STAGING TRANSITIONS – THEATRE OF THE 90s IN INDIA
Zonal Cultural Centres: Regional Visibility and the Politics of Cultural Representation
In the post-colonial Indian polity, culture was repeatedly used as a vehicle for furthering the nationalist agenda, a performative space for the nation state to assert its unique ‘Indian’ identity. Anita Cherian in ‘Institutional Maneuvers Nationalising Performance, Delineating Genre: Reading the Sangeet Natak Akademi Reports 1953-1959’1, notes that
“Culture performs a specific disciplinary function, directed towards the production of the good citizen invested not in ethics of self interest but in the larger mission of a rapid and coordinated advance towards the economic development of an underdeveloped country.” (pg 37)
The author further notes that the intertwined histories of ‘colonialism, nationalism, Independence and post-colonial state-formation’ prepared the political grounds, wherein modernity was representational, as well as performative, through the institutions, planning and governance, where the State considered culture “as both the locus of the traditional and, as the imagined foundation of a social solidarity that makes the modern State possible.” (Cherian, 34)
The cultural paradigm of the nation-state was defined and directed by the central government, and in its institutional form was being governed by the three Akademis — the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Sahitya Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi. As Cherian notes, “the Akademies were the replication of the state’s centralizing ambitions, striving to incorporate into its purported ‘unity’.” (page 33) . In ‘Imagining a Nation: The First Drama Seminar Report’ 2, she argues that
“Postcolonial nation-state in its moment of arrival, claims dominion over two key sites — the organisation or the institution of institutions, and relatedly the (re)organisation of the temporal, that is the past (history), and the future (development). The control of the past is engineered through the rubrics of tradition and history, and the management of the present and the future through a complex of institutions.” (Page 17)
These Akademis exercised their control over the imagination of a spectrum of ‘national’ art and culture, through organising seminars, establishing of awards, and schemes of supporting a national vision, as per the directives of the State. While the seminars acted as an important medium for consolidating academic and intellectual support for canonising the government’s vision towards art and culture, the awards and fellowships through their well-defined ideological parameters for awards aided in the realisation of the imagination of state defined ‘national’.
During the 1980s, the Indian state moved away from heavily centralized planning led polity, towards a decentralized governing regime. It was during the 1980s in the seventh five-year plan (1985-1990), that the Zonal Cultural Centres were conceptualised and formed. The plan states:
“It is proposed to set up seven Zonal Cultural Centres which while developing the unique cultural identities of various areas in the states would also stress and explore their cultural kinship in relation to the totality of India’s composite culture, highlighting the essential unity in diversity of the Indian cultural heritage. The Centres would provide facilities for creative development of arts; with special emphasis on folk arts as also the revival of vanishing arts.”4
The planning of decentralization constituted an agenda of relocating national identity, different from the previous decolonizing efforts of constructing a unified national identity, formed majorly through the appropriation of the Sanskrit classical past, although camouflaged within the contours of “liberal values in which Hinduism, nationalism and secularism can coexist, without disturbing their social, cultural, religious and national comforts.3” (Prakash, 2019). With the formation of Zonal Centres, the reformulation of this identity was based on the diversity marked by these regional units represented through local practices, histories and culture. The function of this decentralized formation, however, seems double-edged — while diversity constituted the superstructure for the planning of the Zonal Centres, the emphasis on exploring cultural, as well as societal lineages of a common Hindu past justified the national geo-political strategy of the conception of hinduising territorial and ideological premises, within the larger scope of the national. Did this transition towards the radicalization of the Hindu narratives, from a liberal approach persisting during the immediate post-colonial decades, aid the incoming agendas of the Hindu right with the onset of the nineties?
A unique feature of these Zonal Centres was the absence of classical forms, and their replacement with the folk and vanishing forms, which directly reflected the UNESCO led conventions, focusing on folk forms as constructive blocks of national identity.
Formation of zonal cultural centres, 7th five year plan (1985-1990)
To understand the role of these centres, as it evolved during the 1990s, the High Powered Committee set by the Government of India on 19th August, 1994, to review the working of the seven Zonal Cultural Centres, headed by Prof. U. R. Ananthamoorthy, provides vital evidence. The Committee recommended:
“structural changes, reduction in administrative expenditure, suggested better coordination with the national akademies and provision of patronage to young and upcoming artists.” 5
This emphasis directs these centres towards higher integration into the centralized nationalistic cultural approach. Through the Ananthamoorthy committee, the incorporation of Zonal Cultural Centres as regional wings of a central governmentality was further institutionalised. The primary aim of these Zonal Cultural Centres was to give impetus to the folk and local art forms and narratives. They were formulated to promote new works in Indian languages.
A look at some of the festivals and theatre events organised under these Zonal Cultural Centres help to better gauge the union-states relationship and canonization of socio-cultural and political ideology representing the nation. The plays performed under two regional Zonal Cultural Centres – the South Zone and West Zone, all derive content from local folklores, and based on local form and style. Most of the plays performed at the National festivals and as part of the inter-state exchange scheme, as evident from the plays in brochures of Paramparik Natya Utsav and Mallika, were the ones, which derived their content from the mythological past that was being claimed to represent a national identity through the Sanskritized narratives of the epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as other classic Sanskrit texts, like Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntalam. How had the renewed engagements with the epics and the appropriation of a Sanskrit past in the late 1980s, represented through high literature, especially in the National festivals, point towards an emerging divergence between the theory and the praxis of these Zonal Cultural Centres at both regional and at the national level? Could it be considered that while the centres provided possibilities for asserting diversity through regional cultural practices, at the national level those theatre texts and forms were supported that could be appropriated to ascribe to a common Hindu classical narrative?South Zone Theatre Festival
Plays performed at Pongal Natak Vizah- The South Zone Theatre Festival, 1990.
Courtesy- Anand Gupt Collection/ Alkazi Theatre Archives.Plays performed at West Zone Theatre Festival, 1990
Plays performed at West Zone Theatre Festival, 1990.
Courtesy- Anand Gupt Collection/ Alkazi Theatre Archives.Mallika- Dogri adaptation of Ashad ka Ek Din
Mallika- Dogri adaptation of Ashad ka Ek Din, performed under the Inter State Cultural Exchange Programme. 1997
Courtesy- Anand Gupt Collection/ Alkazi Theatre Archives.Paramparik Natya Utsav organsied by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1996.
Paramparik Natya Utsav organsied by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1996.
Courtesy- Anand Gupt Collection/ Alkazi Theatre Archives.
1. Cherian, A, “Institutional Maneuvers, Nationalizing Performance, Delineating Genre: Reading the Sangeet Natak Akademi Reports 1953-1959”. Third frame: literature, culture and society 2 (3), 32-60.
2. Cherian , A, “Imagining a Nation: The First Drama Seminar Report”. Sangeet Natak Akademi 2007, 15-49
3. Brahma Prakash, The Liberal Rama Imaginary, Asiaville, 29 November, 2019