29 Form, Content, Language: Street Theatre in India

Mr. Sayantan Mandal

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Theatre among the people of India:


What is street theatre? Is there an Indian street theatre? Is it possible to imagine a category of cultural performance such as Indian street theatre? The history of the development of theatre in the vast geographical area of India is composed of often non-linked, independent and highly localised theatrical practises. The theatrical and other performances that draw its lineage from Bharat Muni’s treatise on dramatic performances are highly specialised ones. Guided at each step by rules, such performances, though served as the resource for many playwrights, musicians, dancers, performers, were guarded products of the royal courts, of temples. While the form was regimented, content of such performances were determined by their centres of production. The temple and its religion, the royal administrative court and their administrative concerns were manifested in those early performances. The common public and their participation in those performances were limited by their access to knowledge, to manuscripts, to theatrical trainings. That cluster of people, the audience, formed the mass of good abiding ‘prajas’, who would partake pre-determined literary sensibility and concerns in court-patroned performances, in collective recitations as viewers, as listeners. That audience, which was primarily formed of farming or fishing communities of the villages, had their own performative practices too, which they performed and participated on occasions like harvest or some annual celebrations. Along with the ‘high’ forms of the court, of regulations and erudition, these forms also grew parallely. It is interesting to note that such parallel existence of many forms of literary and theatrical performances often collided with each other even in the pre-colonial times. In consequence of their interaction though hardly a new unity of form and content emerged in the realm of cultural recognition but the separate and continuous practice continued frequently exchanging, accommodating, competing each other. The court, the zamindars maintained their patronage for highly grammatical forms, and also started patronising people’s cultural practices. What allowed such contradiction to grow was an imaginary parameter of appreciation and grading of artists, performances, expressions and culture which was socially accepted. The high form remained attached to a notion of erudition, of superiority and the rest became the repository of rustic and coarse expression of people’s everyday life. A stylistic difference set them apart too. In the pre-colonial society, as both these forms were recognised and even patronised, a cultural platform to connect to the people emerged in the form theatrical recitations, popularly known as kathakata, which manifested in Bengal in the form of Mangal Kabyas and its ritualistic recitation.


Colonialism and Indian Theatre:


Colonisation and the subsequent economic and political changes played a crucial role in the evolution of this pre-modern state of cultural affairs and furthering its internal debates. During the colonial period, famines, forced cultivation of cash crops, physical torture in the name of tax collection had altered the demographic unit of the village. A steady stream of labour migrated from the village in search of food, of new employment, of life to the new space of the city. As the city space emerged, whose economic fabric was largely constituted of migrating village labour, the theatrical and other literary performances stated crowding gradually the literary scene of the city space. What chapters like colonisation did in the history of Indian literary practices is that they accelerated the ongoing negotiations and drove them towards new formations. As the novelty of print, of book appeared and knowledge became a product of the market, pre-colonial literary performances did not remain untouched and their co-existence with erudite forms was questioned. The rustic colloquial language was found obscene and politically incorrect. The performances, rural or folk, were identified to be lowly and not worthy of neither the modern definitions of art nor the demands of market. The theatre that emerged at this backdrop of literary mutation, was the modern proscenium. In Bengal, even those platforms were streamlined as soon as they started showing possibilities of a strong pro-people voice. Dramatic performance act of 1875 which since then have been applied to censor every theatrical performance and weigh its seditious capabilities, thus, codified in legal diction the possibility of pro-people literatures being anti-nation, anti-state.


People’s larger concerns, such as food, security of life, at this juncture had to accommodate itself within the socially accepted literary norms and get subsumed by the overarching national discourse of the time. Such state of affairs had its limitations too. And in the post-independence era, as the colonial rulers vanished from the scene, the uneven lines of literary regulations emerged once again. Peoples’ causes could no more be fought against the colonisers; the new democratic governance of the nation had to be questioned. And unfortunately, the treatment of the people’s government towards the theatrical voices of the resistance, of peoples’ complaint remained similar as that of their colonial predecessors. Charges like sedition, obscenity continued to supress the peoples’ voice from the theatrical performances.


