I used to wonder the best ways to remonstrate the issues of modern society, the burning topics related to politics, injustice, and social inequality and so on. What is the most convenient yet powerful approach to send out your message to the masses? What if people do not understand the issue of protest or their focus shift to other interests? Luckily, I got a chance to feed my curious mind with the best response when I joined Delhi University.
I came to know about the importance of extra-curricular activities that can hugely shape a student’s intellectual and civic responsibilities and can motivate them to actively participate in the growth of the nation. Almost every college has drama societies which are an open platform to showcase their message through street plays be it against the societal issues or against any college reform. But this comes out to be the best and most peaceful way to put forward your opinion.
Street plays or the street theatres evolved in the early 20th century as a tool to emancipate the working class and reinforce revolution against the established power. Its journey began in India during the time of anti-colonial struggle, essentially by the left-wing theatre activists. The question arises why theatres are being performed in streets, not on stage? Performance artists with an interest in social activism may choose to stage their work on the street as a means of directly confronting or engaging the public. For example, multimedia artist Caeser Pink and his group of performers known as The Imperial Orgy staged a piece titled “Our Daily Bread” that brought performers onto the streets of the New York’s financial district to ceremoniously lay loaves of Wonder Bread along the sidewalks, each with an advertisement from Satan offering to buy people’s souls in exchange for material possessions. The performance caused an uproar when police were called out and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in to inspect the loaves of bread for explosives.
Other factors include reaching to the most people who cannot afford to buy a stage ticket for their entertainment. Street plays mostly focus to boost the ideology of a special section of people who have no connection to education or moral etiquettes. Many companies are politically motivated and use street theatre to combine performance with protest. This has occurred through the guerrilla theatre of San Francisco Mime Troupe The Living Theatre, the carnivalesque parades of Bread and Puppet Theatre, and the work of Ashesh Malla and the Sarwanam Theatre Group of Nepal.
There has been an explosion of street theatre activity in India in the eighties and nineties. One study estimates the existence of about 7,000 street theatre groups in different parts of the country with the largest number in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In India, street theatre or popularly termed as ‘Nukkad Natak’ 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, a well-known street theatre artist 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. 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 of these plays takes a long time too depending on the topics and motive behind the play. Like Badal Sircar’s play takes almost 6monthsh to 1 year in preparation as they choose themes which have issues that take a longer time. To attract the audience they started playing a ‘dholak’ or choral song. When the audience surrounds in a circular position, one person narrates while the actors mime. As these plays are mostly low budgeted, the theme and the dressing has to kept simple so almost no makeup looks are preferable unless it’s a mime. In a mime play, the face is being painted white and eyes should be highlighted in the black circle. Not much scope of good acting is considered as the theme needs to be displayed in an exaggerated version. Uses of mic and sound box depend on the size of the gathering.
The topics or the themes of an independent street play have always been on bringing the positive changes in the society. The maker or the scriptwriter takes different topics from general day to day instances or the burning topics that shook the world. For eg. from Nirbhaya incident of 2013 that immensely impacted India has been portrayed beautifully in a street play in Gurgaon demonstrating the safety of women in India day to day negative impact of drinking and smoking on human health in various nukkad natak. However, more abstract ideas like political campaigning to brand promotions also come into focus. The venerable pioneer of Indian street theatre is Jana Natya Manch – People’s Theatre Front, or Janam – which was created nearly 40 years ago and popularised street theatre as activism.
In India, we have a marathon of street play which was organised in 2017. Manthan Mahotsav, nearly performed by 125 teams in 40 states in India as well as few states in abroad like Brazil and Nepal picking up issues like women empowerment, ragging, eve teasing, religious fanaticism etc. in all prominent places around the city. Being the largest street play festival in India, started off its 10th edition on March 4. The brainchild of Verve, the street play society of Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies, University of Delhi, Manthan 2017 created history with street plays being performed in so many different locations across India, many of them simultaneously.
Street play will never age as this happens to be the oldest and the most convenient way of spreading the goodness to the extremely difficult areas. Being a witness of its power to persuade someone to your ideas is something I cannot agree more. Whatever the reason for choosing the street, the street is a place with a different set of possibilities than the conventional theatre space. Sue Gill of Welfare State
International argues that a street theatre performance is not a lesser form than an indoor performance, nor is it simply taking what you do on stage and placing it outdoors, but a form with an energy and an integrity of its own.