Corona and its Onslaught on Indian Theatre

Tuesday, 11 August 2020


Corona and its Onslaught on Indian Theatre

Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri | May 16, 2020 12:45 hrs

The author, having participated in a Zoom discussion with national theatre practitioners, writes about the current situation of the artists, technicians and support staff under the pandemic situation which has left them without the work that they are skilled in.

Interesting paradoxes have emerged for theatre people in the times of Corona. Suddenly, all works in progress – rehearsals, shows, festivals and other live shows have come to a grinding halt. But the flipside was that the usually paid online resources, like the portals for National Theatre Live, Globe Theatre (both of UK) and a host of others, like the Met Opera have opened up, free to view, mostly on YouTube. So while we miss the live action, many of us also rejoice in seeing some absolutely cutting edge stuff on these online websites, which we might have never otherwise seen. 

But make no mistake, not even the most spectacular of recorded performances can ever be a substitute for a live show – the kind that gives you goosebumps – as you breathe, hear, see and inhale the excitement it generates. So yes, theatre is in crisis, at least for now.

Many of us in the theatre circles have been in touch and in discussion. So when Sanjna Kapoor asked me to register for a Zoom meeting called Theatre Adda (with our own chai and Parle G biscuits), I was intrigued. The said meeting began with around 40 theatre people from across India, moderated by Quasar Thakore Padamsee and Irawati Karnik. Many of them spoke of their ad-hoc reinvention of their craft through (what else) e-resources. 

Participating as a theatre academic, it was fascinating to understand how fertile and quick the human mind is – the plethora of theatrical exercises already in operation, the voice and body training classes, playwright courses and sundry other attempts at keeping the spirit of theatre alive in these difficult times.
Just as we, in academia, have managed to salvage our classes by embracing Zoom/Skype/Google Classroom, so have the people in the theatre. What is common to both is the profound emptiness of the mechanism – I have been doing plenty of these online classes with my students, and been left unsatisfied always at the lack of the actual human interaction – breathing, listening, feeling – in the flesh, together. Still, it is better than nothing. 

As the 90 minute meeting progressed, what left one perturbed were the thoughts of the technical people, the backstage guys, who actually make the theatre magical through their stage sets, lights and design. And here too, their experience and pain remains invisible. The actors adapt easily into a new format and begin to spew all manner of ‘content’ but what is to become of the technicians – the magic makers of live shows? Inaayat Ali Sami spoke eloquently on how they are really left to fend for themselves until they devise a method to collaborate online from their homes.

And that is the contradiction that makes one review one’s celebration of the change. Millions of migrant labourers were similarly forgotten – until their sheer numbers forced us to see them, and try to mitigate their problems. Many theatre groups across the country have now realised the plight of the backstage people and are trying to raise funds to help them tide over the crisis. I too am now wondering what is being done to help them in Assam.  

Speaking of our own state, we have here that behemoth of an industry that feeds many, enriches many and entertains thousands all across both rural and urban Assam – mobile theatre. If one has any idea of the magnitude of this commercial theatre in terms of how many people depend upon it for a livelihood, one will understand the grave crisis that they are faced with. The other, serious theatres that run in the city have already had to shelve many important projects. Most actors are keeping themselves busy with online ventures of various kinds, mostly from their homes... but is this enough?

Education can reinvent itself by going online, but what about students in the deep rural spaces who have no connectivity, or smartphones? They are obviously being left out in the cold. Just like the invisible ones everywhere – the stage hands or the migrant workers.

The space is definitely one of despair, as one lockdown snowballs into another. While online portals have offered us some solace and the idea of a ‘new normal’ is constantly being bandied around, it has only driven home the point that nothing – simply nothing – can replace direct human interaction. So perhaps it might just provide that breathing space to writers, artists or students to look within, and come up with work that will mark out our existence in this unprecedented time of human history that we are in the process of living out. 

After all, we do know that Shakespeare wrote many of his masterpieces during the Plague, when his world was in lockdown. 


(The author is professor of English at Gauhati University. The views expressed in the article are her own)

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