Street theatre in Mumbai: A historical relational analysis.
4 September 2016
In this piece, Angad Singh, an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, explores the relationship between street theatre and the city of Mumbai since the 1970s. In tracing the gradual de-politicisation of street theatre, he describes the transition of street theatre from a bastion of Left-wing political activism to a form advocating social awareness across college campuses and a means of commercial engagement and advertising. Touching upon themes including the NGO-ization of street theatre and its intersections with Bollywood, Angad puts forth a strong argument for the inherent democratic and democratizing nature of street theatre to demonstrate its importance to the development and sustenance of the Indian nation state itself.
*This is one of the Culture Lab's long reads, so grab yourself a cuppa and settle in ...
I’m strolling down Bandstand, one of Mumbai’s many seaside promenades. It is six in the evening. In the midst of the daily commotion, I spot a group of youngsters gathering to occupy the mid-section of the wide walkway. Slowly, the group starts chanting the popular hymn ‘itni shakti hame dena daata’. An intrigued crowd starts crowding around the singers, but few know what is going on until the group introduces itself. They are Smita Patil Street Theatre and are performing Anth, one of their most successful plays that predominantly deals with the issue of substance abuse and its destructive role in family life.
Watching this street theatre performance was part of my summer research for a project at Godrej India Culture Lab, a fluid space that aims to break barriers between cultural realms that function in silos. The Lab’s interventions involve people from various industries including fashion, theatre, literature and business fratenity in an attempt to understand what it means to be modern and Indian. This paper tries to understand the relationship between street theatre and the city of Mumbai and how this relationship has changed along with the the city since the 70s.
To begin, it is important to define what I mean by street theatre. In the Indian context, there are many art forms that can, on the basis of different evaluation methods that can be categorised as street theatre. These include traditions ranging from Maharashtra’s own Tamasha to the theatre performed by Indian People’s Theatre Association’s. Considering the vast array of traditions that may or may not be considered as street theatre, it becomes very important to specify what lens one is using to classify something as street theatre.
Professor Saumyabrata Choudhary is of the opinion that the ‘wider’ term of street theatre can be divided into three ‘narrower’ terms
- Outdoor Theatre- Theatre which can be defined as street theatre in a spatial sense, because it is performed in outdoor spaces such as open gardens and street corners. Includes traditional theatre forms such as Tamasha, Raslila, Yakshagana and Nautanki.
- Political Street Theatre- This form of street theatre has been described by Safdar Hashmi, founding member of Jana Natya Manch Delhi, as “a militant, protest theatre of political nature, very often with a topical force”.
- Popular Street Theatre- This category of street theatre is not about a particular cause, a particular aesthetic, a certain kind of politics or not even about a passion for street theatre. Popular Street Theatre is also street theatre in a spatial sense, and can be seen as a modern manifestation of outdoor theatre.
It must be said that these subsections of the wider term are not airtight and can often intersect with each other in ways small and large.
Street theatre in Mumbai
Smita Patil Street Theatre director Ramu Ramanathan mentioned that, ‘the development of street theatre in Mumbai is deeply tied with the mill workers movement. For the mill workers, with working in the city and facing an entirely new set of laws and restrictions, came a variety of problems . These included new manifestations of the caste system within the colonial city as well as problems related to workers rights. As a reaction to these problems, street theatre began to grow as an art form of the oppressed in Mumbai.
Informal gatherings began to take place outside factory gates, in open grounds and in open spaces near chawls. In these gatherings, street plays were performed about issues affecting the people such as unfair working conditions. These plays were often performed by workers themselves, serving as a direct response to their own circumstances. It was used as a collective idiom by the disempowered to empower themselves,a function that has been traditionally merited to street theatre as an art form’.
