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Street Theater In India: A Catalyst Of Change, Awareness And Revolution

Posted on March 19, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Chetan Sharma:

“Ye rahi apki soch, mujhe giri hui mili thi” said a girl wearing black Kurta, drums & claps blared with 20 other fearless voices singing the characteristic song “Arrey aaiye aaiye….naatakk dekhiye…” amidst the periphery of the slum dwelling audience, infuriated policemen and cow dung. An art that is practiced on the streets, fueled by audacity and loved by the once crushed underneath, an art that changes the society, challenges the mighty & voices against the wrong, an art called Street Play. A catalyst of change, awareness, revolution & liberation; the strength of the weak, voice of the dumb & eyes of the blind is what street play is.

Picture Courtesy: Asmita Theatre group
Picture Courtesy: Asmita Theatre group

Nukkad Naatak or Street Play, as the name suggests, is a form of acting performed on the streets, or anywhere possible for that matter. You might find them in the center of some vegetable market, the lawn in front of a government building or a vast ground used as a large open toilet. If you do happen to meet them, you wouldn’t find elaborate costumes or makeup, props would normally be limited to sticks, a few instruments and ‘chunni’; the performers would be sitting in a circle they call ‘periphery’, inside of which becomes their stage. The theme of their play is typically a social cause and performance has an undertone of aggression and rebellion. Ask them and they say that we don’t perform FOR the public, but IN the public, and WITH them. The performance could be sponsored by the Government, NGO or simply a group of people willing to change the society performing for free. As is said, there’s no limitation of anything in street play.

It is a Russian art form & arguably the oldest form of acting in the world. It was popularized in India by a person called the ‘Father of Street Play’ — Safdar Hashmi who would perform political plays against the government. He was later killed during one of his performance but his legacy continues in ‘JANAM’, his left wing street-theater group. M F Hussain’s painting on him was the 1st Indian painting to cross the 1 million dollar price mark. Various movies like Raanjhna & Halla Bol have shown street plays and we have actors in Bollywood with their roots in street theater. But what is the reason behind such popularization of an art that is so far away from the world of glamour? The answer is its noble intention, mass reach & purity of art & artists. Over the past 2 to 3 decades, it has started to dye the public minds with an unfading colour of impact. What surprises me the most is that more than any NGO or theater group, it’s the colleges that are most involved in street plays. It is an indicator of the swelling will in the youth to amend the erroneous and build a better future. There are always the threats of being charged by policemen, facing the wrath of the audience itself in case something in the play offends their sentiments or bearing the enmity of political groups or the Government itself. I am a street play actor myself and trust me you are reduced to tears when yesterday you were just a student and today you find yourself being chased by policemen with sticks in their hands and hostility in their eyes. Yet we do it, do it for free, do it because we want to do it and have no intentions of stopping what we are doing.

It’s not much of a known fact but street play is more than social change. It’s a goofy, musical and closely audience interacting form of acting in which, even Romeo and Juliet has been performed. In this marketing crazy world, this art form now becomes a way of promoting companies, their ideas and their products leading to emergence of ‘corporate street plays’. It’s a new trend to advertise through street plays. Big players like the UN, Goonj, CRY etc. prefer this form for propagating their message to their target audience for its characteristic of being an audience magnet and being closely connected to them.

Street play is gradually but firmly establishing itself as the pivot of change going on in the society. The voice of a street play artist is the voice of the people and their rebellion. It is the voice that says that we have had enough, borne much and now, we won’t stay silent! We will join our hands, raise our voice, change others, change ourselves and liberate everyone and everyone’s thoughts from the fetters of repression. Street play is the spark the ignites numerous fires in the hearts, minds and souls of us Indians, the fire of voice, fire of initiation and the fire of change.