On a music jaunt in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, two years ago, I timidly swapped travel notes with a stalwart Langa musician who had seen far more of the world than I can hope to cover. “Where are you from?” he asked me. Mumbai, I said. His eyes crinkled. “I’ve played there,” he said. “At the NCPA.” He smiled, clearly recalling something delightful. “The NCPA!”
Perched at the edge of the Arabian Sea, so far down south that on a still afternoon it can seem distant even from The Oberoi hotel next door, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) doesn’t always elicit that exclamation. Too often popular thinking goes: If you aren’t interested in teaching your children the Suzuki violin method; if you don’t care which St Xavier’s alumnus wins a writing award at the theatre festival Thespo; if you aren’t a chiffon-and-pearls-wearing senior citizen, it isn’t really the place for you.
Culture abode: The Sunken Garden next to the NCPA’s music library. Photograph courtesy NCPA
But all those hang-ups have been on hold for some time. In November alone, audiences have had whiplash trying to get from the Sufi music festival, Sama’a, to the Centrestage Theatre Festival, which premiered over a dozen plays, to their new Contemporary Dance Festival, to the gala Literature Live!. A Pu La Deshpande revival production— especially poignant as the legendary Marathi writer was NCPA’s honorary director in the 1970s—burst at the rafters with eager fans.
The centre is producing its first play in two decades, Sai Paranjpye’s Aalbel, which will open on 25 December at the Experimental Theatre. And the end of the month should see the opening of an affordable, sea-facing café, which may just be the most significant move the centre has ever made to attract visitors.
“The NCPA Café will be an informal space,” explains Khushroo N. Suntook, the centre’s chairman and a founder of its associated Symphony Orchestra of India. “Audiences, families, arts aficionados, youngsters, students, artistes can come to the NCPA and have a pleasant day—performance or no performance.”
“Informal” is not a word most people associate with the NCPA. Anything highbrow can seem simultaneously frightening and dull, and despite its long-running projects to explain classical music to newbies and connect artistes with audiences, “highbrow” has historically been characteristic of the NCPA’s ambitions. To enter its quiet, modernist precincts is to see that it does not draw its culture from the city, but attempts to be a place from which culture is transmitted to the city.
The Experimental Theatre auditorium. Photograph courtesy NCPA
This may be a brave statement to make of a place which, in the seven years since it opened its doors to corporate events, has hosted the Lycra MTV Style Awards and the L’Oréal Professionnel Colour Trophy. Funding for the arts in one of India’s richest cities has not always been forthcoming (Suntook once said that perhaps too many people wrongly assumed that the brainchild of J.R.D. Tata and Jamshed Bhabha would be perennially underwritten by the Tatas).
And money, in its turn, has not been the only reason for the NCPA seeming irrelevant or boring in the past: Its five excellent theatres and wealth of resources, including the rigorously maintained NCPA Archives of Indian classical music, have often been underutilized.
But this season, the new spirit driving the NCPA is more in evidence than ever. Behind the scenes, each of the welter of new festivals are referred to as “properties”. It is an example of how a businesslike approach can bring some much-needed focus to artistic activity.
Amrita Lahiri, dance head at the NCPA, tells us that the five most popular dance programmes over the last year have all achieved or fallen just a hair short of the centre’s targeted 60% attendance in the big theatres (the Tata Theatre seats 1,000; the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, 1,100). She counts having a minimum of 400 people at dance programmes an encouraging sign at the NCPA, which is “difficult to access for dance audiences who are in Matunga or Chembur or the suburbs. Also, NCPA is well known for music and theatre, not for dance”.
The music library, which stores thousands of LPs as well as recordings of all the music performances held at the NCPA. There is an overall ‘if you build it, they will come’ attitude behind the scenes that is willing to wait for audiences By Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
There is an overall “if you build it, they will come” attitude behind the scenes that is willing to wait for audiences. Unsurprisingly, the most popular theatre events over the last year, according to theatre head Deepa Gahlot, were the Pratibimb and Ananda festivals of Marathi and Hindi theatre respectively. Regional theatre is making its comeback in all seriousness under Gahlot: November alone had as many Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi productions as English ones. “Earlier, theatre activity was confined to Sundays,” Gahlot points out. “Now we get audiences during the week too.”
Theatre groups have been in uproar about a rental hike at all five theatres, which the NCPA says is a consequence of inflation, prompting some serious public dialogue about funding for the arts. “The NCPA is a wonderful venue,” says Kajal Gadhia, executive producer at theatre company Manhar Gadhia Productions. “It’s beautiful, the audiences there are like nowhere else, and the NCPA has cultivated them loyally. Deepa (Gahlot) has done an amazing job encouraging new talent at the theatre. But what of it?” she says. To keep profits stable, groups might have to hike their ticket prices, which is easier said than done. Faced with an imminent cut in their revenues, theatre groups like hers are wondering how the NCPA will bring in new audiences for experimental shows. “When I can watch Paresh Rawal at any city auditorium for Rs 400,” Gadhia points out, “will I come to watch an experimental play for 1,000 bucks, even if Naseerbhai (Naseeruddin Shah) is in it?”
While local theatre groups are still examining the possibility of losing out on the NCPA as a venue, international productions are slowly coming in—Ramin Gray will show The Golden Dragon here next year —and Suntook has commented on the centre’s desire to be not just a venue for hire but also a cultural producer on its own terms.
Poet and dancer Arundhathi Subramaniam, who joined the NCPA in 1994 and served as its head of dance programming in 2009-10, says ideas have never been a problem for them. She has been a regular at the NCPA long before she worked there, as a student taking in the centre’s theatre and dance events. What has changed, she says, is that “Now, there’s the wherewithal to energize those ideas”.
Long-time audiences have been noticing the changes. “The NCPA was always the place to watch international acts,” points out music critic Amit Gurbaxani. “We had it before Blue Frog and places like that came along. The reputation may be that it’s only for rich old Parsis, but I’ve seen it changing.” He recalls that at the full house for their last staging of Tosca, many of the attendees were actually young people in jeans and shorts. “I wonder how people are going to react to the Midival Punditz in a theatre this month,” he says. The NCPA recently staged a ticket giveaway for a sublime Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra concert—on Twitter.
“We are moving away from the beige in our walls and our work,” Suntook says, “and moving towards more colour and vibrancy.”
Economics dictates change, of course. But more importantly, the NCPA’s energy may work to usher in a new stage of the centre’s relationship with its native city. And as the Rajasthani ustad who spoke with such pleasure about his NCPA performance understood, a venue can transform not only its audience but also its artistes.
At Literature Live!, the Tata Theatre recently hosted Vikram Seth, who commanded an audience too large to be accommodated at the smaller, edgier Experimental across the lawn. Full-blown theatrical productions can and have been dwarfed by the Tata before, but it offered us a chance to see Seth, our most graceful English writer, at his very best. As his musical, multilingual reading found room to expand in a way it could never have in a book store or garden restaurant, it was hard not to soak in the magic and think, Yes! The NCPA!