Street theatre as a form of communication is deeply rooted in the
Indian tradition. In recent times this form has been used to
propagate social and political messages and to create an awareness
amongst the masses regarding critical issues. Street theatre breaks
the formal barriers and approaches the people directly.
You could meet them in the most unexpected places
behind the vegetable complex in your market place, during your
evening walk, at the bus stop or perhaps even on the street in front
of your office- a group of people, acting out a short skit or play,
for any one who might wish to stop and watch. They are not just
philanthropists providing free entertainment. For them this is a
means of reaching people of all strata and creating an awareness of
events around them, calling them to change what they believe are the
social ailments. These are the street theatre activists.
Street theatre is a situation where the audience has
not come prepared to watch a play, and people may not have much time
on hand. These limitations determine the parameteres of the plays.
They are short. The exchange is close, direct and intimate and, to be
more effective, usually loud and larger than life. The script and
direction is always significant. In order to draw crowds from all
walks of life, the plays are humorous. Songs based on popular catchy
tunes are included to add to is appeal. The choreography of the play
varies from script to script. The play must be as inexpensive and
mobile as possible, since no stage props can be used. As Badal Sircar
the noted playwright sums up, the essential tool of the trade
is the human body. The potentially of the human body, the ability to
throw ones voice so that 4000 people can be reached without the
aid of a mike, must be explored.
Tracing the need for the development of this form of
communication which is sometimes referred to as the third theatre,
Badal Sircar analysed the two existing forms- the sophisticated urban
theatre borrowed from the British and rooted in western culture and
values and the traditional rural theatre. In spite of the
tremendous popularity of folk theatre in rural areas, the ideas and
values it dealt with remained backward
.whereas the city theatre
could propagate progressive ideas and values to a sophisticated
audience which would be mentally stimulated at best but would not or
could not act upon them. So arose the need for a means of
communication which would break barriers of stage and ticketed
It would however be wrong to claim that street
theatre is a new form- the content and style perhaps are- but snake
charmers, bear and monkey dances on the street and also short dance
and acrobatic sequences at fairs by trained performers are all forms
of street theatre. But that is professional theatre where the primary
aim is to get money from the show.
Apart from propagating social reform, street theatre
is also a political weapon used during elections in particular or to
get across an ideology. It has also been successfully utilised as a
vehicle for inducing a scientific outlook in some people by bringing
to them news from the world of science. Women have become an
important theme for street plays. In 1980 the famous Mathura rape
case instigated a lot of shows on the need to make the rape laws more
stringent in 1980. Om Swaha dealing with demands for
dowry resulting in harassment and sometimes death was a very
effective street play. There have been several productions which give
a short summary o the life of a woman in India and some have gone on
to make the girl question her dependence, her need to get married and
her ability to lead a full, purposeful life by herself. There have
been several plays exposing the mechanism of black marketing and
hoarding. Some talk of the use of political power for pressurizing
people. Others highlight caste conflicts or ideas about hygiene and
health. Street theatre is also used as a means to encourage literacy
amongst villagers. One effective play on environment projected a
beautiful relationship of trust and friendship between a little boy
and a tree.
But do these plays bring about a change? According
to Feisal Alkazi who teaches street theatre at the Jamia Millia
University in Delhi, If the communication has been worthwhile
then there must be some tangible impact. What is important is that
the plays make the people think. The play is seen by many people of
different age groups who then question and discuss the contents of
the play. This evocation of questioning is by itself an impact.
Alkazi recalled an interesting experience he had while travelling by
a DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus. He was very surprised to
hear a passenger sing the words of a song from his street play based
on a popular film tune. At an unconscious level at least the
message had got across. He claims most street theatre groups
have had members of the audience coming up to them for a discussion
on the play they had just witnessed.
For Badal Sircar and his group the reward for their
tireless efforts came in a different way. While touring the villages
in Bengal they cam across audiences willing to sit through a
performance in any kind of weather. He recalls one night when they
performed through a continuous drizzle interspersed with heavy
showers. So enraptured was the audience, that about 3000 people sat
through the play for about three hours. Finally, when showers came
down heavily Badal Sircar called it a day and begged leave of his
audience. That they were interested enough to sit through the rain
meant that the message was getting across.
Since the voluntary organizations carry out work in
the villages and need to communicate forcefully with the people,
Badal Sircar and his troupe organize theatre workshops to teach them
the mechanics of street theatre.
When talking about street theatre it is mandatory to
talk about Safdar Hashmi. Originally a stage actor, he moved on to
street theatre adopting it as a cause, bringing about a social and
political awareness. His message obviously hit home for while
performing a play in the town of Ghaziabad near Delhi he and his
group were attacked. He succumbed to his injuries a day later.
Habib Tanvir and Utpal Dutt used street theatre as a
political catalyst in the 40s and 50s. It was revived in the 1970s
and now the movement has spread all over the country. There are about
50 groups in the country, mainly in cities and the immediate suburbs.
Street theatre actors are mainly teachers and
students committed to bringing about social change. Their returns in
terms of finances or fame are nil. The time that this form of
theatre demands is considerable. All evenings and weekends are spent
rehearsing or performing. In fact, Badal Sircar was not able to
attend the reception of his sons wedding because he had an
important rehearsal to attend and my son understood that
he explains. We become social outcastes but for us it is an
addiction. In the dry season- November to April- shows are put
up at a hectic pace. After a whole days work this schedule
demands a terrific devotion to the cause.
The preparation for the play is a joint effort. Each
member has to agree completely on the theme for a production to go
through. The script is usually written jointly as the play
progresses. Of course different groups have varying aims. The Jana
Natya Manch in Delhi for example performs plays on current topics.
This demands that the play be produced as soon as possible to be
relevant. Badal Sircars group however chooses themes which will
have an appeal over longer period since it takes them six moths to a
year to prepare a play.
A dholak or choral song is used to
attract people and once a large enough crowd has gathered the play
being usually in a circular area with the audience all around. The
chorus sings or speaks out the script. Sometimes one person narrates
while the actors mime. No make-up is used unless mime is the medium.
Then the face is painted white and the eyes an exaggerated black to
highlight expressions. If the audience is very large and one person
alone has to speak, a mike is used. There are no separate costumes
for the actors. They might all wear a black robe but that depends on
the theme. Being the kind of theatre it is there is not much scope
for fine acting. The movements have to be very exaggerated.
Street theatre as a channel of communication is deeply rooted in
Indian society. The modern form is different only in the themes
enacted. The street theatre groups analyse the society as it exists,
visualize its future, and then attempt to put the vision across.