Theatre emerging as the new diplomatic tool

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS
Thursday, January 6, 2011

NEW DELHI - Theatre, an emerging diplomatic tool promoting people-to-people contact and understanding of diverse cultures, has a shared language in the Asia-Pacific region and a drama school meet here is trying to carry the commonalities forward to address issues like identity, politics and culture.

The ongoing Asia Pacific Bureau Drama Schools’ Meet 2011 at the National School of Drama has participants from China, Hong Kong, Shanghai, India, Iran, New Zealand, the Phillipines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. The conclave began Jan 3 and will end Jan 8.

The Asia Pacific Bureau of Drama Schools is a regional offshoot of Unesco’s chair of the International Theatre Institute located in Shanghai. It facilitates academic mobility between drama schools in the region to foster better regional understanding of cultures to identify linkages and build a shared heritage.

Martial arts as a body language is a point of commonality in Asia-Pacific theatrical heritage.

While India boasts of genres like Kalarippayattu (martial dance from Kerala), Ghatak, Pari-khanda (sword fights), Lathibaji (stick fighting) and Thang ta (sword fight from Manipur), the far eastern stage performances use stylised elements from the ancient Chinese martial forms of Kung Fu, Wushu, Taiji Quan and Tai Chi.

“Martial arts is part of body training that is important for an actor from any region of the world. We are looking at different methods of body training at the meet. Our students have to learn genres like Kalarippayattu and lathibaji as part of their physical language training,” National School of Drama director Anuradha Kapoor told IANS.

Asia Pacific Bureau (APB) festival coordinator Gargi Bharadwaj said: “Asian theatre is characterised by common features in performance traditions with links to common grounds in mythological texts, stories and allied narrative traditions. There is a sharing in different versions of one mythological text - which are being interpreted in the context of respective traditions, cultures and politics.”

Citing an example, she said on Jan 3, “a students’ troupe from the New Zealand drama school performed a play based on six principles of the Indian fable ‘Panchatantra’, combining nuances from the traditional aboriginal Maori theatre and contemporary drama to raise questions about their identity, politics and inter-personal relationships”.

Malavika Rao, an NSD student associated with the APB meet, said: “Any kind of theatre should represent the current aspirations and dilemmas of society and investigate formats or ways in which they build bridges between diverse issues and cultures.”

According to Bharadwaj, the Asia-Pacific Bureau of Drama Schools is a post-colonial initiative to open a dialogue between cultures on the western coast of the Pacific Ocean. It focuses on 17 countries and provides a platform to Southasian stage whose concerns have long been overlooked.

The bureau was set up in 2006 in Manila, Philippines, at the fourth World Conference of Theatre School Directors and the World Conference of Unesco’s International Theatre Institute.

For Vidyanidhee Prasad, a delegate from the Flame School of Performing Arts in Pune, “the meet is a revelation bringing to light rich heritage of both Indian and Chinese theatres, which is a common point”.

But the conclave is also serving to highlight the differences in approach to theatres in the two countries.

“The most interesting thing about Chinese theatre is the duration of training and discipline. Chinese actors train for nearly 10 years on an average before they are allowed to become professionals. In India, parents discourage children to work in theatre for a living because it is still not professional,” Prasad said.

“Our children rather spend their time in isolation over computers. Theatre has to be included in education because we do not value arts in our education system,” Prasad added.

Jeffrey Sichel, the US ambassador of Unesco’s chair of International Theatre Institute, says: “The stage, unlike cinema and television, is a space for imagination. It allows us to elevate performances. And countries like China and India with centuries of cultural legacies can help establish global cultural connections by looking at real situations in life and bringing theatre to help marginalised groups.

“My advocacy is more education and more awareness in theatre so that it becomes a device of interaction - a dialogue,” he said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

Filed under: Diplomacy

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