Aal iz not necessarily well!

“A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed-seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.” – James Allen

Last week I had an opportunity to once again saunter the corridors of the National School of Drama – from which in the late seventies – I had walked out after resigning my merit scholarship.

It was great to have met a senior whose work I admire and sorry to have missed my former room-mate. Of course, there were pompous personalities spouting philosophies as false as themselves.

Met teachers, actors, students and found that the intellectual malaise that ails our institutions still subsists. Essential questions for NSDians re the Theatre, the Arts and Education remained ambiguous or marginalised as the pursuit to stay ‘theatrically active’ consumed all thinking.

There was a time when my world and life was theatre and consequently everything and everybody involved with it became my family and education automatically established itself as an integral and valuable aspect of a situation that was on the threshold of becoming an accepted stereotype. In particular jeopardy was theatre for children and young people.

I have always had an aversion to being called a theatre-person, though I have used the dramatic as a medium for most of my work. But I refused to be part of the establishment or the main-stream; and, that probably irked many, even then.

This recent visit to the National School of Drama and various encounters with theatre folks convinces me that it is important to reopen and examine questions of the relationship between the life of each theatre person and the vision of the relation between Art and Society. In the theatre, as in anything else, we have to respond to a rapidly changing life world. One has to define one’s role and modus operandi; discover whether we indeed have something to offer that is important for people and ourselves – as an actor or a director or a designer or an educator?

I will source my earlier observations and incorporate opinions that continue to make me contemplate this entire process.  Regretfully, my notes do not have names to thank or acknowledge as these are jottings over a period of time that have now merged into this posting.

However, I can indubitably express my gratitude to Nibha Joshi who in principle not only opened my mind to the nuances of Classical Indian Drama but also enlightened me to a new dimension – being a consummate artiste without turning into a mindless performer. To the other unidentified and forgotten stimulators of the mind – I remain thankful and apologetic.

The idea of Art and Culture as a category separate from the seriousness of the science and technology of how we should live in the world is what might be called the general malaise. Within this enclave of ‘art’, there is either the direct import or reproduction of Western produce or more dangerously, the vivisection of traditional forms and modes of expression from the skein of life with which they were formally interwoven; from which they drew their meaning and inspiration. What were once rituals of community life are now staged as ‘shows’ because of their capacity to titillate alien (largely urban and that too ‘select’ culturally ‘aware’ Indian city), spectators. Where originally intimately associated with season or time of year and integrally connected with other human activities such as harvesting or hunting, birth or marriage – they are now taken out of occasion and fitted into the schedule of cultural festivals, trade fairs, tourism spectacles, diplomatic summits and political jamborees – again as entertainment, outside the orbit of a central and serious activity. But the so called “serious theatre is also fitted into that titillating addendum to life known as entertainment. It confirms to and reaffirms the notion that the utilitarian and symbolic (aesthetic) are two independent domains with little practical connection.” The one is the stuff of life whereas the other is what provides relaxation from its stresses, and to be an ‘artiste’ is to be on the periphery, irrelevant to real living. To be an artiste, who wants his audience to think, is probably worse! This was once very succinctly beaten into my cranium when trying to promote the idea of Theatre as part of a school’s curriculum, a particular ‘educationist’ member of the Board of Trustees of the said school, had asked, after going through my proposal, “What do you do in real life, Mr. Agnihotri?”

That there is more to theatre than just staging plays is a concept that still does not seem to be a belief in the minds of most people. It is impossible for them to accept and recognize that the theatre, involving a live exchange of energies between performers and spectators, has the possibility of being a site for such an experience of totality which combines the physical with the intellectual and spiritual being of man. Many people in the theatre today behave as though it has been dealt a deathblow by the television and film industries. It is true that unadulterated theatre is struggling to stay alive – but it is not dead. However, most of what passes as “theatre” nowadays makes me wish it was dead!

So, one of the many things that we in India need to search for is the Key of Awareness that would open the minds of the people – and we come back to attitudes!

The answer must be somewhere! The question is do we really want it? Isn’t it convenient to just let things be the way they are? We talk about our golden past and sit back and hope that it will re-generate itself in the near future. We talk about the importance of Art and refuse to even look beyond our noses! We talk about the ‘over-all’ development of our children and the ‘holistic’ approaches to their education; and in the same breath discard a vital organ. Consciously or not, we have denied successive generations, proper and necessary learning, use and access to the traditional and modern arts. We have been, by and large, happy to choose the lowest common denominators; embraced theories that were either rejected by the West or found buried somewhere deep in our glorious past – simply because it suited many, and still does. No real effort has even been made, in a concentrated manner, to inform young people that the arts are disciplines to which they can be introduced in a systematic and sustained way. The learning systems in this country also do not provide equal space for the Arts in the school curriculum in any serious and concerted way. The onus of imparting the arts to the students is left to teachers who are already overworked and harassed and not really bothered because ‘Arts’ is an extra co-curricular activity (note the use of the word ‘extra’).

Essentially, in most schools, particularly the metro schools – arts and culture (are they separate from each other?) – are reduced to once a year affair that occupies, at best, one month of the school’s effective time. The ‘suitability’ of a play during this once a year theatrical extravaganza also leads to a great debate. This yearly event is very important, because it should suit and strike only the right note of ultimate praise and coverage in the newspapers and tabloids. As such, most school productions are geared to give their audience a ‘good time’ only and thus become restricted in their already limited repertoire. Inevitably, farcical comedies, musicals and theme events become the order of the day, and an evening of this ‘extravaganza’ is presented year after year, till the occasion becomes a ‘tradition’, resisting change and endangering creativity. The event over, theatre is thrust aside to be picked-up again the following year, dusted and cleaned and polished for its annual appearance.

