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Dialling up the drama

Published : Dec 20, 2017, 12:12 am IST
Updated : Dec 20, 2017, 12:15 am IST

Therefore it is the millennial generation of artists that is saying things that the rest of us should be.

There was a time in Indian Theatre where theatre was meant to be political.
 There was a time in Indian Theatre where theatre was meant to be political.

The other day, I had a conversation with a young theatre-maker who was bemoaning the lack of “political theatre” being done. There was a time in Indian Theatre where theatre was meant to be political. Indian People’s Theatre Association had a huge presence, as did Jan Natya Manch.

Playwrights wrote bold, scathing critiques of government. However, in its search for a greater aesthetic, Indian Theatre has traded the bludgeoning club for a sharp scalpel; trying to make subtler more incisive cuts at the establishment. The need to put bums on seats, and the desire to avoid controversy, has perhaps led many theatre makers to shy away from overt political commentary. Our plays now are far more about social concerns, rather than political ones; or are about the individual being affected rather than the establishment that is perpetrating it. This is in keeping with the millennial stereotype of being the generation that only looks at things from their perspective. But is it?

Strangely, the most political work is coming out of the campus theatre; where creators are working in the relative safety and freedom of university auditoriums. Therefore it is the millennial generation of artists that is saying things that the rest of us should be. Each year, I marvel at the line up at the Thespo youth theatre festival. Now in its 19th year, it continues to showcase breath-taking work, imagined and created by people under the age of 25. This year’s line-up tackles complicated issues with regards to gender identity, harsh questions about dowry and farming issues, and even a play about the choices a woman has.

As usual, there are three categories of performances.  Experiments that have been devised usually with the help of an International theatre maker, short open air performances that are often site-specific, and the main full length plays. The remarkable thing this year is that almost every play has been newly written. This is probably due to the fact that plays off a bookshelf do not adequately representing the experiences of the young people of today.

The main play line up opens with the hard-hitting Mrig-Trishna from Delhi, about a hijra who is having a crisis of faith. She questions her choices, her options and even her religion. The gravity of the first play is countered by the levity of Lucknow’s Main, Mera Baaja Aur Woh, about a man, bringing up his son, after the wife/mother has left them, and the son tribulation caused by his falling for a voice on the radio. Ahmednagar’s first representation at the festival is a Marathi play Khataara, about a vehicle that a farmer refuses to sell.

The Khataara is a symbol for everything that the farming community is hanging on to in these dire times. The festival is rounded off by Bombay’s Trikon Ka Choutha Kon, which on the surface is about plagiarism, but is actually about a woman’s right to be alone, and not be defined by the men in her life.

The truly remarkable thing about all four plays is that they are truly full length plays, not merely a single narrative that is converted into a 75 minute story. These plays all have subplots that tackle the issues and concerns in a genuine human way rather than superficially. This means that young people are writing with care, and depth, and not just cursorily, therefore countering the usual accusation levelled against them.

Yet, all the plays still shy away from strong political statements. In fact of all the performances, only the reading of Butter and Mashed Banana has real criticism of the establishment. Written and performed at Thespo in 2005, the play is a scathing attack on the governments clamping down on freedom of speech. Yet it is done with humour and farce. So it gets you to laugh so much…it hurts. A dozen years after it was first performed, the play has an even more vital resonance. Hopefully it will spur a new generation of writers to call a spade, a spade… or more aptly a trishul’!

The full festival line up is available on:

Quasar Thakore Padamsee
Is a Bombay based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.

Tags: thespo, theatre-maker, jan natya manch
Location: India, West Bengal, Calcutta [Kolkata]