When I look back at the 30-plus years of my theatre practice, I notice a steady, but distinct shift; interestingly, it concerns more with the act of watching theatre, than performing it. What is this shift? I would call this phenomenon the transformation of the Prekshaka, the spectator, into a Veekshaka, the onlooker. While this experience came to me during my work in theatre, I have begun to feel that this is part of a larger change in our culture and society.
Let me expound this experience through a commonplace example. Remember the last time you went to a theatre performance, a music recital, or even a literary seminar. You will recollect a moment, when you were listening to something, you hear a phone ringing (or even singing!) in the auditorium. While I do concede that the ringing of the phone is a mere excuse for a particular spectator to become an onlooker, it surely disrupts the state of experience of many in the gathering. This is a small indicator, but the gadget itself has changed the way we experience things.
I wish to propose other little indicators to further my argument. For instance, theatre performances are getting shorter and shorter to suit the attention span of this new breed of onlookers; the new norm being 60-75 minutes. Compare this to a Marathi Sangeet Natak which would go on for a minimum of 180 minutes with two intermissions or a Yakshagana performance that would last the night. See our literary functions. Their very nature has changed. The days when a critic or a literary connoisseur would speak of a text in depth are gone. They have now been replaced by the television model of three to four panellists speaking in spurts, controlled and directed by a moderator, who is constantly looking at his watch. Irrespective of how serious or academic the subject is, the longest a speaker gets is never more than 20 minutes.
This scenario — where everything is packaged in easy and digestible capsules — has been making a serious impact on art forms, particularly theatre. As the organiser of a non-profit theatre company which travels to all parts of Karnataka, I feel that the problem is not of slim turnouts, but of the quality of spectatorship. Pre-modern Indian theatre traditions knew it better: Natya Shastra, for example, describes the Prekshaka as being ‘attentive, honest, able to argue and reason, and who can detect a fault and (yet) be sympathetic’. The towering commentator of Natya Shastra, Abhinavagupta, assigns a pivotal role to the spectator in the process of aesthetic communication. According to Abhinava, the locus of the basic emotion in a scene is the mind of the spectator, and what is exhibited on stage is only a lever that helps the spectator convert that basic emotion into the rasa experience. For such an exciting process to take place in the persona of the spectator, he will have to be a trained mind.
And who trains the mind of the spectator? Obviously the institution of theatre itself has to take up that task by offering engaging and challenging pieces of performance, enticing the audience, as well as take steps to enhance the quality of their spectatorship. The performance traditions which still survive in rural India do this in their small worlds, but who will do it for ‘contemporary’ theatre that occupy urban spaces? Most of the Indian theatre companies, and the State-sponsored repertories too, focus on creating pieces of theatre; but their reach is minimal. A reality check is possible if one puts down the number of performances the well-fed NSD repertory company has given outside its own campus in the last five years. You can even take a count of the number of ‘prestigious’ festivals that take place in your city and the number of people who attend it.
Contemporary theatre will pay a heavy price for this disdain towards the spectator, who should not be imagined as the end point of a supply chain but as the centre of the communication process. To put it metaphorically, he is the actual ‘kitchen of rasa’. I have sometimes felt that many theatre groups in India have gradually become either ‘experimental’ or ‘popular’ in the worst sense of both the terms. By becoming ‘experimental’, they forget the audience and turn their gaze onto themselves, and start leading a parasitic life of subsidised existence. The ‘popular’ set their eyes on the consuming public, and will tailor their theatre practices with the sole intention of making money. The predicament of those theatre groups that try to tow the middle ground is not radically different. For instance, a travelling theatre group like my own has to sustain its operations carrying a range of burdens on its back. On the one hand, uncertain and delayed government grants, on the other, unpredictable social unrest like curfews, bandhs, and the erratic rains. Thus, a group that attempts to be creative and concerned about its spectatorship is almost becoming an impossibility.
As I have suggested, this is part of a larger web of developments such as consumerism and the deterioration of environment. This battle for informed spectatorship is connected with many larger movements. However, I remember an attempt that some of our former students of Ninasam Theatre Institute adventured two years ago. They got together to do an ambitious play with no sponsorship or support. They invited Heisnam Tomba from Manipur to direct a play for them. The play came out well, and they travelled around Karnataka doing over 50 shows in makeshift halls. That was the last time I saw a piece of theatre which was both a successful experiment, and a popular performance. My hope lies with such youngsters who are realists. They are attempting the impossible of reclaiming the Prekshaka.