India – Arts/Culture
Morphing and expanding — stalwart Amal Allana captures Indian theatre down the ages (CULTURE)
By Madhusree Chatterjee
Indian contemporary theatre, the predecessor of cinema as the primary entertainment in the country's performance mainstream, dates back to the British Raj in the 19th century when the stage opened up to western influences in one of the earliest of cultural osmosis.
The nation was then in the midst of a cultural transformation switching from the old tradition of dance theatre of medieval and Islamic India to the dialogue driven narrative on stage, a legacy of the British Shakesperean stage. Over the decades, theatre has shaped the cultural consciousness of the nation – and to a certain measure the social landscape especially since Independence when the art form became more socially and politically engaged assimilating from global sensitivities.
But the evolution of modern theatre in India has yet to be documented in its exhaustive chronological detail for scholarship and resource, says Amal Allana, the outgoing chairperson of the National School of Drama.
Allana, an award-winning director, producer and performer has put together a chronicle of 100 years of Indian theatre in an biographical anthology of 22 illustrious lives on stage and complimentary essays, “The Art of Becoming: Actors Talk” (Niyogi Books)
She describes it as a fruit of “20 years of painstaking research based on personal accounts, biographies and interviews of actors conducted in course of her journeys and interactions with the leading lights on stage in the last eight years of her tenure as the chairperson of NSD.
Divided into three segments, the book begins with a look at early legends of the late 19th and the 20th century shedding light on pioneers like Girishchandra Ghose and Bonodini Dasi of the Bengali sage, Fida Hussain of the Parsi Theatre, Bal Gandharv of the Marathi stage and the unique R. Nagarathnamma, the founder of the first all-woman professional Shri Stree Natak Mandali on Karnataka stage.
Sturdily built, Nagarathnamma played male roles in a reversal of then gender orders. “She even played Bhim (of Mahabharata) on stage,” Allana recalls.
The post-Independence years of social theatre and the modern theatre are represented in two sections, “Staging the Nation” and “Staging Hybridities” with accounts of lives like Prithviraj Kapoor, Zohra Segal, Uttara Baokar, Shreeram Lagoo, Naseeruddin Shah and Maya Krishna Rao.
The narratives probe the trials, victories and transitions in the lives of the individual actors taking in its purview the broader contours of changes on Indian stage. The early years of Indian theatre were marked by encounters between the east and the west with fundamental transformation of mindsets. The template for change was set by visiting European and American performers encouraged by the erstwhile British colonialists.
Director and playwright Girish Ghose, described by editor-compiler Amal Allana as “Garrick of Bengal” brought Binodini Dasi and her sisters, courtesans from Kolkata’s pleasure garden Sonagachi to the Bengali stage giving them social legitimacy as performers— setting the ball rolling for empowerment of gender on the country’s cultural canvas.
The common tradition then was of men donning women’s robe to enact the fair power on stage. Allana cites a tender emotional reaction of Gujarati pioneer Jayashankar Sundari, who “felt the presence of a girl unfurling within him” when he first put on the traditional “lehenga choli” to play a young woman on stage.
Theatre in the first three decades of the 20th century was a bustling commercial enterprise kept alive by big repertory groups of more 100 members who toured the country. Rich Parsi connoisseurs patronized Mandali theatre – becoming the first of the tribe of private cultural entrepreneurs, Allana says.
The Parsi Natak Company styled on grand operas with ostentatious stage design, grand costumes, lights and music were instant draws. “The British built play houses and the repertories tried to copy the new kind of western theatre. Historical plays became popular,” Allana points out.
In the decade of Independence, Prithviraj Kapoor decided to break away from commercial theatre to stage plays on communal harmony. It was a watershed in the way theatre changed changed its script of engagement with society – laying the foundation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Theatre in the Seventies was a medley of influences – a hybrid genre assimilating from global performance arts, Indian folk traditions, music, dance, experimentation, art and technology, says the former chairperson of NSD.
“The early years of Indian theatre are like an unexplored chest of treasures. It was a lot of work… I had to get the accounts translated from Bengali, Kannada and Marathi,” Allana says.
A rare autobiographical account of the earliest woman on Bengali stage, Binodini Dasi’s “Amar Katha” was translated by Allana’s friend Swarupa Ghosh, a resident of Chittaranjan Park, 20 years ago. “I wrote it 20 years later,” Allana said..
The golden years of early theatre crashed in 1920s when cinema made competitive inroads.
“Actors, writers and musicians went to the movies. Several repertory companies shut down. Theatre ceased to be a commercial enterprise, declined in quality and shrunk its resources. In our growing up years, commercial repertory theatre was considered in bad taste,” Allana said.
Theatre has never since recouped from the crash, Allana rued.
The former chairperson of NSD, who steered the course of the nation’s premier drama institute for years, prescribes a National Council for Theatre Development modeled on the British Arts Council to look into the balanced growth of theatre in the country.
“It can pool in NSD graduates spread across the states and provide them an umbrella under existing theatre spaces for training and performance at minimum cost. The troupes once ready can travel later. The National School of Drama on its part must expand its mandate to gear up to livelihood generating modules on set design, lights, costumes and cultural management. I would personally like to train the graduates in preparing their portfolios for jobs. The approach to theatre has to be more professional,” Allana said.
Children’s theatre has to be devoted separate space, the protagonist summed up outlining the scenario of the future of Indian stage.