An article contributed to Curtain Call: Celebrating Indian Theatre (New Delhi: Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, 2015):
Indian philosophy says that we should never criticize, because the bad karma that results automatically gets heaped on our karmic shoulders. But 21st-century Indians do not pledge allegiance to ancient Indian heritage alone; we have adopted an equal legacy from Western intellectual traditions over 200 years of exposure to them. So it was that when the first newspapers printed by Indians emerged two centuries ago, we emulated the standards set by the British press, which upheld the social contribution of criticism in all spheres – enshrining the democratic concept of free speech, driven by the ideal that rational discussion and analysis from different perspectives could only lead to progress in the long run.
Thus arrived the drama critic in India – as opposed to the drama scholar, who had always existed since the time of the Natyashastra, distinguished by his academic erudition and writing for a small community of learned pandits, teachers and theorists. In contrast, the modern critic (or reviewer) occupied a less exalted position, for he addressed the common reader, and had much less space, restricted by the limitations of periodical literature. But that should not suggest he was less important; in fact, in an age of growing literacy, he reached out to many more people than the scholar did to his ivory-tower coterie in his arcane jargon. Therefore, the reviewer became more immediately powerful, whereas the scholar’s influence possibly lasted longer because students studied him even after he died. Think of how a New York critic can make or break a show on opening night, whereas a scholar’s essay on it will be read by only the interested and only much later.
But times have changed – not the New York Times or the Times of London, which continue to print their highly respected reviews today. In India, however, our so-called globalized or liberalized marketplace has pressured newspapers into discarding theatre reviews altogether – for how many readers see plays anyway? Film and book reviews still appear, and at a pinch music CD and art reviews (all these forms, note, have some commercial “value”), but theatre or dance? Forget it. Only art-farty intels watch them, who literally don’t count in our mass economics. What has happened is that our otherwise alert press has unilaterally muzzled the voices of artistic plurality.
Other factors also work against the theatre critic nowadays. The columns he featured in previously have been handed over to previews, many of which can be bought. The preview is by nature uncritical: it just gives positive mileage to the upcoming production. This kind of “culture” means that theatre artists themselves have grown accustomed to reading good news about them in advance. Celebrities among them receive even more coverage in Page 3. When a poor review subsequently gets published, they cannot take it. I can cite instances when established Kolkata directors have called me names in print or over the phone, and said that I deserve a sound thrashing, simply because according to them I had given them bad reviews. One event manager, whom I had asked if she wanted a review, railed at me that she most certainly did not, since critics are a bunch of “freeloaders” who write nasty things, implying that a complimentary pass merits a good report in exchange. We seem to have become intolerant of criticism, though we should instead have grown more liberal by now.
Consequently, the theatre critic has turned into an endangered species in India. In any case, who writes these reviews? Typically, a newspaper editor assigns the juniormost rookie to the job, considered a “soft story”, never mind that the sub or trainee concerned is a social sciences or at best a literature graduate. After all, India has precious little theatre education to speak of (compare the US, with its hundreds of theatre departments). So, without any experience of having worked on a play or, sometimes, ever having watched a play, they write. What can one expect from them?
What one should expect from the ideal theatre critic are:
- Commitment to theatre. Every review we write should have one goal only – to instruct the artists how to improve their art towards the broader betterment of local or Indian theatre. Constructive criticism is obviously desirable, rather than personal potshots.
- Detached objectivity. When we review, we must set aside friendship. Famous last words. How does one retain a friend after tearing apart in print his evidently awful performance? Does one say kind words instead, which one knows to be untrue? Then we are not fulfilling the critic’s function. Seventy percent or more of all art is not brilliant, and our task is to call a spade a spade. Thus the reviewer is a lonely person, and better get used to it.
- Informed knowledge. We must never forget that we serve an educational purpose for the general public. We cannot condescend or lecture, but we must know our stuff. We should have learnt the basic history of theatre, its craft and contemporary trends. Without this minimum qualification, how can we dare criticize this very subject? A reviewer of Shakespeare or Tagore or Brecht must know the theatrical ideas and practice of these masters.
- Writing skills. Critics must grab their audience, just as an artist has to grab theirs. Nobody likes to read a boring review. Here, a literary training does indeed come handy. And because our readership is the general populace, we should apply our sense of humour too, just like a director must, to capture the audience.
- Holistic view. Theatre is the collaborative endeavour of a team comprising not just the playwright or the actors. Space permitting, we must comment on scenography, lighting, music and everything else that deserves it in a production.
Very few people out there realize the artistic burden that critics bear. When anybody needs to find details about past productions before the age of video recording, the only recourse is the theatre review tucked away in some obscure periodical and, in recent years, online. We document and preserve theatre history for generations to come – a very serious responsibility.