A plethora of problems afflicts Hindi theatre...
Rana A Siddiqui
The year 2001 will soon get dubbed the ‘last year.’ A year that gave us Ghulam Ali and Gulzar’s album ‘Visaal,’ several musical concerts at India Gate, a pulsating utsav at Chandni Chowk, the first ever Picasso show…The list is endless.
The only segment that remained neglected is Hindi theatre. In fact, the problems at production and structural level have only mounted. For instance, there is virtually no rehearsal space for artists; rents of auditoriums have soared tenfold; there is almost negligible funding/ sponsorship by the government/corporate sector; security clearance is an added impediment; the entertainment tax sits like an incubus; and then there is the perennial preference for English plays.
There are numerous auditoriums in Delhi, yet space for rehearsals is at a premium. Earlier, the basement of Shri Ram Centre was available at a rental of Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,300 per day, but it was closed last year for security reasons. Now, the main auditorium costs Rs 12,000 per day, if rented out in the evening. And, if the auditorium is required in daytime, an additional Rs 3,000- Rs 4,000 is down the drain. On the other hand, India Habitat Centre’s rent is Rs 5,000.
For smaller groups, paying such a huge amount is out of the question. Rehearsals are, therefore, often held in the open; or in a charity trust’s premises, a government flat or an academy. Of course, the National School of Drama lawn is available for free, but it is not free from distraction. Bhartiya Natya Sangh premises can be rented out for Rs 70 per hour, but for that there is generally a long queue. Interestingly, Shri Ram Centre and Kamani Auditorium premises were earlier rented out for the payment of a token amount. But in the absence of any caretaker, the space in these auditoriums has been put to commercial use. Thus, the genuine groups are left with no option but to make their own arrangements. Other auditoriums, barring the LTG, do not rent out their premises and, in any case, these are either too far away from the hub or are simply defunct.
But that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. With virtually no sponsorships, these groups have to run from pillar to post for arranging finances for costumes, publicity, payments to artists, conveyance etc. “`So much is spent on the aforesaid that we hardly make any profit”, moans Arvind Gaur, founder of the decade-old Asmita Theatre Group of 45 artistes, famous for political and social satires. A play costs a minimum Rs 20,000 to 30,000. "Since we are constrained for funds, we have to rely on the word of mouth for publicising the play,” he adds. The costumes and sets in his plays are, more often than not, improvised.
It is ironical that a nation that makes such a hue and cry about the importance of ‘rashtrabhasha Hindi’ neither sponsors Hindi plays nor showers it with any awards. “Corporate houses sponsor only English plays, however worthless they might be. But even powerful Hindi plays do not entice them. Even the government has done nothing to boost the morale of the Hindi play writers, artistes and directors,” feels Gaur. The ratio of sponsorship is 99: 1, so that the Hindi theatre groups are always in the red.
That is not all. The poor theatre folks have to undergo a lot before they actually get to stage a play. Just count them: The theatre group people have to run from pillar to post to take an NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the Traffic Police, the local area DCP, the local police station and give entertainment tax. Getting an NOC is the most painful and tedious task. They have to give the financial account (to all the above) after each play. Earlier, they had to do that annually only. The rule of giving annual account has been recently modified.
Their woes do not end here. There is also lament on the lack of dedicated artistes and scripts. Says Hemant Mishra, the established actor and famous ad man behind McDonalds, “The condition of Hindi theatre is pathetic in Delhi. We badly need a new breed of writers, artistes and directors. Unfortunately, most artistes consider the stage as a ladder to climb the zenith of filmdom, so they always are in a tearing hurry to leave the stage. As for good plays, good dramatists like Vijay Tendulkar write one play in five years. So we have to rehash their earlier plays or thrive on old plays or furthermore, simply wait for new writers to take the responsibility.”
Gaur, though, disagrees, “Writers like Ajay Shukla, Manjula Padmanabhan, Swadesh Deepak and Mahesh Dattani are very promising. So are the actors more dedicated as they spend at least three to four years in theatre to be branded as accomplished actors,” he opines. More so, because established actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Manoj Bajpai, Aashutosh Rana, Smita Patil etc are all theatre artists who have excelled in films. So they see a career in theatre these days.
