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Interview: Gopal Sharman and Jalabala Vaidya of Akshara Theatre

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-08

Mr Gopal Sharman is India's leading playwright in English, and his wife, Ms Jalabala Vaidya, has dominated the Indian English stage as an actress for four decades. There is wide agreement that their Akshara Theatre - which they built with their own scarce funds - revived English theatre in India. It is the only cultural centre in the entire country where there's a performance of one play or other every single night of the week. Mr Sharman and Ms Vaidya have taken their shows to the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. They will soon start a series of performance all across South-east Asia, including Singapore.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Mr Sharman in New Delhi recently:

How does popular culture contribute to social development in a country like India?
I take it that when one says 'social development' one means the improvement in the quality of life of the people of this country. In a country where large numbers of people do not get two decent meals a day, where even clean drinking water is scarce, let alone usable roads, or a stable supply of electricity, 'quality of life' is an empty phrase.
And 'popular culture', I imagine, should really mean 'culture' as a civilizing influence. Regrettably, in India 'popular culture' has come to mean a gross purveying of sex and violence as seen in the vast majority of films that are made in Bombay, or Mumbai. Films that are financed by West Asian dons of the underworld - and reflect their depraved tastes.
But granting that there can indeed be a civilizing influence that one could call 'popular culture', surely we are in urgent need of it; and if we could have such a civilizing influence, it would contribute enormously to our social development. We would not be such a crass mass of people, desperate to somehow, anyhow, grab the goodies of life, regardless of the iniquity such pursuit spawns!
The classical Indian idiom encompasses 'truth, goodness and beauty' (satyam, shivam, sundaram) as an inseparable unity. Nothing is true if it is not also good and beautiful. Nor is it good if it is not also true and beautiful. And beauty is not simply such adornments as an expensive car, or suit of clothes, or jewelry on the person of someone who cares nothing of truth and goodness. If there were such a thing as a 'popular culture' (the accent is on culture - as a civilizing influence), of course it would promote and enhance our social development.

Given India's ethnic and social diversity, is there such a thing as "Indian culture"?

There is indeed such a thing as Indian Culture. Not an exclusive thing but an inclusive phenomenon. Perhaps one should say Indian classicism - that is the inheritance of all Indians alike. Like Greek classicism is the inheritance of all the peoples of the Western world, not just of the Greeks. Regardless of whether they are Catholics or Protestants or Jewish or of other faiths.
The epics, gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are as much part of Indian classicism (or culture) as are the Bodhisattvas or incarnations of Gautam Buddha or the Jain Tirthankaras; or even Allah and His prophets of the Islamic faith. The manifold disciplines of learning such as mathematics (never forget it was Indian classicism that gave humanity the Zero - conceptually the same thing as silence in relation to all sound and/or music; or the unmanifest reality of Space in relation to all manifest phenomena in the universe); astronomy, astrology, even the diverse cuisines of India - they are all part of what one means when one says Indian culture.
There are, of course, many people in India (like there are anywhere in the world) who believe in an exclusive 'culture': Hindus, Muslims, Christians and the newest of India's many 'believers': the 'progressives' who would, like Mao in China or Lenin/Stalin in Russia, obliterate all other 'false gods and beliefs'. It takes all sorts, doesn't it?