There began to be inter-chawl play competitions that featured street theatre performances about topics that affected the poor. However these plays also began to serve a political purpose through their content, messages and enacting of it. The play often became a pretext to gather a crowd and then make the crowd listen to a particular message. Predominantly those asking the workers to unite and agitate against their oppressors. During this period, events such as Kamgar Rangabhoomi started to become commonplace. Within these festivals, plays could be about themes ranging from Ambedkar’s thought and philophosophy to workers' rights. These plays lasted right until the gradual demise of cotton mills in the city of Mumbai. One of the most notable events during which the strength of political street theatre was clearly visible was the Dusshera Rally in 1966 wherein Shiv Sena exhibited itself as a political organisation. Between 2.5-3 lakh people were present in the rally, held in the grounds that became known thereafter as Shiv Sena ground, on this day. During this event, street theatre was used as a tool of mass mobilisation, or even as a weapon, by both the left-wing forces as well as by the right wing militant industrial forces.
Such a vital usage of street theatre by two opposing political forces in a crucial event was unprecedented in the city of Bombay. The street theatre related events and clash of forces that took place at this moment still resonate in Mumbai and have been definitive in shaping the city’s politics. For instance, during several riots that took place over the course of the city's history, street theatre was used as a tool by many groups in order to bring about communal harmony and de-escalate violence. These organizations include theatre foundations such as Manjul Bharadwaj’s ‘Experimental Theatre Foundation’ as well as smaller temporary organizations such as ‘Agaz’, a street theatre group founded temporarily in a Mohalla explicitly in order to bring about communal harmony. Organizations such as these show that in instances where communal politics seeps into society in a large way and causes communal riots, street theatre still remains relevant and can be used as a great tool to bring about peace.
Ramu Ramnathan emphatically states that, ‘I wouldn’t argue that public spaces are shrinking. That’s not true. Any group can perform any play and get a crowd of 500 within minutes. I don’t think public space in that sense is shrinking,but what has happened is, some people feel that this space is being encroached upon, and therefore, we need to be careful. In this feeling of being careful, one is actually imposing restrictions on oneself. What is equally true is, in a place like Delhi, there are areas where we cannot perform just like that. We have to formally seek permission from the local police stations. Earlier, till the mid-80s, it was possible to go and perform at Connaught Place, Lajpat Nagar, or any market place without being stopped by anybody. But now, with all these fancy digital equipments and networks of the police, you can contact anybody at anytime. There is far more control and surveillance nowadays’ .
Upon the formal breakage of IPTA, several other offshoot organizations sprung up adhering to a similar ideology as that of IPTA’s. These organizations include IPTA Mumbai, which has now existed for over six decades and is still somewhat of an active organization, although its current strength and number of performances is nowhere near to what it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the ways in which IPTA Mumbai still tries to promote its form of political street theatre as an art form is through a theatre festival that it organizes in May each year. However, the realization that the glory days of its brand of political street theatre resonates clearly in the organization. The fall of IPTA’s brand of street theatre can be somewhat related to the falling popularity of the left in India, which came with a huge blunting of its ideological positions.
Indeed, after the collapse of organized workers and peasants movements in India as well as the simultaneous rise of the middle class, the political street theatre movement can be seen to have become very spattered as well as sporadic. It seems that up until the seventies and to some extent even the eighties, street theatre had a clear and action-oriented place and function. The scenario since the late nineties has changed in many significant ways, and this has greatly impacted street theatre.
Deepa Punjani, editor of Mumbai Theatre guide and representative of Indian National Section of Theatre Critics talks about the major historical shifts during this period which include the background of post liberalization, the rise of the Hindu Right and it's promotion of the ideal of servile nationalism, along with the fragmented politics of both the Left and the Dalit movements. It is clear that in India, street theatre was always juxtaposed to radicalism. Unfortunately in today's climate, protest is not seen as a right but an assault on the State. This idea is propagated through the media, which, in countries like India are controlled by either the government itself or by major corporations that support the government’s policies. Such a shift in the attitude of the state as well as the attitude of the people has surely affected the viability and effectiveness of political street theatre. While the statements above are but generalizations, it is important to acknowledge that generalizations do have to be made in a country as vast and diverse as India to make any sense out of our history.