Theatre of the People:


The development of street theatre or more broadly, peoples’ theatre in the post-independence era found itself aligned with the pro-people democratic forces. Indian peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA), established in 1952, was one of the pioneering institutions in organising and carrying forward this cultural movement. Their branches emerged in different parts of India, in Delhi, in Lucknow, in Patna, in Bengal. Besides IPTA, similar efforts manifested through the activities of groups like Jana Natya Maanch in New Delhi; Gursharan Singh’s Rural Theatre in Punjab; Bohurupee, Little Theatre Group, Ritwik in Bengal; Jana Kala Maanch in Gujrat; Samudaya in Karnataka; Praja Kala Mandali in Andhra Pradesh; Shatriya Sahitya Parishad in Kerala; Duggar Maanch in Jammu and Kashmir; Jagar in Maharashtra and Chennai Kalai Kuzhu in Tamilnadu. These groups picked the cause of the people and performed skits, street plays, proscenium to voice those complaints. Jana Natya Maanch alone produced around forty plays and approximately their four thousand performances during 1973-1983. These groups took the stage and the language of theatre to the billions of people to forge a connection with its audience and to encourage voluntary participation in organised demands. The local forms of storytelling, such as –Tamasha, Hora, Jatra, Pala, Kathakata, Pawada and so on emerged in the street as a bridge between this new band of performers and their audience. The success, people’s encouraging response provided the much necessary impetus for the theatre of the street to develop further. Improvisations, innovations and search for more easy and convincing theatrical form, language, technique accelerated. And a necessity was gradually felt to organise this loosely connected theatre efforts into an organised cultural movement, to exchange notes and build a network among the working groups.


Language, Form, Debates and Beyond:


In 1988, when the north India based Jana Natya Maanch (JANAM) completed ten years of its cultural activism in the form of street and proscenium theatre performances, an attempt was made to organise a meeting involving all the street theatre practitioners across the country. The aim was to historically understand the evolution of the street theatre. Written for the occasion, Safdar Hashmi’s “The First Ten Years of Street Theatre”, is perhaps, one of the first of its kinds which attempted to locate the challenges of street theatre on a clear material-historical understanding of peoples’ theatrical performances.


This retrospection about the street theatre, which ensued from JANAM’s anniversary, brought forth certain concerns. What should be the form of street theatre? Which theatrical language should be used in such performances to reach out to the audience? Shall the peoples’ folk culture be the only repository of theatrical form and language? What if the age long practice of those forms had made them inextricable from their accompanying content, such as – superstition, social-communal biases. The risk involved in uncritically using such folk forms, therefore, is a real one; and it was of the revival of pre-modern and traditional dominance of erudition and biases. The next level of the challenges was, therefore, to find a theatrical language that will induce awareness among the audience who are not used to follow the language of the proscenium theatre. In other words, to reach out to the people, street theatre needed a language, a form that even the non-theatre going mass can identify with, though not necessarily going back to the feudal and pre-modern standards of performances.


Another significant challenge was to come to terms with the financial aspect of performances. Emerging from the concerns over people’s everyday sufferings, occurring on the street among the lot of a moving crowd, the theatre of the street was though a political necessity, it could neither fetch the financial support of the feudal or mercantile patrons nor generate funds on its own. At the same time, as opposed to the proscenium practices, as a medium of theatrical communication, street theatre was also aiming to take art out of the market of commodities and liberate it from the control of producers’ restriction over language choices, content selection. The answer to this challenge was to some extent found in the development of a form of theatre that was, one, inexpensive as there was no use of prop or stage or light or even make up; two, making it portable and mobile. The contribution of Badal Sarkar’s ‘Third theatre’, which aimed to replace all the props with the brilliant use of actors’ body, in this context, is invaluable. JANAM’s first street play, Machine, used this technique to graphically present to its working class audience the exploitative and harmonious unity factory owners and administrative power.


History of People’s Theatre and its future:


People’s theatre is a special understanding of theatrical language and performance. It is an understanding that, perhaps, started developing among the practitioners of theatre at the wake of social, economic crisis of the people in the modern times. What set this understanding of theatre apart from its predecessors who also dealt deeply with human pain and suffering, is its attempt to break down all possible walls that separate the audience from a performance. Literature if seen as a platform, people’s voice first made itself registered when the first pro-people poetry was printed, or the theatre was performed. But the down the line, theatre and other literary media fell again to retain its contact with the people and their lives. Art got itself alienated and became a money making business enterprise that sells cheap tricks. People’s theatre, in this context of art’s evolution, appeared as revolutionary understanding of doing theatre which will break the increasing distance between art and the mass. In other words, People’s Theatre is an understanding of theatre that strictly opposed art for the sake of art. The purpose of art is to serve the people by upholding their voice. And whatever causes an increasing distance between art and theatre and carry them away from each other was considered harmful to the basic idea of theatre.


