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by Girish Karnad, Playwright

Mar 27, 2002

WORLD THEATRE DAY - 27 March 2002
WORLD THEATRE DAY was created in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute (ITI). World Theatre Day is celebrated annually on the 27th March by ITI Centres and the international theatre community, various national and international theatre events being organized to mark this occasion. One of the most important of these is the circulation of the International Message traditionally written by a theatre personality of world stature at the invitation of the International Theatre Institute.
The Natyasastra is one of the world's earliest treatises on theatre. It dates back to at least the third century B.C. and its first chapter tells the story of the Birth of Drama. It was a time when the world was sunk in moral turpitude. People had become slaves to irrational passions. A new means had to be found ("pleasing to the eyes and ears as well as edifying") which could uplift humanity. So Brahma, the Creator, combined elements from the four Vedas (sacred texts) to form a fifth text, the Veda of Performance. But since the gods are not capable of the discipline of drama, the new Veda was passed on to Bharata, a human being. And Bharata, with the help of his hundred sons, and some celestial dancers sent by Brahma, staged the first play. The gods enthusiastically contributed to the enhancement of the expressive possibilities of the new art.

The play Bharata presented dealt with the history of the conflict between the gods and the demons, and celebrated the ultimate victory of the gods. The production delighted the gods and the humans. But the demons in the audience were deeply offended. They therefore used their supernatural powers and disrupted the performance by paralyzing the speech, movements and memory of the actors. The gods in turn attacked the demons and killed many of them.

Mayhem ensued. So Brahma, the Creator, approached the demons and spoke to them. Drama, he explained, is the representation of the state of the three worlds. It incorporates the ethical goals of life -the spiritual, the secular and the sensuous-its joys and sorrows. There is no wisdom, no art, no emotion which is not found in it. He then asked Bharata to proceed with the performance. We are not told if the second performance was any more of a success.

Scholars commenting on this chapter take it for granted that the myth condemns the demons. Their behaviour is seen to prove they had failed to comprehend the true nature of theatre. Brahma's discourse on theatre then becomes the essence of the myth.

That, it seems to me, is to misunderstand the myth entirely. For a start, the fact that the demons (unlike the gods) do not resort to physical violence but attack only the "speech, movements and memory" of the actors shows a remarkable grasp of the finer aspects of performance.

More to the point, here is a revered text, written to instruct us in the art and techniques of play-production, talking of the very first performance in the history of humanity. The Creator himself, along with other gods, celestial nymphs and trained actors, was involved in the project. The result should have been a thundering success. Instead, we are told it was a disaster.

There is an implicit statement here that scholars have avoided looking at. Possibly they are embarrassed by it. Certainly the implications fly in the face of the later Indian aesthetics, which asserts that the main purpose of theatre is to detach the audience from the world outside and ease it into a shared state of delectation.

The myth, it seems to me, is pointing to an essential characteristic of theatre which Brahma's placatory remarks could not possibly acknowledge that every performance - however carefully devised - carries within itself the risk of failure, of disruption and therefore of violence. The minimum that a live performance requires is a human being performing (that is, pretending to be someone else) and another one watching him or her, and that is a situation already fraught with uncertainty.

The world has never before had as much drama as today. Radio, films, television and video inundate us with drama. But while these forms can engage or even enrage the audience, in none of them can the viewer's response alter the artistic event itself. The Myth of the First Performance points out that in theatre, the playwright, the performers and the audience form a continuum, but one which will always be unstable and therefore potentially explosive.

That is why theatre is signing its own death warrant when it tries to play too safe. On the other hand, that is also the reason why, although its future often seems bleak, theatre will continue to live and to provoke.

Bio data of Girish Karnad (India) - Author of the International Message

Girish Karnad was born in 1938 in Matheran, India and educated in Karnataka
University, Dharwad and at Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar. After
serving for seven years with the Oxford University Press in India, he resigned to devote himself to writing and filmmaking. He served as the Director of the Film and Television Institute at Pune in 1974, 1975 and is at present the Director of the Nehru Centre, the cultural wing of the HighCommission of India in London.

He writes his plays in Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka where he lives, and has translated them into English. His second play, Tughlaq (1966), established him as a playwright of all-India stature. The Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis presented his play, Nagamandala, for its 30th Anniversary Celebrations in 1993 and went on to commission his next play, The Fire and the Rain. The Leicester Haymarket Theatre
commissioned Bali The Sacrifice, which is scheduled to open in June 2002.

He was a Fulbright Playwright-in Residence and Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago in 1987-88. He has been decorated with a Padma Bhushan by the President of India and was the Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the National Academy of the Performing Arts during 1988-93. He was awarded the Bharatiya Jnanpith, India's highest literary prize, in 1999.

He has also directed films which have won national and international awards and has acted for renowned film-makers such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal.

