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Samik Bandyopadhyay

Indian Theatre at the Crossroads, 1970-90

 --Samik Bandyopadhyay


To set a perspective for any study of the field or performative production in India, one has to map out a space of severed trajectories, sharply distinctive and differentiated by different local political and cultural histories; with local/regional variations of colonial intervention leaving their mark on, and in several cases defining the social support system of the arts. Hence, there is no single Indian theatre, dance or music, but many. Of the many theatres in India, most are non-professional, in the sense that the makers do not make a living from their theatre practice. The support that they draw from society is more emotional and cultural than economic. A theatre that endures in this strange euphoria has its natural insecurities and uncertainties, but has to survive on its political positions. There are the exceptions of course; at the one end, in a few parts of India, professional touring companies travelling from small town to small town or the more prosperous villages, and offering a mixed package of entertainment values; at the other end, richly sponsored/funded productions for a limited schedule of five to seven performances for the urban elite in the highest economic bracket.

I recall Heiner Muller, in conversation with an Indian theatre delegation in 1992, describing the erstwhile GDR theatre as ‘our Voltaire, our French Revolution!’ The large segment of the middle class—professionals, teachers, students, the lower bureaucracy, activists—that support the mainstream of Indian theatre—the non-professional theatre in the several Indian languages, read and respond to its negotiations with the politics of powers and rights, and often join in debates that naturally focus simultaneously on the issues and the formal challenges.

The Indian State recast itself through the seventies, after its first military triumph in the Bangladesh war in 1971, the nuclear test blast in 1974, the Emergency in 1975, the outbreak of the ‘simmering revolution’ in Naxalbari in 1977; beginning with slow initiatives, but then with aggressive rigour. With the single-party rule crumbling, regional identities turning politically assertive, coalitional politics diluting ideology; the state turned more and more repressive (with the defence budget increasing progressively) , provoking resistance that often took on a separatist stance; its policy submitting to the power of the multinationals and a handful of Indian monopoly capitalists; the latter exercising their influence through an insidious operation of pay-offs to parties and politicians.

The agenda that the New Indian Drama and Theatre of the Fifties and Sixties had set itself gave way to a diversity of directions, with the regional variations in history, culture and politics moulding the different Indian theatres—the Bengali, the Marathi, the Kannada, the Manipuri in particular, allowing for and encouraging individual directorial and stylistic expressions—that faced a strong joint state and corporate agenda of homogenization of theatre through awards and Festivals, and the National School of Drama.

The archival presentation will focus on a number of plays/productions in their context; and offer a documentation of the economics of the mainstream ‘non-professional’ theatre confronting the homogenization/depoliticization drive of the State and corporate sector to seek a hold on theatre and make it a tool in a consumerist reconstruction of desire. A theatre that has traditionally been communitarian and cultural feels the pressure of redefining itself in industrial terms for survival.


Plays /Productions as case studies:

§ The Tin Sword, w. & dir. Utpal Dutt

§ The Arrow, w. & dir. Utpal Dutt

§ Bhoma, w. & dir. Badal Sircar

§ Khat Mat Kring, w. & dir. Badal Sircar

§ Ghashiram Kotwal, w. Vijay Tendulkar. Dir. Jabbar patel

§ Chakravyuha, w. & dir. Ratan Thiyam

§ Draupadi, w. & dir. H. Kanhailal

§ Rajrakta, w. Mohit Chattopadhyay, dir. Bibhas Chakrabarty