In February 2010, BLT was invited to present a paper at a national seminar on Urban Growth in Bangalore. BLT’s paper examined the role of English language theatre in the urban arts environment of Bangalore, taking a historical perspective from the pre-independence era. Extracts from the paper, reproduced here, serve to sum up BLT’s history in the context of the development of English theatre in Bangalore.
Drama in Education
The teaching and practice of drama in “English” schools was integral to the British educational system. It was simply a reflection of the social context in Britain, in which the theatre was a living and vibrant art form. Indeed, the amateur / non-profit theatre had a far wider base in community participation than the commercial theatre. The popular expression was: “Amateur dramatics is as English as toast with marmalade at tea time” It can be said that English language drama in India was essentially a colonial cultural legacy. The very term colonial legacy has, inescapably, a negative connotation. It must be accepted that there were some obvious positive features of the legacy as well:
- The British influence brought in technically sound stages. For instance, the original Assembly Hall at Bishop Cotton Boys School had fly mechanisms and other backstage features not seen in other performance halls. (Unfortunately, in the process of renovating the hall, the stage area was given an aseptic false ceiling of insulation material, and the entire scene changing mechanism of priceless heritage value was scrapped.)
- Teachers coming from Britain were often trained and experienced in both teaching drama and producing plays.
- These teachers had exposure to good stagecraft—in set design, costumes, fabricating props with locally available materials, lighting, sound, and so on. Wood work and other crafts taught at the school formed natural accompaniments to the drama studies.
- Most significantly, with good quality inputs in teaching and practice, dramatic activity in school was a respectable pursuit – as respectable as cricket and computers today.
We cannot overlook the fact that there were some obvious negative features of the legacy too
- Drama studies amounted to a narrow pursuit of English and Western traditions. Students remained ignorant of Indian and Eastern traditions.
- There was a Cantonment-City divide. Students in the Cantonment schools were isolated from the City theatre scene.
- There was an overall alienation from Indian culture.
Phases of Development of English Language Theatre
We must begin by accepting that English language theatre has remained an urban phenomenon in India, restricted to the larger cities. Bangalore certainly has been one of the cities to nurture English theatre over a long time. Four broad phases of development are recognisable in the English language theatre in Bangalore.
1. The Pre-60s era
English language theatre was mainly the amateur drama pastime of British expats seconded to businesses and industries in Bangalore. Naturally, they also contributed substantially to drama activity in the schools in the Cantonment area. An outstanding example of such expat amateur theatre was the Bangalore Amateur Dramatic Society. The genre of plays performed was popularly called BBC Theatre—British Bedroom Comedy. Membership in the group was predominately white. It was certainly so onstage. The few Indians in the group played productive roles backstage.
2. The 60s
In this period English language theatre moved out of Cantonment, to reach all of Bangalore. This happened with the formation of Bangalore Little Theatre in 1960. Also founded by a few expats, the group very decisively sought an alternative theatre experience in a post-colonial social context. Reaching out to those active in the Kannada theatre in the city they created a truly inclusive theatre society. They had a vision of a Community Theatre best described by the slogan invented 25 years later: Think Globally, Act Locally. Not surprisingly, the active members in the early ‘sixties included three British couples, a Dutch couple, an American couple, an Indian engineer with a European wife, and many Indians. Among the expats were a trained director and a trained actress, both from the Little Theatre movement in the UK. BLT was influenced greatly by the Little Theatre movement of the 50s in the UK, decentralising theatre activity from London, disseminating high quality theatre widely through training, outreach and community involvement. Within a year of inception, BLT arrived at a character and identity for itself: to maintain pride in its strictly amateur status, but to conduct its affairs in a thoroughly professional manner. The group gave itself a constitution and, through that, a participatory style of functioning. The group was seen as belonging to a membership, and therefore to be managed by a transparently elected management committee. The founding members were the first to give way to younger members to take the group forward. It is clear that the character of BLT was set early, and that character was influenced greatly by the Little Theatre movement of the UK. For instance:
- Owned by the membership and not founder-centric.
- A transparent and participative ethos.
- Investment in good management practice, grooming people for responsibilities.
- Ensuring a line of directors, succession in leadership.
- Investment in outreach and developmental activity—reaching schools and colleges, training workshops and play development.
In sum, within a short space of five years BLT was:
- An Indian theatre group with a global outlook.
- Assimilating the best of British traditions in a new Indian environment.
- Relating to Kannada and all other regional language theatre groups—actively assisting them.
