Hum bhi online streaming try kiya lekin audience kahaan hota hain?…log yeh sirf apne liye kar rahe hain…to keep themselves busy…Koi organization artists ke liye nahi soch raha…

I started writing this article imagining the future of Indian theatre reaching out to our people- people we see, work and chill with: one might call this our ‘echo-chamber’! While some fellow theatre makers talked of hope and possibilities of finding new ways to keep the theatre going, many others had nothing to say! While some of us were grappling with how to make theatre zoom-friendly and organize ticketed shows many of us were living under this lockdown with very high stakes. In the language of the theatre: stakes of life and death!

The extreme reality of the situation hit me when I read the news of Prasenjit Chakraborty, a 33 year old theatre artist from Kolkata who committed suicide on Ranaghat Railway Station due to the lockdown and the resulting dirth of income.

The pandemic has highlighted the very real problems of the world we were living in- climate change, inequality, unemployment, classism and pay-parity. This is a crisis with social, economic and cultural implications. And in our theatre world, the worst affected are people who work with us relentlessly and whose lives directly depend on their theatre income.

 

Hum ko Akhil Bharatiya Natya Parishad aur Rang Manch Kamdar Sangh se thoda help mila… Do ladke mere paas kaam karte the, Bihar se, unka phone kab se band hain… Nahin malum kidhar gaye…- Anil Bobade, Lights Vendor, Mumbai.

Our theatre has been a home for migrant workers. Behind the scenes we have istri-wallahs, security guards, chai-wallahs, cleaning staff who are usually employed by agencies or work at big performance venues. While we tried reaching out to the on-ground staff of many of these venues, they politely refused to speak without the permission of their authorities. When we called most of the venue managers were not available and we weren’t surprised.

“Bombay ka local train aaj tak band nahin hua hain…humne partition bhi dekha lekin aisa nahin hua…shuru main to sabko ration mila lekin abhi dheere-dheere sab band kar diya hain isiliye log ghar bhag rahe hain…Natak toh band nahin hoga…Natak hamara sanskriti hain..humein isi nibhana hain…Theatre khulega…Log video call main theatre kar rahe hain taaki log bhool na jaayein aur unka bharosa na toote” – Sundar Kaka, Caretaker, Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh

Surabhi Theatre- A family that not just thrives but also survives on theatre

Sri Venkateswara Natyamandli (Surabhi) also known as Surabhi Babji Theatre Troupe is one of India’s oldest surviving theatre groups from Andhra Pradesh. An institution in itself, Surabhi hosts more than 65 family members that have served theatre from the past 134 years! We spoke to Jaichandra from Surabhi to understand how they are making sense of these testing times:

 

We as artists feel shy to stand in que and ask for food. We can’t beg. So we started a foundation. I think Artists deserve respect. Humein bhoolna nahin chahiye ki iss time main bhi artists hi sabko entertain kar rahe hain, Art is keeping us alive!

Many theatre practitioners often find themselves asking ‘How bad do I want this?’

This question mostly arises from the pressure of making both ends meet, for the nature of our job is uncertain, the sector is unorganized and the payback is inconsistent.

“Last year my friend broke his spine and was bedridden for 6 months, that’s when I realized I am working in an industry where there’s no professional insurance! The key to theatre is adapting it to the new medium and Instagram theatre is like a knee-jerk reaction! Hopefully, I think while venues will bounce back with new restrictions and safety guidelines, multimedia and theatre would be the new medium, including theatre in outdoor spaces.” – Anuj Chopra, Lights Designer and Operator

The worst affected by this crisis are the local artists and folk performers whose income relied majorly on their daily show revenues and festival performances. Dinesh Poddar, a lights designer and vendor from Kolkata, told us that more than the Indian government, artists were getting help from the Bengali community in USA:

 

The government is not helping ‘culture’ at all…Hum apna fundraiser Keto par shuru kiya hain.. Where we are identifying people who are in need…Yahaan ke artists ko USA ke Bengali community se help mila hain…wahaan se koi $100 diya.. koi $50…

To Donate, checkout Fund Raise For Freelance Technician/Actor/Actress by Dinesh Poddar on Ketto.

Efforts by the community- What can we do? How can we help?

The Artist community has always found a way to be there for each other. Perhaps a result of the lack of government aid, which is an issue in itself but it has made us more proactive in finding ways to solve our problems by ourselves. From providing food and essentials to drafting letters and filing petitions to the government, there have been many initiatives by artists all across the country to reach out and help the community.

ADAA

In a letter addressed to the Chief Ministers of various states, artistes and cultural practitioners, namely, Shubha Mudgal (musician), Aneesh Pradhan (musician and scholar), Sameera Iyengar (cultural practitioner), Arundhati Ghosh (cultural practitioner), Rahul Vohra (actor, director and arts consultant), and Mona Irani (producer and casting director), have drawn their attention to the unprecedented crisis that the artiste community has encountered in the face of the COVID-19 corona virus pandemic and the countrywide lockdown.  They have concluded a successful crowd funding campaign called ADAA (Assistance for Disaster Affected Artistes) the proceeds of which will support 132 artist families across ten states for a period of six months.

ARTISTS FOR ARTISTS

Through this initiative Mumbai based artists are helping an artist with a month’s grocery by donating a food kit worth Rs. 700. The grocery kit includes rice, dal, atta, poha, sugar, tea, oil and salt.

 

Looking beyond or looking within…

Coming back to where I started from, what about the future of Indian theatre?

For many of us the answer is an uncertain “I don’t know” but some of us do have some thoughts. Mahesh Dattani (playwright, director) says “Al desko for a while and then alfresco! Rice paddies for rural theatre, picnic spots and maidaans for urban theatre” whereas Atul Kumar (actor, director) hopes that it “would be full of compassion and empathy for nature and other human beings” and Kalliroi Tziafeta (actor, acting coach) points out that “theatre would change shape and we will have to think about what we give to the audience that is not available when one reads, watches a film or a TikTok video.”

But I imagine that as the thought of finding new ways of storytelling is important, there are larger concerns that need our attention right now. Some of them might require us to break our Zoom-walls!

For many of us, the lockdown started with romantic ideas of a ‘Me’ time but this is soon turning to be an ‘Us’ time! This is time where we as artists need to rethink our choices, question our practice and use the moment as an opportunity to create a better future.

While I was watching a performance of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch in it, I asked myself- It’s all here, but why am I not having fun? And then I thought about all these NTLive performances that I had seen at NCPA and realized that ‘watching it with other people’ was what all this was for! Theatre is a social experience and hopefully, we will come back to that soon. – Irawati Karnik, Writer and Actor.

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