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Street Theatre – Breaking the Barriers

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 one’s 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 entries.

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 son’s 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 day’s 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 Sircar’s 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.