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It's Time To Make Theatre Political Again

25/08/2016 1:49 PM IST | Updated 26/08/2016 8:39 AM IST
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Arnesh Ghose

I have a crush on Calcutta in the 70s. Hear me out. I don't crush on the fashion or those black-and-white photographs that make grime and muck look sexy. I don't daydream about the music or the films, or dinner jackets and jazz over stroganoff at Moulin Rouge or Trincas. I don't crush on disco.

Calcutta was turbulent during the 70s. Emergency, Naxalbari, student politics, red hot communism -- one could have a version of "We Didn't Start The Fire". But the middle-class Bengali -- the henpecked yet arrogant Rabindranath-loving Bengali -- never understood the allure of ammunition. They understood the arts, most of the population having been trained in music, painting or dance. They understood that strength was a faculty of the mind and not the body. They understood that a song was more revolutionary than killing a man. Art transcends carnage.

And they understood theatre.

[D]o we aspire for Bollywood-like glamorous appeal or an independent voice -- robust and powerful -- that can be representative of the times we live in?

I have been performing on stage from the age of four, and I have been exposed to various approaches to theatre. While structure and format might vary for different genres of theatre, something I picked up quite early on was the need for an ideology guiding your piece of work. "What are you trying to achieve with this piece?" was a question many of my theatre teachers made me ponder upon. Theatre had to serve a need, a greater good -- that was the umbrella understanding all around me. So, when I created my theatre company, The Mirror Merchants, I clearly stated "socially-conscious" as our credo.

Why so, you might ask. Why does theatre have to be socially responsible? There is no pressure, of course. But this debate is a part of a larger conversation -- what is the responsibility of art in our society today? Of the art forms, modern Indian art (painting and sculpture) is purely art for art's sake. Classical dance and music still survive as niche practices, and cinema -- the big brother of them all -- is driven by entertainment, and therefore, commerce. What role do we want theatre to play then?

Arnesh Ghose

Theatre does not make money -- we hear that all the time. And it is a fact. With sky-high stage rentals, zero promotion structure and the dearth of interested financiers, theatre is still a poor person's art form. Actors treat it as training ground for film, and directors/company owners struggle to fill seats. But theatre survives because of fools and romantics like you and me, who snort stage lights and can feel the pulse of a packed black box theatre in their veins. We are the mad people.

Theatre used to be a tool against oppression and autocracy. It can be that once again.

But today, what the theatre scene lacks is ideology. Theatre-makers want to become more escapism-friendly, tailoring scripts and creating devices to woo audiences. While I don't have a problem with earning money, mindless theatre, which stays afloat with punch lines and hollow drama, bothers me. Why can theatre-makers not become the voice of the country's less fortunate? Why do we feed in to the growing need for escapism rather than portraying reality (not that I am talking about delivering sermons on stage, of course. Also, comedy need not be divorced of social responsibility either) and becoming a strong voice of commentary on the injustice, ugly and unfair? As an industry (which is not a term we can use for Indian theatre, given how fractioned we are) do we aspire for Bollywood-like glamorous appeal or an independent voice -- robust and powerful -- that can be representative of the times we live in?

Theatre used to be a tool against oppression and autocracy. It can be that once again.

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