Why the past matters for modern Indian theatre

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

Inheritors: A still from Bali, directed by Nimmy Raphel and starring Vinay Kumar (left) as Bali   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

For modernity as a movement to grow into something meaningful in the present, Indian theatre needs continuity with the past

A folklorist once said to me, “The tube light and the loudspeaker have banished all the ghosts from our villages.” I think that applies to our sense of aesthetics as well.

I remember seeing a Kathakali performance at a tourist centre in Kerala. The concert was jaded and the artistes uninspired, talking on their cell phones in between exits and entries. Perform they did but with the enthusiasm of a government clerk at his desk on a hot Monday afternoon. The emphasis was clearly on the make-up ritual and the layered costumes for the benefit of the tourists. There was more time devoted to photo opportunities with the artistes and, oh yes, foreign tourists at one point were encouraged to come on stage and dance. On the other hand, there are the masters. They would be appalled at such travesties. They spend years in training to perfect their craft, under the guidance of a master. To them, art is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. However, many of the present generations are encouraged to pursue more lucrative professions.

So amidst the ruins of a dead classical theatre, and a fast-fragmenting traditional theatre, where is our modern Indian theatre? What are the aesthetics that we, the practitioners, employ to make our theatre uniquely Indian and contemporary? Is there any continuity from our tradition to a more modern aesthetic that is quintessentially Indian?

There is change but very little continuity. The brief period of modernity we enjoyed with the works of dancers Uday Shankar and Chandralekha, the Indian People’s Theatre Association, playwrights Badal Sircar, BV Karanth and Girish Karnad and so on seems to have flashed and vanished without a trace. But for the past to come into the present effectively, we need to respond to our artistic legacy and grow with it. For modernity as a movement to grow into something meaningful, we need continuity with our past.

There are very few modern groups that one can speak of with emphasis that have any connection to our past beyond European colonisation. Theatre visionary and director Veenapani Chawla was once so moved by a performance of Koodiyattam that she wondered how the master could evoke at will the same emotion so effectively and consistently. The master told her he would teach the technique only to his shishyas. Since she wasn’t his student, he could not show her the method. So in her quest to understand and apply to modern theatre, the traditional technique of breath patterns, facial musculature, tension, and sensory recall to convey the Essence (Rasa) to an audience, she researched and formed a new system, which is practised today, five years after her demise, amid the leafy spaces of Adishakti, the theatre school she founded.

Adishakti has over these five years passed the test of not being an individual’s vanity organisation but a recognised school, teaching a system of learning uniquely Indian and contemporary. Their focus has been tales from the epics — polemical, socio-politically relevant, and sometimes spinning the original tale on its head.

Recently, they performed Bali, a popular piece from their repertoire, at the Prithvi Theatre. It was written and directed by Nimmy Raphel and starred Vinay Kumar in the eponymous role of the monkey king from the Ramayana. Both Raphel and Kumar are the inheritors of Chawla’s legacy. Going by this performance, this is a legacy that they will foster and help grow, not merely preserve as a museum piece. The play had the traditional clowns (vidushaka) played by actors with tremendous skill. Surprising bursts of hilarity gave us the psychological distance from the victimhood of Bali. The character of Ram was played cold and emotionless, as a Kshatriya ought to be, with chilling effect by actor Rijul Ray. The context was utterly modern, although the setting remained in the imaginary world of the great story. Here was theatre at its cutting edge without being pretentiously European, and, at the same time, removed from the trappings of traditional politics.

The next morning I had the privilege of joining a workshop on breath and emotion conducted by actor Vinay Kumar. It challenged all my beliefs about Bhava and Rasa. His demonstrations of the kind of techniques employed by Adishakti showed how much research has gone into the study of ancient texts as well as the needs of the modern aesthetic and sociopolitical environment.

There are other schools too, for sure, that have a location on Indian soil but firmly planted in the present. One can think of Ninasam in Karnataka, an outreach programme that brings modern Indian theatre to a rural audience. Or Kanhailal’s Kalakshetra, in Manipur, where animal and bird studies are an inspiration for the disciplined training of actors. These are few in number but vastly crucial in their contribution to modern Indian performing arts.

We, as a nation, rely on tradition for our identity. It serves us well to live on past glory. If we discovered our identity in the present, we would be in a more self-assured space. The arts, as always, help us find ourselves in our time and our place.

Mahesh Dattani   -  BLink


Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on September 06, 2019
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