Editor’s Note: India has a rich history in theatre, but our knowledge about the work our contemporaries and older groups have and are doing, is often limited to the geographies we live in. Driven by a curiosity to know about the work being created across the country, over the next couple of months, we will publish interviews and stories with different theatre groups and personalities from around the country. You can read previous articles in this series here: Anurupa Roy, Keval Arora, Shiva Pathak and Nimi Ravindran, Budhan Theatre’s Atish Indrekar, Jana Natya Manch’s Moloyshree Hashmi, and Adikshakti.
“God, the creator of the universal stage never made straight lines! Everything is a curved line whether it is a cloud, animals or humans… nature doesn’t have any straight lines, but then whatever we made as humans was all made of straight lines- houses, books, mobiles… creativity does not flourish in these straight lines, it thrives in and around nature… Where did sound come from? Where did rhythm come from? All from nature… and who discovered it first? It was the Adivasis.”
For over three decades and more than 60 plays, Subodh Patnaik has been successful in using theatre as a medium for social change by running his theatre group ‘Natya Chetna’ (formed in 1986) and the theatre village ‘Natya Gram’ in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. He has devised two models of theatre: Cyco Theatre (cycle expeditions, where the group travels to far-off villages on bicycles and performs plays for local audiences) and Intimate Theatre (plays made for the proscenium stage and mainly urban audiences). The group primarily works and tells stories of people from the Adivasi community and has been known for creating original and powerful work around its socio-political and economic issues.
For Natya Chetna, theatre is not merely an artform, it is a way of life. Natya Chetna’s Cyco Theatre productions have travelled over 10,000 kms in rural Odisha and include plays like Bana Manish (1986), Kahapain Atmahatya (1992), Pachis Bhuta (1994), Au-thare Swadhinata (1995), Taangia Chhap (1996), Kala Paani (1998), Sapanara Sapan (1999), Sita Asita (2002), Dhola Suna (2006) and Ma-thie Paani (2012); Intimate Theatre productions include Kaatha (1992), Abu (1996, revived 2015), Geeta (2000), Bhuta (2003), Dhuan (2006), Maati (2007), Fula (2010), Shosa (2011), Chring Chring (2012), Sua (2014) and Nian (2016). The following is an excerpt from a wonderful conversation I had with Subodh, prodding more about his journey, process and ambitions.
What is your first memory of theatre growing up?
My first appearance onstage was actually not on stage! I was 5 years old, living with my parents on a veterinary doctor’s campus in Surada (Ganjam district) because my father was a veterinary surgeon. My mother was a teacher and also a very good singer, who had worked with the All India Radio and was passionate about the arts. Both of them had studied at Ravenshaw College, Cuttack where they were introduced to Kalicharan Patnaik, one of the pioneers of that time who gave a twist to traditional odissi theatre and jumped to modern theatre in Cuttack. Perhaps because of his influence, many years later… My mother suddenly got an idea to do a play and she motivated the children of the veterinary campus, converting my father’s dispensary into a proscenium stage, using sarees. Then she wrote a short play (based on the story of Raja Harishchandra), where I got to play Rishi Vishwamitra. I was very excited at the thought of putting on a fake beard and changing my face. Perhaps that made me interested in theatre and my mother happened to be my first director.
In his college hostel days in Puri, Subodh got involved in a student’s gang war for fighting against ragging and he recalls how a touring theatre play then rescued him from the police…
At what point did you decide that you wanted to take theatre seriously and learn formally?
When this theatre tour was going on, I saw that during the nights, the director was teaching something to the actors. So one day, I got curious and asked, ‘What is happening here?’ Then someone told me, ‘yahan natak padha rahe hain’… I thought, ‘natak kya koi padhne ka cheez hota hain?’ and they told me about a four year theatre graduation course in Utkal University (Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya). When I heard this, I thought maybe this is the reason God put me through all of this drama, I am destined to be a cinema-hero and this is it. I excitedly went up to my parents and told them that I wanted to study theatre. They got furious and told me that if I don’t pursue science, I should get out of the house! So I took all the money I had from my scholarships (1200 rupees) and left my house to pursue this course. The other thing that really attracted me to this was that two of our teachers in the university at that time, were our biggest movie stars, Vijay Mohanty and Ajit Das, and both were students of the NSD, Delhi.
Although against his parents wishes he left science, Subodh talks about how he discovered that theatre was no less than a scientific study and that how one had to be a very good student of life to excel in learning stagecraft…
How did the idea of Natya Chetna (theatre group) and Natya Gram (theatre village) come up?
Many times, I saw artistic theatre that only gave the benefits to the producers, not the audiences. It neither changed the audiences, nor did it impact their minds. I realised that there are very few people telling the stories of poor people, of people from the villages… because all the writers live in cities. And what kind of plays come out of the cities? The stories mostly are of people who wear boot-pant-shirts, very few of them wear dhotis…
The other thing was that people here thought that those who make plays after studying theatre, only do translations, nobody tells the stories of our culture, of our soil, in our language… they all get lost in Andha Yug or plays like that… so I decided we would make original plays and tell the stories of our villages but for that one had to go and stay in the village. So we started going into the deep ends of the forest, in the interiors of Odisha (through Cyco Theatre), collaborating with many NGOs and grassroot organisations which were already active there.
In your productions, you have worked with actors from cities and Adivasi areas, actors who trained and non-trained… How has that process been for you?
I prefer working with non-actors than trained actors because trained actors are like a ‘murti’ (statue) whereas non-actors are like ‘mitti’ (clay), so they can become anything! When we travel for our research, we talk to local NGOs, dramatic clubs and many grassroot organisations asking them to help us find actors who would like to work with us in Bhubhaneshwar. For many Adivasis, there is no concept of viewer and the performer, because in their culture there is no theatre… so then when we get them here (to Natya Chetna), first we take them to watch plays, to show them what theatre is like.
Secondly, we work with them because the plays we make, the stories we tell are based on their lived experiences, their own issues and therefore, they have a relationship with them. Also, in my experience I have seen that kids coming from Adivasi areas are much quicker and efficient in working with movement, choreography and music, than kids from cities… the reason being that they are closer to nature. For example, a child from a city would take two days to learn a step whereas an Adivasi child would pick it up in two minutes and make it their own. You know Adivasis can sing a group song without a harmonium in perfect scale – it is a 1000-year-old rich tradition.
‘To theatre-makers from the city, I would say… go close to nature. Nature is the mother of all kinds of art design, perception and conception, so people living closer to nature will obviously be more creative. Thats why we decided to make Natya Gram far from the straight lines of Bhubaneshwar… I would say go to villages, learn from them, don’t judge them, don’t have a superiority complex… go as a student, they are the masters who have been living there for long.’
What are your dreams for the future of Natya Chetna and Natya Gram?
I think we have invested a lot as a performing group and that now we need to structure and formalise our learning. Whatever knowledge, skills and experience we have gathered over the years, should be imparted as a course and our work needs to have an academic angle to it. So, for me, models like Barefoot University in Rajasthan, which is not a formal university but a people’s university, really stand out as an inspiration! We have to follow their footsteps.