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The country’s cultural bosses are promoting a notion of Indianness which is nothing but narrow Hinduism


A few years ago, there was a derailment of the critical discourse in Indian theatre. What it did, was to quietly disengage with contemporaneity and engage with Indianness as a benchmark for critical judgment. Incidentally, this was also the time of a similar derailment in Indian politics — there was a disengagement with secularism, with Hindutva replacing it as a benchmark for patriotism. In politics, a rightwing Hindu party did the derailment. But in theatre, it was we, the insiders who did the damage.

Since the late 70s, there has been an insidious attempt by official cultural bodies — through patronage, awards, membership of official cultural bodies, foreign trips, production grants — to make Indian theatre look Indian (Indian actually meaning Hindu). The Sangeet Natak Akademi went to the extent of issuing a fatwa, enlisting a series of traditional forms to be used as production styles in contemporary theatre productions, if they were to be funded by the Akademi.

An Indian artist had to ‘prove’ his Indianness. Some of us joined the Indianness bandwagon. A lot of us resisted and had to fend for ourselves. It was an attempt by the cultural bosses to selectively privilege certain productions and plays on the basis of a perceived notion of Indianness.

So what is wrong with Indian theatre looking more Indian? Nothing, except that Indian theatre has always looked Indian. Think of productions like Jasma Odan directed by Shanta Gandhi, Agra Bazaar by Habib Tanvir, Ashadh Ka Ek Din by Ebrahim Alkazi, and Rakta Karabi by Shambhu Mitra. We already had the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Hindustani theatre, Parsi theatre, Surabhi theatre, company theatre, etc. It was not looks, but perception, which was dividing Indian theatre in a dangerous way.

A pattern emerges if we look at the background of those who were favoured and those who were not. Among those who were favoured were Brahmins or high caste Hindus. Those who were excluded were non-Hindus, dalits, women directors and Left radicals. Had this privileging happened purely on merit then there could have been some justification. But that is not so. The upshot was that vernacular languages were marginalised. The development of character, portrayal of the psychological self and detailing were shelved. To put it crudely, this era of Indianness meant a removal of the trouser and shirt from the theatre and the re-establishment of the dhoti, and Brahminical ethos in its place. Women, dalits, minorities — all became stereotypes or were relegated to the sidelines.

A specific example of the people excluded: one of the senior-most theatre persons — Badal Sircar. Till the mid-seventies he was considered a leading modern Indian playwright along with Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. Rakesh died early. Karnad and Tendulkar made suitable adjustments in their style and flourished. Sircar refused to budge and was sidelined. He rejected his own early plays as bourgeois and moved closer to agit-prop theatre. He continues to perform street plays at his advanced age. He is a sad and bitter man. He is a Christian and a Left radical. His Left radicalism shows in his works but he did not construct a Christian India either in his early works or in his later, agit-prop phase. He has built a contemporary India. We have treated him very badly.

I am not talking about individual talent here but about history. BV Karanth, who was the director of National School of Drama (nsd) from 1977 to 1981, went on to become the harbinger of the Indianness era. Theatre commentators like the late Suresh Awasthi and critic Nemichandra Jain ably assisted Karanthji, to construct an ideological base for Indianness. They tried to show younger theatre practitioners “how to circumvent realism and reach the Natya Shastra or theatrical nirvana if you prefer!” Ratan Thiyam, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, BV Karanth and a host of others became role models for the new perception. The next three decades in Indian theatre were filled with a series of zonal festivals, national festivals and seminars celebrating the notion of Indianness.

But what these (mostly Delhi-based) cultural bosses were actually doing was to construct a Hindu way of performing theatre and side step the production style of Ebrahim Alkazi, who is considered the father of modern Indian theatre by many and whose stint as a teacher at the National School Drama earned him the status of a cult figure among an entire generation of theatre aspirants. But he was declared a western mind and kept aside.

Take the example of Habib Tanvir. A Muslim by birth, a Communist by conviction and an Indian performer to boot. He has always worked with folk forms and even lived with folk performers. He should have been the presiding deity of the Indianness brigade. There was a short-lived honeymoon. But they soon realised the double disadvantage of his birth and his conviction. They dumped him. But Habib saab is a survivor. He refuses to be defeated, and keeps travelling with his group. Habib saab as we all know, did not construct a Muslim India. He constructed a rural India.

The list of the talented and excluded is endless. Fritz Bennewitz, MS Sathyu, Mohan Upreti, Gursharan Singh, Bhishma Sahni, GP Deshpande, Barry John, Amal Allana, Devendra Raj Ankur, Robin Das, Naseeruddin Shah, Arun Mukherjee, Satyadev Dubey, Nadira Babbar and G. Shankara Pillai, among others.

We have neglected the source of Indian theatre by fooling ourselves with half-backed aesthetic theories. Theatre has to spring from schools, factory sites, the urban ghetto and the semi-rural small town. It cannot happen if we don’t encourage those who are doing theatre in the field. If Barry John, VK Sharma and KG Krishna Murthy want to do children’s plays, critically acclaim it. If Sircar, Basavalingaiah, Gursharan Singh and others want to do agit-prop theatre, it is because there are millions of people agitating on the streets. They should be accorded the same status as KN Panicker and Ratan Thiyam. Ranjit Kapoor does urban popular theatre, BM Shah did comedies, Mahan Upreti did musicals, Ankur does story-telling theatre. They should all be recognised as pioneers in those genres. If Kirti Jain, Maya Rao, Anuradha Kapur, Anamika Haksar and Lakshmi want to do gender sensitive theatre, they are responding to society. They should be provided a proper space to operate.

There is no such thing as ‘The Theatre’. Indian theatre is a federation of many theatre styles. Even to become a true Indian, we shall have to move forward, rather than backward. So let us all move forward towards a contemporary Indian theatre.

Excerpted from the veteran theatre director’s recent convocation keynote address at NSD 

Subi Samuel

I am reading Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life at the moment. He’s a motivational speaker. The basic premise of the book is about finding meaning and direction in your life. I am really enjoying it

Madhu Natraj-Heri

The last movie I saw was Alexander. It was too much like Troy and so I didn’t really enjoy it. On
television, my favourite shows are Kumars at No 42 and Just Shoot Me. I watch the Travel & Living channel because I love travelling.

Divya Pallat

I’ve been totally engrossed in Rabbi Shergill’s soulful and eclectic music. A friend of mine recently told me that she listened to Rabbi at a club in Italy! That says a lot about how the world is embracing Indian music.



February 19, 2005

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