Do you feel that your efforts can be construed as elitist because your works are generally in English?
India is a large country - almost the size of all of Europe. As it happens (nothing you can do about it at this late stage) there are basically two 'Indian' languages that can be used to communicate across North, South, East and West India: Hindi and English.
Hindi, of course, is 100% Indian but take note that English too is part of the Indo European group of languages with Sanskrit as the root language.
There have been times in Indian history when some of India's best-loved litterateurs have faced this language problem. Kabirdas, Surdas, Tulasidas, and several others in the 15th-16th century, faced with the highly Persianised/Arabicised courts of the Moghul rulers determined to obliterate the country's native language of learning, Sanskrit, wondered whether theirs were not just voices in the wilderness.
Sometime or other, we have to come to terms with the diversity of tongues in which India speaks - and reads, and thinks and dreams. Some of today's fiercest critics of English are politicians who determinedly want their children to learn English and pursue higher studies abroad in English-speaking climes. And of course, some of the fiercest proponents of English are those who insist that you cannot 'master' English without a regular diet of beef - and most certainly not on a vegetarian cuisine.
Also, hanging round are such neo 'believers', the 'progressives' who pour scorn on the 'religiosity' of Indian classicism. To cite an example: when the Royal Shakespeare Company of Great Britain asked me to do a play for them when we were living and working in London, and I chose to write a new interpretation of the Ramayana that accented the heroism and intellectualism of its principal protagonist, Rama, I was roundly chastised by such Indian 'progressives' as a reactionary and obscurantist.
I lost more than three-fourths of all my personal friends. It was impossible to convince them that the epic was one of the cornerstones of India's classicism - just as the Iliad is central to the Hellenic inheritance of the West.
To return to your question about 'elitism' and 'English', I feel that as long as you think Indian and your work is joyously rooted in the catholicity of Indian thought, the soil and culture of India, you just might squeak through, be OK. And, of course, the niggling doubt whether your voice isn't, when all is said and done, going to remain a cry in the wilderness. Curse the god that made for the colour of my hair. In Piccadilly I found my trousers gone!

Why do our political leaders neglect cultural "development"?
Neglected? Goodness no! Our political leaders, in their own opinion, are the very soul of culture and its development. You would be amazed to find how many of them have had themselves nominated for Nobel prizes - from literature to peace. And the numbers of them who have 'bagged' (a definition frequently used in the Indian media) national honors, year after year. They have 'inspired' artists, scientists, sports-persons, media-luminaries, you name it, to emulate their example in scheming, politicking, backstabbing, self-propagation to perfection.
So much so that even a genuine Nobel laureate like Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar (who postulated and proved the existence of Black Holes) found himself ostracized by his much more decorated (with Indian honors) Indian counterparts.
The Indian State, from its almost 50 years of subservience to Soviet patterns of development, has under pressures of globalism, ungracefully consented to liberalization in business and industry, trade and commerce. But education and culture is, as the hon'ble ministers (BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi to Congress' Arjun Singh) insist, a different matter. The State rules supreme. And so there is no education (from school to university-level), which is not of the State's construct.
In the arts too, the State continues to persist with laws and diktats of the colonial period. Like the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 - which remains on the statute book to this day and is freely used to suppress any activity that the State does not approve of. Censor Boards, police permissions, and entertainment tax - there is enough lethal stuff in the armory of the State. And then, of course, there are the State-run Academies (for music, dance, fine arts) and the Department of Culture and the Council for Cultural Relations - carefully ladling out grants and subsidies to the gold, silver and bronze medallists in the race of sycophancy. The best three courtiers are duly rewarded. Not with the means to practice their craft and art but with meaningless state honors. Maybe with an honorary membership of the Rajya Sabha, the 250-member Upper House of Parliament.
You may wonder why, in a country the size of India, with its rich traditions of culture, not a single Indian metropolis has a single nightly theatre, or a nightly concert or opera house or a dance theatre? Well may you wonder!

