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New Delhi: “Culture grows where there is freedom to debate, discuss, disagree and yet, carry on our search,” said well-known theatre director M.K. Raina. One might have thought his alma mater, the National School of Drama (NSD), India’s premier institute for theatre education established in 1959, would fit the bill. But as the NSD continues to attract attention for all the wrong reasons – recently it was the uproar over religious messages being sent by its official social media handle and now it is the high court’s rap concerning the delay in the appointment of a director – it becomes pertinent to ask: what kind of space is this government-funded educational body nurturing?
Raina noted, “There has been a consistent attempt by governments to shrink the space of culture. It was so during the previous government’s [terms], but now we see a blatant use of control over culture. I see a strong takeover of institutes of culture. In the process, the space of protest has been overtaken by anger, violence and deceit.” Raina’s mention of the “space of protest” signals more than the workings of individual institutions.
The greater role for which human beings are known is that of the “hunter of knowledge,” said Niloy Roy, founder of the People’s Theatre Group. “Civilisations from the Greek, the Mesopotamian to the Harappan have either survived or perished because of the ability as well as the inability to encourage this hunt. It’s quite evident from today’s India as the values percolate in wrong orders through institutes like the NSD and others.”
Raina, along with many other artists came forward to protest against NSD’s official social media handle sending out greeting messages during religious festivals. But apart from this visible and topical point of contention, senior theatre practitioners – both NSD alumni and those trained elsewhere – point to a deeper malaise that has weakened the role that this world-renowned body could play in shaping future generations of theatre artists.
Public institutions have always felt an unspoken nudge towards the singular narrative that pushes a particular government’s agenda, so why is the current scenario cause for greater concern?
“Most of the government-supported or funded cultural institutions do work under government pressure and according to its policies and politics,” said freelance director and actor Ishwar Shunya, who has worked in the field for the past 22 years. “Even today, it is the same. But the difference is that the present government is very aggressive about its agenda and politics. The kind of freedom these institutions had earlier has been completely taken away.”
Roy observed, “This time, the idea of a monolithic agenda has been pushed in the garb of lucrative postings. The agenda of changing the entire understanding of art and culture from a broader, more diverse cultural interaction to a singular communal viewpoint has been aptly achieved with the appointment of Paresh Rawal [as chairman], followed by [Acting Director] Dinesh Khanna who is acting more like a rubber stamp. This has ensured that theatre revolves around nationalist propaganda and the Hindutva entourage, which can propagate the larger interests of the BJP and the RSS.”
Roy, a director, poet, playwright and actor, says artists do not easily accept ideological agendas as “they themselves have taken the spade to carve out a socialistic society.” But recent events illustrate that “some [artists] also fall prey to plumb postings and incentives,” he said, adding, “the directors at the regional centres of the NSD have been reappointed with loyalists at the forefront, whereas experienced and qualified practitioners are being kept at bay. New avenues of postings are also being created through the introduction of new departments in these regional centres.”
Raina, naming previous NSD chairpersons such as K.P.S. Menon, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, J.C. Mathur, Kapila Vatsayan, L.N. Singhvi, Vijaya Mehta among others, said, “I will not say that appointments have not been political, yes they have, but they never interfered with the daily workings of the School. They chaired important meetings, gave directions and kept a keen eye on the School’s affairs. It is for the first time that the School has a chairman, Paresh Rawal, – a fine actor no doubt and a very aware human being whose films I have enjoyed – who is changing the very character of the School which is ranked number ten internationally and has earned high praise for its contribution to the world of theatre. His changes have been lowering the School’s prestige.”
Ishwar, too, feels Rawal is unfit to chair the NSD. “One, he is an actor of cinema, second, he is a member of the ruling party. He doesn’t have the experience or vision to run an institution like the NSD, so he is blindly following government orders. Same with others who are politically driven by the NDA,” he said.
Raina said, “I have come to know this new chairman has created his own secretariat with a consultant, public relations officer (PRO), some office bearers and so on, whose background no one in the School administration or faculty knows – how much do they know of art world, theatre and its requirements, what are their qualifications? This is an arbitrary decision taken without anybody’s knowledge. No advertising was done, no applications were asked for.”
