National School of Drama is struggling with a number of issues, apart from what its major role is – to impart training in dramatics
Swati Chandra | November 12, 2016 | New Delhi
Next to Mandi House, in a scenic and historical part of the national capital, stands the National School of Drama (NSD), a premier institution for theatre training. It functions as an autonomous body under the ministry of culture and holds a high rank on the stage of theatre. But the prestigious drama school is struggling with a number of issues, apart from what its major role is – to impart training in dramatics.
Established in 1959 as one of the constituent units of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, NSD became an independent entity and was given an autonomous status in 1975 under the ministry of culture. By 2013 the school had produced 1,025 artists, a small but significant group including stalwarts like Naseeruddin Shah and next-gen stars like Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Irrespective of the language barrier, theatre enthusiasts from all parts of the country, be it the Hindi-speaking belt or the northeast or the south, try their mettle to get through a series of gruelling entrance tests to stand among the 26 trainees for NSD’s graduation programme every year, one of the finest in the world.
The number, however, is miniscule for a country with 1.25 billion people. “The [opportunity to increase the] number shrinks further when the reservation under different quotas is applied,” says Jayanti, a theatre aspirant from Karnataka. The NSD administration though believes that in theatre you impart one-to-one training and hence it is always better to pay attention on smaller groups instead of filling up the classroom to the brim.
The limited number of seats, language barriers, and the need to save regional theatres have led to the idea of setting up more NSDs across India.
For the past 20 years, theatre artists from various parts of the country have been pushing for NSDs in 18 scheduled languages. Veteran theatre director and the face of Kannada theatre, Prasanna, had gone on a hunger strike in 2007 to push this demand.
But in 2011, the government (under the then culture minister, Kumari Selja) proposed establishing five regional centres of NSD, of which three – one each in Bengaluru, Tripura (TIE wing)and Sikkim – are already operational. The theatre activists felt cheated with this proposal.;Why do we need regional centres? Why can’t we have, say, NSD-Bengaluru, NSD-Patna, NSD-Lucknow, etc.,” asks Suresh Sharma, chief, repertory company (Rangmandal). “Opening up regional centres means one NSD would govern and lead all the centres, and thus have the monopoly. However, it is important to note that every region has its own literature, flavours and colours which have to be preserved.”
Sharma says that at present, artists from non-Hindi-speaking regions can focus on the academics at NSD only after spending one to two months in learning Hindi. “Once they graduate, they find Hindi theatre or films more lucrative than the folk or regional theatre they belong to.
Hence, to preserve the sanctity of the regional theatre and make the art flourish, NSD should function on the lines of IITs, IIMs and NITs [each independent of the others] and training be given in the regional language. A debate on decentralisation of NSD followed by analysis and restructuring is required,” he adds.
Pravin Kumar Gunjan, a 2009 alumnus and former member of the NSD student council, believes that every state should have one NSD. “If you look around, there is just one drama school and a couple of repertories, which are run by the government. The new regional centres are helpful but to popularise regional theatre and impart effective training, the government should think about opening state repertories with each NSD in the state. This way, they can create jobs for theatre artists and also unburden the existing NSD.” Unaffected by the B-town charm, Pravin runs his repertory in Begusarai district of Bihar. “Theatre in our country is a continuous struggle as the government’s existing policies are not supportive at all. Places like Bihar have no encouragement,” he says.
Meanwhile, there have been instances when the government proposed granting a deemed university status to NSD. However, on the grounds that the University Grants Commission (UGC) would intervene in NSD’s work, it was preferred not to accept the proposal, say insiders.
Professor Waman Kendre, director of NSD, in August, had commented on the deemed university status and said, “We do not want to be listed among deemed universities. We want to save our unique identity. We would like to be an institute of national importance. NSD’s contribution to the country is even more.”
Though NSD is alma mater to a number of famous lyricists and writers, such as Swanand Kirkire and Piyush Mishra, it has never paid attention to the need to incorporate a course in playwriting.
A 2014 high-powered committee report of the culture ministry made some key observations on the role and importance of playwrights. It said, “Many theatre companies abroad have a resident playwright. But NSD has never paid heed to this important aspect of theatre. It does not have a playwriting course since its inception, and falls back very frequently upon classics of Western drama in translation. We would recommend that a course in playwriting must be introduced. Otherwise it would remain a major gap in the syllabus of the institution.”
Foundation: NSD was established in 1959 as a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. It operated from Nizamuddin West and a Kailash Colony apartment before moving to its present location at Bhawalpur House.
Aim: The main objective of NSD at the time of its inception was to impart training in theatre.
Subjects of study: Dramatic literature, acting, direction, design and theatre technique, and production.
Repertory Company: Established in 1964, it has 20 regular artists. It provides a platform for the theatre graduates to perform plays professionally.
Theatre in education (TIE): Also called Sanskar Rang Toli, the TIE is one of the most important educational resource centres in the country. Its main role is to impart training to teachers.
