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  Books   09 Apr 2022  Book Review | Indian theatre’s silent but astonishing contribution to scenography

Book Review | Indian theatre’s silent but astonishing contribution to scenography

Published : Apr 10, 2022, 12:31 am IST
Updated : Apr 10, 2022, 10:33 am IST

It will interest the reader to find out about the various kinds of stages, meant to be chosen as per acoustics and suitability

Cover Image of 'Scenography: An Indian Perspective' by Satyabrata Rout. (Twitter)
 Cover Image of 'Scenography: An Indian Perspective' by Satyabrata Rout. (Twitter)

Gone are the dangers and comforts of the unknown, the unstinted privacy of the willing hermit in this Wifi-connected postpandemic world. You cannot get lost anymore; your cellphone will find you. Young Truman, played by Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, is too late in wishing to be an explorer when he grows up.“There is nothing left to explore anymore,” says the teacher to Truman.

Power places are sacred locations inhabited by a god or a sacred spirit, and they are such owing to their special topography, Buddhist scholar and flower child Keith Dowman writes in his Power Places of Central Tibet (1988). While there is unquestionable merit in travelling far, seekers from every corner of the world travel wide to search for these places and experience the uplift of their souls.

Scenography: An Indian Perspective by noted scenographer and director Satyabrata Rout is all about writing the stage space into a power place.

The dialect of space and props, though prevalent in the West since the days of Greek theatre, was never interpreted and formally advanced in the long dramatic traditions of the East, until a bunch of new scholars and practitioners decided to explore it and change the narrative. Scenography joins them to fill this gap — proposing as it does to be the first to document the astonishing, silent contribution by Indian theatres to stage design.

Rout begins his walk through time with Patanjali whose Mahabhashya (second century BC) cites the oral tradition of granthikas and sobhanikas and describes the Mankha Vidha dramatists of the atheist Ajivika cult (Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambali) as they displayed a series of painted scrolls to accompany their recitations while seeking alms. He even takes them further back through Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra (third century BC), prehistoric evidences of plays from the Upper Paleolithic Period in the rock paintings of Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh) and Sitabenga (Chhattisgarh), a cave theatre that is actually India’s earliest known performance space.

It will interest the reader to find out about the various kinds of stages, which are meant to be chosen as per their acoustics and suitability to the content that is being presented. The proscenium theatre encapsulates energy and is best for loud, colourful or discursive performances. Opposite to it, conceptually, is the open air stage. The thrust stage and the traverse stage bring the performers closer to the audience, the arena requires mobility on their part for the sake of communication, while the environmental theatre wipes out the gap between them and the audience altogether.

Indian folk theatre, on the other hand, is mobile, to wit: the jatra and the pala gayan, making use of chabutras and marquees or shamianas, occasionally even taking the form of a carnival of actors.

The design of the scenes, sets and props requires facility in the language of the visual arts and a knowledge of symmetry, colour and balance.

An important role is played in the choice of presentation style by what is known as creative accidents. The author narrates an anecdote from experience wherein he had been directing More Naina Rang Chadhe, the Indian adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the students of Bharatendu Natya Academy, Lucknow, when two of them injured one another in a fencing scene and were asked by him to keep their distance. One day, during leisure hour, he found the duo engaged in a shadow fight on the stage to the accompaniment of funny noises pre-recorded on tape, and in that moment, the idea of a farce or a “caricature” as the author puts it, rather than a “Shakespearian melodrama” was born.

Ever tried singing a river song by the seaside, or conversely, playing Mauritian seggae in riparian Kolkata? Nature influences musical genres as well as other art. Art forms fostered by the mountains are in complete contrast to those of the plains, observes the perspicacious author. However, the pedantic tone of the treatise gets in the way of elucidation when he simply writes that the character of the ocean is manifest in littoral folk forms such as Therukoothu, Yakshagana and Theyyam as also in the classical dances of Kathakali and Mohiniattam, asking the reader to take him on his word.

It is a useful pointer, nonetheless, and for the student of theatre as well as practitioners, this book is a trove of information.

Scenography: An Indian Perspective

By Satyabrata Rout

Niyogi Books

pp. 576, Rs. 3,000

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