The anxiety of reaching the theatre on time, gulping your chai before the third bell, switching off your cell phone as darkness envelops the auditorium, feeling the slight chill—is it the air-conditioning or mild shivers of excitement, you can never tell, standing up for applause at the end with a heart full of emotions… that’s the magic of a powerful play. But that was then.
Now, everyone talks about getting used to the new normal, while also admitting to being “fed up” of the new normal. Theatre practitioners and aficionados are definitely part of those who sorely miss the “live”.
Even as a performance here and a reading there has begun, the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival, that concluded late last month in Hyderabad, might mark a fresh beginning of sorts. Albeit conducted with fewer performances and performers per play, it was a complete ‘real world’ affair with groups from Rajasthan, Mumbai, Assam and Karnataka. Named for the city’s beloved playwright and theatre personality, the festival opened with Baig’s love legend ‘Quli: Dilon ka Shahzada’ at the heritage site of Moazzam Jahi Market.
Despite having the experience of organising a festival for 15 years and running a successful theatre foundation, planning this one during a pandemic wasn’t easy. “It is Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival’s 15th edition, hence a milestone year, and we didn’t want to dilute its sanctity by doing an online show. Despite lockdowns, we were inundated with queries from fans about when the festival is scheduled. So, it is for the audiences as much for the performers of the country. Someone had to take the initiative of showing that live theatre is possible despite constraints,” says Baig’s son Mohammad Ali. They dedicated this edition to “pandemic warriors”.
Mohammad Ali and his wife Noor, in association with the Telangana government, ensured covid-19 protocols were followed. While the festival opened at the Moazzam Jahi Market, the remaining five shows were held at the Radisson Blu Plaza hotel to better ensure that all the safety measures were followed. The audience was restricted to 100 per show in a hall with a capacity of 300. The performers stayed at the same hotel and frequent sanitising and temperature checks at entry points were some of the mandatory precautions they followed.
The real challenge was to pick plays that would suit the restrictions on the number of performers on stage, while ensuring that the theatre groups could travel while adhereing to the rules that different state governments have for covid control. “We kept the upper limit on the number of performers from each group to six. So solos and 2-3-actor plays were selected… We avoided foreign companies this year to avoid the risk of long-haul travel and the quarantine period,” says Mohammad Ali.
Huge productions, like in the past years, were a no-no. So there was Danish Husain’s ‘Dastangoi’, Bhageerathi Bai’s ‘Shakuntala ke Saath ek Dopehar’ directed by the late Kannada stalwart K.V. Subbanna, Polish dramatist Slawomir Mrozek's ‘Striptease’ directed by Heeba Shah, ‘Dona’ directed by National School of Drama's Daulat Vaid and Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation’s ‘Alone’ featuring Suchitra Krishnamoorthi.
Danish Husain, who travelled from Mumbai to perform Dastangoi, says the enthusiasm of the audience made up for the smaller numbers. “I was ecstatic when Mohammad Ali Baig called me and said he is resuming the festival, and that it would happen off line or in real life. It was perhaps the best news that I have heard in the past eight months,” he says. “Eventually, we had a very safe and entertaining evening… and at no stage did I feel that it was a curtailed or a limited number performance.”
“This was our fifth time at this festival. Previously we had a much larger team and bigger production but this time I performed a much older solo act play to follow the covid-19 precautions," says Bhageerathi Bai. It has been a very hard time for performers. According to her, artists cannot rehearse in isolation, and need spaces, people for putting up a play. "Everything was taken away by this pandemic. So this festival invite was so important to us," she adds.
Daulat Vaid, an actor-director who performed Dona, says nothing compares to being on stage. “We were doing online performances because artists have to keep doing something. Before the pandemic struck, we were doing a new play and had just a couple of shows. For this show, we had a small crew and we travelled together from Alwar, then to Jaipur, reached Hyderabad early morning and performed. It was wonderful to say the least. It gives us energy. Slowly regular shows will start. They have to,” says Vaid.
Mohammad Ali and Noor, apart from planning and organising, were thrilled to be back on stage. “It was an exhilarating feeling to be back on stage with a play that transports the audience back four centuries. The full house reaffirmed our belief that we needed to conduct this festival live despite constraints… I personally believe that the essence of theatre is certainly lost when you digitise it. Cinema, television and web series are different formats altogether which are conceived, shot and edited for the medium, which a play that goes digital cannot afford,” says Mohammad Ali.
Performers and audiences definitely want more. With adequate precautions and sufficient funds, it might be possible to restart the theatre circuit. And that irreplaceable rush of emotions might soon be a reality again.
The recordings of the festival will be streamed online at a later date