Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Naseeruddin Shah on Theatre and Dastangoi

These days I have been reading some of the plays written by Singapore playwright and director Elangovan. He often goes for very provocative themes (The Gandhis of India being the subject of his latest production) which sometimes lands his plays in unsavoury situations. Most of his plays have politics for theme which is always interesting but a risky exercise. I assume that he enjoys that element of risk and provocation in his creative work--he is an adventure sportsman of theatre, if I may say so. And when I say this, I'm not being mean or disparaging.

His plays, I found, are rich in information but that makes them very verbose (he would have made a great investigative journalist). I don't know how his actors manage to deliver their lines as dialogues in his plays sometimes run to several paragraphs or even more than a page! A tough act! Nevertheless, his plays are important because they record things that nobody else will say or write.

But this post is not about him or his plays. Maybe I will write about that in future. What I want to relate here is that in Singapore, I got the opportunity to watch some theatre, follow some action in this line and I intend to keep doing that.

I had very little exposure to good theatre in school or even in college. At Aligarh, some of my friends were doing theatre but I hardly went to see any. I wanted to join theatre in college but unfortunately I did not read the list of selected candidates for the drama group@JNU and lost my chance. Never tried again. I was too lazy or too worried about my career. So, Mumbai, you are one 'struggler' less. More on that some other time again.

This post is about a man, an actor, who I have always admired. One of India's greatest actors, Naseeruddin Shah reminisces his past and present engagement with theatre as an art form, in a personal piece in Tehelka. Here, he reveals his love and respect for Geoffrey Kendall and his group Shakespeareana. In this piece, he also talks about Jerzy Grotowski, a great theatre actor, director and teacher whose style of theatre expounded in his book Towards a Poor Theatre greatly influenced Naseer:

Grotowski had extreme contempt for Broadway. Theatre can never match cinema’s illusion, so why was it competing to be the same? He asked three big questions: Is what theatre could do being done better than cinema? The answer was no. Then what was it that theatre used to do before the advent of cinema? And third, where had theatre sprung from? Theatre, he said, began with man’s need to communicate, not to dazzle. And in order to communicate, you don’t need huge castles disappearing on stage and helicopters and gondolas. The essential magic of theatre was to stimulate the imagination. Our poverty of resources should be our strength, not our weakness, he argued. If you remove everything extraneous – sets, lights, props, costumes – all you need is one actor in a black suit willing to work his butt off, and you have theatre. When you have two people who meet and talk, you have theatre. In his later life, Grotowski extended this argument so far, he began to dispense even with dialogue. He went on a different trip, searching for the primal state and sound. Theatre became synonymous with life – to a point where you couldn’t get a straight answer from him to any question, like what time of day it was.


Now, Naseer wants to stick to Dastangoi. I am eager to see him do it--I hope his group performs in Singapore in future. View this dastangoi clip (the only one I could find on Youtube) and tell me what you think of it. Do you also think that something like this could have inspired the great Dev Anand to speak the way he does (he delivers his dialgoues in a trademark Dev Anand style) or vice versa? I don't mean any disrespect to anyone but that's what came to my mind when I saw it.

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