Another senior NSD alumnus, who prefers not to be named, points out that these appointments amount to a parallel directorate doing the bidding of forces outside of the NSD. “There was no need for posts such as a PRO since the School has always had an official public relations department.”
The social media messages emanating from this new department, regularly greeting the public on religious occasions, reveals that the new appointees lack “knowledge and understanding of art, culture and the very NSD for which they have been hired. This blatant display of illiteracy has dwarfed the image of this institution the world over,” rued Raina, “and if it is done under the guidance or under the orders of the present chairman, then I suspect he wants to dismantle the achievements of the NSD and turn it into some kind of a bhajan mandali. He wants to destroy an Institution of National Importance.”
The greetings are not limited to Hindu festivals; Eid and Guru Parb were not omitted, but regardless of denomination, said Mallika Prasad, a 1998 graduate of the NSD and founder of the Actors Ensemble India Forum (AEIF), “Promoting religious festivals erodes the school’s stature and cultural importance.” The values which autonomous government institutions are built on “are the values of our constitution,” she noted. “The school has a wealth of material reflecting the world’s and the country’s rich theatre traditions and history. That culture is worth celebrating and promoting.”
Ishwar, recalling an incident from 2019, said, “In the last 20 years I have seen, for the first time, a leader’s feet being washed on stage before a play. We have a tradition of touching or washing the feet of the guru. That issue can be discussed separately. But even if it is considered a part of tradition, it is still necessary for the person to be eligible. It is not enough to be the leader of the ruling party.”
Ishwar also contends that in NSD productions staged since 2014, “history is being twisted a bit or the facts changed.” He sees an “intention of sweeping away the achievements of the last seventy years of cultural institutions, not enriching them.”
Raina enumerated the different branches of drama NSD students are exposed to: ancient Sanskrit drama, India’s various regional theatre arts and a range of other performance traditions, “be it ancient Western drama, Asian theatre or our making of modern Indian drama.”
The comparative study of varied performance traditions hones the students’ sense of critical thinking, said the theatre veteran, calling it the one skill that education anywhere should ideally instil. Indeed, in the politically motivated ideological struggles being witnessed across educational institutions today, it is critical thinking that can be seen as taking the greatest hit.
In the early 2000s, renowned theatre doyen Habib Tanvir lamented in an interview that theatre artists had lost the will to be a voice of protest. Since then, it seems this trend has only increased. The NSD veteran who doesn’t wish to be named feels this remark stemmed from Tanvir’s leftist leanings and cannot be applied to theatre in general, but Prasad asserted, “Artists, like good journalists, speak truth to power.”
Artists, Prasad points out, “are most vulnerable to the misuse of power, irrespective of the party in power.” At present they are being targeted through a variety of instruments. “From the sedition law to justifying mob violence under the pretext of religious sentiments being hurt – the vilification is rampant. The value of dissenting opinions and critical thinking that Tanvir spoke of is being eroded across all institutions. It is not an easy time, but artists are braving on.”
Ishwar, however, feels a “long preparation” presaged the present state and the very progressives feelings attacked today are responsible for it, to a large extent. “I have worked with Habib saab. He was a visionary. He had foreseen this danger long ago. That’s why they were raising their voice against it, fighting. How many times was he associated with people’s movements, came on the streets, was attacked. But today, no director appears like him. The situation created since 2014 did not happen overnight. We also have to take responsibility for this. People of the so-called secular, intellectual and progressive ideology have played a big role in letting them create it.”
The progressive, Ishwar feels, “distanced himself from other people who struggle, raise their voices, criticise.” Those protesting were “pushed to the margins, due to which opportunists started coming to the mainstream. These people weakened the pro-people view of art.”
Expressing a similar opinion, another long-time associate of the NSD, not wishing to be named, asked: what is the point of lamenting only the current political scenario after a half-century of neglect of the institution by the very artists who ran it?
