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Keval Arora's Kolumn
All Play And No Work
In a month or so from now, hordes of mainly young people all over the country will be winding up their quest for entry into a decent performance institute. Okay, ‘hordes’ is an exaggeration. There aren’t that many twenty year olds entering performance schools, especially when their number is compared to the hordes (and this is no exaggeration) that throng CAT venues in order to join the Management rat-race. Such is the unanimity with which the common eye looks upon Management – or, for that matter, the Civil Services, Medicine, Electronics, Engineering and what have you – as passports to achievement with a capital A that those who choose to not run this race are inevitably looked upon as ‘also-rans’. After all, in a world created by God the Manager, is it even conceivable that anyone can not want to be an administrator/executive? For the faithful, if you’re not ‘in’, it can only mean that you couldn't get in, sorry you weren’t up to the mark, so sad you couldn't make the grade.
In contrast, teachers who despair at seeing an entire generation troop willingly to the assembly lines, cherish those rare occasions when the odd student steps out of line to follow what the heart says and lets deep pleasure rather than anxious conformism dictate the career choices to be made. This is of course unfair to the vast majority of our students, for there are many to whom conformism is itself a source of deep pleasure. And, equally of course, I'm being sentimental in imputing a creative daemon – and a heart to boot – to every starry-eyed hopeful who hits tinsel town dreaming of fortune and fame. However, my generalisation is just that: it doesn’t lay claim to an absolute polarity of black and white, and is true only to the extent that it admits of exceptions.
I imagine every single young person who today opts to follow the lure of theatre does so with the kind of feckless courage that is the property of the young. Far from being an ‘also-ran’, s/he is driven by an urge that runs far deeper than the careerist ambitions articulated and sold through motivational lectures. Sadly, we’ve done precious little to make such courage practicable; and even the best of us behave as if we have no obligation other than to spout little homilies in encouragement.
One homily that comes to mind doesn’t quite fit the bill because it makes sense only when the word ‘play’ in it is wilfully misread. However, since it suits my present argument just fine, I shall carry on with my misreading, thank you. ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, said our teachers to us years ago when grammar books hadn't yet learnt to substitute ‘John’ with ‘Ram’ in search of a cheap indigenism. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry may well have metamorphosed into Ram, Shyam and Ahmed in the language classroom, but the sanctimonious intonation concerning the value of play has carried on as before. Thus it is that ‘play’, which continues to be trumpeted as ‘good’, becomes the basis by which non-academic activity is included in the timetable. That this amounts to merely a token recognition is obvious from the wording: play’s goodness is fine only up to a point, for its purpose is mainly interruptive. Work, and work, and then some more work, I imagine being lectured by a holier than thou CBSC syllabus maker, is necessary and good. But why does this pious breaker of mental peace then give me the mantra that work by itself is undesirable and that every now and then work ought to be interrupted by some play? How can dullness become a loathsome prospect to those who have contrived to teach and test students in the dullest possible way? Worse, how is it that teachers can connect work with dullness, even if their honesty is merely inadvertent? No, I'm afraid the true intention of that homily lies insidiously elsewhere. As the CBSC wolf may say: ‘All the better for you to work some more, my dear!’
The idea that logical thinking and free creativity, the mind and the spirit, have to be developed in consonance with one another continues to elude our education system. As does the idea that sometimes more learning can be had when there is less instruction. Instead, every single thing of interest that enables the young to make their own discoveries and choices is given curricular sanctity and turned into yet another opportunity for top-to-bottom instruction. Either that, or it is set aside as having secondary value. The manner in which sports and cultural activities are organised in educational institutions reinforces the perception that these are peripheral activities simply because they haven’t been graced with curricular urgency. When children, scanning timetables, immediately check to see the time allocated to ‘games’ and ‘extra-curricular activities’, it isn't because they possess a wisdom which the fairy tale tells us is the birthright of babes, but because children look forward to these ‘classes’ for the relief they provide from the daily grind.
