Master writer Shakespeare may have made the world his stage and all the men and women merely players, but today, the players have their own rules and creativity. Theatre in India is not new, or wasn’t even unheard of half a century ago, but the players today have changed. From being an elitist outing for a handful of middle-aged people (the same couples one would bump into weekend after weekend) to a younger crowd comprising college students and the professional working class alike.
“Being a multilingual country, we have audiences over a range of demographics,” says veteran actress Sarita Joshi who has wowed Gujarati theatre audiences for decades, not to mention television audiences with the ever popular Baa Bahoo aur Baby. “However, talking of modern times, popular vernacular theatre has always had a loyal audience, with an addition of a few youngsters every year. We have not had much to complain, it is the experimental theatre guys who have it rough sometimes,” she states.
So true. Experimental theatre groups have struggled to get decent audiences for many years, but not anymore. “For years experimental theatre was the field of the handful of people who stuck it out. Audiences were limited, and we made all kinds of effort to attract get people to come,” informs Jaimini Pathak of Working Title, a young drama company based out of Mumbai, which has to its credit productions such as Mahadevbhai, which has had over 200 shows and tells the story of the freedom fighter who assisted Mohandas Gandhi. Pathak adds, “Since the last seven or eight years, younger people have started to appreciate theatre, and those who have started to be part of the theatre scene, either has participants or as audience, have continued to stay.”
It is clear that audiences have been more receptive towards theatre, whatever the reason – bad television programming or lack of entertainment that compels you to think. Part of this receptiveness of the audience could be attributed to the changing of cinema as well, since alternative cinema is also being well received by the youth today. Add to that the contribution of major theatre stalwarts like Rahul Da Cunha, Ashwin Gidwani, Feroz Khan and Ashwin Gidwani. Class of 1984 by Da Cunha did 108 performances in one calendar year. Khan has always taken the stage by storm, with not only English, but Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu as well. His English theatre production of Mahatma v/s Gandhi created a sensation wherever it was staged. Gidwani has had 58 productions in six languages at one venue in a year.
“My greatest concern is to get the people of Mumbai back to the theatres. The onslaught of satellite television and Bollywood has been tremendous. I want more and more people to enjoy theatre, says Gidwani whose production company Clowns R Us participated in the Mumbai Theatre Utsav to promote the cause. The company publicised the festival in schools, colleges, on road shows, etc to promote the cause. “In fact, the tickets at the festival were heavily subsidised too, so that everyone could afford to go. The cost can be a huge deterrent otherwise,” he adds.
Theatre has really grown over the years, and one cannot take away the credit from youth theatre groups and workshops which have generated interest and created awareness among the youth today. “Ours is a young nation and the audiences are reflecting that. Along with that, performances are getting better, and the themes that are picked up are speaking to the young generation,” says Quasar Thakore Padamsee of Q Theare Productions, and who started Thespo, currenlty in its 13th year. Thespo is a national theatre festival, where the only criteria for participation is that you have to be under 25 years of age .
“Thespo happened after my college days, when I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. There was a huge gulf then between the established theatre groups and those from the younger generation who wanted to dabble in it. Except for the age limit (has to be, it is a youth festival), Thespo firmly believes in having participants from across the world be they from any fields. Needless to say, there is no bar for any language or art forms. Free workshops are conducted at the event to make theatre accessible to everyone. “The field has become farless niche and the talent the comes to the fore at events such as Thespo is incredible. If this kind of talent enters the field, the choice of what the audience is watching will change,” says Quasar.
A key factor that has brought about this change in the theatre scene is related to the themes portrayed in performances today. Even though some groups go with the ‘classics’ (plays written by renowned playwrights in literature) most are coming up with fresh themes. In fact last year at Thespo, 90 per cent of the plays that premiered were new plays. Plays where young India talks about young Indian stories. And interesting ones at that. Adds Quasar, “Of course this is making a huge difference in the audience’s reaction because the stories that are told today are normal every stories of everyday people. Audiences are intelligent and identify with themes of their kind of people.”
The circumstances in the performing arts are changing, and according to Pathak, which has led the audiences to becoming more receptive to theatre. A large section of the audience now comprises of the youth, who perhaps are looking for more social and cultural options of entertainment. Ironic, yet a positive sign, for a country in which theatre has been part of the culture for centuries. part of the culture for centuries. Theatre and performances were the prerogative of the kings’ courts where playwrights took their ideas from epics, mythologies, history etc. Some of the famous playwrights of this time are Kalidasa, Sudraka and Bhavabhuti.
Of course, we don’t have the kings’ courts anymore, but we lag way behind other contemporary cities in terms of performance spaces. Even though Mumbai offers a few extra spaces like The Comedy Store, apart from those that are quintessential like Prithvi and the NCPA Experimental in Mumbai.A lot of people are exploring alternative avenues, but the atmosphere is not always conducive to performing, or even enjoying the performance,” says Pathak, who is just back from New York and fresh with the memory of how every space in the city can be a performance area, be it a train station quadrangle, a spot in a park, or even a spot at the entrance of the park!
“It makes art a part and parcel of life,” opines Pathak, “and widens the reach of theatre.” Of course, in India, we have street theatre that they use the public spaces for, but that is in a completely different flavour. There are alternative spaces, but not meant for the public. Like someone’s living room. Yes, that’s where Thespo held auditions during the initial phases. Of course, it 57has come a long way since that, but shows that for those who have the passion, nothing can be a hindrance. Not even a want of a venue. “That’s what it requires – an undying passion to struggle with it all your life, cause it’s not much in terms of making a living,” finishes Pathak. All we can do is end with Ralph Waldo Emerson who believed “Passion rebuilds the world for the youth. It makes all things alive and significant.”
“OURS IS A YOUNG NATION AND THE AUDIENCES ARE REFLECTING THAT. PERFORMANCES ARE GETTING BETTER, AND THE THEMES ARE SPEAKING TO THE YOUNG GENERATION”
Regional theatre in India has always had a stronghold over the industry with passionate followers. Whether it be in the urban scenario (popular plays that run across cities) or the rural scenario (special performances like tamasha, nautanki, raasleela, bhavai) the element of entertainment is paramount in regional theatre. In many cases, regional theatre is influenced by traditional or folk theatre and encompasses all the different forms of fine arts and literature like dance, music, mime, movement, sculpture, painting and architecture. Often, festivals, fairs and gatherings form great occasions for presentations of traditional theatre.