Search the web for theatre shows in India in 2019, and chances are that you will be directed to listings in London and New York. A deeper search might help find a mixed bag of events happening over the next few weeks – or months – but there is no denying that it is much easier to find a list of much-awaited movies. But that doesn’t mean that the stage is not set for action in the New Year.

“There will be more big-spectacle plays, like Mughal-E-Azam. There is an audience for this kind of musical performances,” says actor-director-storyteller Danish Husain. The trend started with Disney India’s Beauty and the Beast in 2015, says Anasuya Vaidya, director of the Delhi-based Akshara Theatre.

So successful was the show that it returned for a second season. In 2017, tickets for the best seats for Mughal-E-Azam were priced in the thousands. The demand ensured that not only did it have multiples shows in Mumbai, but also a second season in Delhi. “Producers in Mumbai are pumping in a lot of money into these shows because they are economically viable,” says Vaidya, adding, “The growing audience for big ticket shows also means that quality has to keep improving and there has to be more technical finesse.” Bollywood darling Manish Malhotra, for example, did the costumes for Mughal-E-Azam.

The trend has caught on. If Bohemian Rhapsody paid tribute to the late musician Freddie Mercury on screen, at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts was staged the musical, Queen, Mercury’s iconic band. There are more shows of the play coming up in 2019. “There will also be big-ticket adaptations of the Mahabharat and Devdas this year,” says Vaidya. The challenge, says Husain, is that there are not enough spaces to host such productions. “So may be, there will be growth in infrastructure too this year, and we will have more theatres where such big productions can be staged,” he says.

The other demand, says Vaidya, is for original content. “There are very few playwrights writing original content for the stage. But the trend now is to devise new plays – out of short stories, some event, a strand of social life… Most groups want to create a new play,” says Sunit Tandon, director of the Delhi-based India Habitat Centre (IHC). Where classics are being performed, they are being interpreted differently or presented differently, he adds. “Like the mythologies being set in the modern world as being a commentary of our times,” he explains. Agrees Husain: “The trend for 2019 will be cutting-edge content and content being presented in different forms – like blending stand-up comedy with theatre or storytelling with theatre.”

If the world of performing arts looks promising in the coming year, there is optimism about the visual arts too. “Over the past decade, the region has seen a significant increase in cultural activity with the establishment of major new contemporary art initiatives, such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Serendipity Arts Festival, the Colombo Art Biennale, the Lahore Biennale, and the Dhaka Art Summit. As a result, South Asian artists are attracting wider audiences, both on a national and global level,” says Jagdip Jagpal, director of the annual India Art Fair, Delhi.

Opinion is divided on the volume of business. While Jagpal says “the art market continues to grow steadily and we are seeing a distinct increase in new collectors”, Alka Pande, consultant arts advisor and curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at IHC, feels, “commercially the market is not looking good”.

She explains, “While the masters are doing well commercially, contemporary art does not have the same demand”. Business, or the lack thereof, does not stop creativity, however, and as Pande says, “unlike when there is a boom, when artists are not thinking about selling, a lot more thoughtful work is coming out. There is good work happening also in non-metropolitan centres”.

Multi-media and multi-disciplinary works are the trend. As Rajeev Lochan, former director, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) puts it, “the large number of private museums and institutions supporting creative expression in the field of visual arts and encouraging inter-disciplinary discourse have remained quite inventive and active in organising workshops and exhibitions. This interdisciplinary approach promises a liberal platform of amalgamation between technique, technology, content and medium which appears to be a promising approach for 2019.”

Indian audiences and collectors are also showing a greater interest in photography as an art form, adds Jagpal, “thanks to the efforts of some forward-thinking galleries and institutions”.

As with any beginning, a new year brings with it both optimism and a good measure of speculation about challenges and things that need to change for the better. The coming months will show how 2019 scores on the culture index.

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First Published: Jan 01, 2019 12:49 IST


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