“Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.” – Augusto Boat
27th March is celebrated as the World Theatre Day around the world. Initiated in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute, World Theatre Day is celebrated around the world by the theatre community, with a variety of national and international theatre events being organized to mark the occasion. One such event involves the circulation of the World Theatre Day Message (first written in 1962 by Jean Cocteau), a process through which a renowned world figure expresses his or her views on theatre, its meaning, and its relevance in modern times (as well as the future). This special message is not only translated into more than 50 different languages but is also read for tens of thousands of people (before a theatre performance) around the world, as well as printed in many daily newspapers. In short, this message is spread around the world to mark the occasion of World Theatre Day.
India has a rich history of theatre – in fact, we have already well defined the art of theatre in the Nav Rasas. Just think about it – all of our Nav Rasas can be used to express an emotion that is usually expressed in theatre – Shringar (romance), Hasya – (humour), Karuna (empathy) (Raudra) anger, Veer (heroic), Bhayanak (fearful), Vibhatsa (disgust) Adbhut (wonderful) and the ever so important and always relevant Shant (peace). In fact, one of the earliest forms of theatre in the world was the Sanskrit theatre. It emerged sometime between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century and flourished between the 1st and the 10th centuries, which was a period of relative peace India’s history. During this time, hundreds of plays were written and performed until the Mughal Empire came into existence after the 11th century and started discouraging or forbidding theatre entirely. To combat this, village theatre was encouraged across the subcontinent, developing in a large number of regional languages from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Finally, modern theatre developed during the period of colonial rule under the British Raj, from early 19th century until the late 20th century. Indian theatre not only acknowledges the importance of the occasion, but to also celebrates its own long history of theatre.
Now many people may wonder exactly why it is that we choose to celebrate theatre – what is it about this art form that warrants such a celebration? Well, apart from being the oldest expression of performing dramatics, theatre is (and has always been) an incredibly powerful tool of social change. Think of all the great plays that have been written and performed with the singular aim of pointing out social evils currently plaguing society and demanding the powers to be to do something about it. Be it The Normal Heart by Larry Kushner that was a scathing and rage filled (read: Raudra) commentary on the AIDS crisis disproportionately killing gay Americans and the Reagan Administration failing to do anything about it, or Jerusalem that talks about the importance of staying true to your roots and now bowing down to suburban development, theatre has always been an effective and hard to ignore medium vis-à-vis social change. In fact, plays like Angels in America that, once again, helped shed a light on the gross mishandling of the Aids epidemic in the 1980’s, and Inherit the Wind (that reinforced the importance of freedom of choice) can actually be credited with accelerating the pace of societal change. Simply put, theatre has always been an essential channel of communication that many people have relied upon for spreading their message and afflicting a change.
In India, street-plays have always been an excellent and powerful tool of spreading a message. Most colleges in India have their own street-play society, and each of these societies annually come up with creative and relevant themes to base their plays around, plays they perform at various college fests and events. What is so inspiring about this trend is the way youngsters are using the platform to not only voice their opinions, but to also help do their bit to make a difference. These street plays usually talk about social evils plaguing our country – casteism, communalism, sexism – and why it’s important for the younger generation to combat them. That’s the beauty of theatre – you can be of any age and belong to any nationality, creed and class to indulge in it.
P S Baber said, “The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
Personally, I long for the simplicity of theatre. I want lessons learned, comeuppances delivered, people sorted out, all before your bladder gets distractingly full. That’s what I want. What I know is what we all know, whether we’ll admit it or not: every attempt to impose the roundness of a well-made play on reality produces a disaster. Life just isn’t so, nor will it be made so.