Truth in Theatre

(Habib Tanvir Memorial Lecture given at Raza Foundation, India Habitat Centre)

Good evening friends. First I must thank the Raza Foundation for inviting me to deliver the Habib Tanvir Memorial lecture. I've never done anything so grand sounding. In fact I disappear into the crooks and crannies of my city when called upon to speak publicly. So I honestly don't know what got into me this time to accept this invitation. And let me make it quite clear at the outset. It wasn't love for this city. I have never liked it and I like it even less now. It smells too much of power. Power and theatre stand at opposite ends in the matter of truth. If the finest theatre we know searches for truth allowing its people, actors and audience to grow in knowledge of self, the world and its history, politics creates and spreads lies, with the aim of stunting people in order to keep them under control. We Marathis are known for our bluntness. Now that you know what that means, I'll get on with my speech.
I will not speak it as many do, looking down casually at their written scripts. I shall read it, only occasionally looking up from the script. The reason is that I can't trust my memory much. An ex tempore speech will mean fumbling and rambling and I wouldn't want to inflict either of those on you.   
The preamble is over. I shall now go straight to the heart of the matter. Truth in theatre. Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth. At least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

What Picasso said is more true of theatre than of any other art. Unlike painting which may be abstract and music which is definitely so, theatre at its most basic is nothing but the human body in action. The body can be made to lie truthfully to give us truth in theatre or shamelessly to give us falsehood in theatre. Although the human body is both the centrifugal and centripetal force of theatre, it is nothing on stage if not driven by a narrative, however abstract and supported by a scenic design that articulates its space, lighting that moulds it, costume that gives the body line and structure and music that accompanies it like a second script. Each one of these elements must be truthful in itself and towards the other elements in order for truth to emerge on stage. I shall therefore look at all of these elements and, through the theatre I have experienced, arrive at what their various truths are.

The most appropriate way to begin is to look at the two ends of the work of the great director in whose memory this lecture is happening. Habib Tanvir.  He arrived at what we know as quintessential Habib Tanvir theatre by a process of unlearning and learning. He shed the layers of theatre influence that he had accumulated  at RADA, the Bristol old Vic and in Europe. He put aside those influences when he directed Mitti ki Gadi, based on Sudraka's Mrichhakatikam. Doing this play taught him a valuable lesson. His theatre would have to be fluid. Then he went back to his roots in Chhatisgarh and began working with local actors. But he made them speak Urdu and Hindi. As a result, they moved stiffly and spoke stiltedly. He learned his second valuable lesson. Actors had to be given autonomy. Only when they were themselves would they give him the kind of performances he saw in their folk plays. Gaon ka naam sasural and Charandas Chor shone with the truth of that decision. Chhatisgarhi was not a hurdle to those who were not familiar with that sweet dialect as he had thought it would be. In rehearsal, he would allow his actors to move as they wished, because they could not understand the modern system of blocking. While moving freely, they would arrive at a move that Habibsaab decided was what he was looking for. He would then freeze the movement.
It had been a struggle to arrive at this point of confluence between speech, movement, narrative and direction. Truth, any truth can only come at the end of a struggle. Habibsaab was fond of using the metaphor of the hilsa to illustrate the essentially anti-establishment nature of true art  The people of Dacca are proud of their hilsa. They claim it is superior to the  Hooghly hilsa. How so? It is the same hilsa. The people of dacca say no. The Hooghly hilsa swims with the current. The Dacca hilsa swims against it. That makes it tougher and sweeter.
Now let us look at Zahreeli Hawa his penultimate play, an adaptation of Bhopal, a play by the Canadian-Indian playwright Rahul Varma based on the Bhopal gas tragedy. This was the first time he was doing a purely urban play, written by a living writer and adding a third element, Canadian actors to his usual cast of Chhatisgarhi and urban actors. This made the rehearsal process difficult because the actors didn't understand each other's language.

This play was bound to be false. Habibsaab had spent years making his work flexible enough for his folk actors to bring in their verbal and body language. In this play they were boxed in by an alien form of theatre with no room for the ebullient humour that came so naturally to them and was always a vital element in Habibsaab's plays. When Asghar Wajahat objected to the comic element in Habibsaab's adpatation of his play “Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya”, he pointed out that the comic didn't always amount to loss of the serious. Look at the porter in Macbeth, he said. He is comic but what he is saying portends the tragic event that is coming.
Zahreeli Hawa was an issue-based play. He had done other issue based plays before, but they were always open-ended. In an interview I did with him, he had explained why. I quote,
"That comes from my conviction that the moment you say things out clearly and produce answers your audience says thank you, nice evening, goes home, has dinner and sleeps. Also there is no single answer to a question. If you incite the audience with a disturbing question, there may be more answers than you thought of." Zahreeli Hawa didn't raise questions. It gave answers. It told us who the victims were and who the villains were.The play, despite dealing with one of the most tragic events in the history of our country, left us unmoved. Whereas the truth-telling thief in Charandas Chor had moved us deeply.

