Indian theatre is deeply rooted, not just in the traditions of Sanskrit Drama as explained in Bharata’s Natyashastra, but also very significantly in folk dance and music, as well as tribal rituals and ceremonies. Post the Victorian hangover there have been attempts by organisations like the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the Progressive Writer’s Association and the Youth Cultural Institute (none by the government) to rescue vernacular theatre from the shadow of the proscenium-based English Theatre. That is why we have put together a list of theatre spaces that mark the rural landscape of India, making theatre with the people from whom we have inherited the very language of theatre.
Naya Theatre evolved from Nacha, the Chhattisgarhi folk theatre. It is the legacy of the late PadmaShri Habib Tanvir. A graduate of the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art, UK Tanvir established his own theatre troupe Naya Theatre in 1959 with handpicked folk artists in Bhopal. The artists of Naya Theatre spoke their own local dialect which eliminated any inhibition arising out of language and retained their particular dramatic skills which were often in opposition to English theatre training. For Tanvir the consideration of the sensibilities of the folk artists was an integral part of the creative process. A lot of research, from books, folk songs and conversations, and vigorous editing would go into creating the first draft of the plays. A report from Livemint states that for his play Bahadur Kalarin, on a son’s incestuous feelings for his mother, he chatted with people in Chhattisgarh on the topic before they were told the story of the play and asked to improvise dialogue and movements. Tanvir’s irrevocable conviction in the rich culture of Nacha and his commitment towards the folk community gave rise to milestones in Indian theatre like Charandas Chor, Gaon ka Naam Sasural, Mor Naam Damad and Kamdeo ka Apna Basant Ritu ka Sapna. Though Naya Theatre today is in need of new actors and plays, Tanvir’s daughter Nageen Tanvir is striving to carry on the troupe in all its vitality.
Kalakshetra Manipur (KKM) established in 1969 by the late stalwart Heisnam Kanhailal and his wife Sabitri as a space that presents “Theatre of the Earth”. In an interview with NEZINE Kanhailal explained the ideology behind this specific form of theatre, “….theatre must become a voice for the voiceless, a means that gives the power and strength to the disempowered to resist and take on the challenges.” These marginalised voices in Kanhailal’s plays are often non-actors of the oppressed communities themselves. New Theatre Quarterly 29 mentions three such productions – Nupi Lan (1989), Sanjennaha (1979) and Thanghou Leh Liandou (1980).
Nupi Lan (Women’s War) was created through improvisations with around 70 working women from the famous Women’s Market of Imphal. Images of women in the Manipuri Lai Haraoba (ritual celebrations), in the market haggling and those of surviving, militant Manipuri women in political agitations became the aesthetics of the play. In Sanjennaha (Cowherd) the plight of the actors ,who were villagers, was inextricably linked with the narrative of the exploited cowherd in the play. Thanghou Leh Liandou engaged the tribal youth of the Paite community, reminding them of a cultural heritage they were in the process of forgetting through imposed westernization. Kanhailal’s ardent commitment to devising a unique form of Manipuri theatre through silence and minimalism has given KKM a venerable reputation both nationally and internationally. As of the last decade KKM, which is located on the foothills of Imphal is moving out of its ethnic culture to the rural and natural environment of Assam and Tripura.
Nilakanteshwara Natyaseva Samgha, better known as Ninasam is Karnataka’s cultural powerhouse located deep in the hinterland of the state’s Heggodu village. Established in 1949, this brainchild of renowned dramatist and Magsaysay award winner, K. V. Subbanna is dedicated to the dissemination of theatre and culture. Evolving from a small amateur theatre troupe, today Ninasam has a one year diploma course in theatre with emphasis on working in non-urban conditions. Its impressive infrastructure consists of a one of a kind 700 seat auditorium, its only kind in rural India, for the performance of various art forms. Almost 80% of its past students are active in non-commercial theatre and cultural activities, while aspiring students from across class, caste and gender come from all corners of Karnataka to Ninasam. Its theatre group Tirugata, completely localized, performs almost 120 shows each year, to an estimated of 20 lakh people covering almost all districts of Karnataka. According to a report by the The Hindu some of the biggest names in theatre from B.V. Karnath to Fritz Bennewitz have directed Ninasam productions. Ooru Mane Utsava is the organisation’s theatre and culture festival that involves villagers from all around Heggodu. The theatre activities at Ninasam only form a minuscule part of the sum of its cultural activities ranging from film appreciation courses, intellectual debates on the cultural politics of Karnataka and a 7-10 day long workshop on cultural appreciation. The participants for this event forms a daunting figure of 2000 people including students, teachers, rural cultural activists, journalists, housewives as well as thinkers, intellectuals and artists from all over the country. What makes Ninasam remarkable is that it has single-handedly enriched and empowered the cultural topography of rural Karnataka, becoming a model of inspiration for the rest of the country.
The students of The Drama School, Mumbai is set to do a week-long residency at Ninasam in this March and hope to breathe in some of this visionary work.
The Kattaikkuttu Sangam formed in 1990, is an organisation that integrates liberal education and the performing arts with an aim to promote and contemporize the art of Kattaikkuttu – the theatre of the rural people in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Based in the small village of Punjarasantankal, Kattaikkuttu Sangam is the only residential school for Kattaikkuttu. The Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam (Youth Theatre School) of the Sangam offers a training course in Kattaikkuttu for young rural Tamil boys and girls while providing them support to become professionals in the ancient art form. The students can also join the organisation’s theatre companies- The Kattaikkuttu Young Professionals, All Girls Company and The Junior Company. The Annual Kattaikkuttu Theatre Festival of the organisation brings Kattaikkuttu to local audiences, urban theatre enthusiasts, scholars and tourists. Kattaikkuttu Sangam is an indispensable theatre organ for the country for it has become a platform for folk artists to get together from all parts of Tamil Nadu and revive this dying theatre of Kattaikkuttu.
The centuries old theatre tradition of Karnataka- Yakshagana is what the Yakshagana Kendra in Udupi strives to keep alive. Steeped in Indian mythology, Yakshagana is a vibrant blend of folk and classical modes with ornate forms of costume and make-up. To promote Yakshagana on various levels the Kendra offers a residential programme that combines formal education along with training in Yakshagana, while its troupe Yaksha Ranga consists of almost 100 artists that engage in local and national performances. It also also acts as a center of research and documentation for Yakshagana by publishing books on it.
While doing research for this article, we were hard-pressed to find examples of such organizations. If any of our readers do know of some we should have covered, please do write in and we’ll do our best to include them. Because, in a world that is threateningly being consumed by a homogenizing global culture these organisations act as preservers and re-inventors of indigenous art forms. Which then allows theatre to become a people’s channel through the ages.