Indian Theatre: A Dying Medium

Posted on March 3, 2012 in Culture-Vulture

By Kaumudi Tiwari:

Stella Adler had once said, “The theatre is a spiritual and social X-ray of its time”. Truly, theatre has time and again proved itself to be the platform where opinions are voiced, revolts are dared and most importantly, a medium through which audiences are entertained and educated. Coloured clothes, catchy slogans and songs, script, improvisations, dialogues, stories – elements of the theatrical arts are fading away from the public scene.  With the Lumiere Brothers bringing in the wonder of moving pictures and Dadasaheb Phalke taking us into the era of Cinema, theatre slowing lost its charm and influence. Slowly, but very steadily, Cinema replaced theatre as the new medium of entertainment and social change.

Theatre was once what cinema is today. As a matter of fact, it was probably a lot more. It was, besides being a medium of entertainment, a tool for opinion-building, social reforms and for bringing people together. For quite long, theatre, though a male-dominated platform at that point of time, was a more reputed medium than cinema. Interestingly, when Dadasaheb Phalke wanted to film his dream project he could not find any female actresses to act in it. With even prostitutes refusing to work on the project, Dadasaheb Phalke had to approach a man to dress like a women and act. The film was on the life of Lord Krishna. One wonders what the ‘Sheilas’ and the ‘Munnis’ of today would have to say about this!

But now, the scenario is changing. Cinema is overpowering theatre, replacing it. Nowadays, people prefer going for a movie than witnessing a live dramatic performance. Cinema is all about telling a story clubbed with music, dance with actors and actresses prancing and jiggling anywhere and everywhere, glamour, style and not to forget “masala”. In a nutshell, it has almost everything Theatre does not have.  This has been one of the biggest drawbacks for the latter. While Theatre has picked up societal issues and generated awareness where ambiguity existed, Cinema provided people with a 3-hour paradise to which they could escape leaving behind their sorrows. The simple audiences for obvious reasons preferred the latter. Another major reason for Cinema triumphing over Theatre is that the former has popular faces which are so well-renowned, that they can affect and attract entire masses to their work. On the other hand, theatre personalities are deprived of their due credit and popularity. They do not get the chance to promote themselves or their work through commercial advertisements, promotional events or by appearing in television shows.

Cinema has spread its wings and has blend into our existence so effectively that imagining its absence seems heart-breaking. So much so that even our Government promotes this medium in big and small ways. We have National Awards for movies, but sadly the works of our Theatre maestros go unacknowledged. Theatre personalities’ capabilities get recognized only when they step up to the big screen. While both, regional as well as Hindi Cinema, have been well recognized and promoted, Hindi and English Theatre have lagged behind in the race because of the regional authorities and actors favouring the language-specific dramas. This is one of the biggest reasons why Indian Dramatics’ scale of popularity has reduced both at home and abroad.

Theatre today is an art form which is losing its identity and uniqueness to over-the-top cinema and popular faces. With many of the Theatre personalities abandoning their alma mater and opting for the 70 mm screen, Theatre’s plight has worsened. It is ironical that though the actors who have worked in the Theatre have come to be recognized as the most reputed ones in Bollywood, yet the medium producing them is snubbed with adjectives like ‘boring’ and ‘ineffective’. However, all is not lost yet. In recent times, Theatre actors have tried to rejuvenate the medium by the means of issues and incidents which to strike an emotional chord with the people. Till date, there are parts of the country where people do not have access to multiplexes and Cinema theatres. In these places, it is the live performances which fill the gap.

The reverence and respect that theatre personalities command is of unquestionable nature. In recent times, schools and colleges are promoting Theatre amongst the students by organizing workshops and plays. All we can hope and wish is that these efforts pay off, and Theatre gets an equal, if not greater acceptance from the Indian masses.

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I do agree to some of the points that you have mentioned, such as how theatre personalities are are less known and how places that do not have access to Cinema rely on theatre, but the point about Theatre dying in India is something I personally disagree with. On the contrary, theatre is once again gaining momentum and auditoriums usually are booked full year long. Cinema is a form of entertainment enjoyed by the masses as its produced for the masses. Theatre on the other hand has niche audience, which is mostly undisturbed by the presence of films.
NSD and several other theatre groups come up with grand productions each year which continue to draw a massive audience. Collegiate theatre should also be mentioned as this shows the youth of the country does find the art form very much interesting.

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