Book: The Act Of Becoming
Author: Amal Allana
Publisher: National School of Drama-Niyogi Books
This heavy book might need a crane to lift it, and the help of a coffee table to hold it, if it has to be read and not just displayed on the said piece of furniture. But The Act Of Becoming: Actors Talk, edited by Amal Allana, is a handsome volume well researched and with a fine selection of photographs an absolutely fascinating read for the theatre lover, or, indeed, anyone who is interested in the country’s cultural history.
With her own theatre lineage and accomplishments already established, there could hardly be anyone better to compile such a book, one that adds heft to the meagre bibliography of books on theatre. Amal Allana is the daughter of the theatre doyen and the National School of Drama’s first director, Ebrahim Alkazi, studied at the NSD herself and then went on to become its chairperson for eight years all along directing plays (about 60), collaborating with her husband, Nissar Allana, who produced and designed them.
Most theatre books place the playwright or the director at the centre, Allana studies the evolution of a century of Indian theatre through the stories, personalities and methods of actors — many of them woman, theatre being one of the few areas of work in which women could demand and get a level playing field, once they were allowed to step on stage that is. If Bal Gandharva and Jaishankar
Sundari made their careers playing beautiful women, there was R Nagarathnamma, who set up the first all-woman theatre group in Karnataka and played male characters.
Twenty-two (25 might have made for a neat number) of India’s best are captured in the book, some who became well known because of their work in cinema or television, like Prithviraj Kapoor, Utpal Dutt, Shreeram Lagoo, Om Shivpuri, Manohar Singh (to whom the book is dedicated), Zohra Segal, Naseeruddin Shah, Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, Sudha Shivpuri; others equally accomplished, known through memory, media and stagelore—Binodini Dasi, Bal Gandharva, Jaishankar Sundari, Sombhu Mitra.
There are some that the current generation of reader might even have seen and admired on stage-- Heisnam Sabitri, B Jayashree, Maya Krishna Rao.
The list of actors selected is then divided into three styles of presentation some pieces are in their own some, some profiles written by experts, and some in the form of detailed interviews. This allows for a variety of voices and impressions to come through.
The period covered is from the 1850s to the 1990s, which explains the decade of work that went into it. And it is the work of someone who has devoted her life to theatre. Amal Allana writes in her introduction, what other researchers and scholars must have felt and articulated from time to time: “In a rather bleak archival scenario where no substantial and organized national or private holdings on theatre are currently available, the process of documenting any aspect of performance is a Herculean task.”
The actors she has chosen to ‘star’ in her opus are also those for whom theatre was a discipline, a constant process of self-awareness and growth, a kind of obsession.
However, like in a stage production, the medium is the actor, but Allana has also structured the book as a history of Indian theatre, so there is her academic rigor interspersed with anecdotal treasures from the actors. Allana’s introductions to each section orient the reader towards looking at various aspects of the growth of theatre in India, from the time it was considered disreputable and its struggle for acceptance.
From the actors are invaluable nuggets on the processes (and pains) of making the characters they played credible, changing acting styles, different approaches to performance a distillation of natyarasa, so to say. For an aspiring stage actor there is a lot to learn from these giants, but there is a lot of fascinating reading for the lay reader too.
This book could be just the beginning, there is so much more about theatre that needs to be preserved and archived.
Earlier there were just programme notes, paintings and fuzzy newspaper pieces, now the tools for documenting are there, all it needs is a ardent sutradhar (narrator).