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Experts discuss theatre today and cultural transformation

October 10, 2018

Ratan Thiyam

"I can think only with theatre, because theatre has its own word syllables to express itself," said Ratan Thiyam - one of the greatest post independent theatre personalities of India - speaking under Art Matters series of the Raza Foundation. He thought of theatre as a contemporary conversation between performer and spectator. Taking Bhasa's liberalism on the one hand and Bharata's code and art prescriptions on the other as examples, Thiyam maintained that theatre could be very simple or very complicated. Inclusive of all other art disciplines in its totality, Theatre, the speaker said is also a relationship with empty space and sound.

Calling it a courageous and bold art form, Ratan Thiyam maintained that Theatre is ultimately a language of protest and in the last 2500 years, he said that no work had hesitated to stir and attack the establishment. Indian theatre's uniqueness while creating a dialogue with people lay in its regard for soundaryabodh or aesthetics according to him, with dance and music too as part of it.

Every work in theatre has to be fresh and relevant to the times. "Unlike dance and music," said Thiyam, "theatre will not brook repetition. Since theatre is my response to everyday life, my work has to constantly build a bridge between inner and outer ideas, because theatre's new world emerging each time a work is produced, is born in, and conceived by the mind." Each production is like a pilgrimage, and after the premier show, for him the work has no importance. "I want to be born in another womb for a fresh life. After the first show, I cannot live for another day with the production."

Touching on the aspect of technology and its tremendous influence, Ratan Thiyam said that one lived in a world where seeing is believing and one had to learn to live with technology. Talking about the state of theatre in India, the speaker could not avoid taking on a very despondent tone. He mourned the fact that apart from having no cultural policy, individual art institutions were losing their autonomy. He said that after so many years of independence, India still had no National Theatre or National Dance or Music Company. Somehow the passion for theatre consumed the committed, even while 'working in empty space with empty stomach.' For any theatre company to sustain itself is a very difficult task, and patronage is very poor, in spite of India's theatre scene offering a variety comprising Realism, Futurism and Stylised theatre.

Ashok Vajpeyi, Managing Trustee of Raza Foundation in his concluding remarks, speaking in a humorous vein about a very serious subject, recalled in brief, the elaborate process of gathering details and points of view for a cultural policy, involving several committed art loving people - following this herculean effort by sending a detailed policy note - which ultimately came to naught.

Cultural transformations in modern India

Saeed Naqvi

A discussion held under the aegis of Shanta Serbjeet Singh Memorial Art Appreciation Lectures organized by Legends of India, at Habitat's Gulmohar, involved three well known figures - Saeed Naqvi, senior journalist and media commentator, Shakti Sinha, Director of Nehru Museum and Memorial Library, and classicist, theatre theorist, musicologist and cultural analyst Bharat Gupt - with as usual Suresh Goyal, ex Director General, ICCR, as moderator.

Naqvi spoke of the 'Cosmic Circle' where some things remain eternal like the 'Ganga Ki Arti' and some others come and go. Coming from Avadh, for him the cultural aroma of this region with its 'Ganga/Jamuna tehzeeb' remained the central motif - where a Nawab Wajid Ali Shah with his portly figure would love to play the role of Radha, with an ancestor of the Birju Maharaj's Lucknow family also taking on a role in the Rahas, where a Moharram celebration would have Pandit Chunni Lal singing, where famous people after going to Haj would proceed to Barsana (near Brindavan) to complete the holy circle, where great Muslim poets (aside from names, he recited passages from poetry) who wrote poetry on Krishna and Hindus were specialists in Urdu - in short a very inclusive society with religious tolerance.

The fact remains that History provides contrasting scenes and one can find arguments aplenty to defend any position - of tolerance or lack of it - and this neither proves nor disproves the truth - which perhaps lay somewhere in between.

Shakti Sinha

Shakti Sinha, referring to the tremendous strides we had made in the years after independence said that clashes between opposite ways of thinking are inevitable. In other words he tried to make the point that each opinion exists because of the other - from which it draws its main identity. But we need to take an optimistic attitude. Modernisation today, he said, is often mistaken for westernization. Today, several changes have taken place, pertaining to both inner and outer thinking. Caste, instead of being a disability, has been turned into a force to take on and confront. While the scheduled castes and many others have become politically equal, socially this has not yet happened to the extent one would like. We keep looking for an integrated approach, and one must remember that most cultural processes are cyclical. At his time a figure like Charles Dickens was not considered a great writer! The important point he made is that through all the cultural transformation, optimism should not be lost sight of.

Bharat Gupt

Bharat Gupt looked at the life of a 'cultural connoisseur' in India, for whom patronage since 1950 had been totally insufficient. The first mistake was in not including our Indian art studies as part of the educational curriculum. Referring to all night concerts or artistes who could perform from 7 to 8 hours at a stretch, he said neither artistes of this calibre, nor audiences interested enough to sit through such performances were part of the scene today. He also said that State patronage was not the panacea.

With life becoming too complicated with varying demands, one cannot think of performances as endurance tests going on for hours. In accordance with the times, security considerations and travel facilities in a region, artists have to adapt the art to suit the times, and both musicians and dancers have tried to do that.

In the post discussion session, somebody mentioned SPIC MACAY efforts of taking our arts to the youngsters. One has to admit that the efforts need a lot more of funding from the government - considering the sheer numbers of institutions and students spread all over the country. One agrees wholeheartedly though that educational institutions should have strong art departments, and that art exposure has to start from childhood.

Actually culture occupies such a low position in the country's budget, and few think of art education as being as important to the child as knowledge in other subjects. While avidly developing the ability in the young to compete and work one's way up in a market full of aspirants, to give food for and evolve, the sensitive side of a youngster through exposure to and feel for the arts, has been forgotten. In a world where belligerence and aggression are only creating tensions between man and man, the other side of a human being sensitive to aesthetics, to harmony, to beauty in every field is being forgotten. Without this feeling instilled in youngsters, all attempts and talk about inclusivity makes no sense.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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