pic courtsey- Jan Natya Manch

By Vidyadhar Date

12 April, 2013

April 12 marks the birth anniversary of Safdar Hashmi, the radical theatre actor, who was murdered by Congress supporting goons near Delhi in 1989 during a street theatre performance. The day is observed as the national street theatre day.

That brings back some memories. Some time ago in Mumbai a police vehicle came along and asked a cobbler sitting on the footpath to get out as a so-called VIP motorcade was arriving. Surprisingly, the tone was not very rude but the order to him was undemocratic enough.

Obviously, all oppressive ruling classes are afraid of common people . In the very first scene in Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar, Flavius shouts at common people, calling them idle creatures. Imperial Ceasar is about to arrive in a triumphant procession.. Later, Flavius talks of driving away the poor from the streets, calling them vulgar.

A cobbler in the crowd is more than match for the arrogant Flavius. When confronted he describes himself as a surgeon of old shoes, a mender of bad soles. I can mend you, he says.

The system is trying to make the poor invisible, trying to drive them away in real life and in the media. In the numerous sickening television serials dominated completely by vulgar, selfish, consumerism-obsessed upper class, even the domestic worker is banished. As if this parasitical class does not depend on the toiling people.

The question is where can the lives of the poor be reflected in this set up ? They have to create their own spaces, their own plays, their own writers. The issue unfolded the same evening as the President’s motorcade when I attended the release of a book on street theatre written by Avinash Kadam and presided over by reputed film and stage director Dr Jabbar Patel at Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan at Prabhadevi.

Kadam has done remarkable service with his book giving a lot of information and some really satirical, comic and serious scripts. The book appropriately has on its cover a painting done by M.F. Husain on the killing of actor-director activist Safdar Hashmi .

The street theatre is truly a democratic theatre, it is performed free, in fact it invites the people to see the performance , it asserts its right to a public space and it gives voice to people’s problems generally in a highly entertaining way. Quite a few of these grow as part of people’s struggles and campaigns.

The Marathi theatre is the most vibrant theatre in the country but not every body is happy with the state of affairs.We have not created a single major playwright after Vijay Tendulkar, declared Premamand Gajwi, himself a radical dalit playwright, in Mumbai some time ago.

He said Tendulkar questioned the establishment and paid the price for his rebellion. There has been no real challenge to the establishment since Tendulkar, we have failed to tackle themes like the plight of Muslims and the attack on the World Trade Centre, Gajwi said.

Dr Shreeram Lagoo, eminent actor said in 1973 he was already a big name in theatre but when he approached producers with G.P. Deshpande’s significant play Udhwasta Dharmashala no producer was ready to take it because it did not have the commercial element.. Ultimately, Lagoo and others themselves did the play brilliantly at Chhabildas experimental theatre in 1974. I still remember the production showing the tragedy of a radical professor who is subjected to an inquiry by the university because of his radical views.

Mr G.P. Deshpande said that though Marathi drama had much a much bigger impact nationally than the Marathi novel, Marathi drama was not given enough importance in the literary discourse. Presidential addresses at Marathi sahitya sammelans sometimes did not even refer to Marathi drama.

Playwright Shafaat Khan said we are in such a situation that our grandmother’s fairy tales sound true today but real stories in theatre and television sound fake.

Last year I spent a lot of my own money to participate in a seminar on theatre spaces at the famed Ninasam, drama theatre complex, in a rural area in Shimoga district in Karnataka.

This seminar in Karnataka was different. It was held in very basic, simple surroundings. Most of the complex which includes drama theatres and training institute, does without fans and I heard that fans were specially installed in the campus for the first time in its history for our benefit of the seminar.

The participants including many Westerners and reputed Indian theatre personalities,who ate simple but tasty vegetarian meals served by a very courteous staff.

Ninasam is a very innovative, democratic venture. Set up by Kannada theatre personality Subanna half a century ago and nurtured by stalwalrts like Sivaram Karanth , it has brought serious international theatre and cinema to villagers. Villagers enjoy the best of Shakespeare and Satyajit Ray and De Sica, locally trained young students enact plays like Chekhov’s Seagull in Kannada with a lot of innovation. The barrier between the audience and spectators is broken. One day we saw an enactment of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard in which we shifted our chairs between scenes, we sat on the other side of the theatre and so it was clean, good enjoyment.

Ninasam is set amidst greenery near Sagar town in Karnataka in one of the nicest areas in the country. I had a lovely journey from Honavar in coastal Karnataka by bus to Sagara, past the famaous Jog falls.

The odd part of the seminar was that much of the deliberation was submerged in so much bombast and jargon that I came away in dismay after two days instead of the scheduled five days. I had to cancel my train reservation and spend more money in the process. Over the years, I have heard so much highfalutin nonsense at seminars that I am now losing my patience. But this is not something that bothers me at a personal level only. What should bother all of us is the tremendous national waste of resources that these seminars involve. So much needless expense, especially when the seminars are heavily sponsored with air travel, accommodation in luxury hotels, lavish meals and so on and often the quality of deliberations is quite mediocre. There are a few seminas organized at a low cost as the one organized by geography scholar Swapna Banerjee Guha at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences a few years ago. The discussions were held in class rooms, so no expenditure on air conditioning and every one paid for his or her own lunch in the food stalls in the complex. We desperately need to transform the whole seminar culture. I am against compulsion and censorship but there is really a serious need to ask some of the academics to just shut up for some time and start speaking in a language which people can understand. Leftists are not free from the sin of talking in a high flown language with jargon. I remember a short story by left wing writer Ranganayakamma in which a sympathetic court acquits some armed revolutionaries of the charge of violence but convicts them for another offence – speaking in a language which people cannot understand.

Veteran theatre critics Rustom Bharucha and Sadanand Menon expressed serious reservations over the languge of the presentations of the Ninasam seminar. It is true that some of the presenters were highly talented people but what is the use of all the intelligence if one cannot communicate with common people and when one is in the field of communication ?

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority.