Till the mid-1970s, New Delhi felt quite different from how it feels now. This feeling is not necessarily a reflection of the pleasure that old, familiar images are known to give. Many things have changed, but some have changed more radically than others. No one can imagine how active and endearing theatre in Delhi was in the early 1970s. The roundabout near Bengali Market and the buildings around it are still there, but the life inside them is altogether different now. The National School of Drama, Triveni, and Kamani routinely offered the very best in contemporary drama.
Several plays I saw in these theatres became a part of my mental world, and some of the actors who performed in them continue to remain associated in my mind with the roles they had played. Om Shivpuri in Aadhe Adhoore (written by Mohan Rakesh), Sudha Shivpuri in Khamosh! Adaalat Jaari Hai (by Vijay Tendulkar) and Manohar Singh in Tughlaq (by Girish Karnad) are three such faces. When I learned that Karnad had died, I recalled Manohar Singh acting as Tughlaq, bringing him out of medieval history into contemporary Delhi. Ebrahim Alkazi, who directed the play, had the gift of making every script feel contemporary and relevant, no matter what its content was or whether it was Indian, Greek or German. Living in Delhi meant living in a large, very wide world in the 1970s. It was an exuberant feeling, and drama was its source.
I had forgotten some episodes of Karnad’s Tughlaq, so I turned to the internet to revive my memory. There was a lot to look at. Within a few minutes of browsing, I realised that the inevitable had happened. Tughlaq had entered the college syllabus, so it had gathered a vast amount of exam-worthy commentary. Its allegorical meanings, Karnad’s ability to use history to throw light on the present, his sense of the stage as a space, and several such points were elaborated upon on several sites. There were videos, too, telling the student how to answer exam questions about the play. There were some good commentaries but as I don’t have to prepare for an exam, I decided to switch off, sit back and just recall the time when dramatists like Karnad, Mohan Rakesh and Habib Tanvir were routinely injecting a new kind of awareness into Delhi’s ethos. After the end of the 1971 Bangladesh war as it was called, there was little left of the Nehru era. Image-wise, Indira Gandhi had acquired greatness without shedding her closeness to common citizens.
The open-air theatre at Triveni had steps with cushions placed on them. Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhoore was running as a daily show for several evenings. Sitting in one of front rows in a packed show, I briefly heard some commotion which subsided in a few seconds. In the intermission, when I looked back, I was startled to notice Indira Gandhi sitting in one of the middle rows. That the prime minister could find time to a see a play and was interested in Aadhe Adhoore meant a lot, in a city that, for older, native residents, had already grown beyond recognition.
Theatre, cinema, literature and magazines were involved in a larger, political struggle, to define the nation, bridging its endemic divisions. In his short story, ‘Dilli mein ek maut’ (A death in Delhi), Kamleshwar had created a symbol of the outsider’s experience of the urban jungle. Karnad and Tanvir had used rural aesthetic resources that made Bengali Market feel like the hinterland of a village. Tragic or otherwise, these plays conveyed the feeling that as Indians we could still make sense of ourselves, without surrendering to comparisons or false pride. Tughlaq, in particular, made disillusionment acceptable, as a moment of truth. Well before the end, you knew there was no hope for the king, but you also felt that the struggle will not end with him. One had the same feeling at the end of Aadhe Adhoore. Struck by pathos, you still felt the urge to trace the cracks in a family to larger, complex sources.
That urge is what seems to have slipped away. Few want to relate to the complexity of an obvious truth; denying it is considered a more obvious choice. The subject does not matter. It can be air pollution, politics, health or education. Accepting that the news is bad, even ominous, gets you nowhere. Truth seems distant and fundamentally inaccessible, like one’s political representatives in the assembly and Parliament. A rich supply of alternate e-sources of news and viewpoints is constantly in circulation, but none look capable of healing the injury that the urge to face the truth has endured.
By the 1970s, Delhi’s bubble of a truth-seeking theatre was ready to break. Ambitious though it was, the universe of ideas and images proved too small and fragile. Post-Emergency Delhi was a different city. It was more vast, difficult to know and grasp, not just to manage. There was no centre of aesthetic gravity left in it. The question why it proved so vulnerable is not easy to answer. People say our institutions were weak; some say the individuals chosen to run them were not right. Both arguments can claim substance and the matter must wait longer for the verdict.
Recently, one of my former students asked whether the Emergency was the worst crisis that Indian democracy had suffered. I found the question difficult and a bit out of the syllabus. I failed to convince her that the Emergency was mainly a crisis of the state. Except for short periods and in different specific regions, we have not experienced a social crisis and we don’t know exactly how the state might handle it. The young Delhi-ites of today must assess, without the aid of great artists like Karnad, Tanvir and Rakesh, whether a nostalgic view of the past is justified.
Kumar is a former director of NCERT and writer