Voting comes to a close tomorrow in the world largest democracy. The Indian general election has lasted 6 weeks, beginning on 7th April, with over 814.5 million people eligible to vote. Much has been published about the state of the nation and one article that particularly caught my attention was by Anupama Chandrasekhar and Akash Mohimen for The Guardian. Chandrasekhar and Mohimen are playwrights and in their piece The threats to political theatre in India: fundamentalism and escapism, they explore the integral role theatre has played in India’s freedom struggle in the past and question its purpose today, reflecting on censorship, audience expectations and the new voices seeking to be heard.
Elections in India have always been high-decibel, high-emotion events, a period in which art and artists are most vulnerable to attack by fundamentalists. Twenty-five years ago, the street-theatre playwright and director Safdar Hashmi was killed in the middle of a performance during local municipal elections near Delhi. Last month, when the country was in the throes of electioneering, Evam, a Chennai theatre group, was pressurised by the police departments of three cities to cancel their shows of Ali J, a monologue on what it means to be a Muslim today.
The increasing number of fundamentalist groups targeting theatre companies across the country has become a cause for concern. A website of a fundamentalist group lists six plays they’ve had censored within the last three years, among other films, TV shows, commercials and books.. India was once far more tolerant of political theatre. While there was the odd case of a play being banned (the ban on Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder was later revoked), explicitly political plays were allowed free reign in the 1970s (barring the Emergency years) and early 80s, particularly in my hometown, Chennai. As a child I watched in Tamil insightful political explorations in many guises: satires, spectacular mythologies, powerful social realism and laugh-a-minute drawing-room farces. Social realist Komal Swaminathan, satirist Cho Ramaswamy and mythologist Manohar were household names then.
The rise of fundamentalism has been an obvious deterrent to serious political theatre. But a bigger and more insidious threat has been what Brett Bailey would call the “sanitized demands of the market”. There’s a growing tendency to provide safe, escapist entertainment rather than dialogue with the world around us. While the older generation of theatre practitioners like Mahesh Dattani, Sunil Shanbag, Maya Rao, Na Muthuswamy, Gnani Sankaran and Mangai Arasu continue to ask urgent questions about who we are as a nation, many of my generation appear to have fallen prey to the exigencies of the market. Neil Simon and Yasmina Reza are Chennai’s two most popular and frequently staged playwrights of the English language. The pattern is eerily similar in other cities too.
In this din of safe comedies and news channel-induced hysteria, there are new voices seeking to be heard: Irawati Karnik, Abhishek Majumdar, Neel Chaudhuri, to name a few. The young Chennai director Aruna Ganesh Ram recently embarked on a pan-Indian verbatim project this election year to explore the concept of freedom. Director Quasar Padamsee’s project So Many Socks, based on Tenzin Tsundue’s collection of poems and stories, explores Tibet, nationhood and the individual. Swar Thounaojam, a Manipuri playwright and activist, wields the English language as a weapon and a tool to explore her subaltern identity.
But in a country with a population of over a billion, their voices are far too few.
Traditionally, theatre has been an integral thread in the social fabric of India. It was used to spread news, socio-political awareness, propaganda and entertainment. Theatre played a vital role in India’s freedom struggle, bringing messages preached by the leaders to communities hundreds of miles away. It was one of the many sparks that gave rise to one of the world’s largest freedom movements.
In the 21st century, Indian theatre seems to have lost some of this spark. Political plays are few and far between.
Barring the continuous adaptations of Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar’s texts from the 70s, there are only a handful of political plays doing the rounds.
There are plenty of contemporary writers trying to strike a balance between storytelling and shedding light upon important topics that have long been untouched. But audiences always prefer to keep such productions at arm’s length. They jump to conclusions that they are depressing and preachy; the message going around these days is “make them use their brains”.
I believe the reason for such a mind-set is lack of awareness. Audiences have little or no idea of what’s happening beyond their own city limits. When they hear about a play on the Kashmir issue, they immediately shun it, rather than become intrigued by the theme and witness a tale of friendship, lost innocence and survivor’s guilt.
The influence of the motion picture industry has affected theatre ticket sales. People would rather spend 400 rupees for a multiplex ticket on a Sunday, than 300 rupees for a play at Prithvi theatre. And their reason is mostly the same: escapism.
With such a thought process, it is fast becoming difficult to stay afloat by practising theatre alone. No matter how passionate one feels about this medium, one needs to branch out to films, commercials, event management and education to have some sort of financial support. There are few who can truly say that they earn their livelihood out of theatre.
Despite corporate funding over the last few years, most productions barely break even. In fact, some lose money each time the actors step on stage. But they keep coming back year after year, because of the sheer love for the stage.
Theatre in rural India remains the truest form of Indian theatre. There are parts of the country where, every festive season, a performance will be organised free of charge. A performance could be put together by a teacher, farmer, policeman and postman, where the whole village will participate. Irrespective of subject matter or story, they will lend their ears. The laughter and tears of the audience are a major adrenaline rush for the actors and musicians on stage. Everyone involved is as moved as the audience watching.
Anupama Chandrasekhar and Akash Mohimen are part of the Royal Court’s writing programme in India