Indian theatre

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Indians in South Africa

Between 1860 and 1911 approximately 152,184 persons of Indian origin came to Natal . The vast majority of these came out as steerage passengers under appalling conditions . Most were indentured labourers from three districts in Madras in south India and they were predominantly either Tamil or Telegu speaking Hindus. If they managed to survive the voyage – and some did not – they found themselves in a situation that was unenviable in the extreme. They were dispersed to remote plantations where they were required to live in squalid conditions and to work much longer hours than those stipulated in the labour contracts . Some families were separated and the notorious ‘five mile limit ‘ was enforced making it illegal for labourers to move more than five miles from their allocated plantations . Three factors combined to produce the need to import cheap labour for sugar plantations in Natal. Indigenous black African labour was abundant but was considered unsuitable because of what the British regarded as their ‘erratic ‘ behaviour . Black African labourers had a tendency to leave the plantations to attend to their own crops and to attend ritual ceremonies etc. Shepstone’s Native Policy was another factor , as was the prohibition on slavery in 1807. Indian labourers from the motherland , on the other hand ,were used to the same kind of working conditions as were to be found in Natal . At the end of the five year contract period of indentured labour the individual worker could be repatriated , re-contracted ,or was free to purchase or rent property in the Colony . This latter option was taken up with enthusiasm by many and by 1877 a stable Indian community was in charge of nearly all the fishing , market-gardening , and the hawking of fruit and vegetables in the colony. Whilst the British made no provision for the education of Indians during the nineteenth century , oral education was part of the culture of the class of people who came out under the indenture scheme . Rural Indians possess a long tradition of oral education based upon the retelling of extracts from the great Hindu epics , the Ramayana and the Mahabarata.

Indian theatre

Indian theatre: This term is used when referring to performances and works created and written on the Indian subcontinent and referring to those particular cultural situations.

Indian theatre in South Africa

"Indian Theatre" is used here to refer to performances from the Indian subcontinent, also such works performed in Souyth Africa, while the term "Indic Theatre" is used to refer to theatrical fare that has its roots in the South African Indian experience and was created here.

Indic theatre

The term "Indic Theatre" is used specifically to refer to theatrical fare that has its roots in the South African Indian experience and was created here. Academic research into South African Indic Theatre has been undertaken mainly at the University of Durban-Westville. (See Asoka Theatre Publications) Whilst there may be a perception that such studies are too culture-specific to be relevant to our evolving cultural identity, Indic theatre is by no means limited to what originally came with the Indian settlers. In its interaction with the theatrical expression of both the Eurocentric and Afrocentric traditions it has made a unique contribution to the changing cultural experience of South Africa.

Key events in this history are outlined below.

Phase one - The beginnings

The term ‘Indic ‘ is used to distinguish cultural forms that have their roots in the South African Indian experience as distinct from those practiced in the motherland uninfluenced by factors encountered in the diaspora . The development of Indic drama in South Africa is as complex as any theatre history , and as difficult to reduce to neat stages of development . The following attempt to chart this development in seven phases must therefore be taken as a broad generalization to be supplemented by a more detailed consideration .

Phase One - Early stirrings

Between 1860 and 1900 some early temples were built and traditional ceremonies were observed . Included in such ceremonies would have been the presentation of religious dance-dramas such as the Bharata Natyam . At the same time the fact that the ‘re-telling’ of the old epics described above involved re-enactment and thus gave rise to forms of dance drama such as the Bharata Natyam and the Therukoothu, was of particular importance to the development of Indic theatre.

