Odia theatre awaits renovation from being largely an imitation of old western styles. The available one-side faced stage is made in all the auditoriums following the principles of the western/British model. But there is a design of one-faced auditorium and stage by Bharat Muni in our Natya Sashtra (written in 5th Century BC) too.
Odisha has been influenced by Bengal in the field of theatre. Modern theatre was being attempted here during the British time with the initiative of the Khariar King, who got professional women artists from Raipur, theatre directors from Calcutta and made a stage adjacent to their palace for performances.
Byomakesh Tripathy, the first trained theatre person of Odisha from Asia Theatre Institute, New Delhi, attempted modern Odia theatre for which Uttarayani Club of Jatni and Annapurna of Puri could be remembered. Cuttack became an important hub of modern theatre, where tickets were sold out with “houseful” plates in a couple of auditoriums.
Then, a few young theatre directors, who had exposure to international theatre, thought in an innovative manner and a new phase of modern Odia theatre was created by breaking the conventional style of professional theatre.
We can take the name of Anant Mohapatra, the late Biswajit Das, Manoranjan Das, Gobind Tej, the late Pranabandhu Kar, Bijoy Mishra, Ramesh Panigrahi, Braja Mohan Mishra (Balangir), Narayan Satpathy (Berhampur) and quite a few more persons who pioneered the phase to take the chariot of theatre with a pride, up to 1970s.
At that time, the late Dhiren Das was the only theatre person of their age, who was fighting for an “Indian style of theatre”. He hated imitation of the British theatre and the practice of the proscenium theatre style.
He claimed that auditoriums such as Rabindra Mandap should be built for promoting jatra or such folk theatre forms to play on a central-stage facing audiences from four sides. He did intensive studies, documentation and made the world know about the strength of folk theatre of Odisha.
He had claimed that a part of Khandagiri-Udayagiri caves near Bhubaneswar was a theatre space made by King Kharavela (who was a playwright according to historical evidences) in 1st Century BC.
This discovery has been now placed in Indian theatre history when describing the evidence of the classical Indian stage. But he was an odd man in the race.
Everyone thought he was trying to stop modern thoughts and wished to make the theatre go back to the old primitive style just to claim those as original Indian theatre.
In 1976, a new department of drama was opened by the government at the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya.
Three teachers (Bijoy Mohanty, Ajit Das, Dolagobinda Ratha - all former students of the National School of Drama, New Delhi) started training western-styled artistic theatre to young theatre students there.
The diploma course in theatre was also converted into a university-affiliated graduation course. Later, the drama students of the Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya took up the steering of modern Odia theatre.
In the 1980s, names such as Subodh Patnaik (namesake), Ratnakar Chaini, Lalatendu Ratha (Rourkela) and some more people in the next generation such as the late Rati Mishra, Ranjit Patnaik, Pramod Tripathy and Pradeep Bhowmik also made some innovations, but they practiced proscenium theatre in their towns. Gradually, proscenium theatre mixed itself with the mainstream of modern Odia theatre. By this time, classical-based traditional theatre such as Prahallad Nataka, Palla, Das Kathia, Ghuduki Nata, Ram Lila, Krushna Lila and Bharat Lila got a back seat and were grouped under “folk theatre”.
As these theatre forms were practised in villages, the artists did not get recognition and could not come into the limelight. The traditional forms were also not suitable to play within the available time and space of towns.
This kind of theatre was done mostly by villagers who had less formal education. They were good and wise artists, but never formalised their concepts on pen and paper. So no one in the world could know that the acting theories of Stanislavsky or of Bertolt Brecht were still in practice by such illiterate folk theatre artistes of Odisha.
This way, modern Odia theatre got into the prison of British theatre. It was an important step during 1984-1994 when Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, tried to make theatre free from the western form. The Akademi extended financial support to young theatre directors encouraging innovative ideas of using style and strength of folk theatre.
The mission was to derive a modern Indian form. Ratan Thiyam of Manipur became known by his play Chakrabihua and Prabir Guha by his play Maa, through this. Natya Chetana in Odisha also became known for a distinct style with the play Kaatha (1992). Natya Chetana became the only one practising its own style of intimate theatre and cyco theatre, with unique identity as modern Indian theatre.
However, there were many theatre groups and very good theatre directors who took a turn back from this run, thinking that this was a temporary provocation promoted by the government.
Hence, there is a need for self-reflection and to realise that there is nothing as such to hate British theatre. British theatre is like a sister to our mother theatre. Now the mother is sick and in bed while the sister is hale and hearty. Unfortunately, we are promoting as well as giving company to the sister while ignoring the mother. If we realise the importance of our mother tongue, then we must realise the necessity to keep up the mother theatre. All over the world, there are thousands of examples of people giving their lives to save their motherland.
So why would theatre practitioners of India or Odisha not give time, energy and creative approaches to save the mother theatre and make her free from the British, even after 66 years of political independence?