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World Theatre Day: The Role of Street Theatre for raising Social Awareness in India

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By Nasreen Jehan

World Theatre Day is observed on March 27. The first World Theatre Day (WTD) was observed in 1962 by International Theatre Institute in Helsinki in Finland, and the second one in Vienna.

The aim of World Theatre Day is to create awareness about the medium and also highlight the contributions of those who had and have made the stage their oyster.

Theatre since ancient Roman times had been used as a tool for gaining political mileage and also as a State tool for propaganda. However, it has also been used as a medium of social activism against social deprivation. The earliest documented performances came from a town in southern Italy called Atella in the 4th century B.C.

Pompey became the first to erect a permanent theater in Rome in 55 B.C., built of stone and seating thousands of spectators.

Street Theatre in India is also referred to as the ‘Third Theatre’ as a form of social and cultural communication and activism.

Street theatres are dedicating themselves to expressing the realities of oppression and resistance that are a part of day-to-day life.

Indian Theatre has a revolutionary approach for raising complex social issues and had been used as an instrument for immediate impact on illiterate and moralized strata of society.

In the last five decades, Street Theatre in India had been used for complex social issues including gender problems, child labor, imparting knowledge about HIV and AIDS, the need to educate a girl child, social and political systems, and hereditary politics.

In Indian Street Theatre, the approach is “Direct” because the poor and labour class usually do not have time to sit for long hours and watch serious plots therefore a “convince-convert” strategy is employed with the support of loud music to attract the crowd.

To reach the common people, it broke all the boundaries of traditional mainstream theatre with its furnished stage, music, and songs, audience, galleries, etc. Unlike theatre in the proscenium, street theatre entails minimum use of lights, cosmetics, costumes, and techniques. A character is established with a small but significant item of property. The actor achieves success with his/ her voice, body language, and eye-to-eye contact with the audience.

Shrimati Das in an academic Article “STREET THEATRE – THE THIRD THEATRE: AGENTS FOR SOCIAL ENGINEERING IN INDIA” published in 2012 writes that in a country with low literacy and high population, theatre especially street theatre provided a low cost and an immediate means of reaching the illiterate.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s NGOs, social activists, theatre personalities, and grassroots groups increasingly used street theatre as a means of social change and reflect the historical shift in the notion of theatrical development. The earlier agendas of people’s struggle and nation-building are now joined by a focus on human and individual rights. Hence the theatre for development now covers subjects as diverse as sexual health, political, gender, and underprivileged class concerns.

In India, the legacy of street theatre can be traced back to long-standing traditional folk performances.

The distinction between street theatres from other dramatic performances is their political and militant overtones. The origin of street theatre in India can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. This form was known as “Rahs” in Punjab. In Uttar Pradesh it is known as “Nautanki”, in Bengal it is popular as “Jatra”, in Karnataka as “Beedi Nataka”, in Maharastra as “Path Natya”. In Hindi, it is called “Path Natika”. In street theatre performance the playing of Dholak attracts the people.

Street theatre in India is the outcome of experimentation with the performing arts with group discussion and group interaction as the core of its script.

The rise of street theatre which flourished since the 1970s in different nooks and corners of the country coincided with the growth of women’s movements and NGOs.

According to Malini Bhattacharya, an Indian politician and feminist activist, the street theatre aims not only to provide entertainment but to serve as a cultural intervention that can work directly at the level of people’s consciousness.

Malini Bhattacharya writes:

“This is not to negate the importance of change at the political and economic levels, but to assert that politicization of cultural forms is a slow and gradual process and cannot be achieved nearly through generalized political directives”.

Current social and political events and real-life experiences help the scriptwriters to contextualize the issues and to effectively communicate with the audience for whom theatre has been used as a space for raising issues publicly. By resisting and critiquing the mainstream theatrical practices, street theatres employ folk songs, characters, and also popular tunes to provide entertainment as well as the knowledge of current pressing issues. In street theatres, there is no particular place called the stage. Hardly any props are used.

The performers, who are primarily social activists, go out in search of their audience and a suitable locale for enacting their plays. The emphasis is more on the performance of the actors and not on their costumes. Indian street theatre with its entire artistry has redefined the structure of Indian Natya form of dance/action) The main objective of street theatre is to go closer to those who have been marginalized by society. It creates a new space for common people.

The other objective of street theatre is mainly to convey a particular idea through the direct but brief and effective means of dramaturgy. It endeavors to address the burning political, social, and other communal issues of people thereby creating social awareness among the people of all strata while addressing all sorts of social and political ailments. Street theatre is people-friendly. Its unpolished performers give it the power to reach people. Therefore it is not ticketed. The aim is not to earn money but to convey the message. The mobile nature of street theatre makes it possible to go to people in markets, villages, parks, slums, schools, residential areas, and office complexes. Street theatre is often considered ‘agitational propaganda’ against the status quo. It breaks the formal barriers and reaches people directly. This is a means of reaching people of all strata and creating an awareness of events around them calling them to change.

The story of Street Theatre in India cannot be completed without paying homage to Safdar Hashmi who gave his life for the cause of exposing political corruption and exploitation through his work.

Born on 12 April 1954 in Delhi, Safdar Hashmi grew up in a liberal Marxist environment. Hashmi graduated from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi with a degree in English Literature, and went on to complete his M.A. in English from Delhi University. During this period, he became associated with the cultural unit of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and eventually with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

On 1 January 1989, his team had the performance of the street play Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice!), during the Ghaziabad municipal elections in Sahibabad’s Jhandapur village (near Delhi). During the performance, the troupe was attacked allegedly workers of Indian National Congress and Hashmi was fatally beaten up and injured and he died the following day. Two days after his death wife Moloyshree Hashmi went to the same spot again with the troupe, and defiantly completed the play.

The story of Safdar Hashmi can help readers to understand the pains and problems being faced by Street Theatre activism all over the world because providing awareness to poor masses has always been a crime in agrarian societies.

 

Note: Nasreen Jehan completed her Master’s degree in Social Sciences from Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi.

Central Desk
Central News Desk.

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