A Speech by Atul Pethe
English Translation: Rupali Bhave

Discomforts in the Creative World




Greetings! In the begining, I would like to thank the selection committee for honouring me with the ‘Tanveer Natyadharmi Puraskar’. My heart is full of myriad emotions as I accept this award. Dr. Shreeram Lagoo and Deepatai have a very special place in my life. Dr. Lagoo has acted in two of my plays and I have learnt theatre watching his performances.. I have learnt how to read the subtext, thanks to him. . His courage and integrity in lending support to an experimental play is exemplary. I am delighted to share the stage with Dr. Mohan Agashe, Jyoti Subhash and Omkar Govardhan.

I humbly state that my writers, directors, actors, technicians and dear friends who have lovingly invited me to perform my plays in different cities; thinkers who have guided me; friends from the movement; those who have given financial support to my plays and the audience, all have a share in this award. I acknowledge with respect, Rohini and Parna’s contribution in my journey. This award has given me more strength and self-confidence, which is much needed in today’s day and age.

Today is a very valuable day for me. I am overjoyed to be felicitated alongside Ms B Jayashree. The Kannada-Marathi confluence has always brought forth beautiful creations which have enriched us all. Let us, all, carry this tradition forward with more power. Heartiest congratulations, Jayashree Akka!

Friends, all of us present in this auditorium today are firmly entrenched in theatre. Performing ‘experimental plays’ has always been challenging and will continue to be so. However, in today’s time, it has become extremely difficult due to various reasons. The difficulty of walking a steep route presents itself at every step. I am not going to enumerate the usual difficulties. However, I am going to  share my views on some of the serious issues facing new creation and my search on how to resolve them.

Let me begin with ‘commerce’. Today, extreme commercialisation pervades all around us. The greed for fame has become like a developing mental illness. This hinders the ability to experiment or to create something new with full concentration. In the last few years, the self-identity of experimental theatre has become fainter and weaker. The feeling is no longer one of creating something new. The latest trend is of making a product. We are rapidly forgetting how to explore new horizons by seeking new possibilities through the medium of art. To put oneself at stake in order to find new idioms of theatre is an attitude that no longer exists. We are becoming averse to the idea of failure, as a part in the process of a new search. ‘Everything  we do must be successful’ is the new mantra. The channels are standing strong and tall to ensure this! The channels will determine people’s tastes and accordingly ‘market’ the products at the ‘mall’. Artists like us, will have to go from door to door, as ‘salesmen’ to sell it. This is how an audience-driven cultural world is taking shape. Newspapers extensively publicise how artists who won a one-act play competition landed a television serial. A successful movie actor who once acted in plays conducts a ‘master-class’ for newcomers in theatre. These commercial channel-organisers aren’t propagating theatre sensibilities in new theatre practitioners. On the contrary, they are feeding them the heady concoction of fame. They sanctify it. Thanks to these shenanigans, theatre activity in various cities remains temporary. The new energy  it generates is diverted to cinema or television. We cannot see anybody take a firm stand to practice theatre. These artists neither perform plays nor do they watch others’ plays. Under the guise of providing them a platform, these new artists are, in fact, snatched away. It is almost like nipping them in the bud. They know nothing, they have read nothing, they possess neither wisdom nor diligence or a skill or an experience. Yet, they are opinionated about everything. It is mind-boggling. They turn into empty-headed know-it-alls. Those who feel deeply about theatre have been pushed into a corner and ‘celebrities’ have permeated the cultural universe. This indeed is worrisome!

Lack of communication between theatre practitioners only adds to the situation. Each one of us, practising theatre, are restlessly pacing in our own isolated islands. Today, there are barely four or five of us who consistently practise theatre. A similar situation exists at the national level as well. Actually, all of us, post-90s theatre practitioners, have independently conducted many experiments. Yet, there is no communication between us. We are connected but there is no dialogue. Even if there is a dialogue, we don’t like what the others do. In fact, there is a greater tendency of looking down upon others’ work or completely ignoring it. We have divorced the ideas of co-existence and shared experiences. Even those theatre practitioners who think differently are fast losing their essence and identity. Loneliness is on the rise, owing to the negative attitude of disowning others. How one can create something new and how one can seek its appropriate evaluation from co-practitioners has become unfathomable.

Today, everybody finds something lacking in the other person’s creation. Various factors are responsible for this situation. We do not understand in-depth politics, we cannot resolve philosophical dilemmas and we do not comprehend the issues inherent to our existence today. Ignorance of interdisciplinary ways makes it difficult to draw out anything of real value through arts, which can make our everyday living more meaningful. Even today, we  rely solely on our internal motivation. Our efforts at the intellectual level are insufficient. Hence, despite conducting several experiments, we are unable to achieve a conceptual foundation to our theatre practices. While investigating the reasons for our stunted growth, we discover that, unconsciously, we have fit ourselves in various slots. Namely- religion, caste, class, country, city, gender, language and other such ego-inducing slots which limits  broader understanding. Our inability to rid ourselves of these slots, hinders our creative growth and comprehension. Let alone a wide ‘world-view’, we hardly develop a broad ‘local-view’. If we look at the world with eyes wide open during this search, we realise the depth of our thoughts and the power of our intellect. Our society, as a whole, lacks that intellectual depth. These are the reasons why new creations are mere bonsais. Neither is wisdom available nor is there the capacity to recognise it.

