Nathan Thomas
Theatre In India: A Dilemma


I was not conscious of the basic inspirations or the nature of the theatre I wanted to do, in the first phase of my work. I had some models in front to follow. The chance to see Avanavan Kadamba, one of the best plays ever produced in my state, written by Kavalam Narayana Panikker, directed by G.Aravindan and performed by a host of celebrated actors including Nedumudi Venu, Natarajan, Krishnan kutty Nair, Jagannathan, and Gopi was a real eye opener and motivation. Also the productions by R.Narendra Prasad at the Natyagraham, the creations by young directors and writers of the seventies including T.M.Abraham, Omcheri, Indukumar, and P.Balachandran revealed new vistas in theatre. I cite these names not just to refer and remember, but since these people represented the wide spectrum of the various possibilities and tendencies of the theatre practice in Kerala, of the seventies.

Then there is the cult figure that really schooled theatre into me and my generation - Prof G.Sankara Pillai, the devoted theatre missionary. He was the immediate inspiration and source of energy for me so that I continued my theatre. Along with S.Ramanujam and the different theater persons who came to teach and do productions in the School of Drama Trichur, Prof G.Sankara Pillai instilled the passion and urge to pursue theatre in my generation and me. (I was not a regular student of the School, but was a frequent visitor.) The workshops, lectures, writings, the regular interactions, along with their productions developed a new sensibility to theatre, a method of doing, an ethics and discipline, and slowly developed the aesthetics. The credentials that mold an artist may not a single guru or root, but may be a hybridized product of many sources, ideologies, experiences and exposures. But there will be a major influence; a kind of primary image of impetus. In my case it happened to be Prof G.Sankara Pillai and the School of Drama. The workshops and the sessions introduced Stanislavski, Anton Artuad, Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, Brecht, Pinter, Growtovsky and Genet and Shaffer and Edward Bond and Robert Wilson and others and others to us…. All the new tendencies, theorization and current happenings of the rest of the repertory of world theatre was exposed to us along with the rich theatre heritage of India and other Asian countries was exposed to us. More important is that theatre was taught to us very seriously like any other academic activity. It developed a method to all aspects of theatre execution, including the selection of the script and its interpretation, the system of blocking and designing, to the construction of the performance text, to the work on the actor, and to the mobilization of resources. Theatre became a cultural activity that needed an expertise and professional competence. All this awareness was distilled to us through the schooling and also from the master directors in our time. Like the silent and invisible god who controls and dictates the fate, NSD remained away from us, in far north. Now I understand that that it is from this master institution and the great Alkazi that the new system and the sensibilities were distilled to us.

Then there were the other influences; influence from the then contemporary poetry, fiction and practice of literature, culture, doctrine and philosophies of the day. Again the west was the model or the cult icon of the seventies. And political activity went no longer a cultural activity and my generation got more and more disillusioned, and detached themselves from this mainstream activity. Literature was filled with surreal, metaphysical narratives; fantasy and personal imageries that drifted more and more to the abstract. Direct narrative was folded and mutilated to many expressionistic and new articulatory techniques. Even the language was handled such a way that its constructions looked, read and sounded like the translation from an alien language and lost its native flavor. This no doubt elevated the artistic expression from the mundane to the high land of aesthetic and mystic experiences and equipped the artist or the writer to portray and address the more complex layers of life. With a broader spectrum of authorship, with a more elaborate sensibility and equipment, our literature and thought become par with the international. It was very normal that the new trends and the narrative structure in literature diffused to the stage to add to the experiments on theatre and its aesthetics, rigorously and meticulously.

Thus with the exposure to the contemporary western literature, along with the schooling in theatre created a hitherto unknown world of modernistic sensations in Kerala theatre. Many western plays from Brecht, Beckett, Pinter and Genet were produced and performed even in rural stage to the astounded villagers. I myself have produced Deathwatch for a village theater group in 1986. The rural spectator was astonished and we in turn were thrilled and proud that the theatre scene in Kerala became more and more experimental, modern and elite.

But suddenly the excitement was over and the villager went away from these obscurantism and experimental activities in theatre. The initial anxiety and the shock of the ordinary theatergoer were settled soon. He cannot relate his experiences, sensibilities, life and being, with those abstract and strange situations and atmosphere portrayed in this theatre. It did not express the nation, its culture, history and aesthetic sensibilities.

