India, instead of being confined to a region or a state.
“For me, theatre is a living museum that preserves words.” An example of this is how the Mumbai-wallahs came to know of Chattisgarhi through Tejan Bai’s performances or Habib Tanvir’s plays. We know of Maithili through Nagarjuna’s poems. Or Bhasa’s Sanskrit plays through Panniker Sir. “In this land of thousand of languages, the question is about how many are we preserving and in what form. Till such time as there are actors that are collecting these words as a part of their repertoire and speaking them aloud for a living audience, this museum will stay alive. That is why in this age of dumbification, which means acronyms and abbreviations and labels, you need the theatre.”
The Indian way of doing things
A peculiar habit of Indian theatre, Ramu Ramanathan says is that actors don’t speak the line, they speak an approximation of the line. Then there is the cultural habit of repetition which is prevalent in our poetry. Ramu says, this was a practice which was criticised by Hegel in the early 19th century when he wanted to counter the Orientalisation of India by Goethe and Max Mueller. Hegel describes India as a region with unchanging institutions and ideas. It is a land of fantasy, beauty and the erotic.
Hegel is said to have relied on the early translations of the Vedas, the Dharmashastras (especially Manu), the canon of Pali, and the writings of philosophers. Given his time period, his knowledge of Indian philosophy is actually impressive. Hegel confronts some of the high thought in the Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools. But he is critical of the Indian habit of repeating and re-instating the point, and indulging in rhetorics.
Ramu says, if one follows this thought, and applies to an Indian stage actor, then it means our actors are programmed in a particular way. They apply this linguistic gharana to the written text. Therefore it makes the written text an onerous burden for their tongues. But individualising and internalising the 21st century lines to the 2 AD spoken habit, changes the context. This is unfair to the modern playwright who writes. This is something all Indian playwrights have been grappling with.
Indian aesthetics in making a play
In the Indian consciousness, metaphors and myths have become reality. Ramu Ramanathan quotes Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a poet and one of the leading Urdu critics and theorists, to explain Indian aesthetics. Faruqi has done an enormous amount of study to the fundamental question about what is aesthetics.
Is it truthful? This is the Greek belief. Is art seeking the truth
The Chinese, who have an equally long tradition, seem to be constantly asking – is it human?
The European question is, it is real
In the Indian sensibility, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi says, humaare yaha rupak real ban jaata hai (the myth is real). Ramu explains, If a poet is asked to write about transition of seasons, we will not have a bard sitting in the forest and making notes like say, Wordsworth or Whitman or Keats. He will improvise. Aap shaayar hote ho, ya nahi hote ho (You are either a poet or not one). It is that simple.
When Ramu talks of the rupak, he makes an interesting point about Triveni in Allahabad. He says, everybody talks about the Triveni Sangam; the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna. Nobody has seen the third river. You will notice that there is a super imposition of the myth which doesn’t exist but it is an integral part of our reality.
Today, the rupak has become real; as is evident in our mainstream politics or mainstream TV debates. That is India.
So? What really constitutes theatre, and is devised theatre a legitimate form? This has been the big question. Which is why Gurleen Judge asked it to wordsmith.
The European young theatrewallah have the works of William Forsyth and a Martha Graham as a reference. Closer home you have contemporary dance performances by Astad Deboo and Chandralekha. “You don’t have to start from vacuum to give modern experimental theatre a form or a sense of movement. Unlike in India, world over artists come from a tradition. Here, you have not even taken someone of the sensibility of Chandralekha into your grammar. The reference points are fuzzy.”
He puts two artists in the spotlight. Ivo Dimchev, a Bulgarian artist, who works in contemporary forms of dance and performance. His show titled “Lili Handel – blood, poetry and music from the white whore’s boudoir” (2005), has been performed hundreds of times. Then there is Bruno Beltrao, a hip-hop artist, who impaired his back at a very young age. He met his guru, another well-known hip-hop artist in Brazil. And he designs and devices a piece using the master’s voice. There is text and if the guru is talking about transcreation and multiple images, Beltrao creates it using holograms. All this, in a small slum in Rio de Janeiro.