Phase Two - Street scenes and microphones

From 1900 and into the 1920’s there is evidence of vernacular religious plays being written in Tamil , Telegu , and in Hindi . These were based upon recall of the great Hindu epics , the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. There were no formal theatre spaces or halls open to Indians in urban areas at this time ,but as the popularity of dramatic presentations increased cinemas began to be used for the purpose of dramatic presentation . One such venue was the Royal Picture Palace , more commonly known in the community as Rawat’s Bioscope . The proceeds from presentations went towards temple funds and performers operated on a strictly amateur basis . Tommy Lalbhadur set up the earliest known amateur dramatic group in 1916 known as the Arya Yuvuk Bhajan Mandal . The physical conditions of presentation produced two curious phenomena: a) The street scene b) The use of microphones In order to facilitate scene changes on the shallow stage behind the curtains in the cinema , comic street scenes were introduced that used local settings and made reference to local incidents .Unfortunately these were not recorded in writing but they were nevertheless the first examples of indigenous secular Indic drama in South Africa. The use of microphones came about through a confluence of a number of factors . Firstly , the cinema houses had sound systems that could incorporate the use of microphones . Secondly the audiences were large ( estimated on the basis of the records of door takings and advertised seat prices to be of the order of a thousand people ) . Thirdly , the performers lacked any formal voice training for the stage . Stage movement was severely constrained through the use of microphones , as performers tended to cluster beneath hanging microphones , yet this tradition lasted well into the period of professional theatre groups of the 30’s and 40’s ( photographs of professional productions of Mathimuan Pillay during this period show performers clustered under hanging microphones ). The phenomenon , peculiar to the Indian community began to disappear after the introduction of Eisteddfods in the 60’s. .In schools the phenomenon still persists in some measure even today. Even in professional theatre it re-emerges periodically .Recently Jayloshnie Naidoo used a radio microphone in Ronnie Govender’s professional production of 1949 at the Natal Playhouse in Durban , despite the fact that Jayloshnie trained for three years as a drama student at the University of Durban-Westville.

Phase Three - The first Professionals

Between 1930 and 1950 the first professional groups began to operate in the community .Prominent amongst theatrical entrepreneurs were N.C. Naidoo , and Mathimugan Pillay .The rise of an educated urban Indian group ( sometimes rather disparagingly referred to as the “English educated Tamil colonials” ) contributed to the viability of professional Indic theatre .During this period then three forms of theatre existed side by side . There were adaptations from Shakespeare to appeal to the educated section of the community , there were the traditional pieces , and there were original plays written by Naidoo and Pillay . A further important development was the appearance of Indian women as dramatic performers , as distinct from dancers , in Indic theatre . In 1954 Ronnie Govender , Muthal Naidoo , Prem Singh , Rooks Chetty and Slim Moodley formed the Durban Theatre Academy . This short-lived company presented only one presentation , Antigone before it folded .

Phase Four - Krishna Shah

During the 1960’s ,under the influence of British-inspired liberal arts education , White teachers of drama began to work with groups of so-called ‘non-whites ‘. Doreen Donelly , Prof.Elizabeth Sneddon , and Pauline Morel amongst others worked tirelessly to promote eurocentric theatre practice in the Indian Community . At the same time multi-racial theatre groups began to appear.

Eisteddfods were started and they did much to promote the expressive use of the vernacular languages. The most important event in the development of Indic theatre in the 60’s was however the visit to South Africa of Krishna Shah in 1961. Shah was a graduate of the Indian Academy of Dramatic Art and had done experimental theatre work in Bombay before taking up a scholarship in the United States to study Western methods of theatre production . It was while he was lecturing at the University of Iowa that he undertook a production of King of the Dark Chamber by the famous Indian playwright Rabindranath Tagore. Ian Bernhardt , the chairman of Union Artists in Johannesburg saw this presentation and invited Shah to come out to South Africa to direct a production of this work in Durban. Whilst the leads were taken by Bhaskar and Surya Kumari from India , Shah also used local Indian performers Guru Pillay , Karen Pillay , Rad Thumbiran , Slim Moodley , Dhevi Bhagawan , and a black African performer Gilbert Xaba. Shah used a Stanislavskian approach to direction and the presentation strived to attain the same standard as the best eurocentric work being generated in the white community at that time . Whilst this production presented in the Orient Hall from 5th to the 21st October 1961 had an enormous impact on Indic theatre in South Africa , it was arguably the workshops that he ran over a six week period in St.Aiden’s Church Hall that proved to be the real turning point in the development of indigenous playwriting and theatre practice in the South African Indian community. Before leaving South Africa Shah helped Ronnie Govender to present his fist original play Beyond Calvary and he also assisted Ben Persad with his first work Trio against Trains.

