Can data and strategic management shape new approaches to curate theatre in India?

Nuhar Bansal, Masoom Parmar and Dipti Rao, who have wide experience in managing performances and arts projects, share their thoughts..

By Reema Gowalla

Even with another Covid wave lurking on the horizon, conversations around post-pandemic economic boom, learning the value of disaster preparedness and understanding the nuances of virtual interactions can probably serve as precursors to better days. For Indian theatre, though, the tumult is more layered and likely to last longer, unless efforts are made to grasp the application and benefits of emerging concepts and digital resources.

‘Artist’ topping the list of ‘non-essential jobs’ in a 2020 survey was passionately debated, and rightly so. Could we have survived the isolation amid the pandemic without cinema and digital content? Perhaps, not. Then, how non-essential? This calls for a deeper analysis. Unlike other countries, discourses and research relating to theatre’s contribution — both financial and social — to the Indian economy are fairly less. While this can only be measured when the community is assured of equitable opportunities and income, the sector does need a tactical, data-driven approach to revive and sustain.

TheatreRoom speaks to stakeholders to explore the role of unique insights derived from social media metrics, conscientious curation and smart management in lending a strategic structure to the performing arts circuit, paving the way for more access and monetary compensation in a digitally-driven future.

Impetus to reimagine performances in a financially viable set up

“‘Surviving and not thriving’ has always been the ground reality of India’s theatre community. Adaptability comes to us naturally. That said, the absence of a financial foundation, be it in the form of state support or individual profit, has only widened the gaps amid the pandemic,” says artiste-production manager Nuhar Bansal, who has recently joined the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts as Producer — Partnerships, Projects and Programmes.

According to Nuhar, adversity can be a spur for creativity, but gauging theatre’s contribution to the economy at this time of trauma and loss is likely to be conflicted. “Making commercially viable theatre that can support the crew as well as create ancillary opportunities are tenets of a more organised industry, which is not quite the case here. The pandemic, however, has given us the time to rethink and reflect; learn, absorb and adapt,” she elaborates.

Nuhar further says, “The crisis has offered the necessary impetus to reimagine performances that are more stimulating and can be accessed both digitally and through live shows. As an arts manager, I think it’s an exciting time to learn the nuances of online theatre management, understand how to run small shows with limited audiences and draw up the finances for sustenance and constant growth. More management people, who are equally passionate about performance-making, getting into the field of arts, and more well-designed courses to help them hone their skills will help find new ways to solve problems and augment audience experience.”

Call for census of artistes, fresh approach to arts management

To see artistes scrambling to make ends meet during successive lockdowns was heartbreaking, says Masoom Parmarartiste, curator and arts manager. “The country’s folk and ritualistic artistes were worst affected in the face of widening discrepancies and a lack of relief packages. Remember, this lot is also the custodian of India’s oral storytelling tradition and the myriad art forms that we proudly associate with our rich heritage. It’s time to look beyond the jugaad we do for everything and build a strong support system, which is resilient, well-structured and more responsive,” he urges.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, Masoom thinks there’ll be an upsurge in the need for artistes. “In order to give the sector a focussed direction, we need to compile data on the zonal level. There should be a census of artistes and documentation of their practices; regular surveys of how government bodies are allocating state funds, etc.,” he says, adding, “With the digital transition being inevitable, it’s time arts management is also seen in a fresh perspective, backed by modules and processes that are result-oriented. Administrators and managers have a more crucial role to play now than ever before.”

Research and digital insights can help showcase impact

For Dipti Rao — Director, Projects at the Art X Company — the mantra for resilience building is ‘survival, substance and looking forward’. “What we need now is to translate all the data that we have gathered through Facebook and Instagram ‘live’ sessions and virtual streamings during the pandemic to information that’ll help us make better choices and informed decisions while curating performances and ensuring that the methods we employ are sustainable,” she says, adding, “The online space has given us access to digital infrastructure, intuitive resources as well as new audiences, nudging us out of the comforts of a ‘niche’ ecosystem. Besides the socio-cultural impact, present circumstances call for a measurable economic impact, driven by research, data and strategic thinking.”

Dipti feels that the community needs more holistic support. “The way artistes stepped up for each other through listening circles and relief projects during the pandemic was commendable. There’s a lot to learn from how we ourselves have responded to the global health crisis. These times are forcing us to innovate, reimagine our craft and create more evidence-based stories that can showcase the reach and scale of art initiatives,” she sums up.