An amateur actor wanted to know what the definition of Amateur Theatre was before he opened his mouth. When he was told that an amateur is one who does not use theatre to make a living, he agreed with the definition and disagreed with Gaur's contention. "It is only amateur theatre which has kept theatre alive, not only in Delhi but anywhere in the world," feels Feisal Alkazi, director of the oldest Amateur theatre group in Delhi - Ruchika. Feisal has been regenerating his group by working with children in his Little Actor's Club. Earlier he used to infuse fresh blood through Music Theatre Workshop. Kiran Sharma who works in a Children's theatre group found that the greatest supporters of her theatre were parents of children who participated in their workshop. Feisal finds a much greater awareness about theatre amongst college students. So maybe the hope lies in the new generation.
But, concepts notwithstanding, physical problems facing amateur theatre are forbidding. N.K. Sharma who’s Act-I has not been seen to perform as intensely as a decade earlier, calls it a space problem - literally as well as metaphorically. Literally there is no rehearsal space; metaphorically there is no affordable infrastructure. "Even if you have an excellent concept, packaging has become important," he says. Vijay Kumar, who often brings his troupe from Patna to perform in Delhi laments about the bureaucratic red tape - police permission and entertainment tax clearance are a big hurdle in performing besides of-course the high theatre rentals. To overcome such hurdles, groups like Sambhav, put up plays with simple props and hardly any sets. But the odds against theatre are building up and if theatre people don’t put their act together, Amateur theatre will face an untimely extinction.
Permission to perform, the first hurdle
Amateur theater was at its peak in 1980s but was subsequent decimated by Television. Yet if theatre does not survive then neither will TV. Where else will it groom its actors if not in Theatre? Even more than institutional theatre it is amateur theatre which is the life force of culture, primarily because it is people’s theatre. It is not funded by any agency or sponsored by the state. It will not dry up if state sponsorship is withdrawn. Perhaps for that reason the state feels most threatened by it. But facts belie this hypothesis. Amateur theatre has been largely creative and artistic. It has never opposed the State. It has never been sponsored by a political party. At best it has raised questions without providing answers. It is usually a group of educated artists, who wish to communicate and who get together and pool in their resources to do so. According to theatre director, N.K. Sharma of Act One, “One of the important reasons why amateur theatre should be appreciated is that it optimises its limited resources to project a creative genius’ work. Take for example plays of literary giants, such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera,” he adds “it is one thing for a publicly funded Institution, like the National School of Drama to do it, but quite another for a tiny amateur group to put up such a show. The group has to say a lot through very little and that is where the artistry of the amateur lies.”
But what are the hurdles that you face when you put up the show. First, as per Bombay Police Act, you go to the police to ask for a clearance. Stop laughing, “Why should I go to the police?” you ask, “Do you go to the police when you put up a dance or music recital or organise an Art Exhibition? Besides what does Bombay police act have to do with Delhi. This is not Bombay, it is Delhi.” All valid questions which don’t have any rational answers. According to Lokendra Trivedi, who often performs outside Delhi, this is a typical problem in this city. Nowhere outside have they ever had to get such clearances. In fact it is a pleasure to perform outside since the atmosphere is much more receptive to theatre. When the Bombay police act was first reimposed in Delhi, theatre workers were quite agitated. In a seminar specially organised against it; Safdar Hashmi called it the first step towards government censorship of theatre. The only time that the option of banning a play was actually utilised, was, when Arun Kuckreja put up I.S. Johar’s Bhutto in 1981. Even that ban was short lived, because he won the case in the High Court and Delhi police actually compensated him Rs.1500 towards cost of litigation. The British used this act to control freedom of expression. Do we need a British law to control our artists? We live in a free country and our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, yet an archaic law is enforced without any rationale. Sandeep Shrivastava of Vistaar recounts how, in order to get this permission he had to run from pillar to post. They even need clearance from Traffic. The logic the police need to know so that they can control the traffic. “The plays are performed in auditoriums where plays are held every day. Does police need prior information when a film is show in the cinema halls?” He asks. As Arun Kuckreja puts it; “Theatre is part of our culture, and the fewer the bureaucratic hurdles you put before it, the more it will prosper. In my case, I had got exemption from the Entertainment Tax department, but the police stepped in and stopped my play. So I told them that the left hand of the Government does not know what the right hand is doing.” Well, that is no longer the case. Now the Police department insists that you first get the other clearances before they dole out theirs