The results of this self-serving attitude, whether within the apex institute or in the wider field of Indian theatre, are before us. In Ishwar’s words, “Now the tradition of protest is coming to an end. Theatre and other genres today are in the grip of the urban and privileged sections, who have nothing to do with the public. Art and theatre have now become only a means of entertainment, facilitation and access to cinema. It is very sad that the majority of people have accepted this idea and no voice of dissent from anywhere seems to be rising.”
Roy said, “Artists are losing their voices for three specific reasons in India: The digital enhancement of media has brought a lot of polluted water in the stream. Every now and then we are exposed to a horde of enthusiasts who make us look at teaching, learning and performing as an easier task than practising for years. They have also overcrowded the space which used to be limited to perseverance and the sincere process of learning.”
“The second factor is a larger screaming, non-artistic opposition which governs the country today with an agenda to demolish the fabric of Indian history and likewise, culture and the regional dominance of languages,” he continued, “There is a kind of fatigue in the artist. Some may call it fear as well, which if they don’t overcome soon, will transform the entire habitat of art and culture into ruins of the past.
“The third and most important factor is sustainability in the last two years of the pandemic and lockdowns. Though nothing is ever expected by artists from any government, state or Centre, this was the toughest time,” he said.
While structured industries and professions have provisions for loans, investments and angel investors but art doesn’t, especially in India, Roy said. “This leaves artists in the lurch and I have come across artists travelling long distances to receive free rations in the scorching Delhi summer. The NSD could not, unfortunately, draw out any plan for their alumni or existing students who were thrown out of the hostel during the first lockdown.”
Ishwar added to this by saying, “The NSD or other institutions have resources, autonomy. Most of the people working in theatre have been looking at it with hope. First, they should come out and see what is happening in the country and the world.”
He said that in the recent past, Delhi has seen massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the farm laws, inflation and unemployment. He said that around two years ago disabled people sat outside the boundary wall of the NSD, in the cold at the Mandi House roundabout, for about 15-20 days.
“How many theatre artists went homeless, hungry in the coronavirus pandemic? But the NSD remained as cold as a stone. For them, [these issues] are things from another world. The people working there do not know that now, they have come in the form of a cultural destroyer, weakening Indian theatre, digging up its roots,” Ishwar said.
Those working for NSD need to be more humanistic and social, he added. “They need to connect with the rest of theatre, the audience and the general public. You cannot call yourself meaningful just by being a film celebrity. This can’t be the motive of a theatrical institution like this.”
Raina also sounded a dire warning: “For the last many years, faculty members have been retiring at regular intervals but no one has been appointed in their places, you have a school being hollowed out quietly so that it is easy to do whatever you want. Once there is a weak faculty body, it becomes easier to make any changes without discussion or debate with the members of the staff.”
He said the school is a mess and arbitrary decisions that go against the NSD’s constitution are being taken. “A condition is being created to make NSD useless and hence it may be closed down. The NSD has been about world cultures and not about monocultures. It has been about diversity and not about closed mindedness,” Raina said.
Ishwar, too, sees little hope: “The NSD and Sangeet Natak Akademi have now been turned into government agencies.” Their staff work “just for the paperwork”, he says. “The real issue is wealth, fame and rewards. For that they have to follow the government’s orders blindly.”
Roy added to this, saying, “The responsibility of institutes like the NSD is not limited to designing the curriculum only but designing the shape of art through the students as valued contributors to society’s diverse fabric, being woven into a shawl of compassionate understanding in the severe winters of pandemic or anarchism that may trouble the truest essence of the physical and psychological existence of mankind. It has repeatedly failed to do so.”
Using a theatre metaphor, Prasad said, “The vidushaka is the hero’s sidekick, fit for comic relief. A comedian, however, transgresses status quo, sometimes offends and calls out power. Now, it is up to the leadership to wear the shoes that fit.”
Which will they choose and what will the next act bring?
Anjana Rajan has been writing on the arts, literature and society for nearly 20 years. She is a former deputy editor of The Hindu, a dance exponent and theatre practitioner.