For this article, twenty-four artists immersed in the world of theatre were interviewed to investigate what are the primary preoccupations shaping their perspective in 2024 and how they intend to respond to them in their work. Some very interesting insights and some old concerns were laid out, which is explored below. The future is abrupt, dissonant, sometimes flowing from one thought to another and sometimes jerky in its connections. What the future seeks is to navigate multiple histories, identities, truth, and politics. This article will hopefully provide a glimpse into it. Jumping from one politics to the other, one thought to another, one topic to another might become an exercise of the brain for the reader. That is the intent. However, central to all of this is the idea of how theatre attempts to hope and repair.
At the beginning of December 2023, when I was asked to interview twenty-four people deeply involved with the world of theatre, I found myself wondering what function does theatre serve in a society? The political weather has been unstable, marked by a rise in right-wing totalitarianism, the devastating aftermath of wars, increased restrictions on free speech, and decreased autonomy for women, the queer community, and other marginalised groups around the world. It is perhaps going to get even more unpredictable and erratic in the coming months. Even though theatre is not able to solve the predicaments, it seems hardly fair to impose the responsibility on art to cure everything. What art can perhaps do, as Rajasthani actor and theatre-maker Ajeet Singh Palawat shares, is provide a means to think about new registers, spaces, and possibilities. As he steps into 2024, his intention is to “find new writings, new styles and new stories that the audience will resonate with”. “My art can only prompt, and not force the audience to think.”
Theatre and Space
With 1.42 billion people spread across 28 states and 8 union territories, where dialects and languages change every 100 kilometres, the question of accessibility is woven into our living. Who can view theatre? Where can they view it? Does the space where the ‘play’ unfolds also engage in the politics of exclusion and inclusion? When a performance is talking about breaking barriers and inclusivity, how does the space end up ‘othering’? For theatre makers, making a performance then becomes only a step in a larger process. Many of them are perplexed about ways to reimagine engagement with the audience and become more accessible.
For Suryamohan Kulshreshta, the former director of Bhartendu Natya Academy, Lucknow, theatre has been limited to a certain class – the farmers, villagers, potters – and the issues he raises never actually reach them. “At the least, it is true for Uttar Pradesh and the Hindi belt, where we tend to produce only proscenium plays. The manner in which the plays are ticketed, and the way the halls are, a very large section of the population is unable to view it. How can we then explore new spaces and design our plays?” he asks, adding that it is what he wants to work towards in 2024. “Maybe I will develop a new style for these spaces through workshops and, eventually, productions.”
There is a strong need to find new spaces and venues that will enable a more enriched interaction with audiences. Ajeet Singh Palawat, actor and co-founder of Ujagar Theatre Group is also concerned with reaching the audience he wants to. For him production making, securing funding and human resources are easier obstacles to tackle because organisers and traditional spaces have their own restrictions.
While there is a concern for finding the right space – physically – there is also the question of finding space in an artistic and political sense. Anoushka Zaveri, a young, Mumbai-based theatre maker and actor, who recently claimed accolades at Thespo-25 for her debut play A Glitch in the Myth, talks about navigating the obvious separation between the performer, the performance and the audience, while looking for new places to perform in because she is wary of how her work fits in the conventional proscenium model. “How do I ensure a sense of democracy and inclusivity as someone who believes in breaking the fourth wall, who doesn’t believe in any hierarchy between the form, the story, and the people who are receiving it?”
The other dimension to this, especially for women theatre-makers, is figuring out how much space they can claim for themselves. “It is far easier for my male counterparts to claim that space whereas I have to work really hard to do it,” feels Anoushka. Echoing her thoughts, Sharodiya Chowdhury, another young Mumbai-based theatre-maker, actor, writer, and director of Paperwalls, asserts the importance of claiming space for women and creating structures to safeguard them. “I find it deeply disturbing how the theatre community responds to harassment. We enter under the illusion that the theatre is not an organised sector, and so we don’t have systems and bodies in place to protect people. But we need to find new structures.”
Theatre, Censorship, and Resistance
When socio-political conditions disillusion and alienate people, the only recourse for art is to resist. It is only in art that we can trace the attempts to subvert the hegemony of the ruling class. This desire to shock and offend the power structure was expressed by many.
