December 25, 6.15 pm, Academy of Fine Arts. The paved pathway to the auditorium is clogged with people ' some fidgeting in the queue leading to the gate, some gazing at the exhibition, some just hanging around, tea cups in hand, soaking in the wintry festive feel.
Even if the auditorium goes half-empty for much of the year, the script changes dramatically during a theatre festival. If the Academy premises matched the Park Street jostle on Christmas Eve, it was thanks to the finale of the 22nd Nandikar National Theatre Festival.
If it's theatre, it must be a festival. Different in nature and numbers than the multiplex movie-goer, the theatre-goer, it seems, needs a festival to lure him to the auditorium. Similarly, it takes a festival for sponsors (the precious few there are) to make a stage appearance.
So, does the fate of theatre in Calcutta hang solely by the festival thread'
The trend-setting Nandikar festival, for one, aims to act as 'a catalyst for cultural integration and serve as a forum for theatre lovers and workers to compare notes', says group director Rudraprasad Sengupta. Much of Calcutta's exposure to theatre outside Bengal has been through this annual festival which has even drawn participation from the US, Pakistan, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Nepal and Bangladesh over the years.
The success of the Nandikar festival has triggered several others, big and small, in and around the city. Close on Nandikar's heels, at this time of the year, there is the night-long Natyasapnakalpa, Shuvam Theatre Festival, Bol Jamoore, Ganga Jamuna Natyotsav and now the government-backed Natyamela. In summer, the big draws are Odeon and Ganakrishti Natyotsav.
From Salt Lake to Behala, Howrah to Deshapriya Park ' the festival path is even taken by little-known groups that cannot afford an Academy or a Madhusudan Mancha. With the neighbourhood auditorium as the venue, it's the residents of the area who are the target audience.
'We bring leading productions to the doorstep of Salt Lake residents, who are spared the trouble of going all the way to Academy or Madhusudan Mancha,' says Prosenjit Chakraborty of Salt Lake Theatre, gearing up to host the Fourth Drama Festival at Laban Hrad Mancha from February 2.
Then there are those who host a festival to revive a stage address. 'We are bringing in popular productions so that audiences turn towards Tapan theatre. Staging a cluster of plays at one venue also enhances the quality of theatre,' feels Samar Mitra of Niva Arts, which organised a festival last December to mark the first anniversary of the renovated Tapan theatre.
For theatre groups, festivals are the best way to be seen and heard, on the stage and off it. 'We organise the Ganakrishti Natyotsav to enhance our identity,' says Ganakrishti director Bratya Basu. 'Also because it acts as a platform to provide exposure to national and international troupes, both for the audiences and the group members.'
Though the festival ensures some revenue generation by way of souvenirs, ticket sales don't yield much profit, laments Basu. 'The cost of bringing in a troupe from outside Bengal is huge...'
The cash crunch, as always, hits the festival players hard. Take the high-profile Nandikar fest. Bottomline '05: expenditure around Rs 9.9 lakh; returns around Rs 7.9 lakh. This calls for a serious rethink, admits director Sengupta, because there are 'very few corporate sponsors' and organising such festivals 'is becoming very difficult'.
For first-time organiser Panchali, the six-day December festival ' spread across Rabindra Sadan, Academy of Fine Arts, Madhusudan Mancha and Bharatiyam, with prominent groups from Delhi, Bhopal, Manipur and Kerala ' turned out to be a harsh lesson in economics. The NGO got back one-sixth of what was spent.
'We didn't realise that Calcutta viewers are willing to spend more than Rs 100 for a Harry Potter movie but are not willing to shell out Rs 60 for a play. We spent a lot on bringing down the groups because we wanted more people to see good theatre,' rues Krishna Ray of Panchali.
When the tickets didn't find any takers, the organisers made the entry free ' and the halls filled up before you could say Charandas Chor. 'We want to make the festival a regular event. So, next year we will try and keep the ticket rates lower,' promises Ray.
And then there are those who aren't perturbed by ticket sales. Theatre for them is a tool for 'brand building'. The way to the Calcuttan's heart is through theatre believe two companies who throw their weight behind two stage festivals in town.
Odeon, a Hutch initiative held in summer, has become a milestone on the city's theatre calendar in a brief span of five years. Which is largely due to its attractive package ' two fresh picks from the city, a bouquet of popular names from Mumbai, Delhi or Chennai, and Konkona Sen Sharma as star anchor ('my one annual link with theatre', is what the actress calls it).
Odeon participants have ranged from Naseeruddin Shah to Rajit Kapur, Amal Allana to Nadira Babbar.
'The festival is an integral part of our marketing strategy as it helps Hutch connect with Calcutta,' says S. Murali, associate vice-president, sales and marketing, Hutch (east).
The Greenwood Park Theatre Festival moved from GD Birla Sabhagar to the open-air auditorium ' specially built to host the annual gala ' at the Rajarhat New Town complex in 2005.
'Housing complexes usually provide facilities like clubs and swimming pools. We wanted to give residents an open-air theatre where a festival can be a yearly event, because we feel theatre is a very good medium to connect with the city's people,' says Rahul Todi, managing director, Bengal Shrachi Housing Development Ltd.
The 10-day Nandikar festival from December 16-25 drew 7,870 viewers. This is well below the desired count, feels Sengupta. 'The Calcutta crowd is a puzzle' With each year, the festival audience seems to be growing smaller.'
But there are still those like Supriti Lahori. 'I eagerly wait for the Nandikar festival because it gives us a scope to see the work of troupes outside Bengal' And also because of the festival mood, which is almost something like the Pujas,' says the lady in her mid-30s, a regular at the Nandikar festival since 1985.
Or like Iman Bandopadhyay, a software engineer in his late-20s. 'The problem with theatre shows at other times of the year is that there is very little publicity. When there is a festival there are billboards, news items' and so we queue up for tickets.'
So, no festival, no buzz. No buzz, no takers.