Disclaimer: Just a few days ago, I came across a post by Raqs – the dramatics society of Kalindi College, who had won an accolade for their contribution in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, and proudly proclaimed their motto for the street play: “system nahi, soch badlenge.”
As a consequence, I began writing this piece about the enclosed elitist space that is now, ironically the biggest street play circuit in India which is bent on changing our ‘soch’ but has remained aloof from good criticism.
My dear, fellow thespians, your mottos are impossible, and by your aloofness towards your own form, you do the crime of undermining its history, and its relevance.
This article might sound like a rant to my fellow friends in the Delhi University Theater Circuit, who get selected in Hindu’s annual theater fest ‘Medina’ every year. They are the ones who have accomplished so much while being a part of this ‘elite street’ – as Anubhuti, the drama society of SVC reminded me lately. They are the ones who accumulate a bundle of certificates by the end of the year and consider that as being a yardstick of their success.
This article is for all my friends who have come to feel that they are activists, without knowing what it means to be one. Many of my friends after reading this, might think that this was a rant because I wasn’t a part of one of theirs or any of the privileged societies in DU, well – your judgement would itself make the point of my article, true.
I had always thought of writing this article, of accumulating all the empiricist theories and epistemic arguments to convince my friends of the sorry state of affairs in Delhi University’s theater circuit. But my fellow comrades at DUTC, have been lately busy finding ‘hits’ for their plays and had evaded the much-needed reading of their form – therefore, my own experience of getting disillusioned with the pomp and show in my three years, would do.
I joined this circuit by becoming a part of Hasratein – the dramatics society of Ram Lal Anand College in 2014 and ended my tenure as its vice president in 2017.
That was the time when any sound of drums would send my heart racing, the sonorous clinks of the manjeera and the xylophone would send a shiver down my spine, and my legs would automatically move to the beats of the dholki. When students in kurtas, with daflis in their hands and conviction in their eyes, would quite enamour me.
Our seniors taught us in quite simple manners, the logistics of doing street theater necessitates simple costumes and props, and in the open, there’s little or no amplification of sound, with actors depending on their natural vocal and physical abilities.
The performances needed to be highly visible, loud and simple to follow in order to attract a crowd. Since street theater gives an experience of a theater to those people, who might not have ever been to or been able to aﬀord to go to a traditional theater. The audience is made up of anyone and everyone who wants to watch, and for most, it’s free entertainment.
The idea is never to garner attention but to wake the erstwhile population from a deep slumber that makes them passive citizens, so that the performance makes them question, and hence see the workings of the larger socio-political sphere that ensure their peaceful sleep. We were taught, that even if one person came and questioned us about our play after the performance – our work was done, for we had set motion to their thoughts.
Since, street play as a form had emerged from left-wing movements in the Soviet, and the tradition was kept alive through IPTA (Indian People’s Theater Association) and then JANAM (Jana Natya Manch) in India, it was by nature – anti-establishment.
When we went to watch the street plays in DU for the first time at the annual cultural fest of AIIMS, we had something diﬀerent and quite attractive to see. Actors, rather than resorting to spontaneous and quick improvisations had well-rounded characters with perfect dialogue timings to engage with the audience, around 5-6 instruments were being played at once in the fashion of an orchestra, and huge glittery props.
The eﬀect of all the street plays, working itself with sheer perfection, was huge. I was shattered. I was in love. I wanted to do what they were doing. I wanted to make people cry, as the protagonist of one of the plays had made me, that being the yardstick of good acting for me, back then, until my seniors woke me up from my fantasy with their questions. Did I take anything back with me? I had just wanted to be the protagonist of a similar play. So, I said, ‘no’, and that was the problem. The violence on workers, lower castes and women in DUTC is shaped to arouse a cathartic release. Therefore, the result is trivialising and normalising the act of violence itself. Never for once making any space for thought that this violence results from unequal power relations in our economic system.
