"I desperately wanted to join that acting school, but the fees were Rs. 25,000. I requested them to allow me to pay in parts but was denied admission straight on my face," Ashwin Vijay Agrawal broke into tears even before he could complete his sentence as he remembered his struggles. Even if years have passed since this incident, Agrawal, a filmmaker and a theatre artist, who now also runs a theatre group in Mumbai called, 'Indriyaan' says that the situation has not changed for the theatres and theatre artists aspiring their way into acting.
Like many other art forms, theatres have also found their corner within a niche segment and audience in India. With the advent of new media and the bombarding of audio-visual entertainment, it seems to have become next to impossible to gather an audience for drama, plays, and theatres. While such a difference has been escalated owing to the overlapping pop culture, it would be equally wrong to claim that this same was not the condition with theatres before. Regardless, the fees charged by schools that train students in these art forms seem to have no bounds, leaving theater artists like Agrawal to bear the brunt of the deteriorating state of these art forms.
Financial instability in the financial capital
When Ashwin Agrawal came to Mumbai from Akola, his native village in Maharashtra, in 2015, his eyes were filled with the reflection of his future self —an actor — but later, he found his intense interest in acting for theatres and three years later, founded Indriyaan to act as well as direct plays on various issues and have also been the recipient of around 40 awards for his three short films, namely, 'Crossroad,' 'Hatak' and 'Method' that also received a good recognition at international Film Festivals like Tagore International Film Festival and Cannes Short Film Festival.
But as easy as it sounds, the more Agrawal, who is inspired by the filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Wes Anderson, had to undergo suffering to make his theatre survive in an expensive city. "It is very difficult to earn a livelihood by organising theatres and it is one of the major hardships we face," he says adding that operating acting classes help him stay financially strong to be able to run theatres. "I have been taking the classes (acting) that help me sustain the living and the theatre," he says. Another fact that comes with this is that he has also been offering free classes to those who cannot afford them. "I know how not taking the classes feel in the absence of money and hence, I don't want anyone to feel the same, as much as I can," he adds.
The existence of a monopoly
A play being performed at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu.
However, even after tapping at various places and theatres, in Malad, Versova, Bandra, etc. Agrawal has not yet been able to take the space at Prithvi Theatre - one of the most renowned theatres in Juhu, Mumbai. He says, "I have applied thrice and even after meeting all the criteria, have not been able to make it there." Despite the huge cost and end number of formalities, Prithvi gives space to only the old and existing theatre groups and not the new ones, as Agrawal told Local Samosa. "Rejecting based on talent and art is always welcome but not the monopoly that exists with the Prithvi theatre," he says.
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Another theatre artist, who has been running the theatre even before Prithvi came into being in Mumbai, Om Katare, only partially agrees with this. Running 'Yatri theatre' since January 16, 1979, when the plays would be practised only at a few places in Dadar, Katare went on a trail of experiences before kick-starting his own theatre. Coming from Datia, a village in Madhya Pradesh, Katare worked in nearly 75-76 films and then moved on to opening, 'Yatri'. After Prithvi started, Om Katare and his team members easily got the way to the theatre being one of the first groups to perform, as he says. However, he adds, they also have to wait for three-four months now to get a slot and that too, the groups get it around 2 hours before the play. Having said that, Katare believes that "owing to the popularity of Prithvi, it makes sense for them to only allow a few groups".
Collecting money in costumes
Om Katare (right) performing for a play
Reminiscing the old times, Katare says that due to lack of money, it was very challenging to manage separate artists for clothing or makeup, unlike now. He also told that there existed a shop in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai from where he would rent clothes for his stage artists. As per him, neither the actors nor the audience would be late in coming to the theatres back in time. Moreover, the directors like him had to be smart to get the prices of tickets from the audience. "We would ask the artists to stand in the costumes at the exit gates after their performances to collect money. Talking about one such play, Katare said, "Once we had a Nawab standing in his costume post his performance with a jholi to collect money."
Katare's plays got even more popular when he conducted a product-launching corporate play for TCS, a multinational company in 1991, much before the corporate theatre shows would have got the recognition that they enjoy in the current time. Following this show, he got to perform for various other companies, including TCS in not just in India but also abroad.
The tendency to watch 'for free'
Like Agrawal, Om Katare also points towards the problem of not being able to make ends meet as a major challenge for artists working in theatres. "Even after putting so much effort into plays, if the artists are not able to spare even Rs. 50 or 100, they tend to leave it or either take a part-time job along with it to be able to sustain," he said. One of the major causes for the financial struggles of theatres, as per him, is the tendency to organize the plays for free. "A lot of groups host the plays for free to spread the message of the play. As much as it is a good practice, it also makes the audience habituated to enjoying the theatres for free, and the burden ultimately comes on the artists later," he says, adding that the same practice must be kept away to help people acknowledge the value of art.
