If there is one art form that has really pushed the envelope in Mumbai with experimentation and innovation – it’s the city’s lively multi-lingual theatre scene.
Scene 1, Act 2: Machindra Kambli’s Vastraharan is on stage. The Marathi drama that played to many full-houses in the 1990s is a satire, a contemporary take on the Mahabharata, extremely successful and hilarious. A large cast ranging from Krishna to Draupadi is in character. All of a sudden an angry mob of religious cranks, with their freshly acquired right-wing aspirations post the fall of the Babri Masjid, storms in trying to stop the staging. But instead of stopping the performance, they enhance it. The Hindu Gods on stage start thrashing the mob, making the performance even more delightful for the audience. The Gods on stage outnumbered the ‘believers’ and they couldn’t do anything. After all, how can a true believer thrash the Gods? Later the religious cranks resorted to picketing outside the auditorium before each and every show and Kambli used to serve them chai and batata wada. His logic was simple: they were giving his play free publicity and that needed to be acknowledged.
Ramu Ramanathan, well-known Mumbai playwright, told me this amusing story. He is an extremist in his enthusiasm for theatre and believes that it is high time a book is written about the theatre of Mumbai. The theatre culture of the city is deep and dynamic and Mumbai is certainly the most happening city in the country when it comes to theatre productions and shows. Rough statistics tells us that the city stages 1500 to 1800 shows per year without counting the various inter-collegiate and other theatre competitions. Among the reasons why Mumbai survives as one of the few theatre friendly cities in the country, according to Ramanathan, is the fact that most of the plays here are ticketed and for the sheer number of auditoriums that it has on offer. These auditoriums are easily accessible with the city’s cheap, extensive and almost 24 hour local train service. One of the distinguished aspects of the city as well as of its theatre is its multilingual character. Even though Marathi holds the upper hand in the number of plays being produced every year, Hindi, English and Gujarati theatre also contributes substantially to this legacy.
The Ideological Resistance, Marathi Version
When theatre critic and historian Rosmand Gilder visited Mumbai in 1956, she recognised three main themes that theatre of that time dealt with: Hindu-Muslim relations, the modernisation of farming and the problems of current life and politics in the villages. Ever since its inception theatre in Mumbai has been politically driven. Marathi theatre is no stranger to conflicts to do with political ideology and those with the state. Works of eminent playwrights such as Vijay Tendulkar (‘Sakharam Binder’) and K. P. Khadilkar (‘Keechak Wadh’) are just a few among the long list of plays that have been banned due to these conflicts in Maharashtra. The strengthening of right wing politics in the city, especially after the 1992-93 communal riots has led to the sharpening of these conflicts.
Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla was introduced into such an arena of conflict. The play was a reaction to the political misappropriation of Shivaji by the right-wing parties in Maharashtra. The play portrays a Shivaji who has escaped from the clutches of Yama and returned to earth. On one part, we see a helpless Yama searching for Shivaji with his trademark turban. On the earth, we see a debate over the real character of the King. It is being revealed to us that Shivaji is not anti-Muslim, as he is popularly portrayed by the right-wing parties. Instead we meet a King who honours the enemy that he defeats, who even had a large number of Muslim soldiers in his army. He is a conqueror who respects women. The play celebrates his progressive and inclusive policies and administration which had regard for all religions and castes. Even the regional politics often attributed to him is questioned when we see that his coronation was performed by a Brahmin from the north.
The play, of course, wasn’t accepted with open hands by the right-wing. Initially, the producers had a hard time getting the venues. Then there were attempts to block the play entirely by paying the producer. But the challenge was accepted by the team including balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat, endearingly known as ‘Maharashtra’s Gaddar’ (in reference to the revolutionary Telugu balladeer and Naxalite activist), who has composed the music for the play. The play opened in Mumbai in May 2012 and has already had over 110 shows.
Challenges and threats by right-wing organizations against any production that questions their ideology is nothing new in the Marathi theatre scenario. “Usually the producers accept the demands and cut scenes or change the name in order to get the play going with the blessings of people like Saheb (Bal Thackeray) or Anand Dighe,” says Ramu Ramanathan. “But Sambhaji, who believes that only a true Ambedkarite can counter them on streets, consciously decided to challenge the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) by doing a play like Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla in their theatre spaces.” They went on to stage the play in places like Damodar Hall and Shivaji Mandir which are considered as bastions of right-wing organizations in the city.
When Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal introduced the internationally acclaimed Vagina Monologues into the city, there wasn’t much of resistance from either the government or the right-wing organizations. The play deals with something that is extremely sensitive for both right-wing and the state: female sexuality. But no one stormed on to the stage to shut the mouths of the women who uttered the word ‘vagina’ out loud in public spaces where they performed. Even the right wing parties who have been involved in the moral policing of women throughout the country in the recent past didn’t raise a finger against the play. “Politicians from parties including B.J.P, Shiv Sena and the Congress have seen the play and all loved it,” says Mody-Kotwal. “All politicians understand that the play is aimed at empowering women.” According to her, the biggest challenge was from the theatre community itself. Even when the audience loved the play, she couldn’t find producers or actors.