However, what are the factors that distances any art form people? Access, content, language, style could all be potential factors. Therefore, one needs to understand that people’s theatre is also about using theatrical resources to bridge all the existing gaps rather increasing it in any way. Historically, the complaints of the people’s theatre’s activists like Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in the Weimer Republic of 1920s and 1930s, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak in Bengal of 1950s and 60s, Safdar Hashmi in Delhi of 1970 and 80s, had always been the growing distance of the artists from the human life. They initially judged the medium of theatre to be inadequately prepared to address the audience. Developments such as breaking of the imaginary fourth wall between the audience and the stage was among many techniques which sought o minimise the distance of an actor and the audience. And this consolidated effort brought to the word of theatre a new style, the Epic style. This style, which has influenced generations of playwrights worldwide, actually originated under the theatrical experiments of Piscator and Brecht. They analysed the audiences’ likings, their traditional niche of literature and concluded that actors need to subdue their feelings completely and bring their language and style to the simplest possible form so that they can easily enter the realm of the audience. The epic style wanted actors to maintain this simplicity and preach the revolutionary aims of the people’s government in the simple language of the people.


It is interesting that in the Indian context realising the epic style and relating it to the local situation is very natural and had been practised for ages. Ritwik Ghatak once remarked during an interview that audience in India has a epic attitude. They like seeing themselves in the characters of Rama, Krishna, Lakshmana and Sita. They like seeing those epic characters doing the daily chores of life like. And perhaps, that is the reason why so many adaptations, retellings, translations of epics exist in many Indian language. However, the suggestion Ritwik Ghatak put forward was that of complex chemistry. For him the contemporary theatre badly needed to have such an epic style to reach out to the people. However, that is only possible if simple epic convention is realised by combining the knowledge of the people and their condition with the everyday idiom from people’s life. The theatre only then will bring out an epic out of the everyday practise of our life.


However, people’s theatre and street Theatre though are synonymous in functions but not exactly the same. Street theatre is a form that emerged from the People’s Theatrical movement. And that movement was perhaps initiated in the modern times in post-revolution Soviet Russia, as the people’s government decided to preach its ideology to its mass. It created an administrative department named ‘Department of Agitation and Propaganda’. Travelling in a train to the remote corners of the vast Soviet Union, workers of the department took their messages to the mass in the form of theatrical performances, songs. Though a huge leap was made in theatre practices by initiating performances everywhere but just the stage, such as – farm houses, fields, factories, street sides, this break also marked the beginning of series of innumerable complications and uncertainties which are still plaguing at least the theoretical understanding of street theatre. Many agit-prop groups, such as – Blue Blouse, Left Column and many communist artists enabled the language of theatre during this time with spectacular innovations. Newspaper report, Pamphlet, Political Speech everything turned into the language of theatre and theatre found its language in them. Working among the people, in spaces never explored, such as working places, domestic spaces – theatre gathered around itself a huge resource of folk bounties – songs, rhythms, rhymes. The language of theatre, at this juncture started equipping itself with the new resource. However, it has to wait until Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht appeared in the scene and took this transition of theatrical language to its next stage.


Breaking of the imaginary fourth wall between the audience and the actors, the epic theatre style enabled theatre for the mass and established the possibilities of a people’s theatrical tradition. The increased interaction between the stage and audience which formed the base of this theatrical tradition reflected sharply on all other aspects of theatre. The content, the stage, the location, the choice of language nothing remained unaltered. When theatre left its stage and went among the audience, inside factories, in the corner of markets, fields, it picked the dictum of the street in which the crowd complained. The protest of the crowd, their resistance found an easy echo in the theatrical voice thus emerged. It is no wonder that in 1952, when Indian People’s Theatre Association was formally established to emulate a people’s tradition of theatre in India, its roots remained strongly anchored on the popular plays around the contemporary concerns of the mass, such as – Nabanna, Agun, Jabanbandi, Laboratory.