Nrithya Pillai, a hereditary Bharatanatyam dancer, scholar, and activist, critiques the politics of exclusion and erasure in institutionalised and traditional structures. “I have been subject to the politics of exclusion in these spaces right from when I was young and hopeful. But now more than ever the plight of the many oppressed groups unsettles me. I feel more helpless than ever before. What shapes my art is the politics of what the system tries so hard to erase. I try to keep the discomfort alive by simply existing in these spaces that were created by excluding people like me. As a dancer who is a descendant of people who were criminalised for dancing, it is a survival mechanism to thrive and create art and discourse that makes the privileged people uncomfortable and accountable. This is the only way I know to exist.”
On the other hand, Sudhanva Deshpande, a member of the Delhi-based street theatre group Jana Natya Manch (JNM), lays down the need for art to not only resist, but also repair. “We are going through a dark, dangerous time. The rise in street vigilantism, amplified by and fed by online trolls, has created a toxic brew,” he says. JNM has been the target of attacks, physical and online, several times over the past five decades. “We know what it is to lose a beloved comrade. We feel Safdar Hashmi’s loss – killed when we were performing back in 1989 – acutely. We don’t want to be martyrs. We want to be able to tell compelling stories that capture the experiences of ordinary people in today’s India. For the first time in fifty years, we feel as if we have to keep looking over our shoulders while creating a play, and when we take it out to perform.”
This present time has posed unprecedented challenges for us, says Sudhanva. How do we then create and perform plays that ask vital questions, while also safeguarding the life and limb of the actors and organisers of our plays? In the coming year(s), he believes, street theatre performers, and indeed all theatre makers who have something to say about the world around us, will have to evolve creative and clever ways to simply keep performing.
Quite like his theatre counterparts, esteemed playwright Rajesh Kumar, a Mohan Rakesh Samman awardee, also feels that it is his moral imperative to take a stand against colonial and capitalist structures that aim to oppress. “I feel that there is always something left to write,” he asserts, “Any writer who is connected to society will find that it is their responsibility to write. Today, in theatre, voices are being censored, expressions are being curtailed, and in such a scenario, one can’t remain silent.”
The general elections in India are around the corner, and with new criminal and telecommunication laws in place, which raise concerns about granting the government sweeping control over all private communication, the common public is strapped to express, create, share and build with agency and freedom. “The spaces to make are considerably diminishing with the rise of a monstrous capitalist-authoritarian Hindu majority state-power that is invariably going to walk right over us theatre makers who want to bring the stories of horror, resilience, love and empowerment out to the world. The only thing I consider over and over again is ‘what can bring people together’ at a time when identity politics and our social locations speak louder than who we are as co-humans,” asks Manishikha Baul, a visiting professor at Ashoka University and an Odissi practitioner.
Theatre and Empathy
We are so often told that theatre can’t really change anything. Yet, it is only in theatre that we can possibly hope and dream — a clarion that reverberates that the last will be first and the first last.
It is perhaps only through art then that we can hope to comfort the distressed. Amid all this cacophony, how can theatre seek to empathise, allow to see and be seen? DSM alum and one of the recipients of the 2023 Niloufer Sagar Alumni Production Grant, Rishika Kaushik underlines the importance of kindness and love now more than ever. “I walk into 2024 in search of tenderness,” she says. “I seem to be watching the world (and myself) grow angrier, more alone, splitting, lost. My primary search is to be both soft and disruptive in my making – to provoke through gentleness, to ask angrily and in silence, to find, dig and address the internal, social and philosophical wound of humans today.”
Mohammed Ellyas Lehry, another young theatre-maker hailing from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, also wants empathy to be a primary force that shapes the industry, not only from the outside but also from within. He reflects, “I have witnessed far too often scenarios where conflict has arisen and people in places of power have chosen to act without compassion. My wish for administrators and leaders in the arts would be that we ask a few more questions before we make decisions and judgements, and to ask them with curiosity, and not suspicion. I certainly didn’t choose the arts because it was ruthless, authoritarian and lacking in nuance, so my hope is that these values will resurface and that we will stop imitating and recreating the systems that we are striving to move away from.”
Love and hope require resilience and strength. To hold on to them against all odds is to refuse to participate in the structures of dread and dissonance. To love against all hope, to hope against hope is the only manner in which we can perhaps survive.