How can India build better cultural bridges to Southeast Asia?
India is a lumbering giant guided by an even more lumbering behemoth: the political and bureaucratic structure of its government. Considering India's ages-old ties with the peoples of South-east Asia, in more than half a century of independent nationhood, India should have built hundreds of bridges of interaction with countries east of itself. For decades after independence, the Indian State's gaze remained focused on the Soviet Union because of the socialist convictions of its leadership. And because of its colonial past, those with no particular politics on their minds, a sizable part of its intelligentsia's mindset remained Eurocentric, especially Anglo-American.
The nation states of South-east Asia were engaged in their own turmoil. Instability in Burma, protracted wars in Cambodia, Vietnam, guerilla struggles in Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore's endeavor to establish its independent identity - were all imponderables to independent initiatives in building bridges between nations of this region.
But now with far greater stability in the region and the opening up of the economies of this part of the globe, it is time for independent initiatives to begin blossoming. Obviously much is happening in the areas of trade and industry, business and commerce. Singapore's emergence as one of India's largest foreign investors is an amazing development. But equally important is the need for people to people contacts, the building of cultural bridges, artists and performers touring and interacting within the region. Singapore's newly evolving profile as a point of aspiration for South East Asian talent is a path breaking, exciting phenomenon.
One can only hope that the nation states of the region do not fall into the Soviet-like habit of taking the easy route of state-sponsored cultural exchanges, a habit India seems unable to shake off - to the despair of its true (as distinct from 'sarkari' or government-sponsored) artists.
Of all the nation states of the 20th century, the United States was perhaps the only country that left a reasonable area for independent initiatives to operate from. It didn't work both ways though. When the New York Philharmonic came to India, it had to conform to India's requirement that the visit be programmed as a State sponsored event. But, importantly, when our Akshara Theatre played its renowned production of The Ramayana on Broadway in New York (to date the only genuinely Indian production to have achieved that theatrical triumph) neither did the Indian nor the US governments have any role to play in that attainment.
The Akshara National Classical Theatre of India (full title of the Akshara) is exploring the possibility of playing in Singapore and establishing a bridge across which Singaporean talent could also be presented in the Akshara's performing spaces.

In assessing your own extraordinary careers, what contributions do you think you have made to the theatre and to the popular arts in general?
Most important of all, we have brought Indian classicism into clear focus - not only in India but also globally. Our very first production was Full Circle. It came into being because the then President of India, Dr. S Radhakrishnan, was an avid reader of a column of creative writing I did for the Sunday edition of The Indian Express. Due to an operation on his eye he missed several of these pieces and asked a friend of his, Prof. S. Swaminathan, then editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, to locate the writer (I wrote under a pseudonym then) to come and read to him the pieces he had missed. I persuaded Jalabala to memorize the pieces and go read them to the President. The collection totaled four stories and 14 poems. After Rashtrapati Bhavan, this collection went on stage in Delhi as Full Circle. It subsequently went on tour, first in Rome then Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana in Yugoslavia; next in Munich and finally with great success in London. The principal thrust of the production was, indeed, the classicism of Indian thought.
The Ramayana was a more direct effort to bring Indian classicism to the world intellectual mainstream. We had originally wanted to do the play with a full cast of 23 actors and actresses. But that was not to be. Its financial backers turned slippery, leaving us with a huge burden of debt. So Jalabala played it alone and that became a huge international success - playing a season on Broadway in NY, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, at the United Nations Headquarters with the patronage of then Secretary General Kurt Waldheim - in addition to many other cities, big and small, coast to coast. It also played on the West End of London. Of course it has been very satisfying playing at so many places (35 towns and cities in India alone, including all four big metropolitan areas) and nearly the same number abroad.
But two facets of this achievement stand out. The first, as I said earlier, is to have at least proposed that Indian classicism be accepted in the intellectual mainstream of the world. And second that you do not need governments and the apparatus of the state to communicate with your public.
With a theatre as small as just 100 seats (even though we also have an equally beautiful, all sculpted-stone, open-air amphitheatre to seat 340) our voice is only a whisper. But we are content with that. "The theatre has a certain feeling of deity in it, a stillness that feels like a temple or a church at vespers." That was how one critic - Mr Raghava R. Menon, writing in The Hindustan Times - put it. It's the best, most apt, thing that has been said of our Akshara. That is our contribution to the theatre and to the popular arts. That you can speak in whispers - and at least some people will hear you.