The contested historical trajectory of political street theatre was reflected in my limited personal experience of it. I witnessed very few street theatre performances on the streets of Mumbai that affiliated themselves with a particular political ideology acorss the political spectrum. When I interviewed Padam Bhushan, one of the founders of Naujawan-e- Hind, a street theatre group that is still very much active in Mumbai, he explicitly stated that the kind of theatre that he engaged with and performed was not a political theatre. It had no affiliation to either the Right or the Left, to the liberal or to the conservative, or to any political party. He said that the theatre performed by his organization was simply street theatre that was performed for reasons ranging from a passion for the art form to a desire to create social awareness within society. In fact, he said that while his group was never going to put up performances for any political party, he was completely open to performing street theatre for commercial purposes. He even told me about a ‘street theatre’ performance he had seen in a shopping mall: a performance who's primary purpose was to advertise a product. He had been so impressed with it that he even asked the performers for their names and mobile numbers!
This kind of theatre that Bhushan witnessed and performed was certainly neither outdoor theatre nor political street theatre. So, what was it?
One can look at this contemporary form of street theatre as a popular form of street theatre. This popular form is more difficult to define than the earlier defined forms of political street theatre and outdoor street theatre. Simply because it includes novel and contemporary manifestations of street theatre without essentially sharing an antagonistic relationship towards its earlier forms of street theatre. This popular form of street theatre includes street theatre incorporated in corporate advertising strategies and several other mediums too.
Colleges and their engagement with popular forms of Street theatre
One major manifestation of this popular form of street theatre can be seen in colleges throughout Mumbai, as well as in colleges in other Indian metropolitan cities including Delhi and Kolkata. In these city colleges, one can find drama and theatre societies consisting of a large number of students. Such societies often participate in inter-college theatre festivals. These theatre societies are very often involved in performing some sort of street theatre. Two major reasons emerge as to why I would categorise the contemporary college brand of street theatre as popular street theatre, they are the motivations behind joining these groups as well as the actual content of the performances put up by these groups.
The reasons why these students join these theatre groups are a solid reflection of why in contemporary urban Indian street theatre is still considered to be a popular form of theatre, and not a political form. The vast majority amongst the theatre performers, who joined political theatre groups such as IPTA, did so because they were interested in bringing about mass socio-political change through the medium of street theatre. However, several people whom I interviewed who engage extensively with college students in cities, including Yusuf Qasmi and Sudhanva Deshpande, are of the opinion that that this lucid agenda is missing in today’s college based theatre groups and individual artists. Today, college students who join college street theatre groups do so for a multitude of reasons including love for theatre or acting, wanting to be involved in promoting particular messages for bringing about social change, or even boosting one’s resume. Often the content of street plays performed by these college groups is not seen making a strong political commentary as it was in the 1970s; instead, these college groups perform plays on issues that can largely be perceived as ‘social’ such as women’s issues and environmental issues.
Many of the people whom I interviewed during my research, including Padam Bhushan and Saumyabrata Chaudary, viewed this college manifestation of popular street theatre as a space wherein a lot of interesting innovation was happening within the art form. I was told, that if I really wanted to view the epitome of street theatre performance today, I should go see a college street theatre competition. However, this praise of popular street theatre being performed in college was not unanimous. Manjul Bhardawaj looks at this college manifestation of popular street theatre as one of the many contemporary manifestations of dilution of performing, treatment, content and commitment within street theatre. He gave the example of National Social Service (NSS) within colleges, a product of a government policy; within NSS, students are given the opportunity to perform street theatre. Bhardawaj lamented that through things like the NSS, the role of street theatre has gone from revolution to awareness. He believes that efforts such as these as an active policy of the state to soften the anger and commitment of the people– something that, according to him, reduces the power of street theatre to bring about radical change. Bharadwaj’s basic argument remains, ‘that by appropriating street theatre within its own policies, the government is actively trying to reduce its ability to bring about mass revolution’.
NGO-ization of Street theatre in Mumbai.
Non-Governmental Organizations have also played a major role in this shift of street theatre from a political form to a popular form. The kind of Non-Governmental Organizations actively involved in performing street theatre in cities such as Mumbai include ones that actively engage with women’s issues, children’s issues, environmental issues and health issues. The modus operandi of the usage of street theatre by several NGO’s has been to utilize street theatre as a promotional tool in order to bring societal awareness pertaining to particular social issues that the NGOs are involved with. For example, an NGO involved with women’s rights would stage a particular street theatre performance in which it talks about particular women’s issues such as dowry and sexual violence.For instance, SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action) an NGO in Mumbai majorly involved with women’s rights has performed street theatre plays to talk about issues such as ‘Violence gainst Women and Children as Public Concern’ and ‘Things Men Can Do to Prevent Violence against Women’. This entire process through which NGOs use street theatre to forward their agendas for positive social change while not getting involved with the politics associated with political street theatre has often been termed as the ‘NGOization’ of street theatre. This NGO-ization of street theatre seems to have, as Manjul Bharadwaj stated, shifted the purpose of street theatre from revolution to awareness.