But then, pompousness on stage still remains a reason for remorse. The trend for needlessly decorated stages is fast catching up with the people. Though barring a few plays, the stage needs little decking up. “Unfortunately, these days, the more the stage decoration the more the crowd swells, though that only diverts the attention from the theme of the play. So we always try to keep set decorations to the minimum to confine the audiences’ attention to the play for which a stage is hired, Mishra informs.
Though great theatre personalities like Habib Tanveer, Ibrahim Alkazi, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnard have bestowed new horizons to the world of Hindi theatre but they remain great names, inaccessible and rich enough to worry about funds. “These people are very popular. If they were to voice the small groups’ plight they would be respectfully heard. But sadly enough, they never seem to have even thought of the same though they themselves might have undergone similar problems, ” wails Amita Walia, an artiste.
Comparatively though, theatre in West Bengal, Mumbai and Gujarat is lucky to have good audience, scripts, directors and artistes. Beams Mishra with a visible glow of happiness on his face, “The theatre in these places is very vibrant. There exists a theatre culture. So much so that people many a times “prefer plays to a movie” This is a habit that Delhi still has to cultivate. Though Gaur, who has made Delhi witness repeated Hindi shows to initiate this culture, finds the same difficult for the second time availability of the auditorium only depends upon “sheer luck.”
Punjabi theatre in Delhi is in no better condition. Though Delhi has the maximum number of Punjabis (after Punjab) as compared to the other parts of the country as also the world, still the condition of Punjabi theatre is pitiable. “For sheer lack of funds, the theatre culture has not been nurtured devotedly. There are so many good writers in Punjabi whose plays can create a stir in the otherwise stagnated waters of Punjabi theatre but there are no takers,” mourns Dr Darshan Singh `Harvinder,’ President, Punjabi Cultural Forum International. Though Punjabi Academy in Delhi single-handedly keeps making efforts to lift the status of Punjabi theatre by organising Punjabi plays on its annual day. But “that is not sufficient, taking into consideration its rich literature and population”, he adds.
But as every problem has a solution, so does the dispirited condition of theatre. Suggests Gaur, “The government should draft a policy on culture through which the genuine groups get benefited. It should also build new auditoriums and rent them out to the genuine groups on subsidised rates. Taking of NOCs and licences should be the auditoriums’ responsibility. So it can also direct the auditorium authorities to take the same for the play to be presented. And accounts for receiving the NOC should be made annual. It should also take care that space registered for the rehearsals is not put to commercial use. Moreover, to encourage Hindi language and drama, it should announce awards in this realm of art too.
Though he agrees that there are enough funds with the government in the name of drama, but the influential groups for lack of any proper policy always misuse them. “Moreover, running for the funds is so time-consuming that I always prefer to woo audiences through word of mouth publicity than chasing the government for funds,” says Sangita Gaur, a classical singer and an artiste, whose efforts to get funds for her group for the past 10 years, have proved futile!
Delhi, with its rich academia and diverse culture, now urgently needs to create a healthy theatre culture that will also help draw young minds towards positive and creative thinking. Unfortunately though, in Hindi theatre, cheap comedies and commercial plays are also trying to take ground. Worst, in the name of English theatre, anything, even a sex comedy, is selling these days.
Though, looking at the condition of theatre in Delhi, it seems that they still have to go a long way. But courage has not slimmed down for the young artistes. “I hope to see theatre in its best colours soon because there is always a silver lining in a dark cloud,” says Tarun Chauhan, a young scholarship holder for a course in theatre. He aptly recited a couplet that unanimously found its echo in the other young artistes:
Kainchiyan kya kutrengi hamare paron ko
Hum paron se nahin, hauslon se uda karte hain
(Dare the scissors clip our wings, we fly with grit and guts, not wings)
Will the New Year fulfil their hopes?