My seniors told me that street plays were in a way, a revolt against the bourgeois form of proscenium theater and that it should remind people that what they’re watching is only a play. The actors break out into a song, or they look through the fourth wall to address the audience directly. Instead of emotional identification, it seeks social distancing.
In the words of Sudhanva Deshpande of the Jana Natya Manch, “we mustn’t exit the theater having vicariously enjoyed the protagonist’s story, and thereby absolving ourselves of any responsibility to take action in the real world. For theater did only half the work – the rest had to be finished by the audience, outside the theater.”
By the end of my second year did I come to know that they were talking about the German theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht. We started making a play in my first year on how ideology functions in the socio-political realm of India, and how our state itself creates extremist sects through the violence it commits, and how it evades any responsibility of the crime it commits by selectively othering these groups.
As it was an experiment with theater and a bit weaker in form than in content, it did not perform well in the DUTC. Diﬀerent teams cheered us only to vanish after the play started, and some judges beat their desks in the midst of the play to make us aware that they were getting bored, for the play wasn’t entertaining enough. Though street theater has a rich history of plays that had been eminently shaped by the material reality of its time, the whole focus of street plays in the Delhi University Theater Circuit remains on the ‘form’.
Experimentation and improvisation become a necessity only when there’s a “katta” or a glitch in the performance. All the plays generally follow the same pattern, with a little bit of diﬀerence in formations and songs, and the social issue they address. Songs with catchy tunes, angry expressions to show protest, a victim shouting for mercy in the chaos of the sounds of drums with a narrator passing ironic comments, molesters and villains prancing about, all of this culminating into a magnificent show.
A show which, street theater, never was. Through strict repetition of these theatrics in our circuit, the word ‘street theater’ has only come to mean this extravaganza. I came to realise this in my third year when one of the judges actually thought that something would come out from the black box used in our play, that there was some hit behind using that box.
Actually, there was a well-thought-out use of this box named ‘Kalkosh’ in our narrative, through which the upper-caste characters immortalised themselves by burying their ornaments in every period and engraving their name throughout the history of the Indian society. But our judges googled the word ‘ kalkosh’ rather than paying attention to the play, and of course, didn’t select us for the finals. The problem lies with the fact that Delhi University’s theater circuit practices a highly commercialised form of street theater. And we should not ignore the irony of these two words being clubbed together.
Plays are mostly made as per the demands of the audience, not through any ideological commitment towards art and its subversive role in the society. Therefore, political rhetoric is infused with minor Santa Banta Jokes to showcase their awareness, tools of popular culture are used heavily to ensure that the audiences have a good laugh, thereby compromising on the art and the idea of street plays in the process. To add on to this, the whole focus is to win fests organized in universities, and the yardstick of success is the list of competitions a society has won. This creates a hierarchy around the teams, where there are teams who win, get selected in every fest, and those who don’t. There are teams that don’t even get a chance to showcase what they have created with all the hard work put in through the year. Only 10 to 11 plays come to dominate every fest season in Delhi University. It should also not evade our notice – that as much as there is hierarchy outside in the competitive realm, there’s also much ‘ individualism’ and competition inside the teams.
Every society is more or less structured in hierarchies. Juniors fight to get the role of the protagonist in the annual production. I saw, and felt everything because my society was on the margins of this hierarchical order that the theater circuit in DU is proud of.
Our team and many other teams who shared similar experiences were looked at as outsiders. We were looked at as not being at par with them. We were the ‘other’ in DUTC.
We are a theater circuit that boasts of advocating for social justice but allows hierarchies to prevail inside the teams as well as within and beyond the circuit. We are a theater circuit which functions on its own logic. We do not read much and do even less research. We have become a closed and elitist space where new thoughts aren’t welcome. The fact that one director (who supposedly graduated from another society a few years ago) is making plays of three to four societies and getting duly paid for it in one year says a lot about what’s wrong with us.