At the end of Shah’s production The Durban Academy of Theatre Arts (DATA) was formed but this concentrated on eurocentric works and its target audience was the educated elite. Some of their productions were directed by Doreen Donelly . Ronnie Govender , Muthal Naidoo and other prominent members of the India acting fraternity felt that DATA was ignoring politically relevant work and local writing The Shah Theatre Academy, as an alternative to DATA, was formed and this is perhaps the longest surviving non-funded community theatre group in South Africa. Although it has broken up or lain dormant at various times it rises phoenix-like again with another play by Ronnie Govender whose original scripts have sustained it from it’s inception .

Phase Five - Black Consciousness.

The 70’s were to see the impact of Black Consciousness on theatre . The Theatre Council of Natal TECON led by Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper had been formed in 1969 and to begin with it’s membership was open to all . By 1970 the group had made the decision to identify itself with the Black Consciousness movement and membership was no longer open to whites . Whites were also excluded from attending performances . With this development a powerful section of the Indic theatre grouping indicated that they were now self-consciously part of the cultural struggle . Other groups remained open to all whilst their work remained dedicated to addressing issues pertinent to the Indian community .Ronnie Govender produced his play The Lahnee’s Pleasure in 1974. It was a watershed production in many ways as it was the first to transcribe the patois of South African Indians onto the stage . It was an enormous success running to capacity audiences at the Himalaya Hotel in Durban for twelve weeks and for four weeks at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg . Thereafter hundreds of performances were given all over South Africa in non-establishment venues running for about five years . In its day it was the most successful commercial theatre venture in the history of South African Theatre . Kessie Govender established his first Stable Theatre with the production of Stable Expense which was highly critical of Indian attitudes towards black African labourers in the building industry . An important feature of the period was a rediscovery of cultural roots in the form and structure of the dramas presented .The influence of Therukoothu can be seen in the inclusion of a central comic figure in the presentations . In Therukoothu this was the Komalie or Kathiakaran . In The Lahanee’s Pleasure it is the figure of Mothie .Govender’s plays that lampooned the tri-cameral parliament Inside and Offside , used the Quawali form drawn from poetry recitals to music in the Muslim community . The elements of Indic theatre emerged as an amalgam of popular song and dance forms , the use of the patois , local situations and socially relevant themes explored through comedy and very often farce in which caricature and stereotype are liberally employed .

Phase Six - The Islamic contribution

During the 80’s popular theatre began to flourish . Muthal Naidoo also took up the satirical critique of tri-cameral politics in her production of We Three Kings in 1982 , and Khan and Alli began a collaboration which has proved to be highly productive and financially successful over the years . It was not common at first for Muslims to take part in theatrical presentations . Strictly speaking the representation of the human form is forbidden in Islamic art and theatre is therefore in a fundamentalist sense ‘Haram’ ( or a sacrilege ) Members of the Muslim community played a major role however in the development of Indic theatre in South Africa. Khan and Alli continue to this day to produce commercially successful popular theatre and are probably the most successful commercial theatre entrepreneurs in the country at this time . Saira Essa and Khetan Lakhani not only contributed to production work and to the promotion of original indigenous work but they established much needed theatre venues . Saira Essa with Alan Joseph created the Upstairs Theatre whilst Khetan Lakhani set up Communikon.

Phase Seven - Experimentation

During the latest period inter and intra-cultural experimentation has come to prominence . Suria Govender in her dance work with her group Surialanga has experimented with a fusion of Indocentric and Afrocentric dance forms. Jay Pather in his work with the Sewela Zonke dance company experiments with a wide range of cultural forms in diverse environments such as art galleries , shopping centers , the beachfront etc. In drama Kriben Pillay explores a synthesis of a number of cultural performance traditions in his play Looking for Muruga (1990).Satchu Annamalai undertook a bold experiment in 1992 bringing a traditional open-air performance form of Therukoothu into a formal western theatre performance venue with a totally different performance semiotic from that which the form normally enjoys . This was the presentation in the Asoka Theatre of The Battle of Mayal Ravanan. In another production Three Hand Six Foot Annamalai fused elements of traditional Indian Theatre with that of the modern .Indian vernacular was interspersed with English dialogue and aspects common to both the Indian and African cultures are explored. Today traditional dance forms , and in particular Bharata Natyam , are presented regularly at social and cultural gatherings . Recitals of traditional song and traditional music are likewise presented regularly . Popular Indic theatre thrives .and a new frontier is opening up in Film and Television . (For an overview, see the Indic Theatre Monogram Series. Asoka Theatre publications, Drama Dpt, UWC. Also Schauffer, 1992; Zaloumis, 1995) [DS]

