THEATER COMPANIES in this country tend to think they're in trouble when they can't close their "income gap," when a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts falls through, when they can't find promising scripts or when critics pan their latest painstakingly rehearsed production. After hearing Gopal Sharman describe the struggles of his Akshara Theater in New Delhi, one concludes our domestic troupes don't know what problems are.
The Akshara Theater is, as Sharman tells it, the only professional theater in India in continuous operation, presenting original plays with contemporary relevance. Though it has only 50 seats, it apparently enjoys very high esteem among the theater-going public in India. Its productions have received strongly laudatory reviews in London, Rome and New York, among many other cities visited.
Yet, because its productions deign to be critical of India's political regime and policies it regards as suffocatingly repressive, it receives no government aid and must resort to subterfuge to avoid official censorship. In one recent instance, it took the intervention of the prime minister to save the Akshara from demotion by the government.
The Akshara has managed to keep afloat since 1972 largely because its three major artists - Sharman himself, his wife, actress Jainbala Vaidya, and their actress daughter, Anasuya Vaidya - sustain the enterprise almost completely by themselves, from producing and presenting the plays, to washing the floors.
"The broad plate glass windows of our lobby are always spotless," Sharman says. "If it is raining. I myself stand with a cloth and clean the floor as every person comes in - often to the embarrassment of friends who wouldn't be caught dead with a cleaning cloth in their hands." Sharman also polishes the windows. In the winter, he and his family also prepare hot, home-made soup and serve it to the theater patrons free of charge. It's that kind of place.
The Akshara is currently on a tour of college campuses in this country, arranged by a young American who was formerly an apprentice with the company.
No Washington performance is scheduled. "The Ramayana," however - which is Sharman's modern version of an ancient classical Indian epic - was performed by the troupe at the Smithsonian in 1975, on a previous tour. "The Ramayana" is composed in the form of India's Katha tradition, in which a single performer enacts an entire story, impersonating in turn all of the dramatis personae. It is Jalabala Vaidya who assumes this formidable task, portraying the saga's 21 major characters and many minor ones as well, from the King Rama and his wife Sita, to Hanuman, the Monkey God, and Ravana, the foreign king who abducts Sita.
The performance, in New Delhi as here, is entirely in English. "English is the only workable compromise in our country," Sharman explains. "India has 14 major languages. Even the most widely used - Hindi - is spoken by at most 40 percent of the people.
"But anyone who goes to a theater knows English and knows it well. All government business is conducted in English. Until recently, all university education took place in English."
Virtually all other theater companies in India with the exception of a handful in Calcutta, according to Sharman, are run by amateurs, and tend towards dilettantish offerings, three-quarters of them translations into Indian tongues from such English or American vehciles as "Charley's Aust," or the comedies of Wilde. There's also a sprinking of Osborne, Sartre and Brecht, but apparently no one else cares to deal with life in India itself on the stage.
"Our significance," Sharman says of the Akshara, "is that we are trying to propagate the great philosophical traditions of our Hindu culture - as in The Ramayana" - in modern form.
"This is one of the great intellectual traditions of the world, and along with the transcendental view of life it entails, it is very broad, having many affinities with Greek thought, for example, with your own Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, with T. S. Eliot and much else. But in the Marxist atmosphere that's prevailed in India for the past 30 years, all this is anathema to the state - tradition and history are things to be sneered at. Our classical culture has not suffered as much as that of China from this repression, but it has suffered a great deal."
All the plays offered by the Akshara are the work of Sharman (who also acts in them, directs them, writes music for them and sings the songs), and although they aren't overtly political in nature, they are definitely polemical and freedom-mongering.
"We don't even botter to apply for government subsidy," Sharman says, "because in the first place we'd never get near acceptance, but even if we did we'd have to turn it down, because it would saddle us with so many artistic restrictions."
The Akshara's home theater in New Delhi has 50 seat (even though there are often more than 50 attending performances) to get under the minimum number that would require shumission of all scripts to the police for censorship. For similar reasons, there's no admission charge - patrons are asked to make contributions (which range from about $3 to $16) instead - so that the Akshara can evade the entertainment tax and the censorship that goes with that, too.
"We make a go of it just by our gate receipts," Sharman says. "But you see, we do everything ourselves. Anasuya runs the lights for all the shows, and acts as well, as in our new musical, 'Karma.' I make up our own small ads - never more than 3 centimeters - on zinc blocks and send them out to the newspapers."
The Theater's complement includes, besides Sharman and his family, three musicians and three general maintenance people.
Sharman met his wife when the two of them are both journalists - Sharman was writing criticism, poems and stories for the Indian Express (the country's largest newspaper) and Jalabala wrote features. At the time, India's president was the Hindu philosopher Sarveplli Radhakrishnan, and he was a devoted fan of Sharman's poetry. After scataract operation left him unable to read, he sent an invitation to Jalabala asking if she would come read some of Sharman's pieces to him. By a bureacratic mistake, the invitation came only to Jalabala - Sharman wasn't included. The couple was too shy to make a fuss, and so only Jalabala went. The president was horrified to discover Sharman wasn't coming too and tried to send out for him - but Sharman couldn't be found.
Afterwards, however, he learned that the president was so impressed, he suggested that Sharman should do the same thing professionally. This, then, became the basis of Sharman's first production, "Full Circle," an anthology of his poems and stories, read by his wife. It was a big hit in New Delhi when they mounted it in a theater, and an even bigger hit in Rome, when they took it on tour. On the strength of the Roman trumph, they proceeded to London, where it was again very successful. Sharman began writing arts criticism for the London Times, authored a book on Indian music and then was asked by the Royal Shakespeare Company to compose a new theater piece based on the Ramayana.
Sharman wrote the work and founded the Akshara Theater in order to put it on back home in New Delhi. He leased a "crumbling old bungalow" and converted it himself into a theater, with tiered seating, a green room, a foyer, a lounge and a full range of modern stage equipment.
The lighting system for the new theater was donated jointly by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, playwright J. B. Priestly and film director John Schlesinger.
On some future tour, Sharman would like to appear at the Kennedy Center, perhaps in the smaller Studio Theater being readied for opening next year. "Akshara" is Sanskrit for "indestructible." If Gopal Sharman has anything to do with it - and thus far he has had everything to do with it - the place and the concept it houses will live up to the name.