Om Katare with new-age artists
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On the other hand, Katare, who has also been working with new-age artists, mentions that the younger generation is now more inclined towards acting for films than theatres and counts the latter as merely a "stepping stone" for it. He also states that many who see theatres as their passion fail to keep going with it and hence, should plan their actions accordingly as "theatre josh ki nahi hosh ki cheez hai (Theatre is not a matter of just passion but also senses)".
Need for revival
Nikhil Dixit (left) performing in a play
However, despite knowing the same, not just Katare but another Mumbai resident, Nikhil Dixit, who runs a theatre named 'Roobaru Roshni', kept going with the flow but surely believes that "to continue with it is difficult". As a result, he is also indulged in writing for web series and a few films while also hosting workshops for learners. Based in Aram Nagar, Versova, Roobaru Roshni theatre started in 2018 when Dixit comprehended that he would not get opportunities unless he created them for himself. Always fond of acting, Dixit has performed in various cities other than Mumbai now.
While determining the topics or the issues to focus on for the theatres, he makes sure to revolve it around the topical issues, which also include the problems encircling the LGBTQIA+ community. "The theatres in India have been surviving on the old concepts and topics. Most of the writings that were written during the 1940s-50s are being used for plays which need to change for theatres to survive," he says, adding that unless the artist can mould the plays as per the current situations of the country, people will not be interested in watching them. Having worked with the artists and training them, he also has noticed the lack of interest among them for training. "I believe that no theatre school can make you learn like a theatre itself, but nowadays, people also skip training which is essential," he says, adding that "art comes from the heart and goes to the heart" to master which one requires the training.
Theatres in Goa, amid a dearth of structure
A play by Theatre Flamingo at Canacona Theatre Festival 2023
Close to Mumbai, the coastal state of Goa — which already lacks various segments of infrastructural growth — is also not behind when it comes to dealing with problems that encircle theatres. However, artists like Keatan Jadhav have been trying to maintain it in his native Canacona in South Goa. Jadhav started Theatre Flamingo in 2018 to be able to practice the plays back home after coming from Pune post-studies. He initiated children's-theatre so that he could earn money as well as continue doing theatres. With a few artists, he staged various plays based on children's stories and politics while also highlighting a few of the other problems in Goa related to casinos and mining from one school to another.
However, even after these years, Jadhav says, "There is no money in doing theatres." Talking about the initial phases in his life, he says, "I was very motivated to spread the art of theatres in every nook and corner of the villages in Goa and felt it to be my responsibility too, but later, after travelling much and roaming from villages to villages, I understood that I also need to sustain my living from theatres." Currently, he has secured a state-level best director prize in direction for his play 'Bhaval' while his short films, 'A Cold Summer Night', and 'Bare' have been selected for Locarno International Film Festival and Toronto Lift-Off International Film Festival, Canada, respectively. However, it is the residential workshops that have got him going. "I have been earning from that keeping my needs very low," Jadhav, who has also developed a theatre space called TF Actor's Lab in Goa, says, adding that living in a village helps him with keeping his expenses to a minimum.
Apart from this, Jadhav mentions that various other threats have surrounded theatres in Goa from all sides. "Unlike other cities like Mumbai and Pune, the residents of Goa do not have the tendency to pay for the theatres to watch it, or even if they have, that is restricted to either Panjim or Margao," he says. Talking about hosting the theatres, he says that the majority of the time, the villagers conduct a play after ceremonies like Puja at their places or home. "People come to pray the god first and then, enjoy the plays afterwards. When such rituals are already in place, why would someone pay for the theatres?" he says, also adding that the theatres in Goa go on the decline when it is monsoons.
'When people don't know about theatres in Bengaluru'
Going South-east from Goa and landing in Bengaluru does not help in landing at the healthier spot for theatres. Dr. Rajashree SR, the founder of VYOMA art space and studio Theatre, who has been in the theatre industry for the last 28 years, has an experience of not getting compensated "90% of the time in her career" for plays. Having worked for T.V and even films, Dr. Rajashree, who is also a classical dancer, started VYOMA in 2018 and says that there is a "lack of space for theatres in the society" and that she has also encountered situations where people do not even understand theatres and take it as "PVRs or theatres for films".
Due to negligent awareness about theatres, Dr. Rajashree says that families are reluctant to see their children taking theatres like in her own case. "I had to scuffle as my family got worried about what I would do after taking theatres as a career option," she laments. "It is essential to integrate art into education. Unless theatre is added to the studies, not as an extra-curricular but a mandatory subject, the perceptions of people and the condition of theatres will not change," he says.