While some street theatre artists view its role as one that weakens the power of street theatre by robbing it of its left leaning politics, others view it as an efficient usage of street theatre to bring in social changes.
Another effect that NGO-ization of street theatre has had on the art form is the promotion of what have come to be described as ‘poster plays’ . The birth of these kind of plays led to the appropriation of street theatre as a means to promote ‘social’ message without giving precedence to the art form itself. The result of such street play performances was the rise of plays that served the same purpose that a poster would: of leaving an impression in the mind of the viewers, rather than actively encompassing them in the theatrical form. These ‘poster plays’ have been criticised as neo-capitalistic products that stand completely opposed to the older left leaning values of political street theatre. However, if one does not look at them politically, they just seem to be another manifestation of popular street theatre.
In fact, such poster plays have been used in polio eradication campaigns in urban areas such as Mumbai itself. The same polio eradication campaign that used street theatre as a promotion method interestingly also hired Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachhan in its nationwide TV campaign. This leads to an interesting intersection: what is the relationship between street theatre and Bollywood? There certainly are difference, but are there also commonalities?
The interlinkages between Bollywood and Street theatre.
Through my summer research on street theatre in Mumbai, I found that a lot of people previously involved in street theatre are now involved in Bollywood in various roles from producers to actors. Prominent Bollywood stars such as Manoj Bajapayee and major producers like Padam Bhushan have also been street theatre artists at one point. I soon discovered that this arduous journey from being a theatre artist, which often included being a street theatre artist, to being a Bollywood personality was not an uncommon one. I realized that a lot of individuals use street theatre groups as a platform either to get noticed or to just do what they are passionate about while doing other things to earn a living. Padam Bhushan informed me that the term used in the film industry for such individuals was ‘strugglers’. This sort of individualistic motivation that did not go alongwith performing political street theatre went along perfectly with being involved in popular street theatre.
Apart from the connections amongst artists in both forms, what are the connections between street theatre and Bollywood movies as art forms? Essentially, a lot of contemporary mainstream Bollywood films seem to operate on the basis that things are not structurally wrong within society and that problems that are faced by individuals are personal, and not societal, problems. Bollywood films seem to serve as a three-hour escape from society. Such a view has been espoused by many people within the industry, including Abhay Deol who said in a newspaper interview, ‘Commercial Hindi Cinema is too escapist for my liking’. Even spatially, the cinema, a dark enclosed space separated quite literally from the outside world, provides the means for such a temporary escape. Street theatre, especially political street theatre, can be seem to be occupying a realm mostly separate from this realm of cinema; as opposed to cinema, it is an art form taking place within open society talking about real societal problems and often asking for solid society wide change brought by groups and not individuals.
However, it would be imprudent to assume that there are no intersections between the worlds of cinema and that of street theatre as art forms. In fact, it seems to be the case that these interactions between the two spaces occur in more than just in terms of the content of the art (such movies and street plays revolving around dowry). In an interesting case, the Bollywood movie ‘Halla Bol’ is about street theatre itself - the movie explores the world of street theatre in India, actively making references to the history of the art form in the subcontinent (including a reference to the death of Sadfar Hashmi). The name Halla Bol comes from the name of the two-day festival conducted by Jan Natya Manch in Delhi everyday wherein street theatre artists commemorate the death of the icon who was murdered by Congress goons within a street theatre performance. Yatri, Om Katare’s theatre group, used street theatre for the promotion of the film. When I interviewed Om Katare about the same, he said that using street theatre for promoting a film was something that he was very proud of doing. Thus, it is possible to find commercial manifestations of popular street theatre.
