If one happened upon Hyderabad in the last couple of months, out of context, with no precedent, one would be forgiven for thinking that this is a theatre city. Look at all the events that have happened lately, the Hyderabad Theatre and Short Film Festival, The Hindu Metroplus Theatre Festival, Kartaal Productions’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Nadira Babbar and Amir Raza Hussain’s productions and finally, the incomparable Complicite’s A Disappearing Number. That line up does not include a slew of home-grown productions like Sutradhaar’s ongoing Sita Apaharan Case and Surabhi’s Mayabazaar.
It looks like a groundswell. “Theatre is what happens in the audience’s mind,” Simon McBurney, the writer and director of A Disappearing Number, intones with such intensity that one feels hypnotised into agreeing with him mindlessly. It is true – like all art. It’s a matter of perception, isn’t it? What you see, how it reonates with you is very personal. Hyderabad now, it would seem, resonates with every kind of theatrical offering there is.
It’s just that it has never been easy. It still isn’t. Theatre runs the gauntlet of cinema in the city. People have always been willing to spend money
on tickets to see a film but not for stage. Over the last couple of decades there have been peaks and troughs in the way that we respond to theatre. “Interest in theatre has always been there,” says Firdous Majeed, of D-Fir. “There was a low in English theatre for a while, but its slowly reviving in the last five years. Now, it’s just a matter of cultivating our audiences to fill 800 to 1,200 seat halls.”
Rathna Shekhar Reddy, of Samahaara, is of the opinion that, “A lot of activity automatically generates a lot of buzz – and they feed off of each other, which in turn, challenges theatre groups to put up better productions and attract larger crowds. It’s a chain reaction.” And yes, these are interesting times for theatre.
There is a rather dramatic increase in the number of performing spaces. It is no longer just Ravindra Bharathi or Lalitha Kala Thoranam. Consider Taramati Baradari, HICC, HITEX, Global Peace Auditorium, Shilpakalavedika apart from Birla Auditorium, La Makaan and Saptaparni. In the last few years, there have been plays performed at every kind of venue including pubs and restaurants.
“It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to theatre unless
they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.”
Firdous presented her own original script called Womanologue, at Little Italy. “I want to present theatre at different platforms, to smaller groups and more intimate audiences. There is more impact and it is powerful.” Kashif Ali, of Four Quartets, disagrees, “I think that theater needs to move out of star hotels and convention centers and embrace the open spaces. If a play is being staged for an audience, why must we sift them?” To each his own!
That sentiment is reflected in the kinds of plays that each of these groups puts up. Theatre now spans from the Indian mythological, Greek classical to classical and contemporary. Two of the oldest theatre groups, DCH and Torn Curtains continue to put on comedies, capers and mysteries now and again, while Sutradhar has a definite social agenda. The Qadir Ali Baig Foundation has acquired a reputation for large scale spectacles and is instrumental in bringing Girish Karnad and Vijay Tendulkar plays to the city. Sifar does adaptations of Hindi and English playwrights, while Four Quartets is inclined to Greek classics. Dramanon has both original scripts as well as adaptations to their credit. Since we are rooting for the rise of theatre, bring it on!
All things considered, right at the moment, there is a great deal of momentum in the business. “Promoting shows has lately become interesting as the amateur groups are using social networking to spread the word. It’s proving to be very effective,” says Rathna Shekhar.
The cutting edge contemporary theatre with high-tech stage craft, massive sets, and scripts based on abstract ideas are still a ways off. We’re still very language, plot and dialogue oriented. “A Complicite kind of production can only happen with a lot of funding and state support. Right now, it’s limited,” adds Rathna Shekhar.
For a start, it would be helpful, if the city took a slightly different tack as well, “Don’t ask for free passes – support the arts,” pleads Firdous. And maybe become less accessible. In the words of Charles Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby), “It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.”
A disappearing number
The response to Complicte’s play, A Disappearing Number was a mixed bag. Some of the audience absolutely loved it (thrilled to be in the presence of genius), others found their attention lagging after the novelty of the stage craft wore off, and still others would have much rather stayed home.
For me, it was an experience of a life time. The layered, textured narrative with flashbacks and flash-forwards, the beautifully choreographed sequences segueing into consecutive scenes even as the last was in its death throes, the use of every possible media to create time, travel and space were a visual delight. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A Disappearing Number deals with real life, the extraordinary things unfold that in the course of it even as the mundane preoccupies us.
A superbly crafted narrative unveils mathematical patterns linking past to present in an infinite loop; Ramanujan to Hardy, a contemporary mathematician to Ramanujan, an American-Indian businessman to this mathematician woven with the modern-day Indian diaspora traveling across the globe. Simon says (sic) that the play investigates several themes. Having had the benefit of speaking to him before seeing the play, every nuance was immediately apparent to me – that was not the case with my friends.
The journey through the 2-hour play explores the concepts of discovery, romance, exile and mortality. The contemporary romance, that parallels Ramanujan-Hardy interaction where the two speak numbers like lovers, is far more real and relatable than the 100-year-old fragmented supposition. But Simon says, “That’s because we don’t know what actually happened – the gaps in the play ally themselves with the gaps in our knowledge.”