International Theatre Institute

World Theatre Day - 27th March - Background Information

It was first in Helsinki, and then in Vienna at the 9th World Congress of the International Theatre Institute in June 1961 that President Arvi Kivimaa proposed on behalf of the Finnish Centre of the International Theatre Institute that a World Theatre Day be instituted Since 1962, each 27th March (date of the opening of the 1962 " Theatre of Nations " season in Paris), World Theatre Day has been celebrated in many and varied ways by the now almost 100 ITI National Centres throughout the world and other members of world theatre community.

Set up in 1948, by UNESCO and world-renowned theatre personalities, the International Theatre Institute is the most important international non-governmental organization in the field of the performing arts enjoying formal relations (relations of consultation and association) with UNESCO.

ITI seeks "to promote international exchange of knowledge and practice in the domain of the performing arts, to stimulate creation and increase cooperation between theatre people, to make public opinion aware of the necessity of taking artistic creation into consideration in the domain of development, to deepen mutual understanding in order to participate in strengthening peace and friendship among peoples, to join in the defense of the ideals and aims of UNESCO."

The events organized to celebrate World Theatre Day are attempts to realise these objectives. Each year a figure outstanding in theatre or a person outstanding in heart and spirit from another field is invited to share his or her reflections on theatre and international harmony. What is known as the International Message is translated into more than 20 languages, read for spectators before performances in theatres
throughout the world, printed in hundreds of newspapers and magazines and broadcast all over the world by radio and television. Jean Cocteau was the author of the first International Message in 1962.

World Theatre Day is an occasion for theatre people to celebrate the power of the performing arts to bring people together, and an opportunity for them to share with their audiences a certain vision of their art and its capacity to contribute to understanding and peace between peoples.

Apart from the Message, World Theatre Day has also included numerous other events in all corners of the world, ranging from the almost intimate demonstration to the big popular celebration. e.g
- Reading of the Message in theatres before the evening performances
- International Festivals around the 27th March.
- Special theatre performances
- Symposia, Colloquia and Round table conferences on the role of theatre in society
- Awards for excellence in Theatre and in Dance - for national or international work.
- Inauguration of new theatres, theatre museums, & theatrical exhibitions; Open Days and guided tours of theatres.
- National messages and Addresses by eminent national figures. Articles in the press on theatre and commentaries on the International Message Radio and Television programs on theatre often aimed at young people. Special broadcasts of dramatic productions on TV and radio stations.
- Free performances or free theatre tickets
- Decoration of theatres, popular balls, fairs and parades
- Special posters and Special stamp issues
- Performances and collections in aid of theatre charities

Authors of the International Messages
1. 1962 : Jean COCTEAU
2. 1963 : Arthur MILLER
3. 1964 : Laurence OLIVIER - Jean-Louis BARRAULT
4. 1965 : Anonyme/Anonymous
5. 1966 : René MAHEU, Directeur général de l'UNESCO
6. 1967 : Helen WEIGEL
7. 1968 : Miguel Angel ASTURIAS
8. 1969 : Peter BROOK
10. 1971 : Pablo NERUDA
11. 1972 : Maurice BEJART
12. 1973 : Luchino VISCONTI
13. 1974 : Richard BURTON
14. 1975 : Ellen STEWART
15. 1976 : Eugène IONESCO
16. 1977 : Radu BELIGAN
17. 1978 : messages nationaux/national messages
18. 1979 : messages nationaux/ national messages
19. 1980 : Janusz WARMINSKI
20. 1981 : messages nationaux
21. 1982 : Lars af MALMBORG
22. 1983 : Amadou Mahtar M'BOW, Director General of UNESCO
23. 1984 : Mikhaïl TSAREV
24. 1985 : André-Louis PERINETTI
25. 1986 : Wole SOYINKA
26. 1987 : Antonio GALA
27. 1988 : Peter BROOK
28. 1989 : Martin ESSLIN
29. 1990 : Kirill LAVROV
30. 1991 : Federico MAYOR, Directeur général de l'UNESCO
31. 1992 : Jorge LAVELLI - Arturo USLAR PIETRI
32. 1993 : Edward ALBEE
33. 1994 : Vaclav HAVEL
34. 1995 : Humberto ORSINI
35. 1996 : Saadalla WANNOUS
36. 1997 : Jeong Ok KIM
37. 1998 : 50th Anniversary of ITI. Special Message
38. 1999 : Vigdís FINNBOGADÓTTIR
39. 2000 : Michel TREMBLAY
40. 2001 : Iakovos KAMPANELLIS
41. 2002 : Girish KARNAD

Jennifer M. Walpole
Assistant Executive
ITI International Theatre Institute
UNESCO, 1 rue Miollis
75732 PARIS Cedex 15, FRANCE.
TEL: +33 (0)1 45 68 26 50
FAX: +33 (0)1 45 66 50 40

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