Monday, August 17, 2015

What ails the Indian People’s Theatre?

Since its establishment as a nationwide entity in 1943 at Mumbai’s Marwari School, the Indian People’s Theatre Association, or Ipta, has undergone several transmutations. First, regional units proliferated post-Partition. In 1960, the national chapter disintegrated, even as splinter units continued to function. Then the split in the Communist Party of India resulted in offshoots like Safdar Hashmi’s Jana Natya Manch forging their own identity in the 1970s.

In 1986, at a national conference, held for the first time in two decades, in Hyderabad, the organization declared, “We, the old and new workers of Ipta re-dedicate ourselves to organize Ipta into a powerful and effective National Movement.” If you look at sheer size, they seem to have achieved it—Ipta has more than 500 units in around 30 states and union territories, with more than 12,000 members. It’s no longer the blacklisted organization of its early days, but it’s still largely independent of state largesse, though some units may sometimes get festival and repertory grants from a governmental agency.

Each unit is cast in a similar mould, suggesting that a replicable system is in place. But some are more active than others. Like the branch at Raigarh town in Chhattisgarh, which can possibly be considered a model Ipta unit. Or the Bihar unit based in Patna and managed by Tanwir Akhtar, who has been an office-bearer with Ipta since 1986.

The Raigarh unit’s website conforms to the standard but stands apart for its local flavour—its recent posts are about the 21st edition of a national theatre festival held in December, where Mumbai’s Manav Kaul (who was given an award) and Sushama Deshpande showcased their plays.

Usha Athaley, a driving force, outlines the year-long itinerary that keeps the Raigarh unit buzzing: plays, seminars, cultural functions, a theatre pedagogy programme for members, an annual cultural magazine, Rangkarm. It also conducts a summer theatre camp for children, and liaises with other Ipta branches in the state, like those in Raipur, Bilaspur, Bhilai, Dongargarh, Balco (Bharat Aluminium Co. Ltd) township and Ambikapur—each of which has its own set of activities.

Some of this can perhaps be linked to the work of the late theatre maestro Habib Tanvir, forged on the anvil of tribal culture in the region—for instance, the proletarian ethos of productions like Charandas Chor and Agra Bazaar for his group, Naya Theatre.

Ipta’s Mumbai unit, of course, enjoys a more rarefied position within the organization. In part this could be because it was established in 1942, even before the national chapter came into being. Nivedita Baunthiyal, vice-president of the branch, also attributes it to the soft power of cinema—the careers of Ipta stalwarts in films have given not just their individual legacies a fillip, but added a lustre to the city unit. Actors Balraj Sahni, Utpal Dutt and Dina Pathak have all been important players, as have thinkers like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Ali Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi.

The branch eschews some of the exploitative aspects of urban theatre culture. “In keeping with our ideology, we don’t take any money from members, unlike other groups. We don’t work for profit. We are open to anyone passionate about theatre,” says Baunthiyal. “We also don’t enforce hierarchical attitudes when it comes to our daily functioning.”

When she joined the group as a young actor from Dehradun, she was struck by the simplicity of even some of the prominent artistes that she met. Her director M.S. Sathyu, who had directed the classic film Garm Hava, would travel by public transport to Crawford Market and select costumes himself. She recounts how the late A.K. Hangal would make it a point to ask her if everything was going well with the group, even when he had to be hospitalized after a fracture. Baunthiyal is happy to keep the flag flying.

The Mumbai branch is the most prolific of the various units. “We choose plays that are aligned to Ipta’s sensibility. The message is important, although we have distanced ourselves from the radical politics of the past,” says Baunthiyal. Some of their running productions include Rakesh Bedi’s Simla Coffee House, in which S.M. Zaheer invests much gravitas into the part of a ruminating writer despite a hackneyed plot, and Moteram Ka Satyagrah, a satirical, still topical, play on religious hypocrisy, adapted from a Munshi Premchand story.

