By Archit Seth*
Theatre and India share a long relationship dating 5000 years ago. The earliest form of theatre was Sanskrit theatre. Bharata’s ‘Natya Shastra’ was the one of the earliest play enacted in India. Indian theatre was heavily influenced by the people who ruled over the country. During the Islamic rule in the country, theatre was mostly forbidden throughout the nation.
However, in the 15th and 16th century, Indian theatre was encouraged throughout the villages of the subcontinent to spread indigenous values and ideas. Indian Modern theatre, or historically, what can be clearly identified as the Western proscenium style of theatre, was not introduced in India before the late eighteenth century at the time of the consolidation of the British Empire in various parts of India.
It was through the British that Western proscenium style theatre reached Indian shores. It was the amalgamation of the western and Indian culture that gave birth to Modern Indian Theatre forms. Many theatres and groups emerged in the major cities of the country like Mumbai, Kolkata etc. Theatre started to become a means of entertainment for people.
In India a paradigm shift from proscenium theatre to the theatre of the streets was initiated by the anti-fascist movement of communist party of India under the canopy of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The root of street theatre in India was strongly related with the anti-fascist political ideology of the leftists and the progressive political theatre in the ‘40’s in Kolkata. It evolved as a tool to emancipate the working class and reinforce revolution against the established power. But the question arises why theatres was performed in streets, not on stage?
Performance artists with an interest in social activism chose to stage their work on the street as a means of directly confronting or engaging the public. Other factors included reaching to the most people who cannot afford to buy a stage ticket for their entertainment. But the reason of origin of street theatre in India would be its utility as a political responsiveness for the poor mass. Street plays based on issues and stories directly concerned with the people such as hunger, famine, poetry, communal violence, feudal and colonial exploitation created impact on the society deeply divided by class, caste and religion through these common grave concerning issues.
Even after Independence, Indian Street theatre evolved as a means to voice the concerns of the common man. This theatre form immediately struck a chord with the masses. Street theatre is a situation where the audience has not come prepared to watch a play, and people may not have much time on hand. These limitations determine the parameters of the plays. They are short. The exchange is close, direct and intimate and, to be more effective, usually loud and larger than life. In order to draw crowds from all walks of life, the plays are humorous.
Songs based on popular catchy tunes are included to add to the appeal. As Badal Sircar the noted playwright sums up, “the essential tool of the trade is the human body. The potentially of the human body, the ability to throw one’s voice so that 4000 people can be reached without the aid of a mike, must be explored.” Tracing the need for the development of this form of communication which is sometimes referred to as the third theatre, Badal Sircar analyzed the two existing forms- the sophisticated urban theatre borrowed from the British and rooted in western culture and values and the traditional rural theatre.
In spite of the tremendous popularity of folk theatre in rural areas, the ideas and values it dealt with remained backward, whereas the city theatre could propagate progressive ideas and values to a sophisticated audience which would be mentally stimulated at best but would not or could not act upon them.” So, arose the need for a means of communication which would break barriers of stage and ticketed entries.
The widespread popularization of Street Play is no less than a “Transformational Social Movement”. These plays had a similar impact on audience as Mark Antony had on people after he addressed the Romans on Caesar’s death. The stirred up crowd and their displayed and fueled up emotions may be considered parallel, plays having to do more with our mind. Similar to the results of Mark Antony’s funeral speech, these plays have the strength to start a social revolution.
Even after Independence, street plays were popular during the ‘50s and the ‘60s. However, it burst into national prominence during the political turmoil of the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s. With the Emergency declared by the central government, repression unleashed against Communists and the revolutionary Naxalbari uprising in Bengal, street theatre entered a new phase. Performers were attacked, often by the police.
Safdar Hashmi’s Jana Natya Manch (or Janam), formed in 1973, led this movement of Indian street theatre. Hashmi defined street theatre as “a militant political theatre of protest whose function is to agitate the people and to mobilize them behind fighting organizations”. 1989 marked a turning point for street theatre after Hashmi was killed during a show. In the early winter afternoon, Janam was performing their play Halla Bol (“Raise Your Voice”) for a group of workers at Jhandapur, Sahibabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, as a part of its campaign to support the CPI (M) in the local election campaign.
A candidate from the rival party backed by a gang of hundred goons armed with guns and sticks, ordered Janam to stop the performance and in consequence Safdar Hashmi was murdered in the agitation. His birthday, 12th April is now observed in India as National Street Theatre Day.
Street Plays or “Nukkad Natak” were not just used as tools of political awareness but in their early days of popularity in the 80’s, it was used for fighting social injustice as well. In 1980, the famous Mathura rape case instigated a lot of shows on the need to make the rape laws more stringent. Another famous street play of those days, “Om Swaha”, dealt with demands for dowry resulting in harassment and sometimes death. There were several productions which give a short summary of the life of a woman in India and examine a woman’s needs and abilities.
By the early ‘90s street plays were used by several NGOs for spreading awareness in villages regarding issues such as HIV, social equality, injustice against women, ecological consciousness etc. Such was the popularity of the “Nukkad Natak”, that it has been even used by companies for marketing their products in India. 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.
There are thousands professional theatre groups in the country today which continue to use “nukkad natak” for social awareness. The strong culture of street play can be felt in the National capital of Delhi through the dramatics societies of the universities. Hundreds of competitions are organized throughout the year and almost every Delhi college has a “Nukkad” team each with a swelling will to amend the erroneous and build a better future.
From the famous theatre groups like “Asmita theatre group”, which has hundreds of different productions to its name since its inception in 1993 to the story of Ms. Nafisa Lokhandwala, an International Development Management graduate from University of Nottingham who uses street plays to spread awareness about diseases in the remotest villages of Odisha, “Nukkad Naatak” continues to be a participatory communication tool for social change. The voice of a street play artist is the voice of a rebellion. Street play is the spark that ignites numerous fires in the hearts, minds and souls of us Indians, the fire of voice, fire of initiation and the fire of change.
However, as we move towards a more digitally connected world, “Nukkad Naatak” needs to evolve as people are now more aware. The challenge is to convert this awareness into dialogue and possible action for change – Changes we wish for. Changes that make us blame the government for mishandling the affairs concerning our nation. It’s all up in our head — right in our brain — the change.
Changes in society does not mean only having enough capital for putting up street lights for women’s safety but it is about thinking or better, having the attitude of not adding to the problem and helping people mitigating the situation. Change in society comes with the change in the mindset of the people and street plays can rightly achieve that goal.
*Second year of MBA student at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad