Playing Mute: Why The Silence Of City Theatre Groups Is Jarring

Mughal-e-Azam

At a time like this, one expects artists to challenge the establishment, not be mute bystanders.

The Indian public has perhaps never been as politically divided as it is today. Ever since the BJP strode power on the back of the corruption-riddled UPA coalition two years ago, the country, in particular a section of liberals, has watched in dismay as the party and its cohort of ultra right-wing organisations have repeatedly disrupted society. They’ve done this with actions designed to please majoritarian sentiments such as the ban on beef and manoeuvres with populist intentions like demonetisation.

Conversations on the state of affairs chiefly play out in the press, at least in those publications that don’t genuflect before the ruling party, and in non-mainstream cinema. But one area of the public sphere in Mumbai, which has historically been an arena for critique and mobilisation, has been noticeably quiet: theatre. Occasionally, the city’s theatre groups put out work that is in some way reflective of issues bothering the country. But they’ve been curiously silent at a time that would typically provide fodder for thought-provoking art. It’s as if theatrewallahs haven’t been reading newspapers.

The stand-up comedy and music show Aisi Taisi Democracy is an exception and a relief to those hungry for artistic commentary and discussion on the current political scenario. Lyricist and screenwriter Varun Grover, who is one of the co-writers and performers of the show, believes the general lack of engagement with politics arises from a childhood conditioning that “sharaab, drugs, sex, aur politics buri cheezein hain” (alcohol, drugs, sex and politics are bad) and a pervasive pro-establishment sentiment. “Right now the climate is pro-establishment because of the establishment’s smart use of symbols like army, cow, national interest as shields,” Grover said. “That is a masterstroke and I am permanently in awe of our PM for understanding the desi psyche.”

Sunil Shanbag’s musical Loretta is another exception. A modern tiatr, Loretta has a central narrative that’s fairly typical of the form. What makes it interesting is the series of punctuative sketches, written by Grover, that satirise the current political dispensation. “I believe that we have lost forms of theatre which allowed artists to be spontaneous and subversive,” Shanbag said. “You mentioned Loretta…well one of the major attractions of the Goan tiatr form is the inclusion of a spontaneous, subversive element as an organic part of the style. Tamasha did the same thing tiatr did but tamasha has been completely destroyed.”

Tamasha and tiatr are both popular performance forms. What of the drama that takes place in cities for middle and upper-class audiences? Few of the plays that have opened in Mumbai in the last couple of years have contributed to political conversations. At a time like this, it rankles to see yet another inward-looking relationship drama, adaptation of Shakespeare or musical extravaganza. Why is the spirit with which writers and filmmakers returned their national awards, rattling the government in the process, missing from the city’s theatre artists?

Shanbag reckons this has to do with a tendency towards anti-intellectualism among a section of the city’s dramatists and performers, as well as the lack of an ability to articulate an adequate response. “I think there are plays which critique society and address social issues, but I think often the lack of an ideological framework, or a clearly stated point of view makes the exercise vague and lacking in depth,” he said. “Some of the work remains at a token superficial level, almost as though having taken up a subject, or issue, is adequate in itself. The point is having taken up an issue you now have to say something about it.”

It’s not just individuals who are shying away from politics or censoring themselves. Playwright Ramu Ramanathan said that institutions are unwilling to support certain kinds of theatre. “No one wants to upset the apple cart too much,” he said. “Theatre is governed by logistics. There are certain establishments where you won’t get a date (if you stage a boldly political performance).” At the same time, Ramanathan said he’s encouraged by the theatre he has seen and read at one-act play competitions that routinely take place in the city such as the Indian National Theatre’s Marathi and Hindi competitions and Loksatta Lokankika Spardha and play writing contests such as The Hindu Playwright Award and eNatya Samhita. Ramanathan said that a number of recent dramas by young theatrewallahs from around Maharashtra as well as other parts of the country contain “a fairly strong voice of protest and a strong anti-establishment sentiment”.

Aside from the amateur stage, political performance takes place on the street. At one time, the Left provided a scaffolding for the arts. Great artists arose from the fold of the Left, most notably Urdu writers like Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto whose stories are performed in the city practically ever week. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which is still active in the city, began as the cultural arm of the Community Party of India. The Left began to decline and splinter over three decades ago. In the years since, street-level agitprop has been conducted by Dalit groups carrying forward the long Maharashtrian tradition of lok shahiri. Groups such as Yalgaar, Nav Ambedkari Vidrohi Shahiri Jalsa and Kabir Kala Manch perform in a style known as Ambedkari Jalsa, which involves performing songs and dramas that satirise and critique social and political phenomena. These groups are rarely watched inside mainstream theatre venues. They perform where people from low economic backgrounds live and at demonstrations.

They’re clear that their purpose is not to entertain but to challenge the establishment. “We are anti-caste, anti-patriarchy and anti-capitalism,” said Yalgaar’s Dhammarakshit, who prefers to use only his first name. Recently, Yalgaar has been performing satirical skits on the government’s “saffronisation” agenda all over the country. He too finds that his peers often prefer to be in the “safe zone” instead of critiquing the state. The case of Kabir Kala Manch, some of whose members are in jail, has scared theatrewallahs, Dhammarakshit said. Perhaps the question of purpose is one Mumbai’s performers ought to ask themselves. “What is the role of your art in society?” Shanbag said. “Big question, but can’t be shied away from. So, if the answer is that theatre is for entertainment, that’s what you will get. In a situation dominated by the mainstream it is clear why theatre is seen as yet another product of easy consumption.”

Yalgaar will perform street plays all day starting from 10am on Tuesday, December 6, the death anniversary of B. R. Ambedkar, opposite Shivaji Park, near the statue of Minatai Thackeray.

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