Drama between the lines

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Modern Indian playwriting came into its own in the ’60s, with plays in Marathi by Vijay Tendulkar, Bengali by Badal Sircar, Hindi by Mohan Rakesh, and in Kannada by Girish Karnad. This quartet formed the base of a pan Indian movement. Influenced by modern western drama, their plays took issues which post World War II angst was dealing with—meaningless of existence leading to metaphysical anguish.

Unfortunately Rakesh, who was doing seminal research on the dramatic word, passed away early. Tendulkar became involved in research on violence in society, Sircar’s work took him to the Third Theatre, where he creates performance scripts for his own Aanganmanch and Karnad is writing single-actor plays. In the ’70s and ’80s, the call to “return to the roots” provoked the new crop of directors, most of them NSD graduates, to seek a new dramatic idiom in the folk, ritualistic and traditional forms in their own regional theatre. Myths and legends became the material of scripts and dramatic writing took a back seat. Whereas this search for a new form of communication in tradition led to a lively resurgence of theatre incorporating dance, music and movement, some of the dramas were regressive and revivalist in content.

Today, theatre workers, attempting to overcome the vacuum caused by the lack of written scripts are reworking Shakespeare, Greek plays, and modern classical plays by Ibsen, Chekhov, Ionesco or adapting stories and novels or reinventing myths or relying more on movements and other non-verbal devices to convey a theme or idea. Roysten Abel, whose Othello in Black and White has been internationally-acclaimed for its creative interpretation strongly feels that “there is no attention to the urban milieu where culture is in a state of flux. There is no attempt to crack this condition, to journey inwards, to find where you are coming from. New forms of playwriting are not being evolved. There is a reinventing of the wheel of the ’60s. Grotowski’s body theatre cannot work here because our body language is different from that of the Europeans.”

Jabbar Patel, director and filmmaker declared Marathi commercial theatre to be on its deathbed in his speech at the inauguration of the 9th Theatre Utsav. However, Chetan Datar, whose thought-provoking Wada was an attempt to look at Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play from the point of view of its ‘outsiders’, feels both Marathi and Gujarati commercial theatres are still viable and provide a livelihood to actors, “ but I can say that Marathi commercial theatre has not kept pace with the changing times. Their themes do not tackle contemporary problems and they still do slapstick comedy.”

“The other formula is parodying of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The old family dramas that reflected social change are no longer there. Most writers have drifted to TV or cinema. But experimental Marathi theatre is alive and young writers in their early ’20s, like Manasvani and Iravati, both in Mumbai, Sachin Kundalkar and Sandesh Kulkarni in Pune are promising playwrights.”

Director Sunil Shanbag is optimistic when he says: “For the last three years, RAGE Productions, a private theatre group with backing from the corporate sector, has been anchoring a year-long intensive writing workshops. 12 new plays have emerged this year in English, Hindi and Marathi by young people reflective of the now generation, about their morality with characters like call centre workers, etc.” So, there is some hope for the future.

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