“In the dark times/ Will there also be singing?/ Yes, there will also be singing./ About the dark times.”-Bertolt Brecht
Tea stalls act like magnets on winter mornings. On this day too, people gather in ones and twos for a steaming glass of sweetened tea. The conversation picks up and soon people are having an animated conversation on the Government, rulers and the ruled.
As two policemen in uniform stroll over, the conversation abruptly ceases and a hush follows. As people exchange uneasy glances, the policemen clear their throat and say sheepishly that they were off duty and they actually share their sentiment. A sigh of relief and a giggle or two later, the conversation again reaches a fever point and people seem ready to come to blows. A whistle pierces the morning mist and a cry, ‘police, police is here’ is heard over the heated exchange. And within minutes, as if by magic, the people melt away as policemen ‘on duty’ rush in.
Well, that was a street play in progress in pre-independence days, disrupted by the arrival of ‘real’ . It was not easy to find space for staging political plays or plays of protest. So members of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) would stage plays in public spaces. Elaborate precautions would be taken. Some members would watch out for trouble and at the first sign of trouble, their job was to alert members so that they could disperse.
Established in 1943, IPTA was influenced greatly by Brecht and his Threepenny Opera and the Russian Revolution. The plays spoke of oppression and slavery, of freedom and empowerment, of equality and the future. They did not require costumes, make-up, lighting or even a stage—the street or a basement or a staircase or a Railway platform was their stage.
Beginning with Nabanna (1944) by Bijon Bhattacharya, widely hailed as the first stage production which was adapted into a street play for smaller venues in towns and villages, based on the exploitation of peasants by landlords in British India, IPTA grew from strength to strength.
Nurtured by the likes of KA Abbas, Balraj Sahani, Chetan Anand, Badal Sircar, Utpal Dutt and Habib Tanvir for almost three decades and later by Safdar Hashmi in the post-emergency era, street theatre movement in India travelled a long and eventful journey.
It survived arrests, attacks and assassination even as it covered the turbulent period India went through after independence. Few art and cultural movements in India can boast of such a glorious history than the street theatre movement. Popularly known as theatre of protest or theatre for the oppressed, street theatre often was born out of the urge to revolt against unjust political conditions and the need to break away from tyranny.
Jana Natya Manch in India or Ajoka in Pakistan continued to draw audiences and didn’t lose their appeal even when political conditions changed. During the Vietnam war and Naxal youth uproar, street plays took the form of ‘guerrilla theatre’. Issues concerning women and children, health , education, land reforms and economic exploitation have been some of the focus areas. Groups like JANAM (Jan Natya Manch), Alarippu, Action India Samudaya, Swatantra Theatre and Bihar Art Theatre and wings of IPTA continued to be active in several states.
Since 1973, Jana Natya Manch has kept the tradition of street theatre alive in more than 140 cities and the countryside. In Karnataka, Samudaya broke new grounds in building social awareness in villages. When the theatre group took a play based on atrocities on Dalits at Belchi in Bihar, in village after village in Karnataka, the people reacted by exclaiming that they too had seen, heard and experienced similar atrocities.
Rape and death in police custody, displacement of adivasis and people falling prey to cynical politics provided food and fodder for street plays. Following the brutal rape and murder of ‘Nirbhaya’ in 2012, street plays received a fresh fillip.
Significantly, even as several street theatre groups turned their focus from the political issues to the social, street theatre by and large continued to be associated with the political Left.
Says Sudhanva Deshpande of JANAM, “Street theatre is theatre of protest, which necessarily is always on the left of the centre. It has to be anti- establishment but sadly we have in our country by and large, a right- wing establishment – a capitalist regime. In varying degrees, we have always had it right from inception. So right wing forces dominate the country in so far as governance is concerned. If you sell your theatre to these forces, which also enjoy money power, being endowed with most of the national wealth, then you can’t be doing theatre of protest, which constitutes the very nature of street theatre.”
“Left’s lack of political vibrancy” in the recent past has affected street theatre and groups like JANAM. One senses a loss of direction, a certain degree of confusion. According to theatre critic Rajesh Chandra, “ The groups (JANAM and other groups) require the support of Left wing parties to perform in different locations and also funding and patronage. If left parties have insignificant presence, power and funding ability, then street theatre is bound to suffer.”
Despite the doomsday prophets, however, street theatre shows no sign of dying out. True, the society has changed and technology has also provided entertainment within the reach of the common man on their mobile phones. And yet, several new theatre groups have come up which are not overtly political and do not owe allegiance to any political party.
They continue to perform on streets and spread the message of equality and freedom. Asmita, Vikalp Manch, Rang Nayak, Janvadi Sanskritik Manch and Sukhmanch are some such street theatre groups still active. For the career-centric and self-indulgent youth, however, money, mobile, pizza, Pepsi and Cola seem to matter more than the ‘ideologically-disturbing’ street theatre. But as Brecht wrote, even in dark times, there will be singing.