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Theatre on wheels

Natya Chetana is a uniquely intimate form that takes plays to the villages on cycles.



PEDALLING AWAY Natya Chetana moves ahead on a mission to promote theatre in rural Orissa.

Subodh Patnaik and his friends are cycling through rural Orissa to spread theatre and share a social message. Pedalling furiously, they bring theatre to villages on their cycles. A soft-spoken Subodh Patnaik and his group of fellow activists have been around for over 18 years.

All along, while regional theatre outfits in the country bemoaned their sorry state and blamed TV and cinema for robbing them of their patrons, Patnaik and his friends concurred passively. Then one day, they decided to beat the system with Natya Chetana.

Based in Bhubaneswar, Natya Chetana has been so named because the idea is to spread awareness of and through theatre. The idea took shape in 1989, when the group was getting ready for a performance at the Rabindra Mandap. When their booking was cancelled at the last moment to accommodate an official function, the artistes viewed it as a slight to theatre. After a protest sit-in, they vowed never to go back to Rabindra Mandap, perhaps the only theatre auditorium in Bhubaneswar.

Thus was born the idea of intimate theatre. Today, the Natya Chetana team has covered more than 700 km on their cycles to perform theatre at different villages.

"There are two major constraints faced by theatre groups anywhere today - lack of funds and non-availability of an auditorium. But there was no point in lamenting over this. We had to find a way out and we did," says Patnaik. The plays - Katha, Seeta Asita, and Geeta, among others - have been written by Patnaik.

Before taking the expedition to villages, an advance team studies the cultural profile and the problems of the villagers. The play is then improvised in a workshop, and a group of 30 to 40 performers set out on their cycles, arriving at the villages unannounced. Later, Natya Chetana's full time volunteers visit these villages to assess the impact of the shows.

Non-propagandist art

"It is intimate theatre because we can stage the play before the audience in a big room, on a rooftop, in the village school, anywhere. We work towards an intimate rapport with the audience," explains Patnaik who believes that art has to have a message but the plays are performed as plays first not as propagandist presentations.

Thousands of villagers watch these social plays, embellished with energetic acting, dance and music, and some of them, together with local colleges and schools, play host to the artistes. "No big expense is involved as we have our cycles and manage with minimal props that can be carried with us," says Patnaik. "Our lodging and food are taken care of by the villagers, enabling us to continue with what we have always wanted to do - theatre."

Having blazed a trail for other theatre persons to follow instead of sinking into despondency, Patnaik says, "A great man once said that people throng liquor shops, while the milk man has to do door-to-door service. Thus, while people throng cinema halls or watch TV at home, we do not mind going to them with our theatre."

BIBHUTI MISHRA

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