Down the road from where we live in New Delhi, every weekend and sometimes during the week, there are long lines of scooters and cars parked outside a hired auditorium. Inside, an audience in suits and gaudy sarees is treated to an extravagant dose of gutter theatre laced with cheap humour. The fare offered on stage is plain from the titles of the plays themselves: 'The old man with a new wave of lust', 'The hot sexy wife who had an impotent husband','The voluptuous young woman and her tantalised neighbours' . . . ad nauseam. This is the Punjabi theatre that is 'popular' in India's capital today. Its patrons are people who indulge in conspicuous consumption and the values that go with it - like the dizzily high dowries demanded from prospective brides, and the burning of hapless young women whose families fail to pay up.
Round the corner there are half a dozen theatres where more serious plays about politics and Indian society are presented. Though well written and professionally produced, their audience is usually just a trickle, and none go beyond half a dozen performances. In these theatres the clientele are the intellectuals, the students, and the 'culture walas' on Delhi's social circuit - a big contrast to the themes of plays concerned with current social problems. But although there is little participation by actors and audiences from the working classes, there is one change that has come about in the last 15 years. Most of Delhi's theatre, both amateur and professional, is now in an Indian language, not English.
But a large slice of the cultural diet in India's cities and towns - and increasingly in villages too - comes from the gargantuan cinema industry. And the box-office formula of violence and sex in opulent settings has played havoc with the way many Indians think, behave and dress. In Ahmedabad, capital of Gujerat, about 30 young men sat through a dozen screenings of the Indian 'western', Sholay - and had to be treated for various symptoms of a mental disorder dubbed 'Sholay fever' by psychiatrists in the city hospital.
By feeding the mind with stereotypes and illusions, the cinema is producing many subtler disorders too. Women are decorative ornaments and virtuous slaves, society prefers 'good' over 'evil' - the 'good' being those who are law-abiding. And a life of carefree affluence is presented as being at least a possibility - if not a likelihood for the poor viewer.
As with the theatre, the more political cinema is largely restricted to film festival network and highbrow intellectual circles. But the political elite is not kindly disposed to this fringe cinema. Nargis, a big film star in the 50s and now a member of Parliament, recently complained that Satyajit Ray's internationally-acclaimed films were giving India a bad image abroad. According to her, there was 'too much poverty' in them. The peasants disagree, however. Discussing Ray's classic film Pather Panchili a few years ago, a peasant friend remarked: 'It was beautiful and natural. Just as it happens in the village. But you know, it is all about the Bamunpara' (the locality of high-caste Brahmins).
The establishment does not like people trying to break new ground and daring to speak a different cinematic language. Radical social or political change is simply not in their interests. They prefer to see culture as a quest for beauty and oneness with nature. In painting, sculpture, theatre or film a preoccupation with the wonders of nature, the exquisiteness of the human form - or even the pleasures of sex - are acceptable. But a reference to that which is ugly, exploitative or unjust is not. And to depict the human urge for struggle and change is downright threatening.
Nevertheless, India has a rich tradition of folk theatre in its villages, and an urban classical tradition of great sophistication. It is a tradition that cannot easily be dislodged by the bulldozers of commercial cinema and theatre. Indeed, folk and classical traditions have been blended with modern social and political themes to produce an exciting, living culture. This synthesis took place first in the 40s when the independence movement was in full swing. Those were the days of the Indian People's Theatre Association - IPTA. IPTA was founded on May Day in 1942 as an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist cultural movement. Its main thrust was to relate theatre to the burning issues of the times. It adapted and used virtually every folk form in the country to bring drama closer to the lives of the people. And when IPTA's ideas were used by the People's Art Club of Kerala to express the problems of ordinary people, they helped recruit many members for the Communist movement, which later spread to the whole state of Kerala.
But IPTA did not continue long after independence in 1947. This was because it was based on the spontaneous optimism prevailing in the country at that time. Although there was great determination to revive traditional art forms, the concern to evolve a clear understanding of the changing social situation was lacking. So, once independence was achieved, IPTA had the wind taken out of its sails.
Nevertheless, there is definitely a Third Theatre on the cultural horizon. In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, the unique phenomenon of a cultural jatha or journey has been growing under the banner of Samudaya - community. This is the real Third Theatre in action - linking city, town and village through non-literary forms of communication like songs, short plays and discussions. Samudaya's first jatha was undertaken in late 1979, with two groups setting out from the two ends of the state. Moving across the countryside the two groups performed 450 shows, putting on an average of 12 shows a day. Their repertoire included plays about real-life incidents - atrocities committed against the Harijan (untouchables) and agricultural labourers, the exploitation of mineworkers, and so on.
Villagers welcomed the troupes with enthusiasm, contributing whatever they could in cash and kind. And their interest did not show itself only in hospitality. They identified so much with the plots that in one village the audience boycotted the actor who played the landlord in the play. And many villagers volunteered their own examples of local injustice and exploitation.
A movement like Samudaya not only reaches to the core of daily life in India, it also overcomes individualism by supporting a community of artists dedicated to cultural action in close harmony with their audiences. But Samudaya and other similar movements are still too marginal to stem the wholesale pollution of minds by commercial or statecontrolled mass media. In the main the culture of the gutter is still a long way ahead of the culture of the people.
Baljit Malik is a journalist working in New Delhi, and a founding member of 'Alternative News and Features' - an alternative news agency in India.