The three-day festival of plays by Aaj from Udaipur (presented by Sangit Kala Mandir, March 26-28) further stirs the continuing debate over the mixing of rural and urban performing styles. Countless attempts of this nature have been made for the past twenty years by Indian directors in search of new directions, but so few of them have struck one as genuine that the very concept of such city-bred exploitation of traditional performers now comes in for sceptical scrutiny.

Thus, Bhanu Bharti’s six-year-old tenure as director for Aaj, “engaged in interaction with tribal performing traditions and rituals in Mewar”, immediately recalls the more publicized efforts of Habib Tanvir in Chhattisgarh, without the dramatic cohesiveness of Tanvir’s best productions. Unfortunately, had Bharti undertaken this sort of enterprise two decades ago he might have been hailed as a pioneer, but today he appears just as a late entrant on the folk-theatre bandwagon with nothing particularly inventive to offer.

Granted, he spotlights the extremely rich heritage of Rajasthani folklore, especially valuable to us nowadays because of its deep ecological awareness. Stories like Kāl Kathā and Amar Bij emphasize the dangers of environmental damage: nobody knows the worth of a tree better than a Rajasthani villager or a Bhil tribal. So, in Amar Bij, when a woodcutter chops down a banyan, it first exudes water, then milk, and finally blood which submerges the landscape in symbolic red, at once life-blood and desert-death.

Visually, too, Amar Bij was the most striking production, Bharti making the cast tug a huge horizontal cloth up and down to simulate simultaneously the sea of blood as well as the rolling sand-dunes. However, the technique is not entirely new, having been used by many contemporary European directors. But more critically, in all the shows, it seemed incongruous to watch tribal performers go about their paces rather uncertainly on a proscenium platform. Apart from providing them with the scripts, has Bharti’s direction really helped their own art in any way?

The third drama, Pashu Gāyatri, is actually a Malayalam play by K. N. Panikkar. Despite Panikkar’s own approval, what exactly is achieved by staging it in the Gavari folk form in the Mewari dialect? If the intended audience gains something from the theme of child sacrifice, one can perhaps justify the adaptation. Otherwise, enacting such a play in a modern Calcutta auditorium doubly displaces its original ritualistic context, and this is precisely the kind of issue that directors like Bharti do not seem to think through very carefully.

(From The Telegraph, 14 May 1993)