Celebrations of the Indian heritage

Shared History - The Indian Experience

The High Commission of India in South Africa and Teamwork Productions presents the fourth edition of the Shared History - The Indian Experience festival, 2010. This is a celebration of contemporary and classical music, dance, theatre, visual art, film, food and literature. The Festival commemorates the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured Indians in South Africa and showcases the finest that the culture has to offer with performances presented in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg and Pretoria from 20 August until 30 September 2010.

The exceptional programme will provide an avenue for dialogue and collaborative work exchange between Indian and South African musicians, literary figures, dancers and visual artists. “The Shared History Festival is a unique celebration of plurality and the common heritage of India and South Africa. Over the years it has become a platform to showcase the best music, theatre, dance, film food and visual arts from India," says the High Commissioner Virendra Gupta.

From the spicy cuisine of the "land of spices” Kerala to a Film Retrospective to a Literary Festival, Words on Water; from ‘At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories,’ a collection of stories by celebrated author and playwright Ronnie Govender to music and dance performances by celebrated Indian artistes, including mandolin maestro U. Shrinivas, World Music exponents Mrigya and Midival Punditz; Vijayalakshmi’s Swan Lake, in Mohiniyattam style (an Indian Classical dance form from Kerala) and South Africa’s acclaimed Indian dance company the Tribhangi Dance Theatre; from a visual art exhibition in both Durban and Johannesburg to the Wellbeing Experience at the Emmarentia Botanical gardens; from an Ayuvedic conference to youth workshops, there is something for everyone - audiences can look forward to a great variety of events and performances that will bring great pleasure and delight.

Shared History kicks off with its Grand Opening on 3 September at the Turbine Hall, Newtown where the Midival Punditz, an Indian fusion group consisting of two Delhi-based musicians, Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj, will get the Festival off to a rocking start. They can be seen again at the trendy Zouk Lounge and bar in Sandton on 4 September.

Highlights of the 2010 Shared History Festival are:

-Where the Streets have no Names exhibition opening at the Durban Art Gallery on 20 August;

-the official opening DJ night featuring Midival Punditz - the Buddha-bar performance arts sensations visit South Africa for the first time on Friday 3 September at the Turbine Hall in Newtown.

-Mrigya, with its rich blend of Classical, Blues and Jazz music fusing Blues, Funk, Folk, Latin, Rock and Jazz with Indian classical music will present their re-contextualised Indian rhythms and melodies for the enjoyment of all. Mrigya created history at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by becoming the first Indian band to get a five-star rating. Catch them at the Zoo Lake on Sunday 5 September at the Arts Alive Festival’s annual Jazz on the Lake. They will also appear at the Durban City Hall on 4 September, at the Gandhi Hall in Lenasia on 6 September and in Pretoria at the Rendezvous, State Theatre on 7 September.

-theatre-lovers will be thrilled with Ronnie Govender's At the Edge and other Cato Manor Stories which will be presented in Durban at The Playhouse Company from 8 to 12 September and Johannesburg at The Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg from 16 September to 26 September, while Lahnee’s Pleasure will be presented in Cape Town at the Artscape Theatre Complex from 14 to 28 August.

-a highlight on the Music programme is the concert with the outstanding Indian mandolin Maestro U Shrinivas, known as “Mandolin Shrinivas” for his mastery of the mandolin, performing with the Kwazulu Natal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Durban City Hall on 22 September, in Cape Town at the Joseph Stone Auditorium on 24 September and with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra at the Linder on 26 September in what will be the finale for the Shared History – The Indian Experience.