“These have been created without massive budgets, in impoverished conditions. If these are the possibilities, then there is a certain deficit of ideas in India and we aren’t pushing ourselves enough. We have a generation of people who know what to say but they are struggling to arrive at how to say this. The how part needs much more rigour. Thusfar we have been negligent about it.”
One glaring omission
Jyotiba Phule’s Tritiya Ratna. It is an important text but rarely staged. In spite of the greatness of Phule, the play never got recognised within the official manifesto of Marathi theatre. Even today it is difficult to stage it.
The most awkward question a director asked you.
Someone asked if he could intersperse a love story in the play Gagan Mahal to stage it at an inter-collegiate festival.
An important work that you have seen recently.
Khasakkinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak) directed by Deepan Sivaraman. By far the most important play I have seen in recent times.
The last four lines from Krapp’s Last Tape:
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back
On Samuel Beckett
Undoubtedly, the master. In every play that I have written, consciously or unconsciously, I have borrowed a line from him and kept that in the play. And whenever I have not borrowed a line from Beckett, the play has flopped. Be it Kashmir Kashmir or Angst Angst Coonth Coonth Boom Bam Dhandhal Dhamal Kaput.
What do tea cups, salt shakers, Dame Judi Dench, and bits of PVC tubes all have in common? They have all played prominent roles in critically acclaimed and thought-provoking theatre around the world.
Material has always been part of the general world of theatrical performance, serving as props, sets, costumes, make up, lights and sound. Everything we see when we watch a play which isn’t a human body is technically “material” of course. Yet, when we speak of “Material Theatre”, we’re talking about instances in which material is used in such a way that it steps out of these usual submissive roles, discontented with always playing second fiddle to the performers. Material – everything from found scraps, bundles of fabric, windows and walls of a site or a venue, to common household objects, beloved childhood toys, and recycled trash – stepping into the spotlight to speak for themselves. The texture, age, size and shape all become important tools in telling stories.
To crumble down, to shrivel away, to burst at the seams with joy, to have one’s bubble burst, to iron out the wrinkles in a new system, to whisper; for even the walls have ears – our language already allows for the personification of things. Material theatre plays with this natural tendency to create a drama that hits all the senses.
What ‘things’ mean to us
To understand the potential of using materials, we begin by dissecting the role of things in our lives. While material theatre as a term has only been around for a few decades, objects and materials have been telling stories to us for as far back as history records go. Ancient Greek society had the tale of Pandora’s Box of death and sickness, and hope at the very bottom, and Christian folklore spoke of the passing of Christ’s last used chalice or the Holy Grail.
The society of the 2000s is a veritable era of “things” – iconic mobile phones that inspire overnight queues, a travelling way of life based on waterproof cameras, toilet seats in the shape of our favourite celebrities, 3D printed prosthetics, ethically grown coffee, blow up dolls – these outlandish objects are now found in most Amazon delivery packages in cities and small towns alike. We see, touch and feel more materials than ever before.
You may know of friends who will apologize to tables and chairs that they bump into (or you do it yourself!). I noticed recently that I treat older bits of crockery in my kitchen, armless coffee pots, coasters stolen from fond world travels, with some greater form of reverence than the newer, trendier lot could ever garner. We naturally assign ghosts of life to the non-living realm of physical, tangible things, through the basic human need to imagine. And we start young.
“Children don’t have to ‘make-believe’. When they hold a piece of cardboard to mime a telephone, it is easy for them to make it real, to imagine the shape of the receiver, the wires coming out of it, plugged into a box on a wall somewhere” says Shaili Sathyu, founder of Gillo Repertory Theatre, a troupe that begins the rehearsal process of each play by having observing play sessions of children of the age group of the intended audience.
For their production “The Mountain Who Loved a Bird”, they decided to use a bundle of newspapers laid over a four foot ladder as the cold, harsh mountain and a ball of wool attached to fish wire as the soft and gentle bird. “We try to work with the core quality of the object. We need to leave space for the children’s imagination to fill.” Observing the children create worlds with objects and toys during their play time continues to serve as a source of inspiration for Shaili’s choice of material.
