Write a short note on Badal Sircar and the ‘Third Theatre’?

The “third theatre” is a mix of contemporary theatrical techniques and ancestral traditions. Through the will and desire necessary for these encounters to take place, the opening up of cultures is enabled. Numerous puppeteers have understood the theatrical gains to be made by regrouping expressive mediums and techniques from other performance arts, on the condition that this mixing is done in the aim of creating a specific dramatic effect, and to avoid an incomprehensible “mish-mash” of styles.

In the Indian context, Badal Sircar was one of the leading and most influential playwrights and directors in modern Indian theatre movement. He is the writer of more than 50 plays and also a recipient of Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akedemi Fellowship and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Inspired by Grotowski and Euginio Barba, he started a new movement in the Indian theatre world, also known as ‘Third Theatre’.

Badal Sircar emerged as a theatre director and writer who tried to emancipate (free) himself and his work by crossing boundaries. He brought new ideas and methods to Indian theatre from the West and constructed a new form called the ‘Third Theatre’.

Sircar was also inspired by Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘The Poor Theatre’, who considered an actor’s body as the primary element in a theatre performance. Grotowski constructed a ‘theatre laboratory’ to experiment with the physical, spiritual and ritualistic elements of theatre. He tried to comprehend this acting style/system by turning to Indian Classical dance, Kathakali as well as yoga. For him, yoga remained inefficient, as it focused on interiority whereas actors required exteriority of emotions as well as gestures.

For him, gestures were to be expressive and dominant enough to overpower the lack which the form inhabits consciously. ‘Poor Theatre’ rejects the use of excess in theatre which includes lavish mis-en-scene, costumes, etc. The focus of the performance becomes actor’s body, which performs with minimalistic props. The process becomes simplistic and was performed in any space, thereby, rejecting traditional theatre halls or spaces.

Sircar, professionally a town planner, never went through an official training in theatre. In the beginning of his theatre career, he could not remain stable and dwindled between theatre and town planning. Sircar, emerged as a great playwright in process of writing plays in which he could act. His first play was Solution X written in 1956 based on the Hollywood film, ‘The Monkey Business’. The play was performed with people from his office named ‘Rehearsal Group’ and was started with no intention of performing on a formal stage.

Sircar, fascinated with comedies and science fiction fantasies wrote six plays which included Baro Pishima, Shonibar and Ram-Shyam-Jadu. But his play EvamIndrajeet, written in 1960s opened gates of fame and popularity. The play was published in the journal of ‘Bahurupee’ and was performed by theatre group Shouvanik in 1965, while he was in Nigeria. With the new success in theatre, Sircar’s interest also grew and he got actively involved in theatre, starting his own group called ‘Satabdi’ with amateur performers willing to entertain middle class audience in the proscenium theatre. The rupture came, when Sircar started to grow over proscenium theatre and was invited by the Government of India to visit three European countries in 1969 where he encountered experimental theatre. This allowed Sircar to get introduced to Grotowski as well as Poor Theatre.

“For Sircar, poor theatre brought the theatre back to its ritualistic form, reduced to the unadorned body of performer.” After his encounter with such ideas, the group started minimalistic use of sets, lights, costumes and even background music, completely rejecting mechanical and technological tools such as radio. Similar to Grotowski, the body of the actor experimented with mime, dance, movement, time, and space rather than speech. This new form was highly appreciated by the ‘mass’ audience as well as critics.

With these experiments in mind, Sircar adapted them to his previously written works. ‘Spartacus’ became the first, which he wrote for proscenium theatre, based on Howard Fast’s novel. The process was closely associated as a workshop which explored capabilities of artistes.

His famed play ‘Spartacus’ became the route through which Sircar moved towards his destination to reach a concrete ‘Third Theatre’. To familiarise Indian theatre groups with his form, Sircar started to conduct theatre workshops in different regions of the country.

