Different forms of Theatre have shocked, scandalised, entertained and even preached over the years. Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra, the definitive work on performing arts, recognized theatre both as a form of education and entertainment emphasising the latter. The early theatre was folk and also comprised music and dance in addition to large doses of humour, mostly of the bawdy and slapslick variety. Large, rural audiences enjoyed Nautanki, Tamasha, Jatra, Yakshagana in night-long performances in different parts of the country. These troupes led hard and precarious lives travelling by night and performing during day, with no homes and hearths for most of the time. There were also music and dance during festivals like Navaratri, Onam and Bihu.
The advent of the proscenium stage brought a sea-change both in folk theatre and community music and dance, during festival time. The presentation improved to make it more organised and professional. Inputs like a stage and curtains, lights, sound system, orchestra and trained artists in costumes and make-up came to fore. The theatre movements in Maharashtra and Bengal became trend setters.
Early plays were marathon productions and comprised a mythological, historical or social storyline sandwiched between hilarious interludes, music and dance numbers and not so relevant asides and subplots. In Maharashtra music became an integral part of theatre and Natya Sangeet (light classical songs) were sung by artists with fervour and elan. Men played women roles and male artists like Balgandharva became models in female fashions and graces. Those were days of drama companies and the artists and the supporting staff were paid employees and looked after adequately.
The advent of the cinema, silent first and talkies later, provided some competition to theatre, though it did not make much difference to the large, rural audiences that thronged touring drama performances.
However, these could not hold their own with the advent of electronic entertainment including Television, Videos and the latest cable television shows.
It is now widely recognised that Films and Television have not merely emerged as threats but have overtaken the theatre movement, attracting promising talents from the stage. In Mumbai, for instance, theatre is mostly used by stage artists as a spring board and launching pad for Television and Films. Usually, they are not available to theatre after this, making it weak, disorganised and unstable.
Even for authors and playwrights, theatre is not a favoured activities and there are few original plays. Many stage productions used to be based on Western murder mysteries, romantic comedies and bed-room thrillers exuding lewd humour, leaving very little to ones’ imagination.
A major reason for the decline, and even fall, of theatre activities, the world over, is also that it is a thank-less and low paying activity. The stage has succeeded royalty as an important patron of the Arts and has promoted a frame work for the arts through its culture departments and academies both at the National and State levels. It has provided infrastructure including training, stipends remunerations, and old-age benefits to artists.
Asked about the future of theatre thespian Vijay Tendulkar once cryptically replied, ‘Why bother about the future of theatre? If people want it, it will be there.’ Looking at the crowd at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, one can breathe a sigh of relief, it appears theatre lovers will do whatever it takes to keep the flag flying high. The Prithvi Theatre has today become an inspiration in the theatre world and provides a rich and rare exposure to theatre persons and buffs to enrich their vocabulary and grammar of theatre.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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