Video screens upstage project larger than life images of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Downstage, eminent theatre actors—Bhaskar Ghosh and Sunit Tandon—give voice to Gandhi and Nehru respectively, as Dear Bapu begins. This docudrama explores the complex relationship between the duo—the violent disagreements despite their strong emotional bond. The medium is 21 letters exchanged between the father of the nation and chacha Nehru. “The audience will be surprised to see the strong language Gandhi was capable of using,” says director Mohan Maharishi.
Dear Bapu is one of more than 75 plays to be staged at the Bharat Rang Mahotsava (also known as the 10th Theatre Utsav), an annual festival of plays organized by the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi.
The real thing: Binodini Dasi was one of the first South Asian theatre actors to pen her own autobiography.
This year marks a milestone in the history of Indian theatre as NSD celebrates its 50th anniversary, and a decade of its popular theatre festival. Over this period, NSD has established itself as a synonym for Indian theatrics, spawning some of the most well-known names in theatre and films. “Assessment is not always on artistic calibre; at NSD we have taken theatre to the nooks and corners of the country,” says NSD chairperson Amal Allana.
But NSD has had its fair share of ups and downs, as Maharishi, who also served as director from 1984 to 1987, says: “It was a disturbed scene when I joined and the students were on strike. My first step was to get students and teachers back into the classroom.”
This year’s festival will bring together 60 plays by NSD alumni and 19 plays from abroad. There will also be a 24-hour live performance by Harish Khanna, who will live in a glass house on the NSD premises for 15 days.
Khanna’s Glass House Project shows the versatility that NSD has tried to instill in its students. “NSD has always been the centre of cultural debate. There are people who emphasize the purity of theatre, but with changing times we have tried to encourage our students to dabble in emerging trends such as multimedia, while also reviving folk performances,” says NSD director Anuradha Kapoor.
Aditee Biswas’ Portrait of Dora drifts through the memories of 18-year-old Dora, who is sent to consult Sigmund Freud regarding certain “abnormalities” in her behaviour. “Hysteria was said to be a disease of women then but, today, we know that is not so. I find a lot of similarities in the treatment of women during the Victorian age and in India today,” says Biswas. The psychological insight of the play reveals that to be healthy, everyone needs their space to grow and be who they are.
It’s a motto this drama school lives by. “The institute may be about theatre but while learning acting there I learnt a lot about myself as well,” says Abhilash Pillai, whose play, Helen, will also be showing at the festival.
Another reason the alumni seems to be in love with the school is the passion and dedication it instilled for theatre. “My best moments in NSD have been the readiness of students to work from 7am to all night long. The day starts and never ends,” says Kapoor. Biswas remembers a time when the bonding between her classmates became tangible. A fellow classmate, though hospitalized two days before their final year production, got out of bed just to act in her play and then went right back to his hospital bed.
But NSD’s work also has strong socio-political tones. One socially pertinent play on the roster is Allana’s Nati Binodini, which depicts the beginning of contemporary theatre through the eyes of one of its most famous and prolific actors, the early 20th century thespian Binodini Dasi. Binodini shot to fame despite her lower-class status and label as a prostitute but later, when she exerted her own presence and defied society to openly claim her fame, she was shunned. “It is very important to learn about theatre history, and Binodini’s story is compelling and shows the disparity of social restrictions,” says Allana.
Working all night, using electronic devices to create futuristic worlds, living in glass houses— for its 50th anniversary, NSD has pulled out all stops. As Kapoor says, “This festival is going to be massive, and it’s important that we remain as large in the coming years.”
The 10th Bharat Rang Mahotsava will be on till 20 Januaryat Kamani Auditorium, Siri Fort Auditorium, LTG Auditorium, Shri Ram Centre; and Abhimanch, Bahumukh and Sammukh at NSD.