Dr. Rajashree taking sessions with students
Even though Dr. Rajashree was always fixated on her decision, she says that, oftentimes, it is hard to get a good margin of money from the plays. Her theatre caters to a few genres like 'Abstract', 'Period', 'Mystic' and even Children's theatre. Although they get around 80-100 people, but Dr. Rajashree has an observation about the audience. She says, "The audience for theatres in Bengaluru is the same set of people who are also interested in other art forms." "But" she continues, "there is a need to spread this art among other people to make theatre survive." As a solution to the crippled infrastructure for theatres, Dr. Rajashree mentions that it should be made easier for the theatres to obtain grants from the government, which is currently trivial in the country as "arts is important for the emotional well-being of the society."
'Took 7 years to find space for theatre in Chennai'
Just like Dr. Rajashree, Vetri MV has also been dealing with the funding problem for his theatre, 'Akku', which focuses on plays directed in a mix of European style and Tamil culture. Having been a T.V. star and a model for a good 5-6 years of his life, he opened Akku in 2017 after accepting that "something was missing in his life." Currently, he articulates plays not just in his own space at Kodambakkam, on the outskirts of Chennai, but also at various villages, schools, and colleges. "We artists have a lot of ideas, but only if we get support from the government or private institutes can we implement them," he says. "Theatre is a shield to protect the society," he adds.
From a play by Theatre Akku
As a matter of fact, even leaving the funding aside, Vetri had to struggle to get a physical space for his theatre in Chennai, and it had taken him around 7 years to obtain one. "A lot of times, owners of the places are skeptical about giving the place on rent for theatres knowing the financial issues that the artists face. If not that, they are apprehensive anticipating the noise or the disturbances that theatres and artists might create," he says, adding that it is very difficult to rent a place for theatres in a metropolitan city.
The fragile condition in the art capital - Kolkata
Ahan Ghosh performing in a play
Not just is it only troublesome to get a place in the metropolitan cities but also to maintain the already existing ones, even in the art capital of India, Kolkata. As Ahan Ghosh, the founder of The Calcutta Theatre Co., says, "There is surely a greater acceptance of theatres in Kolkata compared to any other cities due to its rich history related to art, but they are in a ramshackle condition." He adds, "While the government-run theatres are still better, the private halls in Kolkata suffer from severe neglect and poor maintenance."
What is also required to be changed, according to Ghosh, is the plight of the artists as "theatre does not sustain for a livelihood alone". In his case, Ghosh also works as a freelancer and writes advertisement copies other than working for the theatre. "In European countries, the government actively provides art-based jobs, unlike in India," he says, adding that the same should be worked upon even here, and the designated bodies should give grants and allowances to the artists.
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A performance by The Calcutta Theatre Co.
Ghosh, who has been conducting 'Jatras' — a concept of rural theatres in the East-India villages — works around displaying folk stories and civic issues along with highlighting the stigma around artists in the villages that capture the attention of people, sometimes, around 1,000 and even more. However, he believes that people have various perceptions attached to it and one of them is a misconception that theatres are meant for "literary-educated and intellectual people". Moreover, as per him, what has also plagued the theatres is the big gap between "modern pop culture and what is being displayed on the theatre's stage". "The old concepts have contributed well to the theatres but there is a need for transformation soon," he says. Ghosh also mentions that various middle-class families in Kolkata believe that theatre is "too risky and unstable" due to the lack of infrastructure for theatres in educational institutes.
DU students put their own money to produce plays
However, if one takes Delhi University's colleges for reference, the same can appear as a half-sided story. DU colleges, which have a mandatory theatre society for students, have also been dealing with the impaired framework of theatres. As we talked to a theatre artist from the 'Aaghaaz Theatre Society' from Zakir Husain Delhi College, Krishna Kant, it became clear that there is a great funding problem in the South and Off-campuses of the university. "Only the North campus has an active theatre society," he says.
Students from the Aaghaaz Theatre Society
Kant, who is a student of B.A. (History) has been part of the theatre since his first year and says that the number of students enrolled in the theatre society has increased. However, his juniors often take theatre as a place with a bleak future. One of the reasons could also be the fact that these students have been a part of the financial crisis in their college's theatre as most of the time, they arrange the props for the plays with their own money and resources. But why don't they complain about the situation to their administration "We have tried, but nobody listens," Kant says. Anticipating the obvious struggles of doing theatres, Kant still foresees working in the industry like many other theatre artists in India.
The state of theatres and theatre artists in India presents a complex picture. While the influence of new media and shifting cultural preferences have posed challenges to the traditional theatre art, the lack of government and institutional-level support and initiatives also makes it difficult for the artists to bear the costs to keep the art alive. Despite these struggles, theatre artists continue to persevere, driven by their passion for the art form. They embody the resilience and dedication necessary to keep theatre alive, even in the face of adversity. It is crucial that we recognize and appreciate their invaluable contributions while also striving to create an environment that supports and revitalizes theatres, fostering a vibrant and thriving theatre community for generations to come.