The sanitiser is being sprayed everywhere — on costumes, props, light and sound equipment, chairs for the audience and the grass of the open-air theatre — as the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi prepares to stage its first play since the country closed all theatres and went into total lockdown in March. Pehla Satyagrahi, written by Ravindra Tripathi and directed by Suresh Sharma, Director-in-charge of NSD, traces the transformation of M K Gandhi from a lawyer in South Africa to one of the strongest forces against colonial rule in India. The play will mark the birth anniversary of the Mahatma with a shows on October 2, 3 and 4.
“This is our first performance in the new normal era. Our process of making the play as well as preparing for the show is different from before. For the first time, we will have sanitisers at the gate, temperature checks and the audience will be seated with a space of six feet,” says Sharma.
The novel methodology began on September 8, when artistes were allowed in for a reading of the script after their Covid status was checked and found to be negative. “We made a roster, with half the 18-member cast coming in on alternate days. The pandemic also resulted in the longest gap in the careers of the performers and we needed to recall the story and bring back the pace and rhythm of the show,” says Sharma.
Pehla Satyagrahi, a 2019 play, has famously been performed to an audience of 3,500 at a ghat in Varanasi but every other performance has been in halls, such as Sammukh on the NSD campus. Now, the actors, who rehearsed for the 27×30 ft space at Sammukh, are working in a 40×36 space in the open air.
To make it more challenging, audiences will be wearing masks that conceal facial expressions so that actors will be unable to “read the hall” as they perform. “There will be a barrier to the communication and exchange of energy that happens between actors and audiences during a performance,” says Sharma, a veteran actor who has played Maulana Azad in Tripurari Sharma’s Azad Maulana.
As the performers rehearse overtime for the play, Sharma is waiting to see if the audience will show for live performances and if their expectations have changed during the pandemic.
Across the country, the pandemic has dealt a body blow to artistes who have been deprived of their livelihood and the medium of expression. Play readings and performances began online but most lacked the vibrancy of a live show.
People who come to NSD to watch Pehla Satyagrahi will be treated to a new song, depicting a conversation when Gandhi is about to leave South Africa and come to India. “I am optimistic that the show will go on. We would like to keep the theatre buzzing with plays, such as Taj Mahal ka Tender, every alternate Saturday,” says Sharma.