How can dead objects speak?
So how do we go about bringing a materiality into our theatre? “There is no one way to do it that I can recommend besides exploration. When we see a new object we begin by inspecting it, wondering what it could be, how it could be useful. We can begin to explore familiar objects in this way, as though we knew nothing about them.” says Dhanendra Kavde of Swangvale theatre, who is currently working on Jal Nal, an upcoming solo performance for kids that concerns itself with the dynamics and politics of water. On asked if the rehearsal process is very different from those where he has worked with co-actors, he says “The approach to creating the work is not very different from any other production. The material is my co-actors in this case. It is more stubborn, more independent minded. It reacts the way it does. You cannot expect a cupful of water to behave in the same way as it did in rehearsal. It forces one to be more alert than usual.” In the future, he hopes to work with each of the remaining four of five natural elements as well.
While his approach concerns itself with a sense of political and ecological responsibility, many other possibilities of engagement have developed new sub-genres over the years.
The categories of Object theatre, Puppetry, Shadow Play, Immersive and Site-sensitive theatre, stand as proof of material’s multifarious possibilities. While folk and traditional forms of puppetry such as Bunraku of Japan, South East Asian Wayang, Kathputli of Rajasthan, Vietnamese Water Puppetry and Togalu Gombeyaata of Karnataka, have been around for centuries, works by contemporary companies like Complicité’s A Dog’s Heart and Handspring Puppet Company’s Warhorse have given puppet on stage a hip revival. Closer home, Anurupa Roy has been reviving the style for modern theatregoers and as a teacher to young theatre-makers with her Katkatha Theatre Trust since the late 90s.
In India, material theatre is still somewhat underrepresented in the usual festival and proscenium circuit, but individuals and companies all over the country are bringing new attempts to the public. Material is always speaking to us and many theatre-makers are listening rather keenly.
“In the puppetry circles, one could hear murmurs of Object theatre eight years ago” Choiti Ghosh remembers. In 2010, after some years of working on stage already under her belt, she attended a short intensive workshop on object theatre by the Institut International de la Marionnette, and a year later founded the Tram Theatre Trust, dedicating to making engaging work with everyday objects. “In this form, the nuts-&-bolts-reality of the object lives side by side with the ideational,” she adds. “Working with objects or materials or puppets as co-actors requires a de-centring of the human performer which I enjoy very much.”
Most theatre-makers agreed that material is chosen not based on any criteria, but only through humble discoveries on the floor. Studying different things, structures, shapes, texture to find their natural movement, to follow their organic directions, may lead to spectacular images and ideas. Forcing character and meaning onto the use of materials is not likely to bring forth any real drama.
One Man’s Treasure
As they poke at multiple senses and liberate the imagination from the confines of realism, objects, puppets, grounds of action, and all other forms of material interventions into the stage bring something special to the audience’s relationship with what they are witness to. Choiti adds “The reality of the object is inherent in the physical presence of the object – a lock is always a lock. Sometimes a performance may leave the suggestion wide enough to allow each member of the audience to endow their associations and meanings on to object. You can laugh or cry depending on whether the lock finds its key or is forever broken beyond repair. And the intensity with which you resound to the lock’s situation may depend directly on how deeply you have felt a connection, how successful the play has been in this evocation.”
A material does not speak the language of body and mind that actors and audiences share in common, it is something of the other-world. The spectator meets the world of materials through the threads of memory and experience, while partially obscured from this world which is not quite theirs. In this meeting, material succeeds in using its untransformed power, combined with the choreography of voices, bodies, and movement through space, to evoke nuanced, poetic, and non-literal dimensions of the work.
