William Shakespeare once said, ''All the world's a stage.'' This was countered by Oscar Wilde, who said, "The world is a stage, and the play is badly cast." This is the beauty of theatre. It is perceived differently by various people at different times. In Karnataka, the 1980s is considered as the golden period for theatre. New plays were performed, the language was improved and new forms of theatre were explored.
Recently, I watched a play, We Teach Life Sir!!!, directed by Prashanth Udyavara. The play did not have a conventional plot. It provided broken images of war and portrayed the effect of war on human beings through dance, music, and simple yet effective props. The director had experimented with the form and content to create an experience and communicate the devastation caused by war.
Prashanth is a participant of 'making theatre', a project of Rangashankara, Bengaluru, where aspiring directors are given the opportunity to interact with theatre stalwarts for a month. After that, they direct and perform a play. Through this, the young directors are given a platform and space for innovation in theatre. Surendranath, trustee, Rangashankara, feels that theatre has evolved over time. With experiment in technique, the devised plays are paving way for change in the form and content of theatre. He then spoke of 'respectful irreverence', where old plays are performed again in a different manner and with a new perspective. He further added that there haven't been any drastic changes in the theatre of Karnataka. We still follow the conventional Proscenium theatre style along with the 1980s style of making plays.
Eminent Kannada playwright and theatre activist, K Y Narayanaswamy, is of the opinion that the 'grammar' and 'language' of Kannada theatre has not changed much over the years. While it has been experimenting with the themes, its technique has remained the same since the 1980s.
In the light of the debate art for art's sake versus art for the sake of life, we see that theatre is being used as a tool to question authority and hegemony. Thereby, using performance as a form of expression and a tool to question the powers that be. Likewise, the Samudaya movement in the 1970s pioneered plays that were situated in the social and cultural milieu.
The Samudaya Repertory was formed in 2015. This formation could be termed as the reinvention of the movement. The aim of the theatre group involved was to reach out to the farmers and youth and create awareness about prevailing social issues.
For a cause
This apart, the Ninasam Tirugata, by Ninasam in Heggodu, Shivamogga district, is a popular project carried out by the organisation. Here, a theatre group travels across the State for four months and puts up shows at every 50 to 100 km of the distance covered. The Bahuroopi National Theatre Festival of Rangayana, Mysuru, initially focussed on gender-related issues. It has now transformed into an annual festival that touches upon varied aspects that are crucial to society. Similarly, Shivasanchara of Sanehalli, initiated by the Sanehalli Math in Chitradurga district, also has a repertory that takes theatre to the people.
The aforementioned efforts bring theatre to the rural areas and use it as a device to create awareness on social issues. They also experiment with the form and content of the play to make it relevant and relatable to the audience.
Besides focusing on relevant themes, theatre groups have started experimenting with spaces as well. For instance, now plays are performed in bookshops and cafes. Atta Galata in Bengaluru is one such place. It is a bookshop, cafe and platform, where plays are performed and storytelling and poetry workshops are conducted.
Alternative theatre spaces are being experimented in Kannada theatre as well. Vijayanagara Bimba, Bengaluru has a terrace theatre which is used for rehearsals and readings. It also acts as an intimate theatre. "We have tried intimate theatre, devised theatre and horseshoe theatre here. The plays experimented here are later performed as street plays, plays for Ganesha pandals and also proscenium plays," says S V Sushma, director, Vijayanagara Bimba.
Archiving the process
Apart from the changes in theme and space, a new feature has been added to theatre. Documentation of theatre, taken up by Bengaluru-based Sanchi foundation, is a not-for-profit venture. Here, theatre and other folk art forms are archived and made available online for free. The foundation has documented more than 100 Kannada plays. It has in a way recorded the journey of theatre in Karnataka and made it accessible to the people through its YouTube channel. While these recordings cannot replace the actual experience of watching a play, they act as good study material for a deeper understanding and analysis of theatre.
Furthermore, corporate organisations today use theatre as a team building activity for their employees and use street plays while delivering sales pitches as well. Theatre is also perceived as a tool for holistic learning and we can see theatre activities in schools and colleges.