Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Art & Culture > Theatre veterans’ memories of Bharat Rang Mahotsav

Theatre veterans’ memories of Bharat Rang Mahotsav

As the National School of Drama's annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav celebrates 25 years, Anuradha Kapur, Amal Allana and other stalwarts look back at the theatre festival that once was

'Nagmandala' by Girish Karnad, dir. Amal Allana, Rhea Mukherjee as Rani, Manohar Singh as Husband/Naga, Theatre and Television Associates, 1997
Photo Courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives
'Nagmandala' by Girish Karnad, dir. Amal Allana, Rhea Mukherjee as Rani, Manohar Singh as Husband/Naga, Theatre and Television Associates, 1997 Photo Courtesy: Alkazi Theatre Archives

"Aap bas khabar kar dijiye, log aa jayenge (you just inform, people will come),” Ram Gopal Bajaj said on a sunny afternoon in early March 1999 when a journalist asked the National School of Drama director if people would bother coming for a theatre festival. That was the first Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM). Bajaj remembers visiting newspaper offices (he was himself a theatre critic with a leading newspaper between 1966 and 1969), circulating press releases, and talking to editors about the festival. While talking to Mint from his home in Lonavala, 84-year-old Bajaj still remembers one of the headlines, “20 days, 60 plays, five places,” adding, “the front lawns were completely packed, and that’s when I knew, ye silsila aagey badhega (this series will continue)”.

This year, the theatre festival, on till 21 February, is celebrating its 25th edition, with more than 150 plays from five countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Russia, Italy, and India) along with a “satellite festival”. The latter allows more audiences to watch various plays from national theatre groups in 15 other Indian cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Jodhpur, Patna, Srinagar, Pune, Bhubaneswar, Dibrugarh, Bhuj, Vijayawada, Ramnagar, and more.

Also, there’s Bharat Jan Rang Mahotsav, a periphery event taking place in 2000 locations across India simultaneously at 4 pm on 21 February, which will have street plays by various local groups.

Back in 1999, the festival began with Nagamandala, a play written by Girish Karnad in the 1980s as a nod to indigenous stories emerging from performing traditions inspired by folktales of India. It was directed by Amal Allana, who, in her own words, “had done it…in a way that Nagamandala hadn’t been done before”. Allana, who recently announced the launch of her father Ebrahim Alkazi’s biography, Ebrahim Alkazi: Holding Time Captive, at the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, fused Kathakali and Manipuri dance forms in Nagamandala while also drawing on her experience of Japanese theatre, which was reflected both in script and the set, the latter designed by her husband, designer Nissar Allana.

Also read: Christian Dior and Coco Chanel series suffers from poor craftsmanship

In 2005, when Amal Allana became the chairperson of National School of Drama, she became even more closely involved with the festival. One of the changes made during her tenure was that instead of just selecting plays suggested by people from different cities, who might have seen them, video entries were invited from all over India and abroad. These were then screened and shortlisted by a panel of 30-plus experts, including directors, critics, technicians, actors and others. She remembers some voices of dissent that argued that not everyone had the money to send video entries. Her reasoning was simple: “If people have the money to shoot shaadi (wedding) videos, they can certainly shoot from a single camera.” The process, according to her, allowed many groups from even the most remote areas of India to send their entries.

“The jury was divided into smaller groups and sent to different rooms where hundreds of plays used to be watched daily for a couple of weeks,” Allana recalls. “Then we’d begin the process of shortlisting the entries further, and after long rounds of discussions make the final selection of plays. We had a long, rigorous, democratic process of selection and it was a logistical feat to plan everything, including taking care of the boarding and lodging of hundreds of artistes.” Eventually, she says, the idea was to expose students to the best of world theatre. Allana cites Japanese playwright Satoshi Miyagi’s interpretation of Othello (called Desdemona), shown in 2006. Interestingly, that year there were three interpretations of Othello, including a Kathakali-inspired dance drama.

One of Allana’s other favourites from years past is Parallel Cities, conceived by Switzerland’s Kaegi and Argentina’s Lola Arias in 2010, and performed by a blind non-actor. “While that was very moving, there was the brilliant dance theatre called Bamboo Blues by Pina Bausch and her company.” Additionally, she remembers observing two young directors at work during the festival, both of whom would later go on to become very important names in Indian contemporary theatre – Mohit Takalkar and Shankar Pillai. “We invited international festival directors as well, and this resulted in Indian productions being invited to showcase their work abroad. A vibrant exchange got getting nurtured over the years, while also allowing us to view ourselves in an international context,” she says.

Also read: Grief looms over Sleater-Kinney's ‘Little Rope’

“There wasn’t – perhaps, still isn’t – any other theatre festival created at such a scale,” says actor Vineet Kumar, who studied between 1986-89 at National School of Drama. While the festival gave many people a platform, it was also important because of the possibility of what could be created. “The energy was electrifying,” he says. He quickly scans the NSD campus, where we meet him. A nukkad naatak (street theatre) is being performed by college-going youngsters in the lawn area. “I remember so many youngsters scouring through the schedule brochures while downing cups of hot chai, critiquing plays while devouring litti chokha and platefuls of pizzas and chowmein, and roaming around Mandi House to do nothing else but watch plays after plays,” says Kumar. His play Badey Na Khelein Chotey Khel, a Hindi adaptation of Italian playwright Dario Fo’s Archangels Don’t Play Pinball, was shown in one of the earliest editions of the festival. This year, he’s attending the festival as a guest speaker.

For Anuradha Kapur, such allied events, where students met world-renowned theatre artists, was integral to their growth. Kapur taught at NSD for over three decades and was its director for six years, between 2007 and 2013. She had curated and managed the festival during her tenure, and believes that its single-most important contribution was to create a vibrant community. She remembers, in particular, the works emerging from northeast India, especially those by playwright Ratan Thiyam, a leading exponent of the ‘theatre of roots’ movement which began in the 1970s. “The festival provided rich context to what was happening all over the country,” she adds.

While NSD Director Chittaranjan Tripathy’s goal is to take theatre to every home in India through BRM (“ghar ghar naatak,” as he calls it), Yashpal Sharma, another notable actor, from the 1994 batch, who showed his play Koi Baat Chale here in 2015, doesn’t want theatre festivals to be relegated to costume dramas and archaic retellings of mythological stories. “While we can take pride in our past, we must have current context in storytelling in theatre,” says Sharma. Kapur and Allana haven’t been coming to the festival for the past few years, but Bajaj – known fondly as Bajju Bhai to his students – was on the campus three months ago for a “retelling” of some of the Repertory’s plays (he was the chief of repertory between 1988 and 1994). “Theatre jitna bhasha par gaur karega, utna hee bhaav aur vichaar par rahega. Vahin uska satya hai (As long as theatre focuses on language and content, it will keep its journey intact on emotion, thought, and thinking. That’s where the truth of theatre remains).”

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.

Next Story