16th April, 2002


Kavita Nagpal*

The National School of Drama’s Theatre Festival, 4th Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM) concluded on a celebratory note with the internationally acclaimed theatre guru, Ratan Thiyam’s dazzling presentation of Mahakavi Kalidasa’s epic poem Ritusamharam.  The poem, describing the six seasons – Grishma, Varsha, Sharad, Hemant, Shishir and Vasant- was a radiant distillation of all the elements of dramatic art- dance, music, gesture, movement, expression, scenic design, costume and visual poetry.

In the open house interaction with the audience following the show, Ratan confessed that the piece was conceived as an escape from the daily dose of violence, death, war and terror unleashed by the media. "Violence, cannot be contained by violence. Anti-war themes haunt me. But I feel I have been isolating myself from nature. In Mahakavi Kalidasa I found a shoulder to lean on in my attempt to restart a dialogue with nature." On being asked why he only staged plays in his native language Manipuri, Ratan described the elaborate actor training method he has evolved for his company based in Imphal. The discipline includes a study of the Natyashastra, Aristotle’s Poetics and all the traditional regional performing dances, music, theatre and narrative forms of Manipur.

The Festival was inaugurated by Pandit Ravi Shankar on March 16 and concluded on April 8. Every little outer space was alive with theatre enthusiasts engaged in avid debates. Spectators ran from show to show in an effort to catch as many plays as they could of the feast of 126 dramas in more than 20 languages laid out for them at eight venues in and around NSD. The fever was akin to the frenzy at international film festivals. But it was physically impossible to witness all the selected pieces. Shows were too closely timed and some ran longer than others, thus precluding the possibility of viewing them.

Though Kamani and the Shri Ram Centre Halls are a two- minute sprint from the NSD campus, there were few takers for shows held there. A buff ascribed this to the warm welcoming atmosphere in the NSD environs. If international festivals like the French annual at Avignon and the Edinburgh in Scotland are the models, then shows will have to be staggered through the day, well into the night. In most big festivals each venue has multiple staging, with shows opening as early as ten or eleven in the morning with some closing around dawn. Five countries- Korea, Bangladesh, Germany, Israel and Mauritius – participated this year. International involvement is expected to increase from next year as the festival becomes more structured. The fixed dates for the Festival between March 16 to April 8 gave groups in India and abroad ample time to arrange their tours and create specific shows for the Festival.

The other interesting aspect that coming BRMs might want to emulate is the separation of the main Festival and allowing a fringe or an offstream to emerge. The plays for the main Festival may be commissioned especially for the event, thus ensuring quality shows by recognized playwrights and well- known directors and actors. These plays could run from three to seven days. Spectators would have an easier time arranging their viewing programme. Decisions regarding the ‘Best’ are more difficult to take in a multi-language situation like in India, but possible since the Festival has decided to focus on the theatre of one region at each BRM.This year’s attention was on theatre from West Bengal and the North-East.

There were four productions from Manipur including a stunning Bhoot Amusung (Devil and the Mask) directed by L Dorendra, five from Assam with a stirring Hamlet by Dulal Roy and nine plays from West Bengal. Nagaland, though rich in dance has no theatre as such. It is to the credit of young NSD graduate Rabijita Gogoi that she produced the visually gorgeous Nidhali with young dancers as part of an NSD extension programme. The Mizoram presentation Zanriah El Hmain by Siddharth Chakraborty was also highly appreciated.  

Viewing fatigue is much greater at theatre festivals than at film festivals. This is because of the immediacy of a live communication between two sets of humans. It requires total concentration of the senses on both sides of the arc lights. Since each performance of even the same play is different – human beings cannot be programmed to repeat emotions or dramatic interactions- one sometimes sees a bad show of a play that was good the previous evening! This is an eternal risk taken by a performer.Thus one can rave about a play that is being dismissed by another as poor and dismiss one that played to an appreciative audience elsewhere.
Ganapati, conceived and directed by Veenapani Chawla of Adishakti, Pondicherry, presented at Bahumukh, one of NSD’s most inspired performing spaces, was a vibrant, stimulating and innovative dramatic presentation. A scholar and practitioner of drama, classical dance, music and martial arts, Chawla has done extensive work with the technique used by Koodiyattam performers. Koodiyattam is a highly codified traditional theatre form in Kerala and considered the only living vestige of Sanskrit theatre.

While celebrating experience and expertise, the Festival also threw up some new talent. Surendra Sharma’s Ila, a drama drawn from a chapter in the Shreemad Bhagvat where Manu’s wife’s prayers for a girl child are answered, tackled female foeticide with verve and contemporary resonance. The learned Vashishta genetically changes Ila into the male prince Sudyum at Manu’s behest. Sudyum, played with exceptional energy and eclat by Alka Ameen, marries, spawns children, becomes king, but cannot shed her ‘femininity’. It is magically restored to her in an enchanted wood where Ila/Sudyum falls in love and experiences motherhood. But duty beckons and Vashishtha is forced to return Ila to manhood to face the rigours of governing a rotting and corrupt kingdom.Shailaja J, Daulat Vaid and R.Nalini are amongst the newcomers to watch out for.

*Media Critic


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