It is lamentable that some individuals and organisations that can perceive the wider canvas of politics and society are suffering stunted growth too. A wide perspective is lacking on all levels. Individuals who possess a deep understanding of certain issues are completely clueless about others. All fields in society are suffering from the same affliction. They are all silent and ignorant. Artists are ignorant about social work and politics while social workers and politicians are ignorant of the arts. From this ignorance, arises, the dichotomous classification of Aesthetic theatre and Intellectual theatre. In reality, who would be averse to theatre that combines both these qualities? However, in the last few years we have become opposed to rational thinking. An environment opposed to intellect has been propagated in our  society. Progressive, thought-oriented,‘intellectual’ and experimenta’ abilities have become modern expletives. It is impossible to live without taking a stand for something while not taking a stand is a stand in itself. It is the most safe and convenient stand to take!

Post-1990, we are witnessing an era of disconnection and degeneration. The current age can be rightly termed as the ‘Age of Decadence’. Recently, I visited a mall,it was humongous, offering all sorts of ‘entertainment’. Thousands of people were roaming inside the mall,numerous indecipherable sounds could be heard. Escalators were running, enticing aromas of unrecognisable tastes were wafting all around,shops were offering incredible wares. At one particular shop, there were continuous bomb blasts and shots fired, children were destroying fruits and animals on the screens in front of them using hammers while their parents looked on with pride. In another shop, some people were wearing goggles and waving out their arms, they were engrossed in the virtual world. Outside observers had no way of knowing what they were watching. In the next shop, chocolates were thrown at a moving wheel. Suddenly an announcement was made and hundreds of people started running, I was watching all this. I spotted a salesperson,it was a woman. She looked simple and might be poor but she was wearing a suit. I went to her, smiled and greeted her and asked why everybody was running. She looked at me suspiciously. Constantly treating each other with suspicion is another problem of our times! After a while she told me, “They all want to have ‘fun’ and our mall gives them that. A few seconds later I asked her, “Well, do they get any?” to which she replied, “Temporarily, If the ‘fun’ ends, they can get it in the other shops too.” And then she disappeared in the crowd. I started carefully watching the customers buying the ‘temporary fun’. They were from different religions and belonged to families who had some amount of liquid cash but failed at holding on to it. I thought that this mall, which engages these people in ‘fun’ was an apt metaphor. It systematically ensnares people by enticing them with inexpensive ‘fun’. The nadir of ‘fun’ has reached to this end.

Let me present the final complex issue before I end my speech. Today we see recklessness, decay and disregard for consequences in all the stratas of society. People belonging to one stratum are quite aware that the train will mow them down and yet they continue to sit on the truck and get themselves killed. They are the ones who are celebrating birth and death anniversaries, reciting the atharvasheersha, listening to vulgar songs at festivals, going on pilgrimages and spending money at malls. Or perhaps, they are being made into those kind of people. Another stratum is that of the super-rich, incredibly commercial, mall owners who are simply out of our reach. They are all busy hiding their age and maintaining their skin young. The growing problem of obesity is the main issue they have to face. The third stratum is of the middle-class which is almost extinct now as they have all become nouveau-riche now. Their world comprises- settling abroad, vacation and worrying about their health. All the three stratas have given up on being sensible and have instead taken a dose of numbness. Which of these strata does one make a play for, is the question.

It is equally bothersome and funny that presently all these three strata are seamlessly merging with the others. It is difficult to figure out who is making a ladder and for whom. Ironically, this is politics. Those who are trying to create awareness about this kind of politics are silenced. These three strata are loudly talking about their ancient, sacred religion and their customs and traditions. More often than not, these people barely have any capability. These people form cliques which they call them ‘Hinduism’, ‘Indian-ness’ and ‘Patriotism’. They openly express their opinions on social media confusing expressing opinions with expressing thoughts. They behave as if they are following the constitution and they promote dictatorship. Their motivation is to preserve all that is theirs and devour anything that isn’t. Factions are forming due to their over-excitement. The deeper cultural fabric of society is being shaken every day. Mob-lynching,names of places are being changed,old properties are being reclaimed. Writing, experimenting and now, even, singing is being banned. We are censoring ourselves in a cultural genocide.

It is heart-wrenching to think how artists like us can bring new creations when we are rapidly losing our freedom. As theatre makers, our responsibility becomes greater in such an environment. I am aware that such periods recur in history from time to time. In each period, the artists have to bear the responsibility of resolving the issues of that period. A dialogue ought to be brought about amongst all three strata amidst increasingly shallow sensibilities. In this world where people are diminishing in stature and statues are increasing in height, it is all the more important to take on the challenge of new creation. An artist’s creation arises out of his / her time and environment. If we deal with the issues of our surroundings, take an individual stand and then collectively stand together and face the reality, only then will theatre survive.

In the adivasis, a story-teller is called ‘kahankarak’ and the listeners are called ‘ahankarak’. Both are organically connected to each other organically. If nobody calls out, who will respond? Acceptance of the other is necessary in this relationship. The ‘ahankarak’ validates the creation of the ‘kahankarak’. ‘I exist because of you and you, because of me’! This feeling of sharing a path and sharing joy helps strengthen relations and develop an understanding. Life becomes meaningful. It is my heartfelt wish if I may contribute to make life meaningful as a ‘kahankarak’ in theatre. I am certain that the ‘Tanveer Natyadharmi Puraskar’ will give me the strength to achieve this.

Long Live Theatre!

Thank you!

Image courtesy: Prabhakar Pachpute

This speech was delivered by Atul Pethe after receiving the Tanveer Natyadharmi Award given out every year in the memory of Tanveer Lagoo, son of Dr Shreeram and Deepa Lagoo. The award was conferred upon Atul Pethe in the 15th Tanveer Sanman award ceremony held in December 2018 in Pune.

Atul Pethe is an acclaimed writer, director, actor, producer and documentary film-maker. His theatre work has been presented through different national and international theatre festivals in India.

Rupali Vaidya is an actor, translator and children’s book author. She is the founder of Jacaranda, an organisation that brings theatre to children and young adults.

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