How are you grooming a new generation of Indians to be interested in creative arts - as opposed to the filmi ethos?
We have devised a teaching programme in the classical arts which is called DIKSHA, Sanskrit for giving education or, simply, educating. The current batch of students number 30. Mostly children in the ages of 4 to 13. There are two slightly older students: a girl of 17 and a young man of 22. We teach them classical music, classical dance, modern dance, theatre and stagecraft. Our company of players (or actors and actresses) has come out of these children. When we ran our just concluded political satire, Let's Laugh Again for a longish run of six weeks, in addition to Jalabala, her daughter Anasuya and myself, there were eight children (including our own grand children, a girl and a boy) on stage and they all played night after night, 8 p.m. to 10.15 p.m. People paid good ticket money to watch them. You had to see them to believe it - they are first rate. These same children have figured in four more productions, two musical productions and two straight plays.
Down the road, at the roundabout, are schools with enrolments of four to five thousand students. The Catholic Church runs them. Our grand children go to schools with an equal number of students enrolled. Some months ago, Nisa, Anasuya's 13-year old daughter was selected to sing for the student body of the school. Nisa is good enough to sing for a paying public. She, along with several other children, learns music from me. I taught her a piece of classical music - to be sung in three minutes. I also deputed a sitar player who is part of our professional music ensemble, to accompany her. Jalabala, Anasuya and I - we all went to the school to hear her sing. Hardly had she begun, just one minutes into her song, her teachers began signaling her to stop. So that a gaudily (read that 'sexily') dressed child could start her dance - to a filmi number blaring out of a tape recorder hooked to amplified loud speakers. And Nisa goes to Delhi's most touted school, Modern School, on Barakhamba Road.
We have just 30 students. Those who have been learning with us for the past couple of years can sing the entire Isha Upanishad in the classical tri-tonic chant. And they can all say the whole of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky - by heart.
We are content to whisper - where others insist on amplifiers and loudspeakers. That is how we are grooming a new generation to the reveries of the inward gaze. That people will pay good money to watch, so few. Among so many....

What "language of culture" have you created for contemporary India?
Quite simply, the language of silence. The language of stillness. The language of the Zero. A language that brings alive Space. Silence without which there can be no sound, no music. Stillness without which there is no dance. Zero without which you would be limited by 1 to 9. Space without which there would be no manifest phenomena. All the children who come to learn at the Akshara enjoy enormously the mathematics of the Zero. And the concept of Space as some kind of a final frontier. And how music aspires to silence. All our work points in that direction. Indeed it is this that constitutes the language of culture for contemporary India.

How do you see regional arts - both fine arts and performing arts - developing in modern India?
All the arts of the different regions, in so far as their exponents have tried through the ages to give voice to this basic thrust of Indian classicism, are fully evolved expressions. In Southern India, Purandardas, widely regarded as the progenitor of Carnatic music, authored in the 15th century a vast body of musical literature that represented Indian classical thought. In Andhra, Thyagaraja, writing in Telugu in the 18th century gave vibrant expression to the concepts of Indian classicism. The Tamil litterateur, Kamban, who authored a Tamil Ramayana in the 9th century, was equally vocal in his advocacy of the beliefs that constitute the classicism of India. The sculptors, painters, dancers and musicians of the Vijayanagar Empire (from mid 14th century to 1565) were equally fine exponents of such classicism. The Hindi heartland produced several outstanding exponents of it through all the 300 plus years of Moghul rule. It came vibrantly alive again in late 19th and early 20th century in the works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Tagore brothers, the Kerala painter, Raja Ravi Varma, Vallathol, also from Kerala, who renewed Kathakali, the fabulous dance form of his region, Tilak, Gokhale and Gandhi.
Independence saw Indian classicism take a nose dive - to a point where it became heresy, treason against the socialist inspiration that propelled the Indian nation state, to even breathe a word about it any more. Worse followed - with gurus and god-men/women usurping the concepts and beliefs of Indian classicism for their own ends. Now Indian artistic talent needed agents and impresarios, publicists and advertising agencies - the whole works and apparatus: in order to conjure up the magic of their successes abroad, state support and honors at home.
But no living theatres or concert houses, no tools or constructs, to enable artists to make an honorable living - other than to cozy up to the cultural czars and czarinas of the State for the pettiest of profits: here a State honour (that gets you nowhere and certainly no cash) there a foreign jaunt.
So the regional arts, and artists, must learn to talk in whispers, as they have done through many centuries of foreign rule, domination by foreign concepts and ways of thought. But that perhaps is as it should be. Understatement is an art only the perfectionist may practice. The truer the song, the more must it be sung in a whisper soft voice. Not to worry! It will be heard.