Given all of these changes, most importantly the use of street theatre for commercial and capitalistic purposes, the larger question looms: does street theatre have an inherently democratic and democratizing function? Is there anything about street theatre that makes it inherently democratic? After spending 6 weeks in Mumbai researching this very heavy question, I think that the answer to this question is a yes. One of the strongest ideals of democracy is equality and I believe that street theatre engages with these ideals extensively.
First, street theatre performers can be anybody from absolutely any background. According to Manjul Bharadwal, this accessibility of street theatre as an art form has allowed it to be used by those belonging to the most oppressed sections of society to go out in public and make everybody listen to their voices. In fact, Manjul believes that street theatre is most effective when it involves underpriveleged people talking about their own oppression. Given this belief, one of the major projects of Experimental Theatre Foundation group has been a street play titled ‘Mera Bachpan’, about child labour. Performed by ex- child laborers themselves. The voices of these oppressed people are not heard in other art forms such as proscenium theatre or cinema simply because being involved in these art forms presumably requires a certain amount of privilege and access to social, cultural and economic capital. Hence, street theatre is one of the few, if not the only, art forms in the Indian democracy that is accessible to all.
Second, the audience of street theatre can also be anybody. While it is certainly true that Mumbai, like other Indian cities, has economically segregated housing, the fact remains that the streets of of Mumbai are open to all. Hence, anybody, from any background can be on the street where street theatre is being performed. This stands in contrast to proscenium theatre or cinema or even television wherein access to the art requires a small amount of socio-economic privilege; certainly, buying a ticket for a theatre ticket requires money as does buying a cinema ticket.
Third, the language used in street theatre is almost always the one which is spoken locally in the region. Yusuf Qasmi, head of Smita Patil Street theatre told me that in order to have the maximum possible effect and reach out to the maximum number of people, street theatre strategically uses the language of the local people. This is because, unlike other art forms, it is meant to have an impact on everyone. On the other hand, mediums such as proscenium theatre are often performed in exclusive languages such as English simply because they are not meant for everyone in the first place. Hence, the language usage in street theatre is another facet that makes it democratic.
Fourth, the physicality of street theatre is very equalizing and democratizing. Unlike many other forms of theatre, in most manifestations of street theatre, with some notable exceptions such as Ramlila performances on stages,the performer is on the same physcial level as the audience. There is no vertical difference or positional hierarchy between the audience and the performer on the streets, the performer is in no way ‘above’ the audience. Additionally, there is no physical barrier between the performers and the audience- instead, the performers are surrounded by the audience on multiple sides. When I asked Manjul Bharadwal, what made street theatre such a powerful medium, his response was to tightly clutch my hand and say “this, the physical proximity and lack of barriers between the audience and the performers is what makes street theatre so powerful!” This potential of street theatre to deeply engage with its audience has led to Badal Sircar’s terming it as ‘Intimate Theatre’. Surely, this feature of physicality seen within street theatre simply does not exist in art forms such as cinema or television and exists in a much more subtle fashion in proscenium theatre. Hence, street theatre’s physicality is the last and strongest feature that makes it so inherently democratic.
On the basis of this assessment, it is clear to me that street theatre, with its unique advantages ranging from effectiveness to accessibility, can only have an ever-growing function in Indian democracy. Indeed, whether street theatre is performed in its traditional form in a Ramlila at Zakaria ground, in its political form by IPTA Mumbai or in its contemporary popular form by Smita Patil Street Theatre, the function of the art form in India’s democracy will not diminish simply because of how inherently democratic and democratizing street theatre truly is.
(1) Ramu Ramnathan
(2) Manjul Bharadwaj
(3) Sudhanva Deshpande
(4) Padam Bhushan
(5) Soumyabrata Chaudhary
(6) Yusuf Qasmi
(1) Thakkar, Usha. "Mohalla Committees of Mumbai: Candles in Ominous Darkness." Economic and Political Weekly 39, no. 6 (2004): 580-86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4414609.
(2) Hansen, Kathryn. "Indian Folk Traditions and the Modern Theatre." Asian Folklore Studies 42, no. 1 (1983): 77-89.
(3) Hansen, Kathryn. "Indian Folk Traditions and the Modern Theatre." Asian Folklore Studies 42, no. 1 (1983): 77 - 89.