 The attempt to evolve an indigenous theatre was going on almost parallel to these western influences. Kavalam Narayana Panikker was going ahead with his own search and G.Sankara Pillai told us that 'the theatre of the earth is never dead' and we have to explore in our own roots. But many of these inquiries lacked the emotional energy, characteristic of true theatre experience and were not related to contemporary experiences. The proscenium arch was destroyed and the productions came down to non-conventional spaces and the traditions of folk performances were reborn as a new tool of expression. Many youngsters including me followed this new inquest. Various art forms, - archaic to the recent, crude and raw to the flimsy and finished, rituals to dance-dramas- were revisited with a new purpose and energy

Thus now I understand that my theatre is to be molded on my own past life and its environment if I really want to communicate effectively to my people. The style, form and technique (and what else) should evolve from my own encountering with the past, present and local and specefic culture, its spatiality and temporality. That is my theatre should be rooted in that little pastoral, agrarian village in Kerala in which I was born and brought up. The colorful festival processions going up the curved village path up the little mound form the movement pattern; the fierce rites of the black magic and exorcist rituals witnessed in the childhood is giving the emotional ecstasy; the folk rhyme from the paddy field to overcome the exertion of the tiring labor and the solo songs of the wavering drunkard fading in and away at nights gave the sense and function of music; the ecstasy with which the devotee, with an arrow pierced right through his cheeks, who dances as if he is possessed formulated the energy to confront the pressure and strain of the performance; the stories the village told me at different ages of my growth drafted the narrative style and technique; the different village locale like the paddy field, playing ground, the secret meeting places in the bushes, and the awesome graveyard surrounded by high walls gave the stage construction and scenic designs; the heroes, gods, semigods, demons, ancestors, and the simple living mortals become the characterizations; the various idols and icons carried by the church procession and the community of the untouchables during the festivals turned to be potential images; the reality of the life around in totality formed the storylines; and of course the subtlety with which the villager suggested his agonies anxieties, and his reactions to the life around, through his narration taught the essence and the subtlety of the craft and art of theatre. Thus the village with its colour; life, emotions, tragedies celebrations and spectacles, did invoke the theatre in me.

But even these searches to our own roots were not spared free from the strong influences of the western perceptions and its aesthetic understanding. Rustum Bharucha criticizes on these indigenous theatre by examining the works of Rattan Thiyyam.

"Thiyyams theatre, I would say, has been strongly influenced by his exposure to proscenium theatre, as represented to him by his mentor Alkazi, at the National School of Drama. His framing of action, timings of exits and entrances, lateral groupings, use of cyclorama, and above all, his tacit refusal to confront the audiences with break in the narrative or direct addresses – these are conventions that strongly uphold the illusion of the fourth wall"

I quote this criticism since I feel that this can be referred to any contemporary theatre practitioner in India, and is a general observation. The forth wall is not the basic problem. But it is the educated aesthetics and the priorities it demands for achieving a professional standard in the execution of theatre is the real block. And this standard is formulated somewhere in the west, mainly in the academic discourses in RADA, and in the professional houses in Broadway or in some other cities of America and Europe. Thus criteria of this professional excellence was measured in the perfection of the craft of the actor and the stage technicalities, so as to represent and create a smooth, soft and aesthetically appealing product. The practices and priorities were reset to achieve a professionally perfect "process" and "product" as dictated by the western sensibilities and perceptions to life. Thus theatre became more and more an elite urban activity and it went away from the rural Indian heartland in soul and substance. The political and cultural features that marked the histrionic tradition and sensibilities of the true Indian become secondary, or even a non-concern in this mad chase for professionalism. Even our nativity was reinvented to address the demands of the western RADA based sensibilities. Many of our myths and folk tales are retold and fabricated in tune to suit the western sensuality and sexuality according to Freudian or similar perceptions. For the western academic, theatre is another 'professional practice' and the art of preparing a good wrapper of glossy coverage so as to enable easy selling became the liability of art. The primary reason and characteristic of theatre - its spontaneity, the informal ambience, its vital and organic nature, the transparency and openness, the proposition to the spectator to join and complete the creation, and the possibility that the experience in theatre can grow beyond the production, - is lost. Theatre is not 'presentation', 'representation' or a mere exposition of craft and a 'show' as emphasized by the occidental academic.

