From catharsis to a catalysing force

Updated: Apr 30 2006, 05:47am hrs
LetS set the stage by quoting Vasudha Dalmia, It does indeed make much more sense to write scripts for TV soaps rather than for the two or three night productions of plays. But, it is heartening to note that in this era where serials have become the hallmark of our civilisation, a work like Poetics, Plays and Performance: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre vouches the fact that though theatre production is struggling to become economically viable it still produces some of the most exciting performances in the world.

The book starts with a study of stage performances in the Indo-Gangetic plains to the blossoming of what can be called a national theatre within the fiery backdrop of politics in the capital. Before independence, theatre lacked patronage. In colonial society there were no native elites. And the first dramatist of note in this milieu, Bharatendu Harishchandra lacked the social space, political momentum and sustained patronage in the restricted confines of Benares.

Dalmia then shifts to Jayshankar Prasad, who championed the cause of women. It is this facet that Dalmia focusses on when she discusses in detail his work Dhruvasvamini. In this drama, his prime concern was to prove that the right of women to happiness was found in the codification of the oldest law books of Hindu. Despite belonging to the past, his characters spoke the new language of subjectivity.

Dalmia traverses the emergence of two dominant streams in the late 1920s. One stream dealt with historical themes in the language of common man, the other dealt with domestic interior, presenting psychological studies of man-woman relationships often coupled with a desire for social reforms.

On this setting, Dalmia etches the philosophy of Mohan Rakesh, who believed that the author should not intrude with his presence. Rakesh demanded that the art form remain faithful to reality, which he saw reflected in conflictboth internal and interpersonal. This complexity of the mind could find expression only in the fragmentation of language. So Rakesh suggested breaking up of syntax, using words for their sound values and attempting a new combination of words alternating with silence.

Dalmia shifts the spotlight on to the towering presence of Rabindranath Tagore, who kindled interest in folk theatre. With this she sets the stage ready and ripe for Brecht. Brecht is the main prop around which Dalmia has woven this tapestry of art.

Vasudha Dalmia OUP Rs 675; Pp 366
Dalmia talks of how India at that period was a fertile ground for Brecht. Thanks to Indian People Theatre Association (IPTA), there was emphasis on the need to discover and develop folk forms to establish communication with the audience. The discovery of Brecht in 1960s coincided with his growing popularity in the West.

On her chapter on Brecht she compares his epic theatre and savang or nautanki, a north Indian folk form. His influence helped to transform production modes, made possible fresh interpretation of classics and supported playwrights already inspired by folk theatre by crystallising the structure of their plays.

She then looks at Habib Tanvirs exploitation of the techniques already available in Indian traditional forms.

In the last chapter, the stage is crowded with names like Neelam Man Singh, Maya Rao, Anamika Haksar and others, but unfortunately she does not dwell for long on them.

In the last few pages she lingers on Vivadi Collectives adaptation of Tagores Gora a work that dealt with the notions of belonging of inclusion as well as exclusion.

No, it is not a coffee table book. It is serious unveiling of what we can term as the national theatre. The photographs reveal the interplay of light, shadow and darkness. Dalmia tells of concepts highlighted under the strobe lights, talks of techniques subtle and mysterious due to the play of shadow and hints of emotions still in the dark. However, she fails to look south of the Vindhyas.

Interspersed with elaborate notes and references, it is for all those native elites who live and breathe theatre as students, critics or patrons. And with this work she establishes the continuity and vitality of this grand performing art.