Yakshagana, Kudiyattam, Pandavani: Bangalore folks get an intro to folk theatre

Bengaluru audience got a glimpse of various forms of folk theatre. What can be done to make it more popular?

Having attended most of the performances of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2010, it’s worth introspecting on the effort this festival has made to introduce different forms of folk theatre to the Bangalore audience. This year’s theme was different from the normal staging of plays, and probably unique as a theatre festival presentation.

The most impressive aspect of this was the huge effort that has been made to get folk theatre artists from not just our own State, but from as far afield as Assam and Manipur. Also, various forms…the singing or the “recital” forms such as the Pandavani from Chattisgarh as well as group performances were included.

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The festival was also eclectic in terms of the content: religious groups such as the Vaishnava monks from Assam, or the Kudiyattam, from Kerala, the two thousand year old form of theatre, normally performed in temple precincts, to Yakshagana and two-member stage performances such as Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain, who were associated with the recent film, “Peepli Live”….the audience was treated to a smorgasbord of theatre performances. For all these efforts, Ranga Shankara is to be deeply appreciated. I thank the Ranga Shankara team from my heart for the wonderful offering.

However, the fact remains that for today’s urban audiences, folk theatre remains something rather remote from their lives. Perhaps the average urban dweller prefers the easy entertainment of switching on the TV set and being passively entertained at a very low cost; but the empty seats in the auditorium on many of the days when performances were excellent, gave a depressing picture of lack of interest.

Arundhati Nag and her team have been considering a Folk Theatre festival for a while, now, and she says, “theatre is a part and parcel of rural India…..and RS Fest ‘10 is our tribute to the spirit with which folk and classical theatre forms are performed across the country today.”

Srinivas G. Kappanna, inaugurating the festival on the steps of Ranga Shankara, spoke of the various forms of Kannada folk theatre as well, and introduced the troupe from Tamil Nadu, that executed the “welcome” performance with such verve.

If only the huge effort, in terms of logistics and execution, put in by Ranga Shankara, had been matched on all the days by the audience participation, I would personally have been much happier. Alas, there were not too many children in the audience, either (children below 8 years were anyway excluded.)

Some performances, notably the Sattriya on the opening day, and the Kudiyattam of Kerala on the 31st, suffered from either an absence of sub-titles, or sub-titles that were not bright enough. When the language is unknown, the audience relies heavily on the subtitles to follow the action of the play.

Another point, I feel, is that the all-night tempo of several of these performances do not lend themselves well to the urban theatre set-up. When there is theatre going on through the night in a rural setup, the audience can get up, walk around, eat or sleep and come back.The ambience is very different for an audience which has a limited time frame, and is concentrating only on the piece. For the urban audience, the action becomes too slow to sustain interest, and we have the distressing spectacle of empty seats.

But those of us who were able to attend the performances and follow them, it was truly a voyage of discovery. The Kattaikuttu performance, for example, had excellent subtitles, and the slapstick humour and the bright presentation went down well with the audience, and performance that lasts an hour such as the Manipuri “Phou-Oibi,” found the audience quite willing to stay on for an introduction to the cast, a discussion about the instruments used, and so on.

So I do feel that if folk theatre forms are adapted further to the urban setting,  with vision, and imagination,  both the performers and the audience will  derive the maximum benefit from the experience, and we may witness a resurgence in these forms of theatre that are the well-springs  of the existence of spaces such as Ranga Shankara.

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