Unfortunately our theatre education and schooling was initiated from and modeled on the priorities of RADA and RADA educated gurus. The Indian narrative and the performance technique that can transcend the barriers of class and cast differences are easily forgotten. Our theorization is limited only to the urban reality, many a times limited to the Mandi house area. Our Schools of drama including NSD are not accepting and aiming at the potential audience or the performance possibility outside the city limits. In fact we are continuously addressing to the 'non Indians' living in a few Indian cities and to the very minority academic activities in some universities. We are only catering to the fake sensibilities of these intellectuals who are uprooted and away from the Indian reality through our arty, spectacular, big-budgeted productions embedded with abstract imageries, symbols and slippery 'sub-texts'.

The many western agencies and funds who patronize and finance the theatre activities in India are also compelling as to be less penchant, less sharp, less bounded to the time and place of action and encourages us to research "into the universality of the temporal experiences". (By alienating a native practice from its roots of life, place and context to a more generalized and academic placement is to de-energize it, take of the vitality and life essence out, and in effect to castrate it). And productions with a fake physicality, accompanied by a lot of human activity wasted and exercise bordering the gymnastics and circus is encouraged. Many of these activities have only academic interest. And at least in Kerala many of the theatre people who has been funded has stopped theatre itself. They seem to have lost all reasoning and pretend not to understand the meanings of their own words, actions and their being, and blissfully lost somewhere is the euphoria of the alcoholic. Really, the accident deaths of many anarchists! And the tragedy is that, they were the radical youth who did powerful and meaningful theatre in there pre-funded days.

We have to reaccept the fact that our theatre tradition is so strong to address many a situation and demands of the time, to express and communicate directly, effectively and with a real contemporaniety. We should re-emphasize that one of the real masters of Indian theatre, Shri Habib Thanveer discovered that it is better to quite RADA, and relive the vital energy of the unadulterated tribal of Chatisgad to develop his theatre. Also remember the famous statement put forward by Badal Sircar that, for theatre to be meaningful, it has to be 'amateur' and not professional. 

I feel that a conscious attempt has to be revitalized to reinvent an alternative Indian theatre free from the formalistic, urbanized and elite aestheticism. The craftsmanship of theatre has to be replaced with a more direct, simple, open, transparent, vital and energetic form in tune content and aboriginal culture. Theatre has to be again native, addressing to the problems, ecstasies and agonies of the time and place and accept an India outside the city limits and the Mandi house premises in reality, when formulating its theory and practice. It seems that we need a de-schooling even to our schools of drama and free them from the overemphasis in aesthetic concerns like continuity in texture, compositional balancing and the brain storming attempts to create a theatre of images and symbols and from the visual gibberish

We have to accept the villagers and their sensibilities as valid in Indian theatre than the western cultural imperialist. We have to identify the new colonial forces and the new fundamentalist tendencies operating around the globe, including India to form and redefine the priorities of theatre.

There is an important new trend in society, a soft totalitarianism, and right out of the middle of society, in the name of morality and compassion. The irony is that this new totalitarianism always refers to the dangers of fascism to support its demands for new moral codes and regulations. This withdrawal behind an apparently unassailable moral barricade serves simply to justify a climate of moral insinuation, witch-hunting and criminalisation. And this is the climate to which even literature, and theatre and art in general must bow today. Apparently that is where the problem starts, so let us not walk in circles, starting the discussion all over again

We have To repeat that we cannot rely on a single model of theatre practice, -devising of the tools and technology of operation, definition of the aesthetics, and construction of a play and playing area, text and performance text, etc- along a simple and singular monolithic structure. We have to accept the life, and experiences of the very different cultures and traditions of the many races co-living as this single nation, as a republic of cultures in the true sense.

These words can be titled and concluded that this is the Dilemma of a contemporary and aspiring theatre practitioner in India and aspiring for the evolution of an alternative and post-Alkazian theatre.

©2003 Chandradasan

For more commentary and articles by Chandradasan, check the Archives.

Chandradasan is a director and writer.
He is  the Artistic Director of Lokadharmi, a center
for theatre training, research and performance, in Kochi, Kerala, India
He is also the Artistic Director of Mazhavillu ( tr: 'rainbow')
a childrens theatre company..
His companies have performed throughout India and in Europe.



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