Culture stands for political ‘culture’, says veteran theatre personality Ratan Thiam

Celebrated playwright and director Ratan Thiam on the culture of politics and the politics of culture

Culture stands for political ‘culture’, says veteran theatre personality Ratan Thiam

Prabhat Singh

His landmark play, Chakravyuha (1984), has been performed over a hundred times around the world. Chairperson of the National school of Drama (NSD) for two terms, director of the internationally known Chorus Repertory in Imphal (Manipur), Ratan Thiam opens up during a conversation with Prabhat Singh.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Q. People often complain that not much has been done for arts and culture. The dissatisfaction is directed at the government but they are often directed at the society itself. They seem to feel frustrated at, shall we say, irrelevance of the arts in our society? What would you hold responsible ?

A. I must admit that when I decided to establish a professional repertory, I was confident that we would overcome the odds in perhaps two or three decades. But nothing much has changed in the last 70 years or so. The most important reason is that those in power who can bring about changes, have no interest in cultural issues. We are yet to formulate a comprehensive policy on arts and culture. Several committees were set up, such as the Bhabha Committee, Khosla Committee, Haksar Committee. I have been a member of some such committees too. But successive governments have given little importance to the recommendations made. There is a degree of pretence, to show that the government is also concerned about culture. But it has seldom meant anything more.

The government as you know has implemented the Seventh Pay Commission’s recommendations and given government employees a pay hike. But artistes still get a salary of ₹6,000 per month. You can well imagine the gravity of the situation. Even the government expects artistes to make do with such pittance. Nobody spares time to even think how it is possible for an artiste to run his household with such a paltry income.

This is our culture, the culture of not applying our mind. Never mind our cultural heritage, which dates back to thousands of years. Nobody cares about how artistes have lived and died, artistes who have spent their entire lifetime in preserving traditions. Culture in this country is only for politics. Politicians use it as and when it suits them.

Q. Does the society have no responsibility?

A. Who in the society has the time to care? Our folk arts, traditional arts and classical arts had deep roots in society; they were sustained by society. But these traditional art forms are facing an onslaught from fusion, from remixes, westernisation and globalisation! Society is turning its back to tradition. People are bent upon aping others. It is absurd to believe that every global citizen will become alike. But our society is not paying sufficient attention to the threats to our culture. It may soon become too late.

Q. How relevant and meaningful is the National School of Drama and similar institutions in the context of modern theatre?

A. Times have changed but there has been little or no change in the NSD. I have been pleading for regional campuses for years. NSD should not be kept confined to Delhi and thus deprive opportunities to hundreds of gifted youngsters in different parts of the country. In Delhi, NSD should be turned into an advanced study centre for research on theatre. Its courses of study is also fairly old and it needs to become more creative and professional. The status quo can no longer work because we would then be debating endlessly on relevance.

Q. Globally, where does Indian theatre stand today?

A. Theatre across the world is run professionally. Plays are produced after harnessing creative talents and doing a lot of research. Production costs are also very high. We have the talent in the country but theatre suffers from serious resource crunch. What others do in a year, it takes us 10 years to accomplish. Theatre professionals here live with constant insecurity. As long as this insecurity remains, it would be unreasonable to expect much improvement. This is why I have always stressed on producing better professionals.

Q. When you set up your repertory, it was a milestone. Looking back, how successful do you think it has been?

A. It has given me great happiness. It enabled me to stage plays the way I wanted them staged. But it required a great deal of struggle too. There was both the financial struggle and also the creative struggle. But looking back, I can say that I never lost my optimism, never lost hope, never looked back and never lacked faith. I had decided to set up the repertory in 1974. It took me two years to actually set it up.

I knew all along that theatre could never achieve the commercial success of films. It was difficult, if not impossible, for theatre to grow into an industry. I remember telling my actors that they should not nurse hopes of becoming well-known or morph into stars. This has never happened. Yes, to a certain extent the actors do become popular but the popularity is usually limited to the theatre community. I am lucky that from day one, my actors and others had this clarity.

I set up the repertory on my own. I did not take any help from the government. I am like a bird and I am happy with the little nest that I built. Frankly, it has taken me 25 years to build up the repertory. I had no money. If I did, I could have achieved it in a year. Actors and others involved in the repertory need to be paid. They need to be paid for their time so that they can maintain their families. But so much has changed, costs have gone up too high...

Q. You are known for your experiments in theatre. What kind of experiments satisfies you?

A. If you must know the truth, nothing ever satisfies me. All of us are in an elusive pursuit of perfection. Work is never perfect. Every time something or the other falls short, something is wanting. When I try to cover up the failings in the next production, something else gives. I have had this experience with each of my plays. Many of the plays received accolades but I remain dissatisfied.

Every time you stage a play, it is a compulsion to introduce something fresh and new. But this cannot be achieved by changing the stagecraft. Performers need to deliver something new—they need to be trained and motivated. In fact, theatre is an ongoing experiment. We keep working on new designs, new is never-ending.

Q. How do you see politics in art or the art of politics ?

A. Theatre has always been a platform for raising the voice of protest against what is unjust and what is unfair. In the last three thousand years of the theatre, hundreds of thousand plays have been written. Right from Sophocles, Aeshchylus to our own Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudrak and Harsh, from Shakespeare to Ibsen, every playwright has pointed fingers at whatever they found was wrong. Cite one example of a playwright who has written in support of a bad system! In every play you will find elements touching either religion or economics or politics! People on the stage are also human beings, social beings. How do they escape politics?

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