Extension programme: To make up for the less number of seats, NSD conducts workshops to reach out to theatre enthusiasts across regions and languages.
Number of graduates (1959-2013): 1,025
Average cost of each production: Rs.12-15 lakh
Monthly stipend for undergraduate students: Rs.6,000
Average expenditure on each student annually: Rs.3 lakh
Of late, the NSD has been continuously engaged in a series of works. One of these is to hold drama festivals. Apart from the grand Bharat Rang Mahotsav, there are tribal festivals (Adirang Mahotsav), summer theatre festivals and a few that are in collaboration with other cultural festivals. But such jamborees distract it from the academics, the sole purpose of NSD. As recommended by the high-powered committee, NSD should contemplate on forming a vision statement and a proper mandate to bring focus to its role.
Perhaps, it was because of this lack in focus that veteran actor Sanjay Mishra never visited his alma mater after graduating in 1989. “Whatever I am today is only because of my work and my friends. NSD has no role to play in it,” Mishra bemoans.
Governance Now wanted to bring forth all possible issues ailing the school but despite repeated attempts, its director Waman Kendre remained unavailable for an interaction.
Some good news
Amidst the problems, there is always a silver lining when it comes to producing the finest dramatists, actors and directors of the nation. While there is a long list of popular faces in the Bollywood from NSD, there are some alumni who are working as theatre prodigy in various regions of the country. Shrish Dobhal, who graduated from NSD in 1984, and is a contemporary of the likes of actress Seema Biswas and director KS Rajendran, runs a group called Shail Nut for the folk theatre of Uttarakhand. “Shail means mountain and Nut is the colloquial term for a performing artist. Uttarakhand has a rich history of regional drama and folklore as there were no sources of entertainment for a long time, not even TV. I preferred not to leave the place and the work for preserving the art here. Our theatre group consists of folk artists and their families and operates from five different locations in the mountains,” says Shrish, who was once the students’ union president of
NSD. “I have worked for films and a few television series but theatre is my real calling, it is no less than worshipping,” he adds.
For actor Pankaj Tripathi, famous for his roles as Sultan Qureshi in Gangs of Wasseypur and school principal in Nil Batte Sannata, the three years at NSD had been a beautiful time of his life. “You ask for a book and they [NSD] would get it for you in a couple of days. Yes, things have changed now. Earlier we used to know who our seniors were; nowadays undergraduates know you only if you are seen in a film. My experience at NSD was awesome. I believe that passion alone can’t make you a great performer. You need proper training as well. And NSD gives that,” he says. Tripathi belongs to Bihar’s Gopalganj district where too, for years, people did not have a television set at their homes.
The work culture at NSD is said to be phenomenal, no matter how overworked and staff-crunched the institution may be. An anecdote of one of its performances at a nondescript auditorium in eastern UP sheds more light on this. The auditorium was jam-packed; lights were dim off-stage. As the curtain rose, a pin-drop silence engulfed, staying for a few more minutes. The play started with drumbeats in the background and a voice narrated the backdrop of the famous drama Panchlight. A group of eight to nine people entered from the right and positioned in the middle of the stage. In the middle of the play, while enacting a scene of the village panchayat, the light went off. All artists froze at their respective places. When the power was not restored for long, other members of the group used the light from torches to illuminate the stage. Artists resumed the act, exactly from where they had left, so seamlessly as if a technical snag had never happened.
People at NSD are wired that way – to give the best in minimum possible resources.
Interview with: Suresh Sharma, Chief, Repertory Company, NSD
What do you have to say on the autonomy of NSD?
The autonomy should not be just for the sake of saying. The autonomy has to be maintained. Every autonomous entity has a governing body and there are certain rules and regulations that need to be followed, but they must not interfere with the autonomy of the institution.
Should the number of students in graduate courses and repertory wing be increased?
Earlier only 20 students were taken in the graduate courses. This became 26 from 2009. In repertory, there are 20 full-time artists, who are complemented by casual artists when required. We don’t think the number should increase further. At NSD, we don’t give classroom training, we impart one-to-one training. This is where the requirement of decentralisation is felt.
Do you face manpower crunch?
You can say there is a lack of skilled manpower. This is mainly because of reservation and changing priorities of the school.
Are you overburdened?
To some extent, yes. We are often seen as the sole repertory representing the entire nation. There is no clarity, as of yet, on whether we are the national school of drama repertory or national repertory. Of late, we are holding several theatre festivals. FTII is also an autonomous body; it doesn’t hold as many festivals like we do. Theatre festivals are good and encouraging. But why not create a separate entity for holding fests just like the directorate of film festivals, for films.
Is there any problem with budget and funds?
No. The culture ministry has been generous since a couple of years. However, the funds and planning have focused on the quantity instead of the quality at NSD. There is no vision. The country needs places for rehearsals, auditoriums, an infrastructure and proper planning. Just putting in money doesn’t help.
(The story appears in the November 1-15, 2016 issue)
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