The Indian People’s Theater Association
By: Devika Ranjan
October 26, 2015
For her final project as a Doyle Undergraduate Fellow, Devika Ranjan explores the intersection of political theatre and social justice. Through a series of blogs, she engages issues of faith, women’s rights, and free speech in South Asia.
SCENE TWO. LIGHTS UP.
SCENE TWO. LIGHTS UP.
A bustling street in the heart of Bombay, India in the 1940s.
Stage right, a FRUIT-SELLER peddles bananas.
CROWDS mull through the market. Some have places to go; some wander. An autorickshaw cuts through the traffic, nearly missing the FRUIT-SELLER as it exists stage right. Stage left, a grand, proscenium-style theatre. From it emerges a well-dressed British LADY and her COMPANION.
LADY: What a delightful performance.
COMPANION: I will be singing those tunes for the rest of the week! COMPANION begins to hum a light-hearted showtune.
COMPANION and LADY swing around each other, generally unaware of others around them. Meanwhile, commotion builds stage right. A DRUMMER beats on his hand drum. He is surrounded by six ACTIVISTS, all dressed in plain white kurtas. THEY clap and chant with his beat.
ACTIVISTS: You are alive! You are alive. Believe in the victory of your life. If there are heavens in the sky, Let’s bring them down to earth. The CROWD is curious and draws closer. The song grows in intensity.
ACTIVISTS: Four more days of grief, four more days of torture. These days shall pass, like the hundreds before them. One day, spring will bloom in these gardens. If there are heavens in the sky, let’s bring them down to earth.
The LADY and her COMPANION are shocked. SAHIL, an activist, steps forward. The other ACTIVISTS pantomime as he speaks.
SAHIL: We call for the withdrawal of the British— the colonizers who enslave my brothers in the fields! Who rape my sisters! Who forbid my children from attending school, who take our food, our clothes, and our earnings!
ACTIVISTS: We need your support. The Quit India Movement gains strength! The ACTIVISTS begin another song, which leads into a traditional Indian drama about the harsh realities of colonialism. The CROWD grows.
SAHIL: Colonialist oppression cannot erase our traditions!
LADY, grumbling: All I wanted was a nice afternoon matinee at the theatre…
COMPANION: Their music is certainly catchy.
COMPANION hums the activists’ tune. LADY drags COMPANION offstage.
LIGHTS FADE. END SCENE TWO.
Founded in the 1940s, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) reinvented culture as a form of protest. IPTA members performed plays and musical performances on the streets in order to elicit social change. The movement encouraged nation-wide artists to “raise [their] voices against the injustices of the country’s present rulers” (Segal 32).
IPTA comprised leftist artists, intellectuals, and writers who were frustrated by the stagnancy of the country under British oppression. To them, theater was a weapon of anti-imperialism and national liberation. They wrote and performed on famine awareness, oppression of laborers, and the plight of common Indians living under the British Raj. Live theater embodied the socialist slogans of the movements, working on behalf of the leftist parties and the majority workers (Bhatia 76). Shouts of “Communist Party Zindabaad” (long live the Communist Party) were prevalent on the streets and marches following the performances.
IPTA was successful because of its ability to adapt to various cultural and political situations. Before the play, the performers explained its background and political issues. For instance, before a hunger awareness performance, activists explained the Bengali famine and how audience members could help. Additionally, the theater group dramatized familiar stories so that audience members could recognize the structures of oppression (Bhatia 84). IPTA also adjusted to various Indian geographies. As each Indian state has its own language and indigenous culture, performer-activists incorporated local theatrical forms in performances. In Bengal, the actors performed jatra; in Maharashtra, tamasha; in Andhra Pradesh, burrakatha. Although these theater forms are all variations of vaudevillian satire, they represent cultural characteristics that reflect the traditions and customs of the state (Bhatia 77). As a result, each performance was relatable and relevant to the audience.
One of the most famous IPTA plays, known for its stark depiction of widespread suffering, was Nabanna (Harvest). Performed across India, Nabanna acted as famine relief fundraiser for the Bengal famine of 1943. It highlighted the 2 million deaths from starvation and malnutrition in Bengal, spreading awareness and encouraging action throughout the country (Bhatia 82). The play raised lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of rupees for the famine and was one of IPTA’s greatest successes (Lowe 438). It inspired the film Dharti Ke Lal (1946), a groundbreaking cinematic work in social realism. Cinematic depiction of the famine spread awareness throughout the country and reached further than the IPTA theater group could travel. As a result, conversation and fundraising efforts continued.
The IPTA deteriorated after independence and the downfall of the Communist Party. Its demise was also affected by “the partition in 1947, heavier government control through censorship, lack of government patronage to IPTA, and an ideological split among IPTA members” (Lowe 448). The general chaos of post-partition South Asia made theatrical organization difficult. Its legacy has sparked hundreds of political theater troupes across India, ranging from Jana Natya Munch in Delhi to the Bhudan Theatre in Ahmedabad. IPTA remains a pioneer in theater for social change; it shaped entertainment-based theater into a means of political awareness. Additionally, the group brought theater to an illiterate and often marginalized section of the population (Bhatia 91). Modern theater groups draw on these foundations in order to engage the masses and sway public opinion through performance. To this day, theater organizations like Jana Natya Munch and Ajoka Theatre use mobile theater to transport their performances and social messages across the region.
Bhatia, Nandi. Acts of Authority, Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004. Print.
Lowe, Lisa, and David Lloyd. The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. Print.
Segal, Zohra. "Theatre and Activism in the 1940s." Crossing Boundaries. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1997. N. pag. Print.