Theatre, Dialogue, and the Need to Engage with the Past
In an increasingly polarised and reactionary world, which has an attention span of a goldfish, can theatre attempt dialogue? Anuradha Kapur, well-known director and scholar, is unsettled by the hate, violence, and the breakdown of dialogue. “The more I see the breakdown of communication and exchange, the more I think about the forms that rest upon dialogue and exchange, and how these might be reinvented with reference to today. The more I look back at these forms in nostalgia, so to speak, the more I hope there is a future to such thinking. The future of nostalgia!” she exclaims. Anuradha wants to work with renewed vigour on forms, modes and styles that allow for dialogue. “But dialogue requires listening and thinking. Not thinking and answering in the rapid-fire mode of one-word answers but slow thinking, and slow answering, like slow cooking!”
In a world that thrives on instant gratification, there is a genuine apprehension about not slowing down enough to listen, and pausing long enough to understand each other, to register what really is happening around.
Swati Apte, who runs the Kshirsagar Apte Foundation in Mumbai, is worried that such exposure to media (be it television or social media) makes us believe we already know something, without truly understanding it. There isn’t a real spirit of a deeper, neutral curiosity when we hear or see material.
This ability to listen was the central idea of Pune-based director Mohit Takalkar’s much-acclaimed play Hunkaro. “It was about communication, and language, which I encountered during Covid. I wanted to talk about the loss of home, despair, death, and migration. I found myself asking the question: is this the time to simply sit down and listen to what we want to say? And languages, communication, listening and forming a dialogue is perhaps something that I want to keep exploring going forward.”
Gurleen Judge, director, actor and playwright of Modern Art, like Anuradha Kapur, reiterates the need to re-engage with forms and the past in one’s practice. “I am interested in exploring the form and the many historical contexts in which theatre has thrived and lived in this country. I always respond to life around me. As a theatre-maker and writer, I am looking at the past – to understand who we are today – and how we can move from here.”
Dr. Arjun Raina, a Kathakali practitioner, writer, actor, and director wants to respond to the phenomenon of majoritarianism — the rise of Hindu majority support in India through his play ‘Khandar’ that is set in India. He believes the rise of Hindu majority support in India has very dangerous consequences politically and theatre needs to respond to it. At its centre are some intriguing ideas: What is history and what is a myth? Who benefits from history and, who, by myth? What genuine tools, as opposed to suspicious ones, are we to use to interpret the lives of people who live by myth, and by organised religion, for whom rational history can have little meaning? Raina’s two other plays, Camp Darwin and A House of a Great Victorian Artist are set in Australia and allow him to develop what he calls a “brown gaze — a way of looking at and responding to ‘the white people’s world’. These plays have engaging conversations where the characters can effectively communicate with each other. “Post -Covid,” he tells me, “This might be the form my theatre takes, good old fashioned human conversations, dialogue, and communication, with a heart that does not avoid the compelling political questions of our time.”
A new year then perhaps prompts us to slow down and look back and maybe, in that attempt, we will be able to seek a recourse forward.
Forming Theatre Communities and Building Theatre Solidarity for Young Theatre Makers
While there is a need for dialogue, empathy and resistance within the theatre, there is also a need to build these capacities among young theatre makers. How can we create a supportive environment that encourages continuous learning, artistic courage and intellectual rigour? A question that deeply concerns director Sunil Shanbag, it has led to creation of spaces such as Studio Tamaasha and UsPaar, their residency in Kashid, a small hamlet in rural Maharashtra, which welcome performing artists to come and develop new work without the pressure of time or money. Over the last two years, Studio Tamaasha has held affordable, yet high quality training workshops conducted by experienced and committed theatre practitioners. “These are vital if we want to see more thoughtful and meaningful theatre,” asserts Sunil.
Pradeep Ghosh, a theatre director, writer, and performer working with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) talks about how hard it is to sustain oneself in theatre, especially in the Hindi-speaking region, because it has never been considered a profession there. He is trying to explore new ways to make theatre more professional so that young artists can commit to the art form. “I believe that artists are more likely to stay committed to the art form if they can sustain themselves financially. They won’t be tempted to quickly shift to the fields of movies and television then.”
