Another stage

IPTA, the Indian People’s Theatre Association turns 65 

In May this year, the Indian People’s Theatre Association completed 65 years. There was a gathering of litterateurs and theatre people celebrating the event and discussing the growth and achievements of the unique organisation. A large part of the evening was spent in nostalgia, listing the luminaries associated with IPTA, the great plays staged by them reaching out to the common citizen as opposed to the theatre going elite, and so on. There was a small note of self-criticism as well, a brave admission of the fact that while IPTA may not have lost its initial purpose of putting up socially relevant plays, it had perhaps failed to keep up with the times.  

Notwithstanding constant accusations of being old-fashioned, mediocre and unable to reach out to contemporary urban audiences, IPTA still remains the oldest and only organisation of its kind – one that functions like a democratic community of like-minded people rather than a personality driven group, the kind that dies down once its leader is no longer active. IPTA has a presence in 22 states of India with more than 12,000 members in its various units.

IPTA was set up by KA Abbas, Anil de Silva, Ali Sardar Jafri, Dr Bhabha and Dada Sharmalkar during the Quit India movement in 1942, when a group of writers, artistes and activists felt the need to reach out to the masses with nationalistic (the independence movement was at its peak) and progressive ideas through drama, music and dance. IPTA workers fanned out all over the country, performing in remote villages, outside factories and in bastis on makeshift stages.  

The association not only went on to become a significant cultural institution, it also had a great influence on the cinema of that period for several people associated with the group also worked in Hindi films, including writers and poets belonging to the even older Progressive Writers’ Association established in 1936.  

The draft resolution of the IPTA conference in 1943 stated: "The immediate problems facing the people are external aggression by the fascist hordes who are the deadliest enemies of freedom and culture; internal repression by an alien government which seeks to hold our people in subjection and prevent them from organising an effective defence of their homeland; rapid disintegration of the entire economic life of our people and particularly the havoc wrought on the morale and the health of our people by the shortage of food and other essential articles; and lastly the absence of sufficient unity among the people’s forces which alone can compel the imperialist to retire, stop the economic disintegration of the country and defeat the fascist aggressors."

Important among the early plays was Navanna (New Harvest), about the 1943 Bengal famine, and Yeh Kiska Khoon, Gandhi Aur Goonda, Zubeida, Basti, Danga and Mera Gaon – all based on social problems of the time.  

A member of the group for several years, Bengali composer and poet, the late Salil Chowdhury said in an interview that IPTA had a "tremendous impact on society, a lot of things that are available today were made possible by the contribution IPTA made. The IPTA cultural movement and the peasant movement were mainly responsible for the rights that the peasants and workers enjoy today. The kinds of rights that a peasant couldn’t enjoy even 20 years ago, they have got those rights these days, both the peasants and the workers, thanks to such movements… If we staged a play among the peasants, they would take care of us, provide food and raise money for us." 

For a while after independence, IPTA lost its focus but then regrouped in various places and continued the work started by its pioneers. Some IPTA plays that are still remembered by old-timers include Kafan (based on the story by Munshi Premchand), Africa Jawaan Pareshan, Lal Ghulab Ki Wapsi, Ek Chadar Maili Si, Election Ka Ticket, Bhagat Singh, Mahanirvan, Bakri and Sufaid Kundali. 

Plays such as Shatranj Ke Mohre, Ek Aur Dronacharya, Moteram Ka Satyagrah, Aakhri Shama, Tajmahal Ka Tender, have lived on for years even as newer plays like Raat, Kashmakash, Chaubees Ghante, Sarphire and Ek Baar Phir did not find much patronage among today’s entertainment-seeking audiences.

However, IPTA’s current general secretary, Shaili Sathyu feels that comparisons between the old and the new are not quite fair, as issues have changed from the forties to the present day. "What we need to do today is not just reach out to people who agree with us anyway but to put thoughts into the heads of people who don’t go by our democratic beliefs… as long as there is segregation of people for any reason – caste, religion, money or gender – theatre can be used to mobilise opinion and make an attempt to uplift the marginalised."

Current causes like communalism, farmer suicides and loss of idealism in today’s youth may not have found their way into IPTA plays the way issues like corruption, political and bureaucratic ineptitude, and rural oppression did in the past. But in Mumbai, as elsewhere, IPTA still has a dedicated set of workers who keep the group going. Attempts are made to reach young people through the children’s wing, IPTA Balmanch, and the Inter-Collegiate Drama Competition, an institution in itself, which was started in 1972 and has been held every year for the past 35 years.  

Towards the end of the year IPTA will host a three-week long All India People’s Theatre Festival to showcase talent from the group’s units across the country. This may well be a good time to regroup, gather strength and plunge into the deteriorating cultural scene with ideals refreshed. A group that survives 65 years could, perhaps, aim for immortality.


"When we catch children young to make them better human beings through entertainment and games, plays and songs, we transform ourselves also. We receive the innocence of children in our soul and feel happy."

– Ismat Chughtai’s message for IPTA Balmanch in 1984

IPTA Balmanch, the children’s wing of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, was started with a view to inculcate in young and growing minds a sense of appreciation and understanding for the performing arts.

It all began with a theatre workshop production of Munshi Premchand’s short story, Idgah, which premiered at Prithvi Theatre on September 16, 1984. Idgah was adapted as a play by Ranjeet Kapoor and directed by Madhu Malti. The play featured over 30 child artistes including Rajeshwari Sachdev and Shaad Ali among others. Balmanch’s second production was PL Deshpande’s Naya Gokul, also directed by Madhu Malti.

IPTA Balmanch was instrumental in the early years of artistes and theatre personalities like Lubna Salim, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Sagar Arya, Shaili Sathyu and others.

Balmanch has organised theatre and music workshops over the past few years and is planning to make this a regular activity for its young members. In 2006, IPTA Balmanch premiered Gulzar’s Agar Aur Magar, directed by Salim Arif. The play has also been staged at the Jashne Bachpan 2006, National School of Drama, New Delhi, and at the Mumbai Theatre Festival 2007 in Mumbai.

IPTA Mumbai hopes that it can continue its efforts in sensitising children about the world around them through the medium of theatre and performing arts.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Theatre



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