Theatre Olympics: A ₹52 crore flop show

Events like the Theatre Olympics sideline existing theatre in the country and it excluded local artists by setting impossible participation rules. As a result no one turned up to watch these plays

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NH Photo
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Sanjeev Chandan

The Modi government, which uses every event to stake claim on its nationalist identity, pinned our national pride on the inauguration of the Theatre Olympics by the Vice President of India, Venkaiah Naidu, at the Red Fort on February 19. Interestingly, on the same day, there was a National Defence Yagna organised at the Red Fort.

It would be necessary to know what Theatre Olympics is. It is a non-government organisation. There are fourteen members, called artistic directors, in its co-ordination committee, each representing their country. After its establishment in 1993, it has organised Olympics in 7 countries - Greece, Japan, Russia, Turkey, South Korea, China and Poland. The founder of this organisation is a noted Greece-director, Theodoros Terzopoulos, and its member from India is Ratan Thyam, the former chairperson of National School of Drama, New Delhi (NSD).

Now the question is, when it has been organised in so many countries, where is the issue of pledging national pride if it is being organised in India? In fact, since 1999, NSD had been organising Bharat Rang Mahotsav every year - in which dramatists from all over the country used to participate. Now theater Olympics is being organised instead of Bharat Rang Mahotsav (Bharangam) with the efforts of Ratan Thyam and the present director of NSD, Waman Kendra. When it was to be organised in Russia, in 2001, it happened at the time of Chekhov International Natya Festival, which was a yearly event in Russia. The host country did not postpone its National Festival nor did it plan its merger with the Olympics. Both of the events were simultaneously organised. Lyubimov, the member of the theater Olympics (artistic director) from Russia, named it 'Theatre for the people' and organised it in this format as well.

However, in India not only was Bharangam merged with the Olympics, but also NSD lost all its autonomy to organise this the event.

More politics than theatre

Rajesh Chandra, playwright and the editor of ‘Samkalin Rangmanch’ says, “It has been a feature of Theatre Olympics that till now it has been organised respecting national traditions and priorities of the host countries.” But the decisions of this event in India are being done by unknown people, staying far from the country, and the NSD has just become a platform. With the participation of 35 countries in 17 cities of India and a budget of Rs 52 crore, the mega show of 51 days came under threat when the international committee of the Olympics refused to give its brand name and wrote a letter to the NSD director, in October of the last year. It is alleged that Ratan Thyam, the then outgoing chairman of NSD and artistic director of Theater Olympics, was behind this letter bomb, as he was annoyed with his role in the event, because it was decided by the director of NSD. As soon as the letter came to light, the director of NSD and the Minister of culture left no stone unturned to appease the officials of Theatre Olympics. Eventually, Ratan Thyam became the saviour.

NSD’s reputation at stake

Many theatre big wigs disassociated themselves from the event. The former NSD director, who laid the foundation of Bharangamam and the country's leading director, Ramgopal Bajaj questioned the justification given for organising the event. Even though the event was inaugurated amidst much aplomb, the empty chairs of audience tell the truth of its success. Not more than 50-60 people turned up to even see the play by the Theater Olympics’ chairperson, Theodoros.

Young director Ishwar Shoonya says, “The event was completely cut off for local artists and that is why the audience is not turning up. This is happening because the director Waman Kendra had set such impossible rules for participation,”

In comparison, even the informal performances on the NSD campus were worth seeing during the Bharangam in the past years. There was always an audience.”

Before the writing of this report, seven questions were sent to the NSD director, Waman Kendra. The questions included the financing of the Olympics, the reason for its failure and issues related to Ratan Thyam. He chose to not answer the questions.

Bad news from other locations too

Even though some shows in Delhi had some viewers, the news from outside Delhi was worse. A theater artist, Ipsita Chakraborty, wrote on in her Facebook page, “Went to perform for 8th Theatre Olympics in Kolkata. Performed in a 1,000-seater auditorium; just 50 pair of eyes to see.’

Bigger questions remain unanswered

More important questions than the contemporary event have to be answered as they raise the issue of future of theatre in India. Drama is one of the oldest forms of people’s expression. Theatre has been institutinalised, but as soon as it is institutionalised, it becomes an elitist trade. Today, theatre in India suffers from this institutionalisation and elitism.

Manjul Bharadwaj, a theater director, who connects theater with common people and runs the Theater of Relevance, says, “The theater can be saved only if it connects to the masses; organising such events have no impact

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