Theatre, one of the oldest art forms in India, has over the years seen a gradual decline in popularity. After the television came into our homes, theatre, for the urban elite, has become an expensive form of entertainment and for the rural masses, an art form that makes occasional appearances during village fairs and temple festivals.
In an attempt to revive the withering art form in the state, the Telangana government organised a theatre festival where plays were performed for three days. ‘Bhoomika- The modern theatre festival’ became one of its kind, bringing women to the fore, with five women theatre directors staging plays, and representing the entire theatre scene in Telangana. In India, while there have been many popular women theatre actors, the number of women directors has been far lesser.
At the three-day festival, organised by the Telangana Theatre Research Centre (TTRC) from March 5 to March 7, the women directors had the freedom to explore different themes and not restrict themselves to "women-oriented" subjects alone.
While some presented contemporary stories in Indian theatre, catering to the millennial audience, others revived the classical Indian mythological dramas. TNM spoke to three of the five directors on what it means to be a woman director, the women characters in theatre and how this waning art form can be revived in the state.
Jhansi, popular television anchor and actor, says that one of the major challenges women directors face is to convince an entire crew and the entitled male artistes to act on the commands of a female creative head.
Her play, Purushasooktam, has been written on similar lines and tells of how men suffer from their own notions of toxic masculinity.
“Purushasooktam has only two characters who represent the male and female energy respectively. The play doesn’t take sides but poses a single question: who is equal or more equal? Why isn’t the society or men able to accept that I am equal? The play doesn’t end with a message but is only an attempt to explain a situation,” Jhansi says.
While Jhansi says she was lucky enough to have a young team who enthusiastically worked under a woman director, not all women directors have it easy
“The situation is similar to movies where the male artistes find it difficult to take commands from women directors, despite the talent and creativity the latter posses. While movies offer some good money to artistes, theatre is still not considered a viable means of livelihood and the meagre money is often a deterrent for women who already have to cross many hurdles to establish a name in the industry. Women directors need to take hundred leaps more to command the same respect that their male counterparts receive in the industry,” Jhansi says.
While theatres has always been predominantly male-oriented, the disparity in numbers begins not just from the industry but right from our educational spaces. Speaking to TNM, Padmapriya, a professor for theatre arts at the Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University, says that the numbers are dismal, beginning from theatre classes in universities.
“I teach in a class where there are 10 boys and 2 girls. I was fortunate enough to pursue a post-graduation degree in theatre because both my parents were theatre artistes. I was well aware of how the Telugu theatre scene, maybe some 30 years back, was bereft of women. The statistics now have definitely improved. However, it’s still an arduous task to convince families to let girls pursue their passion, one for the less money, and another the skewed notion of how anything to do with acting is glamour-oriented,” Padmapriya says.
Padmapriya has been in the theatre industry for the past 20 years, and at the theatre festival, her play titled Mooriya won applause for the raw portrayal of a woman's life after she loses her husband and son to the sea.
“I love directing plays where women characters are studied and understood in depth. Mooriya is adapted from John Millington Singe’s Riders to the sea and is about the fight of a woman who doesn’t lose her spirit against fate and circumstances. The theatre industry is gifted for the reason that directors have more creative freedom to portray women characters in depth, unlike Telugu films, where women are simply relegated to the roles of glam dolls,” Padmapriya opines.
While the state is putting in genuine efforts to revive theatre, directors opine that the art form itself needs to undergo a revamp and be more inclusive when it comes to subjects.
Sowmya Ram Holagundi, a teacher, theatre actor and director, says that theatre has increasingly become an art of the urban elite, and theatre groups have restricted the movement of plays within cities. Her play Anveshana, inspired by movement theatre, is a suspense crime thriller where the actors use physical methods, weight and space to communicate character and the story.
“The fact remains that our stages need to have better lights, acoustics, and better technology that can add life to a play. But having said that, we need to take theatre again to the rural masses where the ethos of original Indian theatre still remains. Also, gone are the days when audiences would cheer for only classical mythological dramas on stage. The theatre scene in our country, more specifically in Hyderabad, needs to open its doors to diverse subjects, cater to the millennial audience and experiment,” Sowmya says.
“Be it a village jaatra or a temple festival, it’s in the villages that theatre still lives in its spirit. The revival should begin from our villages. We need more theatre festivals that do not burn a hole in the audiences’ pockets and most importantly identify talent, especially that of women, and of which there is no dearth,” Jhansi adds.