What does our contemporary culture say about the India that we've fashioned?
The late Mr Ram Nath Goenka, feisty newspaper baron (who single-handedly and against the might and majesty of the post-Independence Indian State created The Indian Express empire) and a staunch friend of the Akshara till he died in 1991, was often heard telling his editors: "The only culture I know is agriculture!"
Indeed! How wonderful to see the magic of a freshly sown field turn green against the muddy earth! If it happens to be a field of mustard, how beautiful to see it turn yellow in just two months or so.
Mr Ram Nath encouraged us to tour all over India and it was with his help that we discovered that in even the remotest towns of Kerala we could pack our houses (very often the local town hall with thatch for roofing) with big-ticket (the equivalent of US$2) paying audiences playing Jalabala's one-woman performances of The Ramayana in English. When you play across the length and breadth of India, you get a feel of the earth. "Agriculture" in Mr Ram Nath's words.
Lucky for him, Mr Ram Nath isn't around to see our contemporary culture. The political criminalized culture of the Left and Right, the crass culture of expediency, the filmi culture that has settled into every home via television, the culture of girly pictures in almost all our big time newspapers, the culture of near illiteracy, in the classics, of our schools and colleges. Above all, the culture of rampant corruption.

Is this the India that we have fashioned or is it some nightmare that has engulfed us?
I doubt that the people of India deserve this horror that they can't shake off. What can our 'contemporary culture' (if you mean by that our arts and artists) say about this nightmare? Theatre, or music, or literature, or dance as agit prop against the ills of society isn't our idea of a raison d'etre for any work of art. Freedom from the travails of existence if it is irremediable, (perhaps that's what it all is: the travails of existence) is the quest one might concern oneself with. The Greeks knew it as a tragic dimension of life, Buddha saw it as Duhkha from which there was no escape, Sartre, Camus and the other existentialists of the Western view saw it as a 'no exit' situation, there is at least one school of Indian thought that believes there is a way out - but not through any agit prop. Perhaps in a beatitude that overrides both hope and despair. But that's a long story. The story of the complexities of Indian classicism.

How educational culture help in cleansing the body politic?
The great Urdu poet, Ghalib, has put it beautifully.
Aah ko chahiye ek umr asar hone tak,
Kaun jita hae teri zulf ke sar hone tak!
"It needs a lifetime for a lament to be heard,
Who ever can be long lived enough to attain that hearing!"
If culture tries to be educational, it will never succeed in cleansing any body politic. If art can be itself - an embodiment of beauty - it might, inadvertently, as it were, bring about some cleansing. But, again, not because it set out to do that!

What are the sources of your creative energies?
Most of all it is a sense of beauty that drives us on. To set out in search of it, knowing not what it be or what it will look like when one encounters it: in a poem, a song, a play, in a sculpture, a work crafted in wood. The perfectest (if I may coin that word) movement or gesture or inflection of voice or tone that one may discover to communicate a thought, or a shade of thought, that one never had experienced before, performing a work on stage for the hundredth or two hundredth time. Revelation that would reward a lifetime of effort and trying. Revelation ever waiting, like an unsung song, ever waiting to be sung. Whisper song!

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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