While one way to ensure more engagement from youngsters could be to make theatre ‘popular’, it is also important to build solidarity amongst young people in the performing arts, to teach them “to be able to find answers together, to be able to stand with each other,” says Sanyukta Saha, Founder and Executive Director at Delhi-based Aagaaz Theatre Trust, which works closely with the children of Nizamuddin Basti.
Theatre in a World Marked by Growing Uncertainty
Vaishali Bisht, Hyderabad-based director, writer, and producer, is concerned with the relevance of the work in the context of the growing instability around the world. “A lot of things are demanding people’s attention. I am interested in finding smaller audiences that are eager and invested, and cultivate them by finding what’s relevant to them.”
Similarly, Sameera Iyengar, a scholar and theatre producer, is interested in being associated with, collaborating with, or facilitating people in the theatre and the arts to understand how the arts can put up propositions, and provocations, and deal with human emotions. “We are finding ourselves in a world that is really dark, and as people in the arts, there is work that we need to do and believe that the work we do does matter.”
Theatre is so much a reflection of what is happening in society. The whole world is on the cusp of a huge change politically, not just in India but across the world, and writer-director Feisal Alkazi is invested in exploring the cause and reasons for genocide and mass migration that is taking place, not only because of war but also due to environmental factors, better prospects etc, in so many regions. “We have somehow, as a society, found ourselves back to victimising the ‘other’, whatever that ‘other’ may be — the Jews, the Palestinians, the Ukranians, Muslims or Sardars. Through theatre, I want to explore their lives.”
Performativity of the Law, War, and Violence
Dr. Benil Biswas, theatre scholar, practitioner and a faculty at Ambedkar University Dehi, is unsettled by the world around them that refuses to engage in dialogue with each other. He is keen to explore how theatre in its ingenuous form, has crept into every manifestation of our existence. “The apparent theatricality of purported hatred has driven us to the point where the impossibility of communication and dialogue seems to have become the order of the day.” He adds that this also finds its manifestation as extreme forms of violence are being cherished and celebrated across popular culture and media, to the extent of stifling our attention on theatre (as we know it) and shifting it towards an engagement with the ‘theatre of war’.
As the director of the Alkazi Theatre Archives, Zuleikha Chaudhari also finds herself ruminating about the performativity of war, violence, and law especially. Her current work ‘Untitled Trilogy’ looks into the re-staging of a historical trial that took place in pre-Independent India; an enactment of a post-Independence People’s Tribunal; and a theatre text that contemplates an alternate national future. The project considers questions of theatrical and legal performativity, and legal and historical narrativization. She asserts, “Performativity is helpful in rethinking the role of performance in trials, and for understanding the ways in which violence is addressed, negotiated, transformed, re-enacted and perpetuated through legal proceedings. Theatre and law assert productions of truth and reality, the construction of narratives, a historical frame of reference, and the creation of alternative conditions with visions of the present. How can theatre aid our relation to, and questioning of, history? What role can theatre play in the production of ethical knowledge and counter-memory? Can theatre help us arrive at different forms of justice and judgement that remain outside the reach of the courtroom or the ambit of the state?”
Theatre of the Present
This article intended to find possibilities for the future. However, when I posed my questions to Veda Rakesh, a theatre director at IPTA, Lucknow, she simply quipped, “I hardly plan about the future. I take things as they come to me.”
It rings with a certain truth that is hard-pressing for our times. Theatre is not about the future. It is about the here and now. It has become important for us to engage with ideas that will be able to liberate us or help us sustain the brutality of the present. Perhaps then, art is important to survive the present so that we can hope for the future. It needs to be urgent, messy, seeking pleasure and filling the gaps. It needs to be abundant with faith. It should know how to act now. And more than anything else it should be willing to look onto the tempests and be unshaken.
To adapt Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines, as Sudhanva Deshpande suggests, will there be theatre in the dark times? “Yes, there will be theatre of the dark times – but not dark theatre!”
It is hoping for a theatre in the present that, as Dr Benil Biswas puts it, can bring back a dialogic sphere, the reverberations of polyphony, the giggles, where all identities will be embraced and syncretism will be eulogized. It is also a reification of American author Jill Dolan’s belief that ‘utopia’ is not out there in the distant future for humanity, but it is here in theatre that initiates and actualizes, even if momentarily, the potential and possibility of a just world. That’s my wish for theatre in 2024.