‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’

How to be self-sufficient and sustainable with our theatre practice today? I ask this question primarily within the context of contemporary theatre in Kerala, and will try to answer it from my perspectives on life and theatre.

The question is not only about the what and how of a play (which of course is very important), but more about a repertory and the repertoire of plays – the actors who make and run the shows, their livelihoods, the stories they tell, the interventions they make, and the structures that organize and sustain the composition of the group in relation to its audience base and a space.

Theatre in kerala has a formidable history, but the cultural infrastructure for contemporary theatre and dance is surprisingly negligible. Theatre is spread across an array of cultural domains in Kerala ranging from professional touring troops, amateur groups, independent experimental theatre groups, street theatre collectives, soloists, women’s theatre groups, children’s theaters, and college theatre clubs and university drama and theatre departments. This is besides the space of traditional, ritual and folk forms of theater, dance and performance.

However, there are no theatre houses with resident actors, equipment and technical staff, no city or state theatres, nor state funded touring theatres. Even the notion of box office and tickets are new in the ecology of contemporary theatre in Kerala.

What is there is the KSNA, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi; under the ministry of culture, government of Kerala, it is the apex body for the promotion of music and drama in Kerala. They have various programmes, many of them aimed at theatre are competitive events like professional and amateur drama competitions, awards and fellowships. Apart from these, there is a theatre festival since 2008. The international theatre festival of Kerala, a non competitive annual event for theatre which has its impact on our theatres, the merits and demerits of it will be topic for another post. There is also a public relations department of Kerala, which organizes a national theatre festival, often at irregular intervals and serving as a state mouthpiece. Theatre groups are asked to apply with DVD’s in short notice (yes, DVD’s) and then a few people sit and watch it in 4x to 32x speed before selecting a few, and a random programme is put together.

The picture, is rather confusing for me. What stands out are a number of discontinuities in the history of theatre practice in Kerala. The various initiatives to nurture the field, as well as the many movements that were set against the then mainstream touring theatres have not only weakened the already feeble frameworks of theatre but also have failed to deliver anything substantial, so far. Some have even disrupted the organic growth of the field. I am saying all these because theatre practice in Kerala is still far from being a suatainable choice of livelihood (except for those who teach in university drama departments), and regular theatre going culture is non existent in our society. (Who wants to go to the theatre anyway, when you have have an infinite choice of TV channels enriching our cultural lives every day, especially in the evenings)

Ok. The way KSNA shifts its priorities every five years or so due to changing governments has contributed a lot to the discontinuities in the creation of a comprehensive staging history as well as in the nurturing of a theatre going culture. The central government policies and funding seem to benefit only when there is an aesthetic-policy/polity compatability. The idea of theatre of the roots is one good example of policy intervention in Indian theatre. The cultural policies and funding priorities of independent India focused on de colonising Indian theatre and dance. Which resulted in a series of reinventions, where anything western and foreign was out and Indian epics, myths, traditions and folklore and ‘Indianness’ took centerstage. In a few decades, most of our celebrated theatres ended up making beautiful fairytales instead of looking around and reflecting the life that surrounded them. You could not see people like you and me on stage, but larger than life, super human heroes like Duryodhana, Rama and Ravana.

Many experiments has been done in Kerala theatre, to varying degrees of success and failure. And many of those experiments have alienated the audience from the theatre (not in a Brechtian sense of the word).

The question is about the now, because as of now, theatre is not a sustainable enterprise and there is zero sustainability, let alone perpetuity. Theatre practice is heavily dependent on (inadequate) support, either by the state, private funding agencies or individual philanthropists. To add to its woes, it has, historically positioned itself as away as possible from capital. Sure, there are exceptions, but the story above applies to my case as well as most cases. The state or cities have no substantial policy for contemporary theatre and dance. There is a void, a void created by the absence of a mainstream practice, a comprehensive staging history and a lack of policy.

But this does not stop theatres from doing what they want to do. They improvise, adapt and sometimes get tired. Then revitalise and continue. Otherwise they know they will perish. This is the context, the crossroad where I along with a few others working in the field find ourselves thinking, questioning and planning. To perish, or not to perish?

We are talking about revitalising the theatre, we are thinking about sustainability, self sufficiency, and perpetuality.

If there is a will there is a way(slippery mud slope!)

Sankar Venkateswaran.

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