An important indicator of the Indianness that was being set: As early as 1963 BLT produced an original adaptation of a Sanskrit play (Mrichhakatika) in English. It was performed specially for an Asian educational conference. Related to the last point is one other indisputably important feature of BLT: it is the only English language theatre group in Bangalore (perhaps anywhere in India) with strong links to the local-regional theatre, building bridges across language divides. Many of the stalwarts on the Kannada stage and screen have been either life members of BLT or have been prominently involved in some capacity or the other. Indeed, BLT has been a substantial support to Kannada theatre groups in their start up stages
3. The 70s
The decade was marked by several upheavals in the larger socio-political environment. There have been many scholarly analyses of the many turning points in the India of the 70s. (The emergence of “protests” had, coincidentally, a parallel in other societies of the West as well.) It was only natural that the theatre was also drawn to a deeper recognition of these contextual realities. While this was evident in writing for the theatre in most regional languages, the English language theatre, too, was beginning to find its place in the new Indian identity. In Bangalore the 70s witnessed, among other things:
- A renaissance in Kannada theatre. This was reflected clearly in new writing, new performing groups and directors, new directions in stagecraft, and a bold new identity.
- Beginnings in Play Development in English. The context of paucity of Indian plays in English led to the emergence a play writing activity within BLT that would only grow stronger over the years:
- It began with reworking available English language translations of plays in other Indian languages, making them more stage worthy
- It then took on fresh translations and adaptations of plays in regional languages
- It then went on to original scripts that were clearly Indian in character, but in the English language.
Indeed, as we shall see further below, the thrust given to play development in Bangalore was to also influence English language theatre in other Indian cities.
4. The 80s onwards
Starting from the early 80s, Bangalore had a sizeable increase in the volume of theatre activity in the English language. Because of the open developmental platform presented by BLT, along with a participative climate, many interested in the theatre began with BLT and went on to start their own groups. These new initiatives were even encouraged and aided by BLT. The decade witnessed the following two important developments.
- Major advances in play development. Bangalore was clearly emerging as a centre for original play writing in English. For instance, in the very first year of The Hindu awards for contemporary play scripts, two prizes went to BLT members: the First Prize for Vijay Padaki’s Credit Titles and a Special Prize for Poile Sengupta’s Mangala.
- The Deccan Herald annual theatre festival, the first of its kind in India, emerged as a major encouragement to English language theatre in Bangalore. It was also a place for new play scripts to be presented. Mahesh Dattani’s first major successes were in the Deccan Herald festivals.
The New Century
When BLT turned 45 there was much discussion within the group on an appropriate way to celebrate the Golden Jubilee in 2010. A task force was set up to undertake a strategic planning exercise. The findings of the task force were significant:
- BLT should build on its unique characteristics and real strengths
- The real strengths were clearly in two related areas: Training (including Training Trainers) and Outreach activity in schools, colleges and other institutions
- It seemed appropriate to take a big leap forward and create a new Academy of Theatre Arts.
- However, the Academy had to recognise the realities of the Indian social context and address the society’s real needs.
Clearly an alternative model of theatre development appeared a great necessity. While this is explained in some detail in a position paper developed at the new Academy of Theatre Arts, a slight elaboration might be in order here. Most training institutions turn out “products”—artists and technicians to practice a trade. The reality is that the “market” for the theatre in India is underdeveloped. It does not absorb the products as we imagine they would be, nor are the products given their due. The pertinent question would be: Whose job is “market development”? As BLT, saw it: “Ours, of course!” Somebody had to make a beginning, somewhere, some time. The task for the new Academy was thus clear:
- NOT turning out actors and technicians into a market where there are no livelihoods for them
- RATHER, working at the societal foundations, and creating a nurturing environment for the theatre.
Thus the new Academy arrived at a Mission for itself that may best be described as Theatre Education. Three main “arenas” of activity were identified within the Mission:
- Work in public appreciation: towards deeper appreciation of theatre arts and, indeed, all performing arts.
- Work in schools and with children: influencing the school system, enabling teachers in the school setting to teach and do drama
- Work in colleges and with youth: influencing the university system, reviving dramaturgical activity in the college/university setting
The totality of the mission amounts to a social movement, restoring the Theatre as a vibrant social institution—in contrast to viewing theatre activity as performance-centred or, worse, as entertainment alone. English language theatre in Bangalore thus appears to have returned full circle to the educational setting—beginning as a legitimate curricular pursuit in the pre-independence era, losing the legitimacy in the post-independence era, and striving to regain the legitimacy in the twenty-first century. For the new Academy to succeed in this Mission it is clear that it must maintain a truly international outlook, and yet stay rooted in the Indian social and cultural context.