A Theatre Olympics that Isn’t: Arundhati Ghosh

Guest post by ARUNDHATI GHOSH

Image courtesy Deccan Herald

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:

  1. Need for space, to rehearse, make plays, perform, that are affordable, conducive and convenient for use
  2. 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
  3. Residencies to think, contemplate, make plays
  4. Platforms for young voices who can put forth their nascent new works for discussions and debates among peers
  5. Common resources like sets and props, lights and sound equipments that can be used by multiple groups
  6. Funds to travel and take their work to various parts of the country
  7. Support to experiment with form, content, idioms and ideas
  8. Exemptions from ridiculous taxes that make theatre unaffordable to make, perform and see
  9. Robust criticisms and reviews that can enable and boost the making of work
  10. Spaces that can bring theatre people from the across the country together to share work, ideas and challenges
  11. Archives which can be used to learn about the past and theatre’s history in this country
  12. Resources that can enable repertories to function without having to think hand-to-mouth existence on a daily basis
  13. 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
  14. Laws that create supportive and enabling environment for theatre rather than try to silence its voice
  15. Mechanisms that enable theatrewallas to travel with their work to critical festivals across the world
  16. 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

19 thoughts on “A Theatre Olympics that Isn’t: Arundhati Ghosh

  1. Snehlata

    Ms. Arundhati Ghosh, thank you for this brilliant piece. Found it really powerful in the clarity and simplicity with which you set out the issues. Especially liked the end where you talk about the need to forge solidarities between different groups and communities (including theater communities) that are struggling and protesting against all forms of brutalities and repression in the present day and age. This is definitely a piece to be read and reread and shared widely.

  2. Completely agree with you Mrs Ghosh. After a decade of theatre practice & training in Kolkata I am currently engaged in a process to set up a theatre ambience at Koraput, Odisha. The problems you have pointed out are our problems which are fundamental to the expansion of the art form in our country and no government has a policy or measure to address these issues. Theatre remains a medium for elites and it suits some interests if it remains that way. Events like Theatre Olympics only serves interest of selected people & pockets but does nothing to the huge stretch of land & it’s inhabitants who remain perpetually unaffected. Olympics doesn’t add any value to theatre ecology of India. It seems theatre in India has to look up to the honest practitioners, groups & passionate people like you to sustain.

  3. K SHESHU BABU

    This is ‘ olympic theatrics ‘ conducted by rulers to propagate their own ideas and canvass round the world that they support ‘ freedom of expression ‘ and are most tolerant

  4. Vidyanidhee Vanarase

    It is unfortunate, but true… The use, or probably the misuse, of the word ‘Olympics’ is so obvious… Even the in between controversy about “who is the artistic director” of this mega event brought many questions to the surface… The unfortunate part is that many theatre practitioners look at it as an opportunity of getting their piece of the pie… And the amount of money spent, well,… One really wonders!

    Here is some more food for thought…
    https://www.bhadas4media.com/web-cinema/11923-bharangam

  5. A powerful expose on the limits of theatre and lack of resources, clamping on artistic freedom which shows high time for everyone to give dignity and respect to the theatre as an art form. A thought-provoking analysis and time to say no to piece-meal legislation or actions, if any.

  6. It is completely a short sighted article without any information. The lack of understanding about theatre clearly shows how an elitist organisation like IFA is not merely an anachronism but also under serious leadership problem. All the issues raised by Arundhati is already under purview by NSD more than her microscopic 16 years. I only hope she educates herself a little more.

    1. Hi Santanu,

      Are you Santanu Bose, the Dean at NSD and who runs Bose Studio the acting school in Delhi? Then you are also the theatre maker who received an IFA grant in 2006 for a performance series ruminating on the Naxal movement in Bengal. So perhaps you know about IFA and the work over the past 22 years – which is on our website anyway so I don’t need to mention it here. More importantly I don’t think it makes sense to shift the conversation from NSD and the State to IFA here because that wasn’t the point to begin with. You have tried to shift it, but let’s not :)

      Let’s get to the fact of your comment. The only relevant one seems to be that the points I mention in the article have been under the purview of NSD. Of course my 16 short years or IFA’s 22 is miniscule compared to how long NSD and the State’s Ministry of Culture for support of the sector has been around. So my question is what has been done for those points ‘under purview’? Why is it that theatre makers from across the country feel completely abandoned by the State and have to manage to do everything themselves? Why are they angry, frustrated and cynical about any help from the NSD or State mechanisms? Let’s talk about that Santanu. Let’s talk about NSD.

      There was of course another reason for me writing this. IFA has spent Rs 24 crore over 22 years for 550 projects of which theatre or theatre related were perhaps 25 to 30 percent. It’s very little compared to the needs of the field, to cover any gaps substantially. So when one sees Rs 51 crores to be spent over 3 months one wonders a) is this the best use of the State’s resources for theatre, and b) what impact/ effect will this have on the field exactly? Is there any evaluation mechanism you have? External? Internal? Any parameters by which you will understand this?