But the fan-base is not uncritical. And plays such as Darindey... The Villains, adapted by Ramesh Talwar from Lillian Hellman’sLittle Foxes, can seem outmoded in execution. Critic Deepa Punjani says, “In the last decade at least, I haven’t seen a strong production by this legendary group. Its productions have begun to look dated and seem melodramatic, with a hankering for the past.” While aesthetics may not have been a priority when the group was crusading for social uplift, it certainly comes into focus in a setting like Prithvi Theatre, though the plays still command a loyal audience.

The organization’s logo, differentiated by bold colour schemes across units, is a nod to the proverbial clarion call, represented by the sinewy figure of a nagara vadak beating his drum. It was designed by the impassioned, if unheralded, political artist Chittaprosad, whose book of drawings and writings—the stark Hungry Bengal, copies of which were confiscated and burnt by the British in large numbers—has only recently resurfaced (the Delhi Art Gallery has been showcasing a reproduction since 2011). It chronicled the human costs of the man-made Bengal famine in 1943, which was one of the triggers for Ipta’s inception, nationally, that year.

Two of its earliest plays, Nabanna and Jabanbandi by Bijon Bhattacharya, drove home the severity of nature’s wrath and state fascism, and became the basis (alongside Krishan Chander’s Annadata) of Abbas’ uncompromising Dharti Ke Lal (1946), the only film ever produced by Ipta (although the Raigarh unit recently co-produced a short film, June Ek, in 2013). In a scene fromDharti Ke Lal, a glazed-looking peasant girl (played by Tripti Mitra, who would become a doyenne of Bengali theatre) sings a doleful ballad, Ab na zaban par tale dalo, outside Kolkata’s stuccoed Grand hotel, looking in through art deco windows at the excesses of its elite clientele.

In some ways, the contemporary Ipta finds itself looking out rather than looking in, its narrative of victims and exploiters upended by the vagaries of a palliative social change not of its own making, even if oppression continues and inequities remain. “A group with clear leftist sensibilities and middle-class values, which upheld democracy, secularism and the values of education, is sorely at its wit’s end in a neo-liberal, Indian capitalist state, threatened ever so subtly by communalism and identity politics,” says Punjani.

The changes have hit hard. Currently, Ipta cannot be said to be affiliated to any political ideology, though it initially comprised card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Their radical positions softened in the 1970s; Ipta can no longer be considered a bank of left-leaning intellectuals, quick to challenge all modes of oppression. In an interview featured on the group’s official blog, Akhtar, however, is categorical that Ipta hasn’t lost its edgy, aggressive nature. “I think it has gone through a transformation and attained a maturity of its kind. With changing time and changing needs, the ways of expression have changed.”

Athaley is more circumspect. “It is difficult to tell apart regressive and progressive forces in our times. I will not hesitate to say that Ipta’s influence on state policy has waned because, perhaps, our methods are not adequate enough to deal with an increasingly consumerist culture.” But it’s thanks to Ipta’s efforts, she says, that drama instruction is now a part of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum, and auditoriums have sprung up in every Chhattisgarh municipality. These may be baby steps but, says Athaley, “Even if the global landscape of cultural insensitivity is slowly swamping our human faculties, we will continue our search for new cultural tools to counter this.”

Harking back to the past is perhaps unfair to the organization even if it seems to insist on living in a time warp. For there are so many cultural organizations that are derivatives of Ipta, or have been inspired by it. The language of protest of students currently agitating against the selection of a new head for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) owes much to the songs of revolution first introduced by Ipta. “Chorus songs” may be talked of in pejorative terms, but they have been adopted by umpteen non-governmental organizations and street theatre groups. Political theatre remains a minefield of contradictions across groups and ideologies, but still bears allegiance to the theatre traditions built by Ipta, even if Ipta itself has moved away somewhat.

Certainly, there is a legacy that lives on beyond the boundaries of the official organization. The larger question is: Do cultural movements themselves have a place in today’s social fabric?
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