Incidentally, the connection of playfulness and pleasure with art may be a reason why artists have often been derided as wastrels and scroungers, especially by those worthies for whom art is merely a diversion from the serious business of making money and gathering clout. Except, of course, when artistic work brings in 6-digit advances or 7-digit fees. That is when social acceptability rears its head and the media wags its tail. Such deference to qualities not necessarily related to talent and skill is the only time when the arts and sports are grudgingly accorded respect. Our pathological inability to value anything until it has acquired a market-convertibility is revealed in small, common instances. How does one account for our celebration of the skills of a Tendulkar, even as we continually use that dismissive phrase (‘sports case’) in schools and colleges to stamp a sportsperson as an intellectual deficient? Don’t misread this prejudice as a well-intentioned love of the all-rounder — examination whiz-kids are never similarly derided when they're unable to run fast or draw well. Another instance: the widespread interest that greeted Manjula Padmanabhan’s winning the first prize in the Onassis International Theatre Competition some years ago seemed to be directly proportioned by the $250,000 prize money that came in with the award.
As children, we have been encouraged to rank knowledge in a hierarchy of importance, and exclude pleasure as a criterion when doing so. The alienation of pleasure is such a fixed aspect of institutionalised learning that when students do enjoy a class, this pleasure is experienced with amazement (and even a twinge of guilt?). What chance then of any but the tiniest fraction of our students opting for a career in something that gives them pleasure, say, the theatre. At present, theatre is mercifully not part of the formal curriculum, which I'm sure is an important reason why it is received with joy. The young encounter theatre through ‘play’ activity and on the floor, rather than at desks and through swotting its histories or its theories. With this about to change – there is talk of the NCERT approving of theatre as a ‘subject’ in schools; Delhi University has already brought theatre studies in as an ‘application’ course to be studied towards a general B.A. degree – are we about to see yet another space for learning with/through pleasure bite the dust? Theatre’s potential in education is best realised when it is treated as a medium rather than an object of instruction, as a technology rather than a finished product.
When I mourn the reluctance of our best students to consider acting as a career option, including those who revelled in it while at school and college, I speak of theatre rather than film or TV because acting schools today are choc-a-bloc with hopefuls itching to emote in front of a camera lens. Today, acting students train with both eyes affixed on the cinema and television industry. It wasn’t always like this. Decades ago, the best stage actors strayed into related media because theatre work did not keep the home fires burning. The shift happened not always without regret in the individual and condemnation from the community. However, some of these actors continued to dabble in stage performance as a way of touching base, acknowledging thereby that the stage is the unfettered home of the actor. Some, like Naseeruddin Shah, fine-tuned the balance so well that, today, he can be seen as one actor who has straddled both worlds. In contrast, recent batches of acting students in the NSD – the same must be true everywhere else - have had little time for the theatre. Their occasional forays on stage have seemed less a return to fundamentals than a ploy to maintain market visibility. Such is the interest now in moving into television and film that there has been talk of the National School of Drama even introducing for its acting students a brief course on acting for the camera.
It is no doubt an extreme view to see this exodus of stage actors to the screen as heralding the death of theatre – after all, one can ask if things aren’t the other way around, a moribund theatre scene prompting the exodus of its actors – but there is also no doubt that the current situation is depressing. Something has to done urgently to ensure that stage actors can earn a decent living from the stage itself. In this regard, one can see Ebrahim Alkazi’s advice to his students at his now-defunct Living Theatre School (that they ought to hold other jobs to look after their bread and butter) as an admission that the theatre as it presently exists cannot look after its own. The wonderful performance of Yehudi Ki Ladki in the Parsi Theatre style (at a Bharat Rang Mahotsava several years ago) by an old theatre group so fallen on hard times that its members today subsist on odd jobs in the trans-Yamuna area is a potent reminder that the theatre will not survive if solutions are not urgently found. The manner in which these actors were discovered and helped by the NSD to revive an old hit of theirs makes for a wonderful, romantic tale. But, as with all romantic tales, the deliverance that came at the end of this one was temporary and singular. The question, what happens next to them, is too large to admit a quick answer. We need to find a consistently happy ending; we need to save stage actors from being underemployed and underpaid for the little work that comes their way
As children, we were warned of the dullness that befalls those who merely work and cut play out of their lives. Think then of the impoverishment of that poor actor, caught in an apparently opposite predicament: all ready to play but with no work to be had.
An earlier version of this article was first published in FIRST CITY (July 2004)