An art form can only be as good as the training its apprentices receive. The bulk of local theatre cannot excel simply because fresh inductees have had few avenues for extended formal education at the college level — so our groups, already stressed out, often have to inculcate in their recruits the basics as well. The performing arts cannot flourish in this kind of vacuum.
Unlike states that have opened new departments of theatre, West Bengal remains stuck with Rabindra Bharati. For decades, its Drama Department has singularly failed to present regular public shows of student productions. Once every few years, it wakes up to this responsibility, as it has done now with Ataeb (picture), based on Pierre Corneille’s Cinna. Anything is better than nothing, of course, but the choice of text puzzles. If Corneille, why not his masterpiece, Le Cid? Why one of his lesser Roman tragedies which hardly anyone revives these days? The student of drama does not gain a proper picture of French neoclassicism by staging Cinna at the expense of Le Cid. To top it all, the folder prints the “medieval” playwright’s name as “Piyer Cornei”, and the play as “Sinna”. Has our teaching come to this?
Neoclassicism upheld dignity and decorum, featuring long verse speeches delivered with stately poise. Phanibhusan Mondal’s Bengali version cuts all that down to short contemporary prose dialogue, denying the pupils their right to learn how to speak in lofty style, to discover why Corneille theorized that admiration could create as great a catharsis as pity and fear. Instead of stressing clemency against violence and vengeance, which director Debashis Roy Chowdhury recognizes as the subject, he permits too much shouting and wallowing in melodrama. However, he correctly uses bare platforms and modern dress.
At the upscale end of the market, the Roshan Taneja School of Acting has opened in Calcutta, presumably to groom actors for film. Fine, as long as Taneja stays true to the curriculum he himself learnt 50 years ago, from the legendary Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, where Meisner used to scrawl on the blackboard, “An ounce of behaviour is worth a pound of words”. At the RTSA’s first convocation here, its trainees performed Ek Lambi si Asha, a farce they had improvised involving four couples, which didn’t give much evidence of Meisnerian Method acting. But it’s early days yet.