Speaking about how characters even in political theatre should be treated by the playwright, Harold Pinter said in his Nobel Award acceptance speech, "The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will."
Vijay Tendulkar worked with a similar dictum in mind. That is why his Sakharam Binder stood before us as a full-blooded, fully-fleshed character with his own language and his own philosophy of life. But when it came to Tendulkar's other outstanding work, Ghashiram Kotwal, he had to look for another form to cast his story in because he was going to use characters to tell a political morality tale about how men in power create frankensteins for their own political purposes, regardless of the havoc these monsters, given unbridled power would create in the country. The episode from maharashtra's history which was to allegorise the contemporary political situation Tendulkar wished to analyse, had been with him for a long time. But the story was in search of a form that would allow the characters to behave according to what he, their unambiguous master, dictated.  
He found the form by serendipity. Decades before Bombay became Mumbai, it used to be dotted with wadis. These were clusters of cottages located in coconut groves inhabited by people from the Konkan coast. One such wadi lay on Tendulkar's way home. Around Holi, groups of people would come down from the Konkan to the city to perform a folk theatre form called naman khele in these wadis. They wore white frock coats, stood in a line that swayed to the traditional khele tunes and parted for one or other of its members to step forward and enact a part of the mythological story that was being narrated. Tendulkar had passed by these performances often. But with the story of Ghashiram in his head, his feet halted. He watched with great absorption. He had found his form. His Brahmins would stand in a line and music would be a vital part of the script.
However, when the play was performed, he expressed unhappiness with the production. He said the songs, which he himself had written music, had swallowed up his play because of their haunting musicalisation. In actual fact Bhasker Chandavarkar's music had pointed up the ironies of the play. It could do so precisely by not being subservient to the written script, but to search for and discover a musical truth that would add a rich layer of irony to it. The proof of how perfectly Chandavarkar had achieved this lies in the fact that none of the songs can stand alone as did the songs in the old sangeet nataks. They could not be recorded for sale. They were an integral part of the play.
Many of our best playwrights believe that words are the only vehicles for serious ideas. It was for this reason that Asghar Wajahat, besides objecting to the comic in Habibsaab's version of his play "Jis Lahore Nai dekhya", also disapproved of the songs. However, in Habibsaab's work, songs were not merely a bunch of sung lines meaning what the words said. They were vehicles of another kind of meaning created through the robust voices of the Chhatisgarhi actors singing those simple, earthy tunes in unison.  
When Sakharam Binder plays the dhol he is saying something that een his abundant and colourful vocabulary cannot express. When theatre strains towards the inexpressible, it gives us a glimpse of truths that lie beyond articulation. Sometimes a single word uttered at the correct pitch and volume with the right cadence can do this work. In Rajeev Naik's play, "Apsatlya Goshti" in which a group of friends are discussing their relationships, night falls and a voice calls out, "jaagte Raho". It was Kishor Kadam's voice. The director had pushed him and pushed him to dig into himself till he finally produced this call which said more about the violent times than all the characters put together had said in two hours.  
Veenapani Chawla created an entire play out of music. The mizhavus played by her actors combined with the saxophone spoke eloquently of the birth of Ganapati and the cycle of creation, destruction and regeneration that the Ganapati festival symbolised. So powerfully did the drums speak that they made human speech, when it came, almost irrelevant. Disengaged as the drumming was from the normal affairs of the human world that give realistic theatre its truths, it established its own truth. There is no questioning of the truth of a sur when a musician hits it. Similarly, there was no slippage of the hands and fingers here that made any part of the drumming and the stories it told false.

