My first experience of watching an international theatre production was Berliner Ensemble’s Aurturo Ui directed by Heiner Muller, which was brought to Delhi as part of the German festival in India in 2000-2001. I still remember the extraordinary portrayal of Ui by Martin Wuttke and the ground-breaking post-modernist scenography of Muller. For a 25-year-old theatre graduate, it was nothing less than a life-changing experience.
A quarter century ago, it was almost impossible to get to watch an international theatre production in India. For a majority of Indian theatre practioners, world theatre meant a few names such as Stanislavski, Mayerhold, Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski and Boal and the limited literature available on them, photographs of plays, and newsletters. Even video recordings of productions were difficult to find. This was not the case for filmmakers, writers, musicians or visual artists. They always had the exposure to their fields of practice around the world, which allowed them to reflect on their own practice. This has been lacking in theatre practice for many years until Bharat Rang Mahotsav organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi and the International Theatre Festival of Kerala organised by the government of Kerala brought international theatre discourse to India. Practitioners of my generation benefitted substantially from these two festivals.
The presence of Ratan Thiyam as a member of the elite committee that conceptualised the Theatre Olympics was perhaps the reason why it was coming to India. Theatre Olympics is an international theatre event, established in 1993 by eight world renowned theatre makers, that seeks to celebrate excellence in theatre. It is very exciting when a festival with a reputed history comes to India and I was looking forward to watching some great contemporary work. Being familiar with the scale of the productions invited to Theatre Olympics, I was wondering how the NSD, with its limited infrastructure, will facilitate them. Given the amount of money involved in an event like this, one assumed that some of it would go into building the required infrastructure. Then came the controversy around Ratan Thiyam’s removal from the festival directorship and the subsequent withdrawal of the International Theatre Olympics committee. Somehow, the NSD salvaged the scene.
As the date of the festival closed in, there wasn’t any programme to be found. Finally, a few days before the festival’s opening, a part of the programme was put up on the festival website. Many of the international names I was expecting were missing in the list. But there were names like Theodoros Terzopoulos from Greece, Eugenio Barba and Romeo Castellucci from Italy. Terzopoulos and Barba brought their smaller and shorter pieces of theatre — Encore and The Great Cities Under the Moon respectively — in which the mastery of these theatre makers is visible. But one expected their major works at Theatre Olympics. Castelluci’s version of Julius Caesar was also not as complex or large in scale as his other productions, but it was certainly impressive.
What caught my attention, however, was the way in which the performance by Terzopulos was structured. The event was organised without care, lacking in the basic etiquette one expects in a performance hall. Young people from an outsourced organisation responsible for managing the event were running around like headless chickens, mispronouncing names. More surprisingly, half the hall was empty. I found the atmosphere depressing. I felt sorry for Theodoros and Castelluci but not so much for Barba as he must have anticipated this. After all, he is an interculturalist. What I narrated is my personal experience. If this is the situation in Delhi, where the NSD has a physical presence, one can imagine the chaos in other cities where the festival travels to.
I wonder why the NSD did it this way. It’s an institution with a modernist vision that has sought to transform the language of Indian theatre. It has produced some of the best theatre practitioners in this country. What was the logic behind choosing about 500-odd productions without checking their quality and dividing them into groups for several cities and throwing them into a chaotic organisational structure? Would it not have been more sensible to select a maximum of 25 Indian productions and invite the same number of quality international productions? It would have been better if the NSD had managed to bring some outstanding theatre from around the world and take them to four or five other cities with repeated shows. It could also have spent a part of the festival budget on building some quality performance spaces across the country to host these productions. Workshops and lectures by renowned contemporary theatre practitioners could have been carefully curated so that they could trigger a dialogue.
What the Olympics missed was a vision, a curatorial proposition. It just ended as a pile of randomly selected plays. With a list of 500 productions, the organisers may have harboured a secret desire to figure in the record books. The counter argument is that India is a large country and choosing a few productions would not have reflected the plurality of Indian theatre. Well then it should not have been called an Olympics, which claims to excellence.
It’s fine to spend on theatre festivals. It may be expensive to bring a Lepage, Goebbles or Castellucci to India. But the works of these masters would make a difference to emerging practitioners. So it is worth the effort. However, one must admit that spending taxpayers’ money on cardboard cut-outs and fake plastic flowers to decorate the festival area is an aesthetic and pedagogic crime. It reflects poorly on an institution that is supposed to train students in quality theatre. And that worries me.