Thus began the first official chapter of India’s people’s theatre of which Street Theatre is a popular form. However, the journey that began in the 1950s and manifested it in the form of street theatre across India by 1980s had to address many practical concerns. The response to the socialist intervention through art was popular in the post-independent India. IPTA’s effort quickly consolidated itself with inputs from their branches spread across a number of cities and states of India. The theatre activists, the foot soldiers of this cultural awakening encountered challenges in numerous forms. The plethora of theatrical resources that their close interaction with the mass familiarised them with, also presented a new challenge for the theatrical language. The manifesto of the regional committee of IPTA, drafted in 1951 not only enlisted six different performances for consideration of IPTA activities but also dedicated a section on discussion the form and the content of the theatre in such context. They identified it as a question which art is always responsible to answer to. On the other hand, a new theatre tradition of the people which is maturing among the mass with the direct inputs from them quickly set itself apart from the stage theatre. The distance further widened as social factors started creating groups of theatre consumers in different spaces. While proscenium performance kept alienating itself from people’s concern, it kept notes of the new language and resources discovered by the people’s art. And in no time they accepted it as it offered the artist a much enabled language to charm its audience. The adverse effect of such development was recorded much sooner as the senior generation found the younger ones to be moved far away from the people. In 1968, in an essay titled “One Problem of the Contemporary Plays” Ritwik Kumar Ghatak wrote, “In most of our contemporary plays we are getting alienated from the human life. Every artist has a responsibility to get enmeshed among the mass. If you fail there, then you have to arrange an array of strange things, cheap tricks to win over your audience.”


The history of People’s theatre or the street theatre in India has realised as a scientific truth that there exists only one guiding principle for all art and that is people’s art. As they worked among the people, researched their literature, experimented with forms, they understood that they need to develop the genre by remaining untiring self-critical. The threat can even come from their own innovations when it will reduce the performance into an obsession with forms. There is always a possibility of getting too far from the stage and create further separation rather than bridging. While it is responsibility of any cultural activists, writer, actor to deal with these tensions, their challenge is to overcome them and remain true to the cause of the people. However, whether overcoming all its challenges, People’s theatre, literature will keep evolving or not that is a question only time can answer. But it is alarming that in the current democratic space of India, the atmosphere is not congenial to the development of any such honest people’s theatre.




Besides the debate over form and content, sustenance, what also emerged in retrospection as one of the most alarming threats for the development of the people’s theatrical voices, was the legal aspect and that unsettles all possibilities of imagining a national or Indian street theatre. Since the colonial period draconian laws, like – Obscenity act, Dramatic performance act were used to curtail the freedom of speech. Questioning the authority of the governing body, critiquing their administration on behalf of the starving and dying millions was repressed by the legal power of such laws. After independence, as India stepped into its post-colonial phase and emerged as the largest democracy in the world, the expectation of a change in the governing attitude was natural. However, the history of state repression and indifference towards emerging forms of peoples’ theatre give us a different picture. While the aim of the street theatre, as manifested in its historic evolution, was to perceive nation as a process which pays attention to its peoples’ demanding voices and evolve continuously, the state of India and its protectors emerged as one of the most rigid and sacrosanct ideas in its opposition to the street forms of theatre. Consequently, Indian state itself became one of the insurmountable challenges for the street art to grow. The laws still are frequently invoked to silence criticisms of, demands and questions to the governing body. Theatre activists like Utpal Dutt and many like of him were put behind the bars for not complying with the national standard of cultural indifference. Activists like Safdar Hashmi got mob lynched and was beaten to death by ruling political party and their goons for performing plays on the street. Such instances of mob lynching, assassination, legal pressure and threats of the state under which the contemporary street theatre practitioners work, delineate the continuation of exploitative state machinery in suppression of the peoples’ voice. The ominous shadow of the colonial legislative principles still looms large in the appearance of the postcolonial nation which is not at all hesitant to wage war against its own people in the name of safeguarding nation. In such context, the future of street theatre, amidst the lack of the basic minimum security of street performers, looks bleak. The day is still awaited when performances such as street theatre does not need to be afraid of the state repression, when Narendra Dabholkars, Govind Pansares, Safdar Hashmis, Jiten Marandis, M.M. Kalburgis would not need to lose their lives for performing, for speaking out on behalf of justice, rationality and hunger. An Indian Street Theatre, perhaps, could only emerge that day when the state machinery will stop finding its justifications in the legal penal codes, in forced literary categories and start perceiving the platform of literary culture as a live testament of its people and get made by them rather than the other way round.

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