Theatre is calling for change in India

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DELHI, India, June 10, 2012 - “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”Oscar Wilde

When was the last time you held your breath and tears rolled down your cheeks while watching that eclectic theatrical performance and while the tears were still flowing you suddenly burst out into that rib-tickling laughter? Yes, that’s the power of theatre, and the theatre scene in Delhi is witness to theatre not only as an art form but theatre activism which mirrors the social evils that plague the Indian society in myriad forms. It addresses pressing local issues, and attempts to engage collective interest for issues that are taking place on a global scale

The ASMITA theatre group founded by Mr. Arvind Gaur in 1993 is one of the leading Hindi theatre groups in the country that stands committed to creative and socially relevant theatre since its inception. ASMITA has carved a niche for itself in the Indian theatre scene by staging plays of varied socio political interest while not losing out mass appeal.

ASMITA takes up contemporary issues to underline the contours of our time while providing the best of entertainment. The group has 62 productions to its credit and on an average has been performing for about 60 nights a year. All these plays have been directed by ASMITA’s Resident Director Arvind Gaur. For ASMITA, theatre has a purpose of awakening the audience to contemporary issues and creating a dialogue on prevailing social problems. It’s a tool for social change and communication that transcends the barriers of language and ideology. The group is also involved in street Theatre Movement having performed numerous street plays in both urban and rural areas on different Socio -political issues.

They are part of the theatre movement in the country and strongly believe in this art form as a powerful and magical medium. Whether it is in the form of tragedy, comedy or satire, their idea is to shake up the nation’s collective conscience, make people think, question things and admonish apathy.

Theatre veteran and activist Arvind Gaur is of the opinion that theatre has certainly evolved in India after independence both in terms of popularity and acceptance. More and more theatre groups are using the medium of theatre for a meaningful purpose. When Group’s like ASMITA stage plays on the issues of corruption, domestic violence and female foeticide they promote the understanding of human rights and contribute to forging unity and awareness amongst their audience. Their plays serve as an incredible, almost magical means of communication and bonding.

Although ASMITA has been the greatest source of creative satisfaction for all the people involved with the group, Director Gaur laments that paucity of funds has always been a persistent problem for theatre groups, especially those involved in theatre activism. The revolutionary nature of their plays does not strike a chord with sponsors who have vested interests in not bringing to stage the problems that plague the society at large.

The government, with no consistent cultural policy, has not done much to improve the current state of affairs. Youngsters in India have to think twice before choosing theatre as a career option as there is no job security, no fat pay cheques that cushion their  careers like in other fields; we don’t even have enough training institutes to train them in performing arts. The government had set up 8 new IIT’s (Indian Institute of technology) and 7 new IIM’s (Indian Institute of Management) under the 11th plan period; however we have just one school of the stature of NSD (National School of Drama-India’s most renowned school of performing arts) in India. There is lack of basic infrastructure like rehearsal space and auditorium’s etc for theatre artists. Theatre does not need mass commercialization to be successful and relevant; it’s an art form that is complete in itself however the historical apathy in nurturing this important art form has somewhere marginalized its access and popularity in the country.

Gaur attributes the success of the group to the unwavering passion and commitment of his talented young actors.  The audiences are repeatedly drawn to the groups’ hilarious but no-nonsense approach to even the most complex of subjects. There is an energy that flows between the performers and audiences; you see your painful personal experience within a larger social construct.

When asked from a spectator, how do you relate to this kind of theatre that underlines and brings alive issues which you may not think about otherwise, the answer is, “When the viewer rises above his passivity to identify himself with the actor, he is likely to undergo a cathartic experience that liberates him from the shackles imposed on him by an unjust social order. It is indeed a kind of revolutionary theatre bringing with it the freshness of purpose and innovation”

The actors of the group resonate the ideas of noted British Director Peter Brook on what it takes to be an actor “Preparing a character is the opposite of building—it is a demolishing, removing brick by brick everything in the actor’s muscles, ideas and inhibitions that stands between him and the part, until one day, with a great rush of air, the character invades his every pore”

While it’s definitely lot of perspiration and hard work that goes into staging a truly great performance, theatre critics wonder how relevant is live theatre in the wired world where virtual reality invades our lives like never before. Gaur laughs it off citing that technology has become theatre’s greatest ally since last 5-6 years. Earlier, the group had a hard time gathering audience however now it’s simply a click away, just a matter of creating an event on their facebook page. They advertise and invite audience on facebook, twitter and their website and receive a response like never before. Social networking has now become an important tool for social theatre.

With the convergence of technologies and proliferation of myriad forms of entertainment, be it television or the internet, is it true that live theatre has to compete with its technologically advanced rivals? After dedicating his life to this art form, Gaur thinks that Theatre is a bridge that connects the artworld to television and cinema and holds them from ruthless commercialization. Indian Theatre has enriched the Indian film industry by providing them with some of the finest actors like Anupam Kher, Nasiruddin Shah, Om Puri and Irfan Khan only to name a few.

Many of the group’s own artists have migrated to television and films and made it big. However for those who dedicate their lives to this art form- the freeze frame and larger than life images of cinema cannot match the process and the delight of having a vibrant, live audience.

Theatre actors do not have the luxury of retakes like their Bollywood contemporaries nor do they win accolades and awards in glamorous ceremonies let alone earning money yet their passion keeps them going. 

When you are living in times when money has a corrosive power on human values, it’s soothing and refreshing to discover something like theatre that’s not ruthlessly commercial. The group still charges only a nominal rupees 50 ($1) as tickets for even its most popular plays. Their vision is to sustain the affordability and access of their plays for everyone irrespective of their economic abilities.  This further illustrates the fact that theatre especially in India can be a means of implementing change without a million dollar priceline.

To quote Mr. Arvind Gaur “Art is a means of intensifying and enjoying life, it’s the greatest tool of self discovery, and hence you should make an attempt to be a part of theatre at least once in a life time. It is immaterial whether you take part as an actor or an audience as both is incomplete without each other”

While booking my seats for the next play, I was thinking how true was William Shakespeare in saying after all “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”


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Sonal Jaitly

Sonal is a young professional, aspiring writer and an astute observer of life. Born and brought up in India, reciving a mix of both Indian and western education, Sonal earned a Masters in Business Administration, but gave up business to work for Education, her passion.

An explorer at heart, Sonal loves to travel and interact with people, meeting new people, reading about different customs and cultures is something that fascinates her. Juggling between pursuing her passions and her career, Sonal believes it is important to be a perpetual student of life, learn, unlearn and relearn while navigating through the hills and valleys of this beautiful journey called “life”.

 

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