World Theatre Day: Naseeruddin Shah on the state of theatre in India

Naseeruddin Shah stresses on the need for an original Indian theatre identity and sounds the death knell for theatre as spectacle


Mumbai: The performing arts industry in India reached Rs23,600 crore in 2012 and is expected to grow at 2.5% annually to reach Rs27,500 crore in 2018, according to a report by the industry lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

“The industry will primarily be driven by new and innovative forms of fundraising by theatre and dance groups and a growing demand for Indian culture at an international level,” said the FICCI report on Creative Arts in India.

Within the report’s vast assemblage of art forms including theatre, concerts, opera, dance and other stage productions and even the circus, theatre lies tucked away, its numbers and statistics less clear.

On the occasion of World Theatre Day on 27 March, Mint spoke to veteran actor and director Naseeruddin Shah on the state of Indian theatre.

Shah’s role as artistic director of the theatre group Motley, which he co-founded in 1979, has allowed him to be a part of the changing idiom of the art form in India. He stresses on the need for an original Indian theatre identity and sounds the death knell for theatre as spectacle.

His latest project, which will premiere in April, is an interpretation of three essays by the revolutionary feminist writer, Ismat Chugtai.

This is the kind of context that he believes makes for good theatre, an idea that is completely antithetical to theatre as pure entertainment.

“The National School of Drama (a fully funded theatre training institute set up by the ministry of culture in 1959) is somewhat of a white elephant today and it’s a moot point whether it is serving any purpose at all,” says Shah. The problem, according to him, is its centralized nature and focus on Hindi language theatre.

“There was no paucity of charismatic theatre people across the country and there should have been several regional institutes established instead of one,” he says.

His critique of the NSD style of grand proscenium theatre stems from the fact that it simply wasn’t a model that could be replicated easily by young actors and directors starting out in their careers. “Ebrahim Alkazi (director of the school from 1962 to 1977) was such a towering personality that everybody tried to be him after they graduated and many of his students would try to stage pseudo-Elkazian productions but without Elkazian resources (as National School of Drama had generous budgets) or Elkazian panache. The biggest problem was that there wasn’t an emphasis on finding an Indian theatre identity,” he says.

It is important to introduce students to theatre from the grassroots level and have an accessible medium that doesn’t depend on so many external trappings, he argues.

“Whenever I meet theatre students, I try to tell them that they don’t need an auditorium, costumes, lights—all they need is a text, an actor and even one audience member,” he says. Yet, what he encounters most often are students who perceive theatre as grand spectacle.

For him, language is a significant player too.

While traditional English theatre is elitist, direct translations of English or American classics into Indian languages without a larger context doesn’t work either. “It is heartening that quite a few of the original “English” plays written in India today have an idiom of their own which is a khichdi (mix) of English and other languages. It is healthy as it reflects how real people speak in their daily lives,” says Shah.

The blurring of barriers between languages is a positive thing for him as is the changing nature of contemporary English language theatre. “Actors like Saurabh Shukla and Seema Biswas are doing English plays but are presenting them in an Indian setting,” he says. The kind of plays Shah picks to stage is a case in point and there is always a context that the audience can relate to. His last play The Father was French playwright Florian Zeller’s take of the distortions of a dementia patient’s everyday life. Despite minimal sets and a western setting, the audience immediately engaged with Shah’s electric performance and the universality of human suffering.

In a digital age where the world is shrinking into a mobile screen, “theatre has to return to storytelling. It has to become more intimate and immediate and a means of contact between people,” says Shah. The need for intimate theatre is leading to the proliferation of experimental performance venues, and a chance to move beyond big budget proscenium entertainment.

“The idea is to be able to create a whole world in the audience’s imagination with one actor alone. To me that is the magic of theatre vis-a-vis 3D projections and hundreds of dancing girls,” he says.


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