Taking theatre onward 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur
e-mail: padmajayaraj@gmail.com

April 15, 2009 
A national theatre festival organized by the Nataka Souhrudam, a theatre group, to celebrate its decade-long work concluded in Thrissur. Communication is the motto of Souhrudam whose mainstay is socio-political commitment. Hence the festival was unique for theatre buffs.
MS Sathyu, noted theatre person and film director, inaugurated the 3-day festival. He narrated the history of People's Theatre Movement in India. It had its conception at a gathering of eminent personalities, who were not part of theatre but visionaries, in the Indian Institute of Science in 1940. Born in 1942, it has gone on till date with ups and downs. The movement has sustained itself thanks to the commitment of theatre lovers despite onslaughts from cinema and the television. Although it is nurtured only in pockets, it has given a different version of history.  Dialogue is the mission of People's Theatre Movement.
Its features:
The festival was the haunt of theatergoers. Curated by Sadanand Menon, popular teacher of cultural journalism, the exhibition showcased rare photographs and posters from archival documents that are the milestones of Indian drama from Parsi theatre to contemporary times.

Seminars on different aspects of drama, documentaries connected with theatre, presentation of short plays to encourage theatre movement, and a book exhibition that catered to lovers of theatre were the main features of the festival. Each evening was unique with the staging of a major play.
'uruthi Paadam' (the field of blood-sacrifice) penned by Karivallur Murali and directed by Naripetta Raju, is a brilliant production staged on the inaugural day. Presented in the open with minimalism as its signature, the play is a fantastic presentation with all the ingredients like energetic action, songs with dramatic function, dance that evokes martial arts and ritual performance, spectacle, subdued lighting, and costumes giving different dimensions to the text. The plot gives scope for contemporary relevance to a page in the history of Karivallur, in Northern Kerala. 
The drama begins with the picture of today’s youth in front of TV.  The reading room of the village library has no reader today; closed almirahs with old books are ghosts of the past. The silence of a library is marred by hooting and whistling of young men who while away their time enjoying reality shows and competing to send SMS to back their favorite singer. They are the upwardly mobile section of the society because they have liquid cash harvested from selling their fields to the land mafia. Here is a reality check that has triggered an agrarian crisis in Kerala. 
Fantasy takes the play forward. Heroes of history, the local martyrs relive their chequered lives in troubled times. We bypass freedom struggle with its dreams and disillusionments, communist ideology seeping the downtrodden and the consequent agrarian revolution. In the process, the play exposes social hierarchy, the exploitation of the poor and the ruthless suppression of dissent, ongoing phenomena in free India. Many sacrificed their lives as the village wrote its bloody history. And the youth of today wallowing in tainted money needs to know their past, a past smeared in blood. The play ends with the dead and the wounded in a pile soaked in sacrificial blood.  As the tragic vision unfolds, we understand that the hapless saga of the poor farmer is the same from the days of feudalism to our times. And Karivallur becomes a metaphor.
Songs in the background set to rural and marching beats fill up the gaps and connect each period in its political upheavals. Costumes that remind one of absurd theatre is a tool in the hands of the director to take anti-nationalist and anti-imperialist stances.  The bare-bodied local chieftain with a necktie is classic case of satire that gives an imperialist twist to the story, hitting hard at globalization. 
'Agni Mattu Malai' (fire and rain) written by Girish Karnad and directed by Basavalingayya failed to click with the audience because of the language barrier. The organizers overlooked the need of an elaborate synopsis for a play in which dialogue is important. 
'Mahadevbhai' (Working Title, Mumbai) scripted and directed by Ramu Ramanathan was a wonderful performance. The solo acting of Jaimini Pathak that had the audience riveted to their seats for 2 hours is a classic case of consummate acting. Mimicking a dozen people and making the stage alive where action is not needed points to the strength of play acting. Mellifluous popular songs of the times, the mixture of Hindi and English set the tone and tenor of an urban play in an intimate theatre. And, a monologue in effect is transformed to a dialogue.
As the title suggests, the play tells the life story of Mahadevbhai, the personal secretary of Gandhiji. The drama unfolds as the great grandson of Mr. Desai goes in search of his great grandfather, through the memories of his grandfather, seven volumes of the diary written by Mr. Desai, distorted history lessons of his school days, and personal letters of people close to Gandhiji. The tortuous freedom struggle comes alive replete with cross references to our own troubled times steeped in irony. And the story line revolves around the relationship between Gandhiji and his personal secretary until the latter's death on the lap of his mentor.
And Gandhiji stands tall in the crowd, his supporters and opponents. We get thumbnail sketches of the stalwarts of the times. Mimicking each personality invests the play with humor, subtlety, and diversity. And we pass landmark after landmark of this glorious period with a new awareness.

Although every Indian has studied the period in the history classes, the play gives a different version of it as we look back from today's context. The drama reminds us of what we have sidelined as we marched forward. It urges to uphold Gandhian ideals, to put the peasant in the heart of India, and to be free in the real sense. We are reminded again and again that freedom from the British dominance is not the real freedom, but freedom from our own prejudices embedded in our social realities. We have to acknowledge weaknesses that are systemic in our culture and tradition to usher in humanity. 
Seminars followed by interactions, was a rewarding feature of the festival. What evolved as a consensus was that the theatre is in a crisis, that the flight of talent to other lucrative fields is a reality, that change in the mindset of  the audience shaped by the super speed of virtual reality are factors that trigger our anxieties. How to generate the needed energy in an aesthetic manner drawing strength from India's diverse traditions, from influences beyond our borders and from innovative experiments is the challenge that Indian theatre faces today. True that India does not have a national theatre, although we have National Schools of Drama. The strength of India lies in its diversity, so be it with its theatre. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com