      You see, it’s not just me there are other people more engaged and embedded in the field asking these questions too. Have you read the article in India Express by a theatrewalla named Sunil Shanbag. I am sure you know him and his work Santanu? In case you have not read it, here it is

      :http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/note-from-a-theatre-wallah-8th-theatre-olympics-5066980/

      What education would you suggest for Sunil, Santanu, I wonder :)

  7. No surprises here , that a comment that is roughly 1/13th the length of what its commenting on, makes three personal attacks , as opposed to the actual article that makes none.
    It is proof of itself . It is a salutation to the actual article , and in fact explains , how its possible , with time for subjects to become objects.
    How it is possible , to continue to engage in ideas and arts , without an elementary understanding of rhetoric , how debate can seem worthless with time, how once , one is subservient to the metaphor of the cliched ostrich, one can endlessly ask the flora and fauna outside the pit to educate itself, before calling out the tape worm in one’s own mouth.
    How 16 years of Microscopic viewpoint is actually a virtue when observing minutely, as opposed to annual celebrations of myopia, as perhaps that was the word one was looking for in the first place.
    How unworthy to make such a personal attack. But then , as we know, theatre olympics is the least of our problems. The Oracle itself has been replaced by paperwork. And in some unfortunate cases..paperweight.

  8. Sunil

    The oped I wrote in the Indian Express was not an appeal to boycott the Theatre Olympics, or to plead for government funding (which in in it self is a complex issue and needs to be thought through. Government funding, especially in India, is heavily coloured by feudal notions of patronage, nepotism, and dubious agendas; we in Mumbai often joke. “thank god we work in Mumbai and not in Delhi … we’d be all dependent on funding from various government departments or consulates”.
    I was trying to point out how the government/state so cynically and arrogantly appropriates ownership of a theatre in which they have had little role to play. If the NSD and the Ministry are attempting, as they say, to place Indian theatre on the world stage, do we as theatre makers whose work will be “placed” have no say in this? Has the state considered, and then shared, its understanding of Indian theatre which it seeks to project? At their press conference we heard the usual platitudes and cliches … not much more than that. Are we willing to become pawns in this huge political game of projecting particular governments or ideologies which we may, or may not agree with?
    Santanu has responded to the article by Arundhati alleging she is not experienced enough to critique the situation. He also says her organisation is an anachronism. That’s deflecting from the issues and questions she has raised. Any independent theatre practitioner will be familiar with what she says, and have experienced the same frustrations in various degrees. This is the objective reality of theatre practice in our country. Just saying that these issues are being considered by the NSD is saying nothing.
    And let’s not get into what can potentially happen if skeletons begin tumbling out of the NSD cupboard! For the past several years the NSD show case festival, Bharangam, has been beset with controversies regarding selection, and how the NSD tends to favour its “own”.
    I urge we use this opportunity to debate these issues over the next 50 days. Not that the government will take heed – the Olympics will roll on with its ridiculous theme song blaring across the country, and theatre people will take part and all that – but perhaps its important to talk about this among ourselves!

  9. Hartman de Souza

    Very nice to see you in full flow dear Arundhati, it made my lunchtime reading today!!!

    “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”…

    There you have the essence of your protest, one I am sure will make many theatre persons happily scent themselves with!

    As someone recently retired from the craft after exactly 50 years, and having also loyally served India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, when it started out on its journey, I gladly douse myself with much of what you say.

    I do have a few problems with the areas of theatre and theatre-support activities you list but that is neither here nor there, this is better left to those still in the craft. One thing gnaws though: the poor status given to to ‘theatre education’. When we go on dissecting the many ails of our education in school why has no one taken ahead the idea of introducing ‘theatre’ as a subject in schools – like you study maths or chemistry?

    In any case, one of the problem areas you listed hit me between the eyes:

    “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”…

    That’s in the wrong column Arundhati! That ought to be listed in the one marked ‘Challenges’. If theatre persons feel the kind of fear and hostility butchers selling beef in Uttar Pradesh have been made to feel, they are in the wrong profession.

    You have been to polite with the National School of Drama – once proudly set up to show the rest of the world a strong modernist outlook in the making, and now, alas, turned into a strange beast that is neither fish nor fowl.

    You may just have opened a very smelly can of worms…

    The trolls in the present dispensation are always ready to come out and bare their false teeth. One clown has already done so in the comments, and he got his knuckles promptly whacked. Expect much more. Maybe they’ll do to the India Foundation for the Arts what they did to Teesta and the Ford Foundation or Greenpeace…maybe put a false case against Sunil Shanbag?

    Not to worry Arundhati, I may have retired from theatre, but I still know how to bite with my real teeth…

    1. Thank you Hartman :) I wanted to respond to your concern on theatre education. You are absolutely right about the lack of theatre, well, arts education as a whole I must say in the school system. A few flickers of hope are there hear and again. Government schools in Karnataka got many drama teachers a few years ago when these posts were created and some of the wonderful alumni from Ninasam became drama teachers at these government schools strewn across the districts of the state. I have met many of them through our arts education programme Kali Kalisu (Learn and Teach) Hartman and I am amazed at their rigour, tenacity and fierce will to make a difference in the classroom. Inspite of any infrastructure, inspite of any support, taking classes as they do in really remote areas. Just wanted to share that with you.

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