Drama, melodrama and ‘honest’ theatre from Shakespeare to Narendra Modi

The one man show in Varanasi was spectacular but had elements of the burlesque. It was good theatre but was it honest theatre, questions Vidyadhar Date

PM Modi
PM Modi
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Vidyadhar Date

It has to be conceded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a sense of the theatre, of spectacle and visualization. He memorises key lines. He is a talented performer. This was clear from his speech and choreographed scenes during the show he and the authorities mounted in Varanasi on December 13. It was a piece of theatre.

But real theatre is much more than grandstanding. Real theatre reveals the truth, it does not manipulate truth.

Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the most influential theatre personality of the 20th century, created a theory of epic theatre now widely appreciated all over the world. He wanted to make his audience think and famously said that theatre audiences “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom”. He wanted his audiences to remain objective and distant from emotional involvement so that they could make rational judgments about any social comment or issues in theatre.

But even before Brecht, Shakespeare used the device of ‘play within a play’ in Hamlet to seek and reveal the truth. So, he investigates the murder of his father the king. Hamlet stages the play ‘Murder of Gonzago’ before his mother and the usurper, king Claudius, his uncle. When the poison is put into the ears of the king in the play within the play, directed by Hamlet, Claudius asks it to be stopped and shouts, “Give me some light”. So, in a sense the murderer is exposed.

Among the finest things about the play Hamlet is its understanding of the process of acting and theatre. Hamlet, the prince, gives detailed guidelines about the technique of acting, among other things, which are cited for actors even today.

The ancient Greek theatre used the device of the chorus to offer interpretation of the story that followed. In the acclaimed 16th century play Doctor Faustus, Marlowe retells the story of Faust, the doctor-turned-necromancer, who makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain knowledge and power. Both Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles, who is the devil’s intermediary in the play, are subtly and powerfully portrayed. Marlowe examines Faustus’s grandiose intellectual ambitions, revealing them as futile, self-destructive, and absurd, as analysts have pointed out. The comments of the chorus substantiate these points.

Overlords like Mr. Modi use the medium of the performance for their own ends but they do not like truth telling comedians or serious dramatists. Dario Luigi Angelo Fo, the late Italian dramatist and popular actor, made some significant points in this connection in his Nobel Prize speech. He recalled that in the 13th century, emperor Frederick had declared that anyone could commit violence against jesters without fear of punishment.

Rulers resort to melodrama but do not like honest theatre. In Maharashtra, the tamasha was originally a very irreverent and elastic, flexible theatre form in which Songadya, a comedian, would make very caustic and hilarious comments against state power and the various ills that plagued society. That whole tradition has been cleverly subverted by the powers that be and the tamasha is now reduced to an erotic song and dance show, for the consumption of the new rich in the rural areas. That the women artistes are also exploited off the stage is yet another matter.

In Sanskrit theatre, the troupes included various professionals, from minor actors to make-up assistants, stage technicians, musicians and the conductor of the orchestra. Music had a central role in the Sanskrit dramas.

In the case of Modi at Varanasi, it was a one man show for most of the time. Modi’s bathing, his dip in the river and all these devices could not have been possible without a formidable security ring around him. This too was clearly kept out of the view. As if it was all devotion and piety and had nothing to do with state power apparatus.

But credit should be given to Mr Modi for the way he effortlessly summoned quotes and stories from several regions and languages including the local dialect. Ironically, he also quoted the Sanskrit words Idam Namam, which means complete surrender to God without expectation of any reward. That was however completely at variance with reality since the whole exercise, many are convinced, was directed towards the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

He also frequently mentioned that a visit to Varanasi is important for washing away all sins. But this apparently had a different overtone in the olden days. Most of the important religious sites are in beautiful natural surroundings, there must have been a motive of being one with Nature amidst Nature.


Over the years that sanctity has gone and corruption took over some of these sites so that Sant Kabir lived in Kashi or Varanasi but chose deliberately to die in the so-called cursed town of Maghar because he found it less corrupting.

Coming back to the theme of theatre and acting, and role of tyrants, it is significant that in the play Macbeth, the usurper sensing his impending defeat utters the line about life being like a player who struts about on the stage, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Be as it may. But while Mr. Modi gave the appearance of humility and devotion, it was essentially strutting around against the backdrop of the Ganga.

(The writer is a senior journalist, former drama critic of ‘Times of India’ and author of a book seeking democratization of streets, transport)

This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.

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