I love Shimla. Though not by birth, I consider myself an honorary Himachali. I claim this by virtue of having been able to visit this state over two dozen times in the past 15 years, and now, when I have actually got the opportunity to live here. There is much that this little town has to offer. Clean air, gorgeous views of the rolling hills and snowy peaks, many varieties of wild flowers, and, above all, a populace that is universally friendly and accepting of strangers in its midst.
What, then, is my lament?
I do not miss the crowded roads, the honking horns, the foul air of my hometown. I do not miss the hurly-burly of metropolitan life. I do not miss the malls, with their little ‘M’. Our own Mall beats those hollow any time. I do not even much miss the swanky multiplexes which offer a choice of four films or more under one roof. But I do miss the vibrant forms of entertainment
This former Bombay-ite, mocked friendly-like by her local friends as a dilettante, misses being able to watch theatre in Shimla.
I miss the thrill of an opening night. I miss the little paper lamps that are strung up in the area outside. They sway gently & cast merry shadows on the enthusiasts milling around. I miss the open-air café which does brisk business with tea and snacks. No fancy-sounding coffees. Only the good old-fashioned tea, with milk & sugar added in the kitchen.
I miss checking out the blurb on the pamphlets handed out; studying the month’s programme, carefully noting the dates of future shows. I miss the going off of the first bell. I miss shuffling in. Serious lovers of theatre are rarely seen elbowing fellow enthusiasts out of the way. Everyone takes a seat they think offers the best view and acoustics. After all, you do not wish to miss a single word or gesture.
The play begins. There is a lovely little proscenium stage. The seating arena for the audience fans outward in a sort of elevated half-circle. The acting space looks awfully small. The actors troop in. Tonight you may be watching a black comedy. Last week, it may have been a 'collaborative creation' or improvisational theatre: where the action was originally created not by a writer, but by the performers themselves. Next week, you might get to see a romantic comedy, a medley of clever scheming, calculated coincidence, and wondrous discovery, all of which contribute ultimately to making the events answer precisely to the hero's or heroine's wishes, with the focus on love. It might even be a “social”, a heavy, tear-jerker melodrama spotlighting anything from adoption to adultery to the abandonment of the elderly or the infirm. You might be watching the play in English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil or Malayalam. I miss scanning the papers for reviews. I miss reading them and then scoffing at the way the critic’s remarks have missed the base!
I miss laughing hard at “Hai Mera Dil”, shedding a tear at “I’m Not Bajirao”, being moved to the core by “Gandhi Viruddha Gandhi” or “Tumhari Amrita” …. I miss that palpable silence which falls on the house when some lines of a play strike a chord in its watchers. I miss the standing ovation given to a group of players. I miss going backstage to tell an actor how much his work has thrilled me.
So where is all this in Shimla? Why do we not see much of the local theatre groups? Is it because they are, like their brethren in most other Indian cities, strapped for cash? If this is the case, where are the well-heeled amongst us? Why are they not coming forward to encourage an activity that can be creative and profitable at the same time? Why is there such a paucity of space for creative expression? Why are the czars of government not coming forward to act as patrons by creating better facilities and by subsidizing productions?
The theatre in Gaiety is on its way to being readied. But what about other spaces? The auditorium inside Kali Bari is antiquated, offering neither good visuals nor decent acoustics to the viewer. The stage is at such a height that if you happen to be seated in the first few rows, you are almost tempted to raise yourself on tiptoe, if only for a better look at the down-stage activity. Funnily and unintentionally, the auditorium in Kali Bari achieves Bertolt Brecht’s “defamiliarization effect”, in that it gives the audience the required emotional distance to reflect on what is being presented!! I have not seen the auditorium of HP University, but fervently hope it does one better than the one I mentioned.
And where are those vital ingredients of this endeavour: the playwrights, the actors, the directors, the producers, the sound and light specialists? For good theatre to exist and flourish, we need not just good facilities, but also enthusiasts among those who create and those who, for want of a better word, consume the artistic product.
Theatre is not just about entertainment. It is not about going to a particular spot, sitting passively and absorbing the spectacle on offer. Human beings do not merely hear and see things, they also sense them. They are able to appreciate the subtle nuances of a tone, a blink or a movement. The beauty of theatre lies in the fact that the quality of the audience affects the play and the players. Unlike films, plays are not a passive, one-way, pre-packaged experience. In plays, as in films, there are rehearsals. But once the show gets going, a theatre artiste does not have the opportunity to give another ‘take’ – to make another attempt at mouthing a dialogue: what has been said, has been said. Audience reactions affect acting as it happens. The warmth in the tone of a speaker travels directly to the viewer; a glimmer of a tear in the performer’s eye immediately causes the spectator to respond. A skilled actor, through the blend of voice, tone, gestures and outfits succeeds in creating a world and transporting his audience to it. The actor’s energy expands and fills up the space which is also occupied by the viewer; the energy flows from one to the other. The viewer feels the despair of Mahatma Gandhi at Pyarelal’s delinquency; he feels Zulfi’s longing for Amrita; he laughs with Dhanjisha Batliwala & quibbles with Madhukar Kulkarni.
Kay Kay, Naseruddin Shah, Dinesh Thakur, Aul Kulkarni, Shabana Azmi, Boman Irani, Mehrbanoo Mody Kotwal, Rahul Da Cunha, Feroze Khan, Sanjana Kapoor, Shernaaz Patel, Rajit Kapoor, Jayati Bhatia: they allow you to enter their world and experience, in the span of two hours, many highs and lows, rapture and anguish, a whole world of moods and happenings.
I want this in Shimla. I want this for Shimla.