We have hit a stagnant note, where there’s no thought governing our future, and no going back because of our stubbornness, and that’s because we are not critical of our art. The debate of ‘art for arts’ sake’ vs art for political Justice has had a long history. The question, as to whether art only gives pleasure or teaches us something. But these classifications cannot be understood exclusively, for there are critical junctures where they meet.
Aristotle was of the opinion that the purpose of poetry is pleasure but, on the other hand, he also divided pleasures for those higher and lower, and how one man’s higher pleasure is another man’s edification. He also said that the most pleasurable thing of all was the learning process.
I have heard people evading questions that categorize them, and generally reply that they do not belong to any sect of the politics, but to themselves. And yet, despite the aloofness, their stand remains political because going by the statement mentioned above, I can only conclude that they are committed to liberalism.
Oscar Wilde said that art was perfectly useless. By that, he meant that he didn’t want art to be reduced to a role of moralistic mottos on someone’s mantlepiece. He was attacking the exploitation of art by narrow and philistine utilitarianism. He actually considered art, the most useful thing that existed, so far as the good life and the making of a good world was concerned. He wanted the world to learn to be useful and not the other way around.
I am just trying to make a point about how all artists are committed. By commitment, I don’t mean that an artist has political views but that his political views seep into his art.
In a letter to Camus, Sartre writes, “…. To deserve the right to influence men who struggle it is first of all necessary to take part in their struggle; it is first of all necessary to accept many things if one wishes to try to change several of them.”
Theater of commitment by definition has to be on one political side or the other. Relative to the general social situation, the street theater of commitment is radical. It is a theater of protest, not approval, of outrage not tribute.
Street theater in DU must go back to its roots, find its own voice and culture in the current narrative and consciously examine its position in Indian theater. It must examine its own engagement with the market, and consciously choose its place. It should not remain passive as it has become in recent times, voluntary accepting the consequences of a particular political stance, because it undermines the very meaning of street play while being in such a position.
I’d say that because culture is the sphere where power and domination manifests, and art must be critical of the culture its producing. A culture that inherently reproduces the power relations or a counter-hegemonic culture that makes a dent in the dominant narrative.
We must fight our own contradictions to come to a stand of political relevance, and that will need constant engagement with both, the form and the content of our art. Till recent times, only the theater circuit remains a place in DU, where students question and ask the government to be accountable.
The government has tried to enter our conscience by trying to enter the circuit by organising festivals like Udaan Utsav that are bent on awakening nationalism in young minds and purging any kind of activism through theater in our campuses. And yet, we saw in the last few years, many societies in DU proudly winning large amounts of money in their fest, and signing up to be groomed ideologically through workshops without knowing what they were entering into.
It’s our responsibility to know that the system creates ‘soch’ through ideology, and what we think and believe in, generally affects how power functions in our society. We can’t change the ‘soch’ without changing the system. Our alienated existence in a capitalist system demands us not to ponder only over our social condition of being alienated individuals, but to rebel and rise against the alienators, and against the alienating society.
Delhi University’s theater circuit gave me the best time of my life. It opened me up as an individual to things I had never known. I became what I am today through my engagement with this super energetic cultural front of Delhi University. I loved the common calls, some of the rare sites where hierarchies inside as well as outside broke in DUTC, and you enjoyed your tunes as people from all across the theater circuit would dance and sing (not forgetting the patriarchal aspects of our many songs). It’s lovely to see girls give a tight blow to stereotypes surrounding their lives through their plays, and many teams resorting to non-competitive performances as a mark of protest against the competitive nature of our circuits. It gives hope.
As the Delhi University Theater Circuit is the only space where dissent of any kind is left in DU. Theater by its practice, I believe has made us conscious to a certain extent. But it’s high time we must choose our place, and become committed towards the politics of our art, as I must remark in the fashion of Ngugi Wa Thiong’s – “Every artist is an artist in politics, the question is whose politics?”
– These words, written with love and hope.