World’s first ‘Quarantine Theatre Festival’ in the times of corona lockdown

After Netflix and Prime Video beaming cinema 24x7 it’s the turn of theatre to take a bow

World’s first ‘Quarantine Theatre Festival’ in the times of corona lockdown
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Amitabh Srivastava

After Netflix and Prime Video beaming cinema 24x7 it's the turn of theatre to take a bow.

Chronologically speaking, it was cinema that followed theatre and not the other way round. But the spontaneity and the live response of theatre audiences kept its writers, directors and actors on another high and despite dwindling earnings they stuck to the format and kept away from recorded performances like in cinema.

However the forced incarceration of people due to the COVID-19 brought about a rethinking of strategy among theatre personalities.

Taking the lead in the digitisation of theatre Arvind Gaur, the founder of Asmita Theatre which has been mesmerising audiences through its thought provoking, socially relevant and politically hard hitting Nukkad Nataks and stage performances since 1993 decided to provide the people the thrill of watching its highly acclaimed plays at home through the first Qurantine Theatre Festival in the world.

Gaur said,"We had started our Quarantine online theatre at 7 pm every day when offices, schools and colleges were asked to shut down till March 31. We began showing our master-pieces like Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak and Mahesh Dattani's Final Solutions in the evening and the response was tremendous. But after the lockdown ordered by the Prime Minister till April 14 we are working day and night to provide our best productions to people who are forced to stay indoors to fight this unknown enemy."

Among the repertory of plays that Asmita Theatre has to offer are Bhishma Sahani's Manoosh, Operation 3 Star by Daniel Fo, Moturam ka Satyagrah by Munshi Premchand, it's famous production which still draws viewers 'Jin Lahore Nahi Vekhya O Janmya hi Nahi'. On March 30 it showed Pagdi Sambhal Jatta on the occasion of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh.

But did showing a recording of a play not become drab in comparison to live performances?

Says Gaur, "We know it is a challenge to show old plays to viewers and keep their interest. But what we are doing is not easy. The editing and digitisation process to make the play appear like a live telecast is a long one. It's my daughter Kakoli Gaur who deals with the technical aspects of this format and it takes at least four hours to work on each play to make them presentable."

From April 2, Asmita Theatre has also started making its plays available on U-Tube and this was premiered by Manoosh written by Bhishma Sahani the brother of late Balraj Sahani and directed by Arvind Gaur like all plays of Asmita. Incidentally Manoosh was also the debut play with which Arvind Gaur had started his career.

Now that his plays will be available on U Tube for posterity it marks a huge step for theatre loving audiences whose numbers are on the rise because you can watch these extremely socially and politically relevant plays at a time of your choosing when you are tired of the usual tough office regimen or feeling down.

This online theatre is proving extremely successful and Gaur is thrilled that his plays are now in demand even at Chicago where people want to show them to Indian audiences in the US.

"Let me tell you something which is unbelievable. My plays on partition used to get around 400 viewers when they were staged in theatres but today more than 1,25,000 people have already watched them," he said.

Mrinal Mathur, a relatively new name in theatre who debuted in Delhi with his highly popular play Akbar the Great Nahi Rahe is all praise for the initiative of Arvind Gaur and praises the quality of his videos.

"I am sure this crisis will also be good for the theatre as the response to his theatre festival indicates. But the problem is that it will be very damaging for the young actors and others artistes who have been sticking around in the big cities to fulfil their ambition. Most of them have now gone back to their small towns and they must have been told by their parents to take up something else for a living," he said.

Amitabh Srivastava, a senior professor with the National School of Drama feels this could work both ways.

"One way to look at this is that artistes who were trying to make it in theatre are forced to go back to their homes.The other is to say that this exposure of their theatre on videos and U-Tube would get them more work as more sponsors and more directors would notice them and they could get more work in TV serials and theatre," he said.

On the other hand, actor, producer and director Syed Alam who runs the well-known Pierrot Troupe group producing plays in Hinglish feels that this kind of approach is a knee-jerk reaction which would harm theatre in the long run.

"If these people are saying they are getting more audiences online why did they not start doing this before Corona. I am very strongly against putting plays on the digital format and have never done this with my plays."

The problem is that a lot of people are feeling out of focus since the lockdown, he says.

"These people are resorting to desperate tactics just to be visible. You will notice a lot of people suddenly reciting Ramdhari Singh Dinkar or some other poet and put in on U Tube. If I recite a ghazal of Ghalib and record it I am sure at least 2000 people will watch it. But I won't do it," he says.

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