During the pandemic, it has been tough for students of theatre to pursue their studies unhindered. While other courses, be it Asian history or English literature, have managed to pivot to an online model of learning, the performing arts, which require a high level of practical training, are struggling with this model. Having said that, in the past nine months, one has seen several workshops come up. According to Mumbai-based theatre director Sunil Shanbag, this has offered some source of sustenance to artists, who have been suffering economically, with most performance venues shut. Meanwhile, Drama School Mumbai has tried to adapt to the situation by coming up with a six-month course. 28 children from all possible corners of the country can be found attending it.
But purists maintain that there is no question that theatre needs to be taught in the classroom, and going online is not a long-term, sustainable plan. One of them is Suresh Sharma, director, the National School of Drama, Delhi. He maintains that during his nine years of initial training, first at Bhartiya Natak Academy in Lucknow, then at NSD in the 1980s, followed by workshops with writers like Shrilal Shukla and Amritlal Nagar, if there is one thing he has learnt it is that theatre needs to be learnt on the floor. “It is like painting or sculpture. Can you tell a student to take this hammer and chisel and sculpt this way?” he asks. Having said that, Sharma does concede that for the time being, with the situation taking time to improve, online could be a makeshift arrangement.
Even then, there are certain subjects which can’t be tweaked for online, such as acting, direction and design. Similarly, things like observation, imagination, concentration and the ‘magic if’ can’t be explained in words. The theory needs to be related to the practicals. “Once students are back, this theory will have to be revised all over again, and linked to the practicals. They can’t be taught separately,” he says.
Critics have wondered at the silence at NSD in the past months. However, Sharma believes that parallels can’t be drawn between, say, Delhi University and cultural institutions such as the NSD, Film and Television Institute of India, and more. “The teaching methodology here is very different. What is a rangmanch? By definition, it needs to be live, with the three units of space, performer and audience present. If these three are not together, it is not theatre,” he responds. The presence of a live audience, in his opinion, is essential for a performer to grow.
Meanwhile the repertory company is hoping for performances to start again. A huge project had been planned at Ferozshah Kotla earlier this year to mark 100 years of Jallianwala Bagh. But the lockdown happened barely eight days before the performance. Plans to travel to different cities in the summer for performances and workshops also came to an abrupt halt. With the lockdown lifted, the repertory company decided to put up a performance on 2 October to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. “But we couldn’t do more performances after that. I got covid-positive, as did one of our actors. For now, we have planned a trip to the northeast in February. Let’s see how it goes. This is the time to reschedule and replan,” he says.