During the performance, the burst of energy by the slave characters became the high point for the local audiences, which they appreciated by spontaneous applause.

The revolt in the play was becoming the voice of the mass audience standing outside the fence. Performance was held in an open space under a wooden roof which invited local people and certain VIPs. For Sircar, selling tickets became turning audiences into consumers, thus it remained a practice to keep the tickets very cheap by reducing the cost of theatre, and also not relying on funds from government or other business houses. The reason for creating a ‘Third Theatre’ remains to enable interaction with audiences about role, responsibility and rights of citizens. Spartacus talks about the marginalised community and their exploitation. Such performance thus intrigues a desire to change, in the form of protest by giving a voice to the oppressed; not only by representation of the script by characters but also through form.

The 1960s was a definitive decade for the arts in many parts of the world, including India. Moving into a postcolonial era, Indian theatre was starting to be demarcated in national terms. Theatre has always been one of the most powerful media of sensitization and social communication in India. Communal violence and conflicts arising out of caste, religious, and gender identities have found a unique resonance and representation in post- Independence Indian theatre. Theatre reveals many salient aspects of urban violence by the staging or enactment of violence. While looking at the contributors of theatre the name of Badal Sircar is included without any exception. It is observed that Badal Sircar contributed to the modern Indian drama and played roles as playwright, director, and actor to change the scenario contemporary theatre. No other theatre personality has had such a deep and pervasive influence on theatre practice and theory in post- independence India as Badal Sircar. As a writer of proscenium plays in the 1960s, all of which have been widely produced by leading directors in several Indian languages; as the pioneer of non-proscenium political theatre in the 1970s; as the mentor of countless directors and theatre activists who have carried his ideas to far corners of the country, his work is an integral part of contemporary Indian theatre history.

Third Theatre had turned into “free theatre” in three ways: First, there was free expression it promoted direct and therefore uninhibited communication; second, it was free from the paraphernalia of conventional theatre; and last, it was offered at no cost to the audience. A logical development leading to truly free theatre was the gram parikrama. A true theatre of the people therefore would have to go where the majority of the population lived. Satabdi went on its first parikrama in 1986 for three days and two nights. It has since been trying to undertake at least two such tours every year. The radical departure from established realist stage traditions that had many people referring to Sircar’s theatre as “experimental” and “alternative”.

Free theatre is also often loosely used synonymously with street theatre because both are flexible, portable, and inexpensive. And while he has no objections to the conflation per se, Sircar clarifies the distinction. He and other members of Satabdi define street theatre as a quickly created short performance, which has some topical value. So: “Street theatre in a way is Third Theatre. But all Third Theatre is not street theatre”. Sircar’s innovations in the use of public space have had a profound impact on Indian theatre. Even though experimentation for its own sake was never his intention, his example encouraged many others to explore different styles. But if this purposeful theatre was to survive, it required more than just meddlers interested in its form. What was needed to carry Third Theatre forward was a group of committed practitioners who were invested in its content.

After the scripts for change were written, a movement ensued. “The entire process of change involves a philosophy that the new language can only be established if it takes the shape of a movement”. To understand the contribution of Sircar and Satabdi in making process of the Third Theatre it is necessary to look up the annoying effort of Sircar and his group Satabdi. It is a long history of dedicated activity, most of it far from the glare of the national spotlight that has periodically shined on him. His exploration has never been motivated by a desire to experiment for the sake of experiment alone. He has never believed in maxims like ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘theatre for the sake of theatre’. Truly a man of the theatre, Sircar has nurtured a group that is now in its 45th year. He has generated a movement that continues to attract new people even decades after Third Theatre has passed from the dominant theatrical and critical interest. His influence is inductive. He works with his group and they in turn inspire mimetic configurations. He conducts workshops with individuals who become stimulated to do their own theatre. As a result, elements of Third Theatre have traveled far and wide, crossing boundaries of language, class, culture, and nationhood.

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