She has traveled all around the country with the play. It has been staged in all the major cities and numerous small towns as well. The responses from these places were “fabulous” she says. The police commissioner of Bhubaneswar told her, “I hope you live for a hundred years performing this play. Because that is how long it will take for Indian men to change.” She believes that the play has been an inspiration for women to come forward and share their agonies. With the backing of all these experiences, she says, “After all, India is also evolving in its own way.”
Though, things didn’t go that well with the Hindi version of ‘Vagina Monologues’. The major issue was the translation because all the commonly-used Hindi words for the vagina are abuses. But when the original playwright Eve Esler came to the country, she insisted on watching the Hindi version. “The energy in Hindi is wonderful,” says Mody-Kotwal. “But not many people turned up”. The Hindi version of Vagina Monologues, which was named Kissa Yoni Ka was not commercially a success and Mody-Kotwal believes that it was because people had an obscure presumption about the vulgarity of the play.
Somehow, English theatre in the city hasn’t really been an object of interest for conflicts. Recently, a young director, Quasar Thakore Padamsee staged a play named, So Many Socks based on Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue’s book Kora. The play tells the story of three generations of Tibetans in exile. A women who left her home in hope of returning to a free Tibet and her daughter and the grand- daughter who have never seen Tibet. The story is about the memories and the struggle for identity of a population which is torn between the world’s two most populous states (India and China).
“It didn’t start as a resistance play, and it is not one,” says Padamsee. “There are elements of freedom and struggle in the play. That is because the writer whose work it is based on is talking about all that.” But they did put up the Tibetan flag in one scene of the play, something that has been forcefully pixelated in a recent Bollywood movie by the censor board. That is one moment of resistance, according to Padamsee in the play. And that is there because the whole team did feel strongly about the way art was being compromised by external forces such as the censor board. But interestingly they haven’t had any trouble so far. “May be because nobody cares about our space and if we did it in an auditorium with thousand seats, we might have got into serious trouble,” said Padamsee, who has performed the play at small venues instead.
Experimental Theatre and the Chhabildas Movement
An article published in The Indian Post newspaper (May 21, 1987) calls the Chhabildas movement, “the off-Broadway equivalent of Marathi theatre.” Chhabildas, which took its name from the founder of the institution, later went on to represent the entire Marathi experimental theatre movement in the city. The history of Chhabildas dates back to 1971 when the veteran actor and director, the late Arvind Deshpande along with his famous actress wife Sulabha and close associate Arun Kakade formed a drama group called Awishkar. Initially, it was difficult for the experimental theatre group to perform regularly at commercial theatres due to lack of funds and poor audience response. “But that is what experimental theatre is,” says Arun Kakade, who continues to be the backbone of Awishkar Group. “We always do something new and audience may not like it easily.”
The group was then forced to locate separate venues exclusively for experimental plays. That is how the Chhabildas Lallubhai High School near Dadar railway station became the mecca of experimental theatre in Mumbai. A crowd of 50-100 people including artists and directors who went on to become big names in both the theatre and cinema industry started to come together every day after school hours to discuss or experience the experimental theatre movement. Enthusiastic audiences and other amateur drama groups from Mumbai, Pune and other parts of the state started pouring in. By the end of 1980s, it had become the face of the experimental theatre movement of the city.
But it was at the time of the Emergency when the Chhabildas movement really came into its own. As other voices got silenced, Chhabildas rose as the only space for the general public to express their resistance. Awishkar responded to the time with plays like Juloos and Antigone. But it never took the side of any political ideology. “We have exposed both the left and the right,” says Kakade Kaka. “Our aim is to do socially relevant plays and we have nothing to do with political organizations.” Nevertheless, the group always stuck to its experimental legacy and produced plays like Tughlaq which had over 75 artists and the eight-and-a-half-hour long Wada Chirebandi trilogy. After a fall out with the Chhabildas administration, Awishkar moved to the Mahim Municipal School in 1992 where it is located now.
The prosperous years of Chhabildas were also the time of a large amount of cultural exchanges. Genius playwrights around the country wrote and translated plays from around the country. The moment gave birth to a generation of great actors, playwrights and directors such as Amol Palekar, Om Puri and Sunil Shanbag. The energy and strength that Mumbai theatre gained during this era is still being carried on by the artists it gave birth to.
A debate over modern Indian theatre began after the rise of a new generation of theatre artistes who refused to follow the Indian folk theatre tradition. Influence of the English and European theatre movements brought in by modern education started being visible in the theatre spaces of Mumbai once these urban children of an industrial age started taking over the stage. Experimental theatre has now become very much a part of the commercial theatre spaces of the city.
For someone who writes a book on the theatre culture of Mumbai, the resistances it carries within, both political and otherwise, there will be so many tales to fill pages and pages. This article just tries to introduce the contemporary state of some of these resistances. There is a lot more to be said. There is Gujarati and Bengali theatre and there are plays of almost all languages in the country being staged in the city year after year. This is an unfinished article that has yet to reach the end of even Act One.
Note: This article has benefitted enormously due to long conversations with playwright Ramu Ramanathan.
Photos: Pradeep Pillai & Quasar Thakore Padamsee
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