A stage for new beginnings, vocabulary, experiments, explorations and expressions… this was the vision with which Tagore Theater was given a form and shape. India’s first modern city needed a space for creative, social and political dialogues, and a platform for young men and women to express their practices. And Tagore Theater in Sector 18 was conceptualised and curated as a cultural hub of Chandigarh, a stage for change and things to come in a new, Independent India.
A labor of love, extraordinary design and technical prowess, eminent architect Aditya Prakash, who was also an integral part of the Chandigarh Capital Project team led by Le Corbusier, planned and designed Tagore Theatre. Prakash, who had worked closely with Corbusier, was also then the principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture.
Built in the memory of Rabindranath Tagore during the Tagore Centenary Celebrations, as part of a Government of India initiative in September 1961, the exterior is a plain brick-walled, cuboidal structure. The two square blocks house the main auditorium, foyer, booking office, stage, green rooms, electric, air-conditioning units, workshops etc, with the stage placed at the meeting point of the two squares.
According to Chakresh Kumar of Alanakar Theatre, actor and award-winning director, and now the new director of the Tagore Theatre, the interiors were created in consultation with actors Zul Velani and Prithviraj Kapoor, after deep deliberations on the aspects of acoustics, size of the stage, the ceiling in sync with the area of the auditorium, sightlines for the optimal distance between the actors and audience and unique wooden chairs for the perfect balance and view. The original yellow and red tapestries in the interiors were based on Corbusier’s language of cubism, with the aesthetics complementing the structural features, and the various units for different functions of the theater presented as a compact structure, with all facilities for professional theatre.
In 1962, Tagore Theater opened its stage for productions, and the Tagore Theater Society was formed in 1962, with renowned theater and film actor Prithviraj Kapoor its first chairperson, The Society was officially registered on May 30, 1972, and then began decades of the best of Indian theater, performed on the stage of Tagore, with the year 1964 also seeing a play directed by Prithviraj Kapoor.
“We lost it all when the interiors of the building were destroyed in the name of change by the Administration in 2008, and despite protests outside and original dharnas from the artist fraternity not only from the city but also, a legacy was lost in the name of renovation and better facilities. It was such a compact, perfectly designed space, created by the best, with each detail worked to perfection, for both the audience and the actors. Large green rooms were replaced by cubicles, the acoustics completely gone, no care taken of the sightlines, poor views of the stage from the gallery…. They could have created another building on campus. Why did they destroy this heritage? What’s worse, it was done without any technical knowledge of design, acoustics, seating, that is needed for a theater auditorium, and no professionals were consulted, and what we got in 2008 was just a lot of pomp and show, but no substance or character,” says theater director and actor Rani Balbir Kaur.
For someone who has been part of the legacy since the inauguration of the original auditorium, Kaur laments the fact that the Tagore Theater Society is ‘managed’ and run by bureaucrats, with no permanent director or staff from the senior theater community of the city or country. “You need to have a vision, experience, be in touch with what’s happening around the world in the field of art, to make a space grow, give young artists exposure. It can’t be done without experts in the field. We had set up a Tagore Theater Repertory in about 2015, created its constitution and preamble, got grants to help local artists have a sustainable income, and had already done two productions. The rehearsal halls here were made by the repertory, but people with vested interests did not let it work and the biggest loss was of theater groups of the city and Chandigarh,” adds Kaur.
The theater director adds that to attract foreign collaborations, people from across the country make Tagore Theater a space for interactions, workshops, seminars, various productions not limited to theatre. Senior people from the theater fraternity had proposed an art gallery, café, bookshop, script bank, but no decision was arrived upon by the Department of Culture, UT, Chandigarh, under which the Tagore Society operates.
“After five decades, we need to create a change for the younger generation, and make Tagore a space that is on a par with the best, and only a person immersed in the field of art can make a difference,” sums up Kaur.
Award-winning theater director and playwright Atamjit Singh says that the depth of the new seating arrangement is too much and the audience sitting at the far end is almost cut off from the stage in a live performance. “We will have to bear with the visual distance but it will be a great service if somehow the problem of acoustics can be fixed. Like any good theater, the administration can provide certain basic facilities like a small refrigerator, electric kettle, etc that can be used by the performing groups and they don’t have to run outside for such requirements before and during the production.”
Better maintenance of the space and infrastructure, upgradation of equipment, funds for promoting art and culture, pro-artiste rules and regulations, discounted rates of rehearsal halls and auditorium for local theater people, opening the rehearsal spaces for all performing arts and not just theater , the introduction of scholarships and fellowships, foreign collaborations, using the outside space for regular workshops, short plays, art, and theater appreciation courses, and increased annual grant (right now is Rs 30 lakh), permission for film, television and music auditions for more work opportunities, a café, …are some of the suggestions by young artists to make the space more interactive and also encompassing.
“We need to move with the times, and not be stuck in a rut of rules and regulations. We have to pay from our own pocket to stage a play, and then to pay a fee of Rs 15,000 for four hours becomes tough, with 50 seats here reserved for the government. For local artists, who are not doing ticketed shows, the rate of the auditorium must not be more than Rs 8,000 with GST and freelance artists must be allowed to collaborate,” says Ranjit Khurana, a freelance actor.
Sarver Ali from Satvik Arts, who has been part of the city’s theater community for more than 10 years, says after the pandemic, things have been very tough for the community and the need of the hour is to make theater practitioners independent, by changing the policy for ticketed shows and rent of the auditorium and rehearsal space. “Tagore Theater can be a venue for technical workshops to improve our craft, art exchange programs from experts from across the country, and collaborations with theater groups from various cities. A library and bookshop at Tagore are also the need of the hour.”
Amit Sanouria, director, Satvik Arts, adds that more rehearsal halls here will encourage collaborations of various art forms. “Annual theater festivals of young theater directors from all over India and the NSD on varied themes, and invitations to international theater groups will give exposure to Chandigarh’s theater groups.”
Heera Singh, director, Suryavanshi Theatre, says that Tagore Theater is a hub of actors of the Tricity and after the pandemic, the need is to increase the footfall of the audience by offering them a range of artistic activities and shows. “We must be allowed promotion of our plays and also given support to go forward.”
Change, reflects Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, theater director, and Padma Shri awardee, can happen only if there is a desire and the understanding of how an art space makes a difference in the lives of the people.
“Tagore Theater like Triveni, Prithvi, Rang Shankra, must be a hub for people to meet, ideate, converse, create and share. We have to create an atmosphere that is conducive to art. We had proposed a bookshop here in collaboration with the NSD, a café, ideas for workshops. All possibilities are there, there is just no trust in the artist, and a failure of will, as art, is not seen as a center of the city. Activities, and not buildings, infuse life,” says the director, who has been part of various committees of Tagore Theatre.