Written by Saudamini Kalra
DSM Alumnus 2013-14
Co-Founder Meat Puppet Company
L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq
In Discussion: Theatre Festivals of India – Value and Judgement by Shruti Achesh _______________________________________________________________
Intriguing storylines, palpable performances, distinguishing voices and glimpses of various fascinating forms – a theatre festival is supposed to bring us all of this. And big banner theatre festivals – Kala Ghoda Festival (which has a large theatre strand), Hindu Theatre Fest, Parks New Festival, Vinod Doshi, festivals at the NCPA, Prithvi, Rangashankara, Shri Ram Centre etc – often do. These festivals can become an audience’s only way to discern what is happening out there – in the larger world of performance. And so we must, as artists and practitioners, attempt to understand the festival culture of India. We can all agree, that theatre festivals develop the performing arts culture – by allowing the audience to explore various works within a capsule of sorts. They are a giant step towards creating and sustaining vibrant cities and towns. But we also know, that there is no national list of festivals or universal categorization of their work. Several brilliantly planned festivals create original programmes for a diverse audiences one year and disappear the next because a sponsorship fell through or demonetization happened. Whereas several others like the Siddharth Festival at Bodh Gaya or the Hampi Festival in Karnataka offer performance as one of several items on larger cultural platter. They manage to sustain yet don’t feature on any avid festival-goer’s itinerary. So how do we assess these festivals? How do we pool our varied experiences of them to create a bank of information for the uninitiated? How do we know if festivals serving the arts or are they just wasted opportunities? As part of this article, we did a small survey with fellow theatre practitioners and festival organisers to know what according to them makes a theatre festival worthwhile. The responses were a mixed bag. Here are some of the highlights of our survey of theatre artists and festival organizers from across the country: The ONLY Chance to do Multiple Shows Being called for a festival encourages theatre groups to keep their shows alive. Large festivals invest money into a cash-strapped art environment and create opportunities for various companies, groups and traditional practitioners. It’s a plus because no one can really afford to do extensive runs of their productions. And it is through this network of theatre festivals that many groups are getting a chance to perform at various destinations across India – from swanky auditoriums in metros to constructed stages around the country-side. Large festivals – especially those backed by believers in the arts – don’t just offer performance fees, but also cover travel and production. But dealing with some festivals can become an ordeal. Amidst all the planning and hectic schedules, the human element of a traveling troupe often falls through the cracks. Festivals may bring together performers from the four corners of the country, but rarely do they help facilitate any artistic exchange of value between these artists, or between the artists and the local performing arts community. Also, an effort to initiate the audience into engaging critically with the performance – one that goes beyond mere post-show discussions – needs to be made. Curation! Curation! Curation! According to our survey, festivals in India seem to lack vision and a strong curatorial calling. Theatre festivals mainly work on an application model and not a curatorial model. Festival directors or artistic teams do not watch work live before inviting it. At most, a committee may watch videos to decide what to select. But, how can one decide from watching a video if a play is worth sharing? This may be the last resort but it’s quite absurd for this to be the only way theatre festivals get curated in the country, were some of the remarks from our survey. It is important to note here that a festival like Thespo has established and sustained a practice of sending a pair of curators out each year to multiple cities to watch each and every youth group that applies to the festival. The traveling curators don’t just watch the plays but also share critical feedback with the teams – an invaluable contribution to their growth as theatre artists. It may make perfect sense, but most festivals can’t afford to send a curator on a year-long quest for theatre of worth – which is a concept that few festivals have defined for themselves anyway. It’s a chicken-egg problem really. And so, it’s not surprising that those surveyed also complained of rampant favouritism in big festivals – a common replacement for curation in any industry. Marketing A challenge for the ages is the struggle for audiences. Sit long enough at any theatre katta and the conversation will swing around to how no one watches plays anymore, how it’s a task to bring audience to the theatre and how theatre has been dying because of this for centuries. The arguments are had, heads are shaken in disappointment, the chai and Parle-G are finished and everyone heads back to the rehearsal room without addressing the elephant in the room – Marketing. Festivals need to accept that sustainable viewership is the only way to sustainability. Yet, if the recent Theatre Olympics were anything to go by – where most of us only heard of the festival with an article in the Hindu a few days before opening night and several beautiful productions were played to empty auditoriums – even at the highest level, we don’t understand the value of outreach and advertising. And the key point to remember is