Longer-than-usual piece for Time Out Delhi's recent theatre issue.
A fortnight ago, we found ourselves sitting in the aisles of the packed Alliance Française auditorium – even though we’d bought tickets beforehand. The show was The Weekend Cocktail, by Dramatech, one of Delhi’s busiest theatre groups. It wasn’t exactly untested material – the sources included Roald Dahl, W Somerset Maugham and Sholem Aleichem – but the troupe wasn’t taking any chances, splicing in five musical numbers. Though an unmistakably Indian twang often broke out from under their posh British accents, there was a real sense of giving the audience their 300 rupees worth.
A few days later, we were in a crowded basement in Panchsheel Park, where The Tadpole Repertory and a couple of their friends were putting on a show. The dramatic evening featured everything from skits to poetry readings, bossa nova songs and the inimitable Andrew Hoffland imitating accents of the world. Like the frequent performances Tadpole does in this basement lent to them by a friend, this was an informal gathering – a dog sat at our feet and watched proceedings, and there was hot punch to be had later.
This fortnight, we’ll be at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. Since its inception in 1999, BRM has become India’s largest, and arguably most prestigious, theatre festival. Organised by the National School of Drama, with all the intellectual heft and grand ambition you’d expect from that cultural behemoth, it has seen growth both exponential – from 58 productions in its first edition to over 100 this time around – and all-encompassing. The current edition has a primary focus on Tagore, a secondary one on Poland, includes productions from England, South Africa, Japan and France, and will bring Indian dialects like Santali and Tullu to Delhi’s stages for the first time. This is the red letter fortnight in the city’s theatre calendar.
Somewhere within the boundaries of these three productions lies Delhi theatre. There’s the old guard at Mandi House, surfacing every once in a while to remind people why they are special. There’s the sharp commercial focus of groups like Dramatech and Pierrot’s Troupe. And there are a handful of independent voices, trying to emerge from the basement. Delhi theatre is in a curious state of flux. Even as the quantum of public performances increases, the amount of new writing seems to be shrinking. Selling out a show often means selling out literally – making concessions, using hackneyed material, repeating old tricks.
It’s easy to forget while the Bharat Rang Mahotsav is on, but one gargantuan festival does not a theatre scene make. Put that festival aside, and Delhi’s theatre calendar starts to look rather bare. The only other time audiences get to see a bunch of plays from other cities is during the META festival, hosted by Habitat World. There are, of course, exceptions. Mumbai’s Akarsh Khurana brought the popular Classic Milds and The Interview to town this year. Lillete Dubey premiered the Broadway smash August: Osage County in the city where she received her first theatre training as a student in Lady Sri Ram College. Even this apparent victory was a compromise: the play was supposed to open in Mumbai, but the organisers couldn’t get bookings on the dates they wanted.
“With Prithvi in Bombay or Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, groups are assured of a theatre audience,” said writer-director Neel Chaudhuri, of the Tadpole Repertory. “With the exception of the NSD, which doesn’t lend its halls out, there is no space like that in Delhi.” That might be why Quaff Theatre omitted Delhi from its travel plans for The Real Inspector Hound. And while last year’s META brought a bouquet of great productions to town, it was unfortunate that only two plays found their way to Delhi before the festival. Chaudhuri categorised Delhi audiences as “hungry for culture, as opposed to Bangalore, Bombay and Chennai, who have actual theatre audiences.” Khurana, one of the rare frequent fliers to Delhi, was more guarded, saying he’d had satisfactory responses to his plays here. He did, however, mention a resistance to adult humour: “I remember someone at the Habitat mentioned to the management that our play [A Guy Thing] was a little vulgar. Since then, I’ve been a little cautious of doing stuff of that nature, or jokes that are a little political, over here.”
Even if we assume there are local playwrights too wary of audiences to actually publish, there’s no denying the paucity of original scripts currently emanating from Delhi. In the three editions of Writer’s Bloc in Mumbai, an annual forum for emerging playwrights to interact and come up with new work, Chaudhuri remains the sole Delhi writer to have been invited. It’s also telling that in each of the last two editions of META, only one Delhi play has made it to the final list of nominees (Tripurari Sharma’s Roop Aroop in 2010; Arvind Gaur’s Ambedkar Aur Gandhi, written by Rajesh Kumar, in 2011). Syed Alam, founder of Pierrot’s Troupe, recalled how different the scene was in his native Aligarh. “There, every play had to be original, contemporary, topical, otherwise it was not liked by the students,” he said. “Delhi theatre is suffering from intellectual bankruptcy. Everyone just does adaptations.”
While Pierrot’s Troupe is guilty of a couple of adaptations itself (Big B, Tale of the Taj), it does balance this out by presenting original dramatic work like the Tom Alter-starrer Ghalib and the impressive solo piece 1947. It’s also one of the few local groups that can afford to pay its members a salary. They’re a successful group by Delhi standards, alternating historical dramas and broad comedies; and unlike Arvind Gaur’s comparably industrious Asmita, they come with little socio-political baggage. “People here need to stop giving these social messages,” Alam said. “As long as you’re not doing burlesques, if you’re staging something and charging people for it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Both Alam and Chaudhuri stressed the importance of entering theatre with the awareness that it isn’t really a paying proposition. “I don’t see how people can realistically be expecting to earn a living from theatre,” Chaudhuri said. “I think it’s something you can foresee and work towards, but for that, you have to have something special and you have to toil, and I don’t think people are willing to do that.”
Set against this gathering gloom is NSD Director Anuradha Kapur’s assertion that the theatre scene in Delhi is amongst the most forward-looking in the country. “There are a lot of young people here who are trying to find alternate spaces, alternate ways of expressions,” she said, mentioning Aditee Biswas, Zuleikha Chaudhari and The Tadpole Repertory as examples of Delhi artists doing interesting work. She did admit that Delhi’s output of fresh plays had fallen, and that Bangalore had raced ahead in that respect. “Abhishek [Majumdar], Ram Ganesh [Kamatham], they have the pulse of the language,” she said. Kapur also voiced a concern about Delhi theatre suffering from a lack of internal communication. That’s probably an understatement; at present, there’s hardly any collaboration between playwrights and directors from Delhi’s different theatre circles, and no common platform (such as a Delhi festival) that might bring them together.
Still, Delhi theatre has made some important strides in recent years. For one, it’s started the difficult but necessary journey out of Mandi House. It’s begun to push an audience used to getting culture for free to part with the kind of money they’d pay for a movie ticket. There’s exciting work in new media, dance theatre and puppetry (Anurupa Roy in particular has gained a name across India for her puppet shows). And now, in addition to Bharat Rang Mahotsav and META, there are the idiosyncratic Ibsen and Short+Sweet festivals to look forward to – the former organised by Nissar and Amal Allana, the latter an offshoot of an international festival that began in Australia a decade ago and made its India debut here in 2010.
Perhaps what’s needed now is a dedicated venue like Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara, though it might be worth asking whether we have the material to currently sustain a place like that. Alam pointed to the ever-increasing number of public shows in Delhi as a positive. “We’re doing good, bad and average plays,” he said, “and to survive, you need to do good, bad and average plays. You also have to do many plays.” Forty-eight years ago, Ebrahim Alkazi directed a now-legendary production of Andha Yug against the backdrop of Feroz Shah Kotla. Bhanu Bharti’s recent staging of the play in October this year at the same site was, in a way, Delhi theatre’s salute to itself. With some luck, it might also prove to be a bookend for one Delhi theatre era, and the beginning of another, even more fascinating one.