-Dance lovers can enjoy two dance presentations: the world-renowned Mohiniyattam dancers Vijaylakshmi and Bharti Shvaji’s new choreographic work, inspired by Tchaikovsky’s music, Swan Lake in Mohiniyattam style, (a traditional South Indian dance form of Kerala) at the Dance Factory, Newtown from 8 to 12 September and South Africa’s acclaimed Dance company the Tribhangi Dance Theatre’s commissioned production From the Canefields to Freedom from 14 to 16 September.

-an exhibition of visual art curated by Dr. Alka Pande, ‘Where the Streets have No Name’ is a unique collaboration of art by recognised Indian artists, featuring a dynamic collaboration between 21 artists and the street children from India. The concept of the ‘Street’ arose from the bond that the children of ‘Salaam Balak Trust’ have with the street; the street was their home before they entered ‘Salaam Balak Trust’. A Street – a muse for many a photographer and the genre of street photography, the street becomes a canvas for creativity. Geographies vary but dynamic challenges of the street remain a constant source of inspiration. At the Durban Art Gallery from 20 August to 5 Sept and in Johannesburg at the Art and Craft design Centre in Sandton from September 10 to 30.

-a Film Retrospective (Johannesburg only) and an “In Conversation…” with movie star Rishi Kapoor discussing the Bollywood genre of Cinema in India. At Suncoast Cinemas, Durban on September 17 and at Nu Metro cinemas, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg on September 19.

-The Wellbeing Experience, 19 September at Emmarentia Botanical Gardens, Johannesburg. From sunrise until sunset choose from 14 yoga and Ayurvedic disciplines and guided meditation taught by certificated practitioners and experience mind, body and soul purification. The Wellbeing Experience provides an opportunity to engage in the holistic practice of yoga and Ayurveda as well as one to one health consultations with Ayurvedic professionals. Lectures on Indian Ayurvedic Practices, Organic and Ayurvedic Food Stalls, Yoga Workshops (Yoga disciplines will include, amongst others, Classical, Ishta, Iyenger, Satyananda, Sri Sri and yoga for Children, guided Meditations and Music Performances. An outing for the whole family. Day ticket - R100.

-a festival within the festival is the Literary Festival, “Words on Water – India and South Africa in Conversation”. This literature festival enters its fourth year in collaboration with the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand. The established format will contain conversations between Indian and South African authors, some readings and performances. Featured authors to include Dr Shashi Tharoor, Ms Reba Som (who will focus on Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the context of his 150th anniversary year), and other noted authors such as Urvashi Butalia, Sunil Khilnani and noted poet Arvind Mehrotra. They will be in conversation with South African authors, including some of the young rising stars of South African literature, Ptika Ntuli and Lebogang Mashile. In Johannesburg at the Turbine Hall, Newtown from September 24 to September 25 and in Cape Town at the University of the Western Cape from 20 September to 21 September.

-to cater for every taste(bud) a palette-stirring encounter with the cuisine of God’s own country Kerala will be featured in a week-long lunch and dinner engagement at one of Johannesburg’s premier restaurants, Le Canard. From September 14 to September 22 this will complete the sublime experience of India. Food fundis are advised to book early.

The Shared History Festival was initiated three years ago and has become a brand in its own right and is seen as an integral part of the South African cultural calendar. Consul - General Vikram Doraiswami says, “Shared History is a celebration of the shared spaces that the people of India and South Africa have occupied for the past centuries; it is also an attempt to create new common ground for greater dialogue through the medium of the arts” and Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Productions, the Indian company responsible for producing the national festival adds, “this year will be a unique celebration of ideas and content presented in a spirit of collaboration between South African companies and those from India. Shared History epitomises the belief that the arts transcend language, social barriers and art forms.”

The Shared History Festival is sponsored by the City of Johannesburg, Arts Alive, eThekwini Municipality, First National Bank (FNB), Jet Airways, Jindal, ICCR and Incredible India; associate sponsors are: ACSA, Tata Africa, Dunlop, Rosyblue, Bank of Baroda and KGK and the media partners are SABC TV2 Eastern Mosaic, Sunday Times, Zee TV, Lotus FM and Sutra Magazine.

Bookings at Computicket.

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