Young turks speak up

Young turks speak up

Two path-breaking young directors, Deepan Sivaraman and Anirudh Nair, on the new and emerging trends in Indian theatre

Deepan Sivaraman, in his 40s, is an associate professor of Performance Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi and the creative director of Oxygen Theatre Group. Anirudh Nair, in his 30s, has trained in theatre in the UK and is the founder of Wide Aisle Productions...

Why is there a growing emphasis on visual language in the new Indian theatre? 

Deepan Sivaraman: We must understand that theatre is not an extension of literary art; it’s an independent art form that exists in the poetry of space. Hence it has a visual language. I would like to call it a theatre of scenography. It’s a new theatrical form that primarily challenges the supremacy of the text in theatre. 

Anirudh Nair: Contemporary theatre practice has seen a wonderful mingling of disciplines. There are more and more dancers who have crossed over into theatre and vice versa. Musicians are creating performances that value narrative. Film-makers have collaborated with theatre directors to reinvent the visual language of the stage. As a result, the learning has been phenomenal. And a new language is being born.

What has also changed positively is that there is a growing sense that training in some form or the other adds value, whether it is at drama school here or abroad, or even a series of workshops held by international as well as Indian practitioners. 

A still from 'Dark Things' 

Stalwarts have challenged the idea with the declaration that the traditional theatre of India is sacred and therefore unchangeable. That those styles face death if this ‘global trend’ is allowed to take over...

Deepan Sivaraman: Modern Indian theatre was established in India during the late-18th century. It was influenced by Western theatre as it was brought to India by the British. The written text and the proscenium were its hallmarks. Indian theatre is still obsessed with them. Indian theatre has a history that predates the 19th century and offers physical, spatial and ritualistic experiences. The Ram Lila of Ram Nagar, koodiyattom, theyyam, kathakali and all the classical dance forms are examples of it. Practitioners like Kavalam, Thiyam and Karanth explored the roots of Indian theatre and emerged with a new visual language as far back as the 1960s. In the 1970s, Ebrahim Alkazi directed some spectacular open-air productions like Andhayug and Tughlaq in Delhi. Ratan Thiyam’s Uttar-Priyadarshi is a fine example of theatre of scenography as well.

Another discrepancy between the old and the new is that the director is all-powerful in traditional theatre, whereas the new language envisages collaborative work between the artistes, technicians and the director. This is seen as marginalisation...

Deepan Sivaraman: In traditional theatre, the only meaningful collaboration happens between the writer and the director. There are very few directors in India who have explored the possibilities of collaborating with artistes from other disciplines. In my own theatre-making, I prefer to start work with the entire team of collaborating artistes.   

Anirudh Nair 

Anirudh Nair: The notion of the patriarchal male director figure has been challenged and this is a universal trend. The greatest companies of the last century have traditionally been controlled by such autocratic men. This has given way to a much more egalitarian collaborative approach. ‘Devised work’ is a much more collaborative process. That was certainly the case in our recent work of Sonnets. The director merely played the role of a facilitator, injecting thoughts and ideas into the rehearsal space. How those suggestions were interpreted was the actor’s work. No scene in our play was pre-written. Scenes evolved only as a result of actor collaboration. In fact, the model we followed was one where a majority of the rehearsals were not even witnessed by the director. 

The actor is still at the very centre of this process. The director’s role might have changed, but in no way would I refer to it as marginalisation. 

New, intimate performance spaces have emerged to support this kind of theatre. Performances are held in people’s lawns, basements or apartments...

Deepan Sivaraman: Technology has become an integral part of our daily life. Information will find us. It has become even more important that we engage with everything we encounter in new ways and be wary of what we are offered as ‘the truth’. We are more attracted to what we see and experience physically rather than what we hear. The new theatre is only responding to this social change.

Deepan Sivaraman

Anirudh Nair: Aesthetically, the shift has been stark. The procenium has lost its primacy. The prosceniums of Delhi have long been inaccessible to most independent companies. The truth is that the changed aesthetic to suit a black box such as Odd Bird or even smaller spaces like Barefoot, or in my own case, with my recent production of Sonnets — into my own home, is as much a necessity as it is an artistic choice. Spaces like Odd Bird have changed the face of theatre as we know it. They have built and cultivated not just their own audiences, but also through careful curation, a community of practitioners. Of course, the shift is equally driven by the economics at play.

This is elitist theatre, people say and it cannot spread itself to small-town India, where traditional forms are still supreme. Therefore it will remain limited in its appeal...

Anirudh Nair: Yes, this contemporary work is elitist and limited in that it remains restricted to urban centres. But does that make it less relevant? I’m not so sure. Theatre in itself is no longer a genre that enjoys mass appeal. It is no longer the most effective tool for large-scale dissemination of any kind. But there is no reason for our practice to not transcend this. 

What do you see as the future of theatre in India. Do you think the existing scholarship in India is equipped to read this change of theatre language?

Deepan Sivaraman: We still equate the success of a play with its script. But the sacrosanct word has to contend with a new breed of artistes who are seeking to move beyond it. The reason why we still have this debate is  because our scholarship has failed to articulate this change. For them, the spatial set-up of a play like Virasat (directed by Anuradha Kapur, scenography by me) is a disturbance in seeing, or the raised metal hammer in Dark Things (co-directed by Anuradha & me) is an excess object to satisfy the ego of the maker. I think the reason for this ignorance is primarily laziness and the reluctance to read about new theatre. Our theatre will be in a better shape if an informed scholarship critically reads the new works with a historical and theoretical understanding.

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