In Ganapati, the drums were the right shape to represent Ganapati and the saxophone could be thought of as an elephant's trunk. This was symbolism at a graphic level. At that level it was absolutely true. But symbolism at other levels is much more risky. When it is true it resonates without saying I am a symbol. When it is false it dies without a sound however loudly it may declare I am a symbol.
To be a resonant symbol, it must first have a concrete presence. Then it must be entwined in the lives of the characters. Then it must point subtly towards its place in the theme of the play. A vibrant symbol that works on all these levels occurs in Mahesh Elkunchwar's Wada Chirebandi. A tractor stands outside the gate of the Deshpande mansion which has seen better days. It is a concrete thing. Once it was going to improve production on the Deshpande land. But without a reliable supply of power, it turned into a white elephant. It is now rusted sinking further and further into ground with each passing year, very much like the family it belongs to. As the city makes inroads into the village, it is not the tractor but the bulldozer which symbolises the times. The tractor meanwhile only speaks of past glory as people going in and out snag their clothes or wound their legs on its rusty parts.
In part two of the trilogy, a pond calls out to everybody in different ways. It is a mystical-philosophical symbol that, along with the stars it reflects, derives from romantic literature, taking the play away from the robust reality of the tractor in part one.   

Playwrights find symbols very attractive because they have played such an important part in romantic literature on which we have been brought up. But they rarely turn to the theatrical possibilities of silence which is a potent way to reveal  the unseen, inexpressible truths of life. Last year after the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi, theatre director Atul Pethe was called upon to create a play for a meeting of writers, actors, artists organised to protest these attacks on freedom of thought and speech. His play was 15 minutes of silence during which he sat on a stool before the audience with a steady trickle of blood dropping on his head, gradually soaking his shirt and accumulating in a pool at his feet. There wasn't much he could have said about the brutal violence of those murders that had not been said before. And yet he had to protest. The only way he could go beyond words was through this silent performance, which had the power to shock.
Directors are generally afraid of silence because the audience will rebel and the actors themselves have not been trained for silence. They have been trained for speech. But what silence does that speech cannot is to force actors and audiences into themselves and find resources for simply being. Anybody who saw the Japanese playwright Shogo Ohta's wordless play, The Water Station, directed by Sankar Venkateswaran would have experienced the power of silence as a carrier of the truth of human existence today. The actors uttered not a word during the entire two-hour duration of the intermissionless play. They moved musically, in slow-motion wearing mask-like expressions that spoke eloquently of  man's deepest emotions-- fear, horror, lust, greed and anger, but occasionally, also of compassion and joy. Underlining the silence was a single, continuous sound --the sound of a trickle of water dripping from a tap into a little pool. It was on the on e hand a device to underline the silence, but on the other, a symbol of fecundity in the midst of the aridness of modern existence and also the element that nourishes the dying and gives birth to the future.
What The Water Station, did was to force the audience to confront its own expectations from theatre. Paradoxically when there is action on the stage, the audience is a passive consumerist. When there is no action, the audience must become active in its engagement with the play. For both writer, director and audience, there is no truth unless you undergo a struggle. The Water Station in both script and performance prised us out of our modern compulsion to move on, to constantly as what next, into a state of simply being.

To simply be is the most difficult and demanding act on stage. The workshop that Peter Brook held in Bombay in 1985 for actors and observers showed this up revealingly. One of the exercises he asked the actors to participate in was to walk across the stage. It was to be just a walk, shorn of all motivation. Simple locomotion. One of our most established actors went first. Trained in the Stanislakian method, he insintively assumed a character as he walked. He swaggered a little. Brook said right. Now don't swagger. Just walk. The actor went back to point A and walked to point B lazily, one shoulder down. Brook said, right. Now walk without lowering that shoulder and at normal speed. The actor went back to point A and walked towards point B briskly with the stride of a busy corporate manager. Brook said right. Thank you very much. Next please.
Brook's actor, the tall and spare Sotigui Kouyate who played Bhishma in The Mahabharata, spoke of how he created the character. He said he asked Brook how he should play someone who was semi divine. Brook said I can't tell you. You must find Bhishma in yourself. So Kouyate stripped down word and action and spoke, believing in what he said. He had more divinity in him than all the tinsel crowns that symbolise it in folk and popular theatre suggest.

