Spring time for Theatre in Jammu

Scene from non-verbal play Silence staged during Bharat Rang Mahotsva.
Scene from non-verbal play Silence staged during Bharat Rang Mahotsva.

Lalit Gupta
Basant Panchami celebrated on January 25th this year literally heralded a ‘Spring Time for Theatre in Jammu’. In the last three months, one after another three drama festivals have been held and the ongoing fourth one is organized by Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University (SMVDU) near Katra, from March 13 to 20, 2023.
Titled as Trikuta Theatre festival, SMVDU’s welcome initiative aimed at inspiring its students towards theatre has provided an additional platform for staging of plays by local amateur theater groups who otherwise eagerly await invites to theatre festivals sponsored by either state/UT or central agencies.
The first theatre festival of 2023 which brought a gush of fresh air was the ‘Theatre Carnival’. Organized by a local theatre group Natraj Natya Kunj as part of Amrit Mahotasv from January 16-22, 2023, the fest featured six plays, one each from Amritsar and Hisar and four from Jammu. The festival breaking the jinx of the Pandemic offered an eclectic mix of new scripts/adaptations/translations in Dogri, Punjabi, Hindustani, and Urdu. The four local groups-Natraj Natya Kunj, Samooh Theatre, and Natrang shared the stage with aplomb with groups of theatre veterans like Kewal Dhaliwal-Amritsar and Rajan Kapoor- Hisar (DE, Jan 29, 2023).
The next major fest, the National School of Drama’s (NSD) Bharat Rang Mahotasv (BRM) comprised three plays in Jammu and three in Srinagar. Due to the deficient infrastructure at Abhinav Theatre, BRM opened in Jammu from Feb 20 to 22, 2023, in collaboration with the University of Jammu at the Zorawar Singh Auditorium. Interestingly, the NSD’s decision to stage Padamshree N.D. Jamwal’s acclaimed Dogri play Kunju Chanchalo in Srinagar and a Kashmiri play ‘Wath’, by Azad Dramatic Club, Srinagar, in Jammu, gave the local theatre enthusiasts an opportunity after quite a long time to watch a drama in Kashmiri and likewise for the audience in Srinagar to savor a play in Dogri.
However, it was the non-verbal play ‘Silence’, written and directed by Soma Giri and staged on Feb 21st, 2023, by Begulati Natyamandir, Kolkota, that emerged as the pièce de résistance of BRM. Breaking conventions, it offered glimpses of new theatre language based on ingenious solos and ensembles of contemporary dance sequences movements. Soma Giri led the cast of ten young dancers/actors who with their consummate display of energy and discipline mesmerized the audience with striking imagery through improvisations based on powerful movements of Kalaripayattu. Especially impressive were the compositions that provided a kind of voyeuristic view of bodies in self-conscious seclusion. The play came out as a top-notch experimental production aimed at exploring and adding new vistas to the repertoire of the contemporary theatre language.
BRM’s last presentation of Natharam Gaur’s Hindi play ‘Satyabhan Savitri’, directed by Umesh Chandra Sharma and staged by Shri Shri Nathari Sansthan, Mathura, brought forth the earthy flavors of Swang and Nautanki; the outdoor drama traditions enjoyed by the rural masses.
The current year’s third festival was JKAACL’s ‘Festival of Plays’. It came as a part of the repackaging of the Academy’s prestigious annual drama festival which used to be an important event in the winter capital’s cultural landscape. The abridged ‘Festival of Plays’, held from Feb 25 to March 3, 2023, at Abhinav Theatre saw the participation of a handful of groups who had fulfilled the government’s post-UT strict registration conditions while the other groups yet not reregistered had to borrow banners from other NGO’s to be able to participate. Hence, the reduced number of participating groups and the absence of plays in regional languages. The seven-day festival was reduced to six plays due to the death of the mother of actor/director Vikram Sharma on the very day of the slated performance of his play ‘Napolean’.
JKAACL’s suffered an unprecedented loss of face when the inaugural performance of its ‘Festival of Plays’, was marred by the whistling, howling and shouting by ‘invited’ unruly students from hostels who were specially ferried in State Road Transport Buses to Abhinav Theatre only to impress the Chief Guest who had demanded a full house for his inaugural address. Academy officials throwing to winds the sanctity of a drama performance which as per practice is watched by theatre aficionados in complete silence had happily pandered to the whims of a greenhorn bureaucrat.
Academy’s ‘Festival of Plays’, featured local playwrights’ dramas like Rajneesh Gupta’s Gumshuda Ki Talash’ (Triple-A), Rajesh Roshan Bhat’s ‘Ateet Ke Sakshi’ (Vomedh Rangmanch), and Rajesh Singh Raju’s comedy ‘Viraam (Sangam Theatre Group). Directed by directors, Rajneesh Gupta, Rohit Bhat, and Akram Khan, the plays respectively dealt with themes such as the exploitation of children woven in the backdrop of the relevance of Gandhian philosophy, reiterating faith in the age-old communal brotherhood and amity to fill the existing void between Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims, and the comic shenanigans of a poet seeking inspiration from the fair sex.
The plays by eminent playwrights such as Badal Sarkar’s Pagla Ghoda’ (Hill Thespians), Manav Kaul’s ‘Bali and Shambu’ (Bhartiya Kala Sangam), and Mohan Rakesh’s ‘Ashad Ka Ek Din’ (The Performers), was in continuation to Jammu theatre tradition wherein young directors’ test their creative mettle by staging modern iconic dramas already enacted by leading theatre groups and actors of the country. Directed respectively by Sunil, Sharma, Mohit Mehra, and Vijay Goswami, the well-designed presentations portraying the acting prowess of the amateur actors and the skillful handling of technical aspects, offered the audiences immersive and entertaining experiences.
Thanks to the visionary initiative of the outgoing Vice Chancellor Prof R. K. Sinha, and the Registrar Nagendra Singh Jamwal, JKAS, the maiden ‘Trikuta Theatre Festival’ has opened a new window of patronage for local theatre groups at its on-campus beautiful Matrika auditorium. The five-play festival figured Rajneesh Gupta’s Dogri play Shah Sahni and Rangyug’s 709 show of Deepak Kumar’s acclaimed street play ‘Dheeth’ in Dogri that since last 20 years has been highlighting the dangers of plastic pollution. The other plays staged were the re-runs of applauded productions such as ‘Bali and Shambhu’, ‘Pagla Ghoda’ and ‘Ashad Ka Ek Din’. The fest has also introduced a new set of audiences comprising SMVDU’s students, faculty members, and families and invited members of the civil society.
One only hopes that Universities and their campuses along with other institutions of higher learning across the spectrum in divisions of Jammu and Kashmir will follow suit of SMVDU and give space to contemporary and traditional arts in order to ‘project the same to the younger generation as the spirit and soul of today’s society’. Such initiatives are the need of the hour as theater as an art form not only educates and entertains ‘but also teaches us how to express ourselves more effectively. It develops our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others, thereby improving our relationship around us’.