East is ready to meet West again … on its own terms

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IT'S six o'clock on Sunday night in Delhi, and in a little studio theatre on the campus of the National School of Drama, students are packed into every available space, sitting cross-legged on floors, and squeezing into the gaps between rows of more senior theatre-goers.

The show we're craning our necks to see is Amitesh Grover's Strange Lines, a Swiss-Indian co-production – with text in English, Hindi, French and Swiss German – about a Swiss woman and an Indian man who develop an online friendship. The show makes imaginative use of live video and graphics, it has an eloquent devised text, and its mood is thoughtful and quietly passionate about the strange state of the global village today, united by technology and divided by searing inequalities of wealth. The students love it, and spill out happily into the chilly night air of Delhi's coldest January in years, heading for the tea tent with its tiny glowing braziers, or for another two or three shows before bed.

And the scene is the same in every one of a dozen theatre spaces across the city, as this year's annual Indian Theatre Festival celebrates its first weekend, and looks forward to another fortnight of intensive celebration of theatre from all 28 states of India, and from 13 other countries worldwide. It's fair to say that the work varies wildly in quality. As the drama school's powerful director Anuradha Kapur, and charismatic chair Amal Allana, both make clear, running this all-India festival – now in its twelfth year – is an intensely political business, as well as a breathtakingly-complex cultural exercise.

The final programming decisions are made by a committee of more than 20. Their remit is not only to provide a showcase for theatrical excellence, but to encourage emerging theatre initiatives in places where the art-form is traditionally weak, to support young theatre-makers, to foster the emergence of theatre in languages without a strong modern performance tradition (India has 26 official languages), to promote international exchange, and to offer a rare focal point for a national theatre culture which is both vast and diffuse, and still in a state of rapid development. "It's a simple fact that because of our status as almost the only all-India institution in theatre, we at the NSD find ourselves having to provide some kind of focal point and leadership for the whole theatre movement in this country," says Allana, herself a distinguished director since the 1970s. "It's not really a normal role for a drama school, and it's one that involves a huge amount of work, as well as a tremendous effort to balance all the different demands on an event like the festival.

"But for now – well, we find ourselves with this amazing theatre festival, which we try to restrict to about 50 shows each year, but not very successfully! So this year, if you include our special programme about great makers of theatre music, and our international visiting companies, we have about 86 or 87 shows. It's a whirlwind of a time for us, but we get so much energy from it, and so do the students."

And so we find ourselves rushing from a performance of this year's British-Council-sponsored UK show (Peter M Wyer's weird and charming solo fantasy-fiction Johnny's Midnight Goggles), through a workshop piece designed to unleash the fierce female archetypes within a company of young Bengali actresses, to a disconcertingly cheerful potted history of Kolkata's most notorious red light district. There's also a brief return glimpse of playwright Sohaila Kapur's Mahim Junction, a joyful Bollywood-inflected study of communal life in Mumbai already seen in Britain, and signs of several exciting new collaborations between India and East Asian nations, including Singapore and Japan.

Anaradhu Kapur says: "In terms of response to the work we find that there's a great generosity towards new work. We have a very involved, committed audience here. But the public debate still circles very much around the themes that have dominated cultural life since 1947; the relationship between tradition, classicism and modernity, and the question of national identity and modernity – is it really Indian? That never seems to go away."

When it comes to our two-hour seminar between British and Indian theatre-makers – co-sponsored by the festival and the British Council, with contributions from the Royal Court Theatre and the Young Vic among others – there are signs that the debate about identity may be at last be moving on, in ways familiar to many in Scotland. Young theatre-makers talk about initiatives involving everything from new work about British Asian experience – relatively unknown in India, it seems – to a reinvention for new times of India's immensely powerful storytelling tradition. They want contact details for the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and they want them now. They also want to tackle the whole issue of language and poetry in theatre, using the extraordinary variety of language in India to challenge the idea that cross-cultural theatre must always take a predominantly visual and movement-based approach.

The stage designer and theatre educator Nissar Allana sums up some of the potential when he talks passionately about the new Ibsen Festival he has recently launched in Delhi. "The point is that we have been through our post-colonial period. Now, we are post-post-colonial, and we want to re-engage with the material of western culture on equal terms. And the potential for exciting international work there is just huge," he adds, glancing round a room where – as the formal seminar ends – at least half a dozen possible collaborations seem to be taking shape before our eyes. These are collaborations that could – who knows? – begin to add a new 21st-century strand to a relationship that began so long ago in the imperatives of trade and empire, but has somehow survived to become the kind of tangled, vibrant and creative cross-cultural conversation that the world needs now, perhaps more than ever before.

&#149 The Bharat Rang Mahotsav (Indian Theatre Festival) is at the National School of Drama, Delhi, until 22 January, www.nsdtheatrefest.com

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