There is not just one truth in dramatic art. There are many. Speaking with conviction as a well-defined character expresses the truth about one level of reality in human life. But when you shed character, you reach the truth of the language itself, the weight and sound of words, and the pauses in between, that, like the negative spaces in painting, give them space to breathe and reverberate. Brook's actors are masters at this. But so was Satyadev Dubey whose dramatic vision lay in the opposite direction. In psychological realism. A play called Kashmir Kashmir, written by one of our most gifted and ideologically committed playwrights Ramu Ramanathna and directed by one of our most innovative directors, Mohit Takalkar, somehow missed the mark to such an extent that one was hard put to it to guess what the mark was. At the end of the play, a recorded voice spoke off stage for ten minutes while the characters on stage listened. And so did we. What held us wasn't what that speech was saying, but the timbre of the voice, the unhurried, clear enunciation of the words, the respect granted to each one of them, indeed the love for language that was poured into them. That speech stood as a truthful theatrical act by itself, unrelated except in style or intent to what had gone before.
Today we see many revivals of old plays. V V Shirwadkar's play Natasamrat, The Emperor of Theatre, is the most popular. Creating a protagonist who had once been a towering Shakespearean actor, made it possible for the poet-playwright to introduce Shakespeare's soliloquies into the play. Shakespeare at first hand was in English. In his birthplace, directors had long given up attempting to present his plays "as they were played". It is generally admitted that there can be no such thing as reviving what was done before. Times change. Influences change. today overwrites yesterday. The daily truth is being perpetually altered. There can be no sucvh thing as timeless art except in museums as representations of past history. So the only way to find a true path to an old play is to rediscover it as a part of your times.  
In Natasamrat, twice removed from the original, the attempt of every actor who has played the protagonist since the play was written in 1970, and they include Maharashtra's greatest,  has been to  use an altered voice, supposedly old-style gestures, a noble look and a thundering delivery. This kind of theatre takes us nowhere except to the land of nostaligia where no real truth resides.
Satish Alekar pointed to the falseness of doing this in the present age perfectly in the sutradhar's speech that opens "Begum Barve". He uses all the old tropes but tweaked just enough to point up the absurdity of speaking that way in our times. The sutradhar is awaiting the arrival of his consort, the nati, who, as the old theatrical custom has it, is late.  
"So what is the work assigned to us, the male species,which has remained unchanged down the ages? It is to wait for our beloved, who arrives arrogantly, well past the hour so clearly determined for our rendezvous and turns our boiling rage to water with the coyness of her manner and gestures.  Dear dear. She has still not arrived. Could it be her intent today to tease us till we come to the end of our tether? This is indeed the very limit of unbecoming behaviour. It does not behove the feminine species to keep men waiting in endless suspense while they sit before their mirrors arranging their abundant tresses in elegant coils."
If Alekar had continued in this tyle, he would have produced a one-point satire which would have been entertaining but empty of the significant truths it holds for us. To do this, he created an innocent, much abused female impersonator, Begum Barve, through whose eyes we saw the sangeet natak not as the glorious apogee of the art as we like to think of it, but as a phenomenon that left many actors out of its magic circle and in its collapse, brought about tragedy for them. By also creating two other characters, ordinary lower middle-class clerks, whose lives he intertwined with Begum's, to create a miasma of dreams that held briefly before the actual squalor of their lives re-emerged. These characters and their small sorrows blunted the edge of his irony, making way for compassion. Our theatre is full of sentimentality that masquerades as compassion. But compassion confronts reality head on and is therefore truthful. Sentimentality is a way of softening reality to make it look pretty, thus falsifying it. This is what the audience wants we are told.
The audience does play a vital role in the kind of theatre that gets made in a community. Sometimes the fit between a play, produced for a certain space and within a certain cultural context, destroys its truth when it travels. Actors straining for the right response or any response at all, step up their acting, speak too loudly, exaggerate the comic, to hook the audience. These tricks might wake up the audience for sure, but they destroy the truth of the play. If theatre could have on demand an ideal audience, it would have to ask for an auditorium full of clones of the late artist Prabhakar Barve.
In his collection of essays, Kora Canvas, he has said about his creative process, "In the routine activities of living, the artist's mind gets cluttered with innumerable feelings, ideas and assumptions rooted in his experiences. For as long as this clutter occupies the mind, the artist cannot attain the clear mental space from which something new will will sprout."
Barve applied the same rules to receiving another artist's creative work. He once came to a private screening of a film half an hour before the scheduled time and sat quietly by himself. In the silence of the auditorium he rid his mind of the noise and clutter of the outside world. He was now prepared to receive the film with all his faculties open to it.
To find truth in drama is difficult. Too many elements are involved, many of them of a gross, practical nature. But it is obligatory that you search for it. Not in a way that becomes an individual quest as it did with Grotowski. For then truth and theatre part company. The seeker is on his own. Truth in theatre is not the kind of absolute truth that the ascetic is looking for. It is a truth that lives in and emerges from the concrete reality around us. It must often find its way through a hostile environment. This brings us back to Habibsaab's story about the Dacca hilsa. It is when you swim against the current that you are most likely to come to truth in theatre.

Published On : 17-03-2016