Subodh Patnaik and his Natya Gram, a quest for true Indian theatre

Posted by Kaahon Desk On June 21, 2017

Until recently, to the average educated Indian audiences of theater, the “Proscenium” had acquired their admiration which is the impression of the colonial legacy. Britishers had left the country but not theater practices in India. Long survival under the colonial rule, the Indian theater had adopted the customs of the colonizers and had staged it accordingly, perceiving them to the only way to be ‘progressive’. Proscenium staging of theater became habitual and synonymous and Indian theater stages the repetitions of that form, painfully trying to improve on that.

Starting from the private theaters, organized by the Zamindars, petty kings to the public commercial theaters opened to the public, the nineteenth century brought for the Indians, a theater covered fully in the gamut of Bourgeoisie commercial theater. This theater was staged to fulfill the popularized elite Victorian tastes of the upper middle-class Indians, and never touched the socio-economic reality of the rest of the majority Indian classes. Though the early entrepreneurs of the theater were forcefully influenced by the Western theater to delve into the classic Sanskrit plays, yet that influence was not enough forceful to take on the real principles of early Sanskrit plays nor the popular cultural practices to build the modern ‘Indian’ theatrical form. The form of theater was nothing but a subject oriented transcription of the “European” theater that the Britishers had brought to the land of India. The rich tradition of the popular folk theater that was available to the creators of modern theater in India was left in the dust as it was considered that it demystified the sophisticated taste of the urban educated elite population that were the progressive strength of India. India became independent, but Indian theater felt shy to take on their original roots of theatrical expression, embedded in their century-old folk theater, or academically modified Sanskrit classical theater, but cringed on to the bourgeoisie British form of Proscenium Theater which is supposed to be modern and progressive.

Subodh Patnaik, who graduated from Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Odisha’s premiere institution of performing arts, has been struggling with his brainchild Natya Gram, a unique theater village in the rural heart of Odisha, to find that answer of the question which has been lying hidden amidst many layers of dust and forgetfulness. What is the Indian theatrical form?His encounter with Badal Sarkar had prompted him to think beyond the ruling psychological realism prominent in theaters then. Subodh Patnaik got inspired from the idea of Badal Sarkar to consider theater as a vehicle for social change. It is interesting to note that Subodh did not imitate Badal Sarkar’s idea of the form of theater but developed his own. He believed that his form of theater should be such, that will be Indian inform, and for that, he took ingredients from Odisha’s folk theatre forms and essentially Bharat Natyashastra. Shri Patnaik was convinced that the forms of theater which survived through the passages of history were mobile and flexible. Based upon this idea, Subodh Patnaik formed a kind of theater, which is not dependant on any grand set, mesmerizing light design, and literary sparks in dialogue. He rested his form of theater on flat light, symbolic usage of Bamboo craft used as set, and body movements which communicate beyond human speech. This form of theater needs massive training. Subodh Patnaik’s plays which are effortlessly enacted actually puts the audiences in admiration where they are magnificently attracted to the efforts which went behind making such form of theater.

This thorough training is given to the actors of the repertoire in “Natya Gram”, through regular training and workshops. The actors come from across the country, but remarkably from the tribal zones in and around Odisha. They live a life in strict discipline, as Subodh believes is necessary for mastering any art form. Natya Gram is only 5 kms. from Kurdatown, National Highway No. 5 from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, connects this.

Meeting Badal Sarkar, formation of Natya Gram and the quest for Indian theatre

Subodh Patnaik is of the view that it is unfair to expect people to be obliged to see his artwork, which is confined to a particular space. He therefore takes his theater to the people. Even he tries his theater to engage not only urban masses, but also the rural people. Here to be noted, the subject of his theater is mostly based on socio economic debacles of the rural India. He organizes an annual expedition, and terms that as “cyco-theater.” It means theater travelling by cycles. His strict disciplinary mechanism allows him to travel with his group and cover seven hundred kilometers and perform more than hundreds of shows, communicating with various village people and interacting with them. Subodh Patnaik refuses to term this form of theater as street theater. To him, street theater has propaganda. His plays which are performed in rural set ups, has a message, but that is not obtrusive. He rather terms this theater as ‘intimate theatre’, as that can be performed in proscenium, a big room, a roof top and anywhere as found suitable.

Subodh Patnaik discusses his ideological path of practicing theatre

Subodh Patnaik considers himself to be a social activist and a freedom fighter as fur as theatre being practiced in India. He often says that it is baseless to lament that there are no funds to do theater. To him, what is important is to free Indian theater from the clutches of colonial form and etch out from our memory and history our golden form of theater and give it its due respect. He also considers that theater can be a vehicle for social change. If these two goals are achieved, then the world will recognize their effort and will be in their path with all kinds of supports.

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