Guest post by ARUNDHATI GHOSH
I have been working for the past 16 years with a small organisation called India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) that attempts to support arts and culture projects across the country. In these years I have been fortunate enough to travel across the country to big cities and small ones, towns and villages where arts practitioners and scholars work intensely, passionately, with almost no economic resources or social acknowledgements. The percentage of our total national budget outlay to the arts and culture is negligible as is the amount that finally gets spent on it. The state of our national arts and culture institutions is abysmal and much has been written by eminent experts critiquing the vision, mandates, policies and mechanisms of funding or the lack of any of these prerequisites to support the sector with an imagination that attempts to build a robust, vibrant ecology for the arts.
Amidst this arrives the Theatre Olympics in India. Today at the Red Fort New Delhi, the 8th Theatre Olympics organised by the National School of Drama and supported by the Ministry of Culture has been launched through a gala event and press conference that will mark the beginning of a 17 city tour with 450 performances boasting of 31 participating countries. I have been a fundraiser all these 16 years for the arts, so the first thing that strikes me of course is the money that will be spent. And then the question that every fundraiser asks ‘What will this money be spent on and is that critical in a country where resources are so scarce?’ What I find are gaps and holes and fault-lines which if not tragic would have been rather amusing to say the least.
To make this simple, let me make a list of things that theatrewallas have told me they most acutely need in this country. These conversations have taken place over the years with practitioners from Guwahati, Kolkata, Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, Thrissur, Bareilley, Pune, Kolhapur, Agra, Chennai, Goa, Shillong, Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Asansol, Trivandrum, Kanchipuram and many other such cities and towns spread across the country. Since I am neither a scholar not a practitioner in theatre but consider myself an ardent student of the form, I tend to believe practitioners when they say this is what their most difficult challenges are:
- Need for space, to rehearse, make plays, perform, that are affordable, conducive and convenient for use
- Workshops for training in all the art forms that go into the making of plays from writing to directing, acting, technical expertise and managerial skills
- Residencies to think, contemplate, make plays
- Platforms for young voices who can put forth their nascent new works for discussions and debates among peers
- Common resources like sets and props, lights and sound equipments that can be used by multiple groups
- Funds to travel and take their work to various parts of the country
- Support to experiment with form, content, idioms and ideas
- Exemptions from ridiculous taxes that make theatre unaffordable to make, perform and see
- Robust criticisms and reviews that can enable and boost the making of work
- Spaces that can bring theatre people from the across the country together to share work, ideas and challenges
- Archives which can be used to learn about the past and theatre’s history in this country
- Resources that can enable repertories to function without having to think hand-to-mouth existence on a daily basis
- An atmosphere sans fear and hostility where makers can create work that examine, critique and raise questions on our past and present and imagine possible futures
- Laws that create supportive and enabling environment for theatre rather than try to silence its voice
- Mechanisms that enable theatrewallas to travel with their work to critical festivals across the world
- Fair and just distribution of resources without having to constantly network, negotiate, cajole and cow down to powers that be
I could go on. But the point really is that the State has been quite oblivious to these needs and almost everything that has been done over the past many years have been initiatives taken by theatrewallas themselves across urban, folk, and traditional theatre forms, refusing to give up. To me it is indeed a miracle that theatre thrives the way it does in our various small towns and cities. I am made more acutely aware of this when I meet young theatrewallas in these towns. They are not naive, they know what they are up against. And yet they persist, albeit with frustrations and cynicism but they find ways to often leverage their limitations and constraints in innovative and rather brilliant ways.
Theatre thrives the way it does also because small organisations and individuals passionate about theatre come and help in whatever manner they can making contributions. Once a theatre maker in Bangalore had told me that one of the reasons why they are able to make new plays is because a senior eminent theatre artist makes sure they have ready meals after rehearsals. Trite as it may sound, this is the truth about theatre in this country. Someone helps with space, someone else raises a little money, and then someone uses their aunt’s printing press to make free leaflets. Theatrewallas help each other in ensuring they get to travel reducing costs by providing home stays, sharing equipment when available, or helping in spreading the word to provide outreach and build audiences. Senior theatre professionals give immense amounts of time to train and coach younger ones not expecting anything except that theatre will continue to thrive. Theatrewallas raise resources themselves to organise training programmes and connecting platforms. And the State remains unawares.
And so then when I see the announcements and the smugness at the press conference of the 8th Theatre Olympics I understand why some practitioners have decided to not participate on principle. They do not want to be part of the theatrics that is the state’s way of claiming this sector’s work as their own. They do not want to be part of a brand India that only celebrates the painted face of the visible and refuses to acknowledge the processes and practices that go into making theatre happen in this country. They refuse to make this yet another appropriation of what is the result of their solitary toils over the years with almost no support from the state. And I agree with them. I am in solidarity with them.
But before I end, there is something else I have been thinking about. It is of paramount importance because theatre like any other form of art is not separate from life – how we understand ourselves and our relationships with the world around us. Today as citizens of this country we are living in constant threat of the brutalities that crush us if we express ourselves freely – if we speak freely, act freely, love freely, follow faiths freely. The menace and intimidation that every one of us as individuals and communities face if we do not fall under the dominant groups of caste, gender, religion or sexuality has grown tremendously. Whether it is voices of students asking for conducive environments for learning or workers who demand their rights or the dalit communities who fight for equality; lives of those who eat beef or choose to live same-sex relationships – this state that at best remains silent and at worst actively provokes violent actions against them is here making claims of being the chief patron of theatre! Theatre which has always attempted to speak truth to power; consciously giving voice to the marginalised which is often ignored, silenced or erased. While the State’s disinterest in providing for the actual needs of theatre may be reasons for non-participation in this farce, its exercise of power to silence its citizens also must influence why we make this critique.
I was wondering what the term ‘Olympics’ means. More than a celebration of skill and knowledge, patience and perseverance, I think in the arena of sports the Olympics celebrate the values and spirit of the life of the sportsperson – the passion and fire that drives her. And to call this charade Theatre Olympics in this country makes a mockery of that understanding as well.
Arundhati Ghosh is Executive Director, India Foundation for the Arts