A study of theatre and other arts at the school level is very important and it is vital that it be implemented in our country. Quality arts education should be our commitment to the future. The awareness of the arts in general must start at the school level, because as far as India is concerned, Arts Education is something that we should be aiming for. There is no other way!

Which brings me to the last and perhaps most difficult Search – the Search of how to motivate and the Search for funds? The inability to motivate our young learners may be a factor we all – artistes and educators alike – commonly share. Almost everybody bemoans the advent of cable TV and the titillating song and dance sequences that send our youth into raptures. But WHAT appealing alternatives, what counterpoints have been put into place or set in motion? The television is not that much of a monster. Diverse arts activities and programmes in our school and college campuses will provide one more area to nourish their arts standards and expectations and may even prove a deterrent to the recent and disquieting lunacy of television programming.

Eminent persons in education are strident in their criticism of the fact that funding to education – schools, colleges and universities – is constantly being slashed or denied a level playing field. Although this is a criticism that is largely and regrettably valid, nobody, and I mean nobody, considers that even within this impoverished realm, it is the arts, which generally find themselves at the bottom of the dung-heap!

Funding goes to institutions of learning in science and technology and more recently, to institutes of commerce and management. Then, to the harder economic, social and political sciences…and then, if there is anything left over…to the so-called ‘soft’ academic options, like literary and cultural studies, philosophy and quite possibly to the Home Sciences. Last of all, if by now not blissfully forgotten, funding goes to the Arts! The University Grants Commission, the Central Board of Secondary Education, the State Education Boards et al – spend too many working hours in futile arguments and half baked discussions and resolutions; plotting and charting out the intricate processes of changing the existing school and college curricula (which generally means introducing dull and boring text books and favouring ‘revolutionary’ thoughts of the party in power). A new millennium and we still don’t think it important enough for the arts to be placed as optional subjects in the school and college curricula.

WHY must our best young learners be thoughtlessly inspired by – peer pressure, parental pressure, school and college pressure – with only careers as engineers, doctors or marketing executives? When will we realize that the arts conjoined with education, imply two equally important emphases, namely: the Arts in Education that is, using the arts to enhance and enliven the daily school curriculum; and, Education in the Arts to lobby for the inclusion of the arts in school and college curricula, thereby also allowing for them to be possible career options.

Why cannot we sow the seeds that will entice our young to choose careers in the arts – and the arts I must stress, interpreted widely to include those painted, performed, written, sculpted, broadcasted, crafted, filmed, installed or photographed – and those both traditional and modern.

If for reasons best known to those in authority, it is felt that the arts cannot be placed on the school and college curriculum, can we not then, at very least, imbue those young and kindling in our schools and colleges with the capacity to recognize, acknowledge, respect, criticize and celebrate differences in the arts – to understand and be humbled by their similarities? Can we not, in practicing and making the arts viable, expand horizons?

It would be wrong if I said that there have not been any hopeful developments in the past 10 years, but these are far too few for such a rolling landscape as found in India. There is a lot of experimentation, debate and discussion going on, related to theatre for children and young people – not only in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Pune BUT outside these cities too!

To practice the arts or just to watch them in performance is both an act of courage and an act of celebration. We cannot stop now! Because we must remember that when all is said and done – artiste and educationist alike – are subsumed in a larger Reality. And, this Reality was desirable in the past; is desirable in the present; and, should be desirable in the future!

However, to come within reach of this ‘desirable reality’ we will have to ruthlessly brush aside the ‘Munnabhai-factor’, gain true knowledge and have the courage to think for ourselves and be aware that outside the effervesce, Aal iz not necessarily well!


4 Responses to “Aal iz not necessarily well!”

  1. 1 Samira
    May 17, 2010 at 8:20 am

    Yes, we speak of things that matter,
    With words that must be said,
    “Can analysis be worthwhile?”
    “Is the theater really dead?”…

    …Lost in the dangling conversation.
    And the superficial sighs,
    In the borders of our lives.

    – Simon and Garfunkel.

  2. May 19, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian, Satellite Direct Tv

  3. 4 rehmat jamal
    January 14, 2011 at 7:47 am

    thank you. i assumed for a long time i was the only student who appreciated nibha joshi. as a matter of fact, people at nsd would caustically remark that i would be just like nibha one day. unfortunately for them i took that as a compliment. i remember in my 1st year devendraj ankur had taken nibhs place while she was on study leave at baroda for a year. it never for a moment occured to him that i was not a hindi speaking person and did everything possible to make classical indian drama the most traumatic class possible. needless to say it was a disaster. well, come my 2nd yr and in walks nibha and her loser student was getting straight A’s not only from her but from external examiners as well. i was a total turnaround. i can never thank her enough and im sure somewhere down the line after i left nsd i went directly into conducting and directing workshops and plays for students from elementary school to IIT plus private workshops every summer and winter scool was out. and i continued to do that for 17yrs. Nibha had played a large role in my devolrping a style of teaching and in keeping avenues of discussion open at anytime and with everyonei came across your blog doing a search on her. so thanx again, rehmat.

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