that the knowledge and expertise to do this successfully exists within the sector itself. A growing breed of arts managers and producers are being trained by programmes like SMART and ATSA and festivals needs to start hiring them. Because how do we activate the spaces we work with through-out the year? How do we advertise theatre? How do we get audiences of all kinds to walk into the theatre with ease? These are the questions that festival organisers don’t seem to be asking themselves. Professionalism The talk of hiring arts managers and arts marketing experts brings us to the question of festival teams. Who does most of the work and who is responsible of taking care of all that happens within a festival that can stretch to almost a month as in the case of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala? While the roles of artistic director and committee members are generally filled, the ground work of coordination and execution usually falls to volunteers. And as the volunteer and intern pool changes from millenials to Gen Z, who are by definition more aware of the opportunities and needs for their skills, festivals need to ask themselves if they can rely solely on volunteer labour to pull an entire festival through. Because at the end of the day, it is difficult to ask people to stay passionate and committed to an exhausting endeavour with no monetary compensation. It leads to changes of teams every year and a loss of vital organizational knowledge that builds a professional work space for the performing arts. And that of course brings us to the final challenge. Funding Every festival in India is a subsidy model. Which basically means that audiences pay a fraction of what the festival actually costs to organize and produce, through ticket sales. Now, let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a subsidy model. It makes theatre accessible, it makes it a public form of art – which many would contend was what it was meant to be. But let’s also consider that there is nothing wrong with festivals making money for the artists and themselves. Theatre as a business must stop being an abhorrent concept, received with suspicion and raised eyebrows. Being funded by the Government like the arts are in certain developed countries, though a worthy ideal, for most Indian theatre-makers is a pipe dream. But if the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is any indicator, the arts can make money for the country, just like tourism. And thus, it becomes crucial for theatre festivals to start building their revenue model, and not as a closed discussion in small offices, but as an inclusive conversation with the artists, performers, crew and audiences. None of these challenges preclude the possibility of a robust performing arts culture and festival space in India. Because theatre, at the end of the day, is built first on one thing that few other art forms can lay claim to. Community Community theatre festivals offer interesting sustainable alternative methods towards addressing the challenges listed here as well as the numerous issues plaguing the performing arts sector. Much like permaculture and sustainable models of living are creating a shift in the way livelihoods conventionally operate, so too are local, community-driven initiatives for the arts creating massive impact on small scales. Acknowledging that rural communities are proactive agents of change, the growth and execution of community theatre activities can bring people together to talk about these matters at large. Community-driven festivals are great at fostering social transformation. The Dharamshala Residential International Festival for Theatre has actively been engaging locals in creating theatre by and for themselves. Under the Sal Tree managed to get plays from Brazil, Korea, Poland and Sri Lanka to a mud-stage in the Sal forests of Assam. Tantidharti is a travelling festival that continuously experimenting with strong issue-based scripts and vocal feminine voices. Because they’re held in different states and cities, each of these festivals comes with its own flavours and features imbibed from the culture around it. Additionally, they explore a myriad palette of talents and styles of theatre, making it an experience that people would not want to miss. In conclusion, the fact is that we see new festivals emerge every year. Venues and theatre spaces have taken on the onus of organizing festivals. Even individual theatre companies have started organising their own theatre festivals. The Tifli International Theatre Festival For Young Audiences and the Hyderabad Children’s Theatre Festival are laying the foundation for a children’s theatre in India. There are festivals for Playback Theatre and Solo Theatre and Marathi Musicals and New Directors – the field is opening far and wide to cater to all kinds of performers and audiences. Considering the speed at which the festival culture of India is evolving, there is a dire need for an open culture of discussion and transparency, good curatorial choices and a participatory environment in which the practitioners can mingle with each other. That’s what makes a festival strong. More and more networking opportunities where artists can meet curators, and vice versa can help in collaborations setting up a ground for much democratic and systemised working environment for the performing art industry. And each of us needs to do our part to facilitate this. We would like to thank those who took part in our survey about Theatre Festivals in India. And now we would like to know what you think. Do share your thoughts, experiences and comments with us through mail or in the comments section below. Also, if you would like a free festival calendar, please do click this link.
Cross-dressing plays multiple roles in theatre all across the world The man, the woman, and the transgender: all portrayals of Maati, the titular character that takes center-stage in Drama School Mumbai’s Hindi adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma. Director Mahesh Dattani’s reinterpretation, however, is about more than just a woman looking for fulfilment through motherhood. Instead, Maati becomes a vehicle for exploring gender roles and bending them on stage. So we decided to take a look at various other productions that use gender-bending and cross-dressing to challenge the roots of a fiercely conservative Indian theatre.
“I’m the androgynous, the Mr the Ms, I’m the good and the evil too. I’m me, but I’m also you. I’m the sublime. I’m the timeless, I’m all the universe encompassed.”
– Shikhandi: The Story of the In- betweens
The power in the portrayal of a transgender dates back to mythological times. Shikhandi is a play that draws on the epic Mahabharata, telling the tale of Amba, reborn as Shikandi to take her revenge on Bhishma. Director Faezeh Jalali’s work draws attention to the taboos associated with LGBT individuals, exposing gender stereotypes to battle through and hopefully overcome gender cliches that have emerged from social constructs.
By highlighting Shikhandi’s gender transformation as a consequence of social norms rather than chalking it down to destiny as it most often is when the story is told, Jalali brings in an angle that speaks out about the character’s sexuality and identity.
“Kudrat ki galti ka nuksaan main kyu uthao?”
– Dohri Zindagi
The challenge, though, does not restrict itself to the audience, challenging even the artists who are involved in the portrayal of this excitingly tenuous world. For actor and director Neha Singh, this whole space is novel in and of itself.
Dohri Zindagi tells the tale of a girl raised as a boy in patriarchal Rajasthan, who is then, as custom dictates, married to another woman. “While researching, we realized that male and female are just two extremes of the gender continuum. Our behaviour, experiences, relationships and desires oscillate between these two extremes on the gender spectrum,” says Singh who acted in and produced the play. The revelation brought clarity, allowing her and her fellow artists to focus on delivering the story as “authentically” as they possibly could. “Honesty and vulnerability are the best approaches while being true to the story one is trying to portray,” she adds. The sentiment is echoed by Vikram Phukan, director of Tape, a new stage production by the Gaysi Family that brings together improvisational performances by actors Puja Swarup, Sheena Khalid and Rachel D’Souza to showcase the colorful world of drag that most people picture when they hear the term ‘cross-dressing’ today.
“Drag queens, or men dressing as women, has been seen on and off in various forms. This was women dressing as men,” Phukan explained about the production that addresses a ‘minority within a minority.’ Earlier in April, theatre-maker, educator and Shakespeare aficionado Deshik Vansadia’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew opened to full houses. It’s a cross-dressed version, with men playing female characters and vice-versa. While the play itself has often been called out for being regressive and highly misogynistic, Vansadia’s view of the play as satire is what he hopes will make a change.
“We are all being tamed, men or women,” he said in a recent interview with The Hindu. That explains how his version, which plays with and combats gender stereotypes by alternative casting while still retaining the material, could very well be the head-on combat against societal misogyny. It’s a step in the right direction, no doubt, integrating characters in drag onto the main stage in a way that inspires the audience to laugh, then introspect. And yet, it only makes a dent in offering respect for the personalities, from the transgenders and hijras to the iconic drag queens, who have been marginalized for so long, ostracized for their craft, rather than celebrated.
A large part of that dent can be attributed to Saggherr Loadhii and his production of Hijda, a Marathi play that centres around two characters, one of whom wants to be a hijra. The other, a transgender that reflects its tradition. Opening to full houses back in 2014, the play marked a turning point in Indian theatre but also showed how far we still have to travel. Society is undergoing a metamorphosis. Mapped by spotlights shining on the faces of earnest artists, the understanding of gender as we know it is shifting. The future, then, will see artists pushing the ‘gender envelope,’ toying with personalities and personas until they represent characters from all walks of life. Till then, the stage is but a medium to explore and discover what lies ahead.
For those interested in discussing gender identities in theatre, contact Drama School Mumbai.
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