Roots and Shoots of Urban Theatre in Bombay and Pune

in Overview
Published on: 19 June 2017

Irawati Karnik

Irawati is a writer of short fiction, translator and playwright. Her freelance work includes research and documentation of Indian contemporary art as well as the history of Indian theatre. She occasionally takes on work as an illustrator.

In 2013 at an event in Pune, one of the speakers for the evening was Shanta Gokhale. She spoke about how we, the ‘theatre people’ simply do not make enough effort to thoroughly document the theatre-making process. Sunil Shanbag was present there. It was then that a project began to cook up in his mind. He brainstormed it with Ashok Kulkarni, a committed patron of theatre and they discussed it further with Shanta Gokhale. The idea was to trace the history of Mumbai’s experimental theatre movement with people who had played an important part in it and were still in a position to remember it well. This was to be done through three spaces namely: the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas School.


A few journalists who had been writing about theatre also stepped in and over the next two years or so very many theatre persons who had been active during the 1960s, ’70s and some of the ’80s were interviewed about their work. These interviews formed the meat of the book that became The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai (Speaking Tiger Books, 2015). I was the project assistant on the book. While working on the project, as I watched the interviews of numerous practitioners, I realized that there was one aspect of life at Bhulabhai Desai Institute/Walchand Terrace/Chhabildas that all of them seemed to value. It was the fact that these spaces lent themselves to addabazi. Theatre doesn’t simply happen on the playwright’s page or the rehearsal space or even on the stage. These arguments, fights, tearing apart of each other’s work is as important as the process itself. It contributes tremendously to one’s understanding of work, whether it is one’s own or that of peers. It is here that ideas are exchanged, challenged, destroyed and given birth to. It is here that a sense of community for artists is strengthened.


To be honest, I do not come across heartfelt criticism commonly among my peers. There are many conversations about other people’s work. But someone challenging a contemporary playwright’s/ director’s work to their face is a rare occurrence. If it does happen, I haven’t been witness to it often enough. I am led to wonder if it is because we lack the space for it. I do realize that it is not as straightforward as that of course.


There are very many factors that contribute to this sense of ‘culture’ in complex ways. For example, what is it that brings a particular group of people together to form a theatre company? How are decisions made within this company? What is its relationship with other theatre groups/companies? What is it that drives work in this company? What are the motivations behind choosing to make a certain play? How is that process carried out? What is it that determines this process?  These and many questions like these decide the nature of the work and the ‘culture’ of work instilled within as well as by the company.


Beyond all of this, people have to have something to say. They need to be invested in ideas. To be engaged enough with their art to believe that a more sustained conversation might prove insightful for them as well as those they want to communicate with. They then need to feel that the world they navigate allows/encourages expression of the sort. And then there also needs to be the space to do it. A space that is democratic in nature. A space where words like ‘seniors’ and ‘juniors’ do not matter.  It is a difficult phenomenon to engineer. It depends on a lot of historical coincidences, the coming together of a lot of favourable factors.


Today, thanks to social networks, artists and theatre-makers perhaps face the harshest feedback they ever have. The more audacious you are, the more in-your-face you are, the more you get noticed online. Facebook is performance. The comments are simply a charade of two-way communication. The space necessitates a performance from those posting. Discussions are restricted by the limitations of the medium and reduced to strong opinions that needn’t be defended after being flung at one another.


There are many alternative performance spaces coming up in different cities; spaces that push practitioners to reinvent the rules of putting up a play. But they are different in nature from Chhabildas et al. Those spaces were run by theatre groups. The rules were made up by theatre-practitioners according to what worked for them. They were not dictated by box-office collections or popularity of groups or the whims of trustees. Would the availability of physical space outside performance spaces automatically lead to meaningful exchanges and candid arguments about theatre then? Most likely not. But it would certainly increase manifold the probability of it happening.


Simultaneously, one must also be aware that it isn’t simply the physical availability of space that leads to a certain ‘culture’.  The ‘space’ is as much a psychological one. The availability of that psychological space where one might grapple with questions regarding one’s work or where discoveries about one’s work might happen and consequently where one might engage seriously with the work of one’s contemporaries. A psychological space where one lets oneself be affected by the work one sees or thinks about. What matters is the inside and the outside coming together. The atmosphere at Bhulabhai Desai institute, Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas indicates such a coming together of the inside and the outside at that particular time in history.


In one aspect, Bhulabhai Desai Institute stands alone among the three spaces that the book talks about. I am a student of fine art. While I love the actual practice of it, I have always been uncomfortable about the elite world that has engulfed that practice today. I feel suffocated by sparkly clean art galleries and the hushed tones in which people discuss the artist and the work. It was when I became familiar with experimental theatre that I realized that art and action could infuse each other. Art need not be imprisoned by deafening silence and the smell of sanitizer. It can live in spaces where people care and can connect with it: in the form of performance, a play set or a protest placard. And the most active art is made when artists from across disciplines connect. Bhulabhai Desai institute had successfully erased that artificial divide between artists. Today, I am unable to imagine a space where artists from across disciplines may be able to interact with one another inside one space not dictated by economics.


Watching theatre-practitioners from the time of Bhulabhai Desai Institute, Walchand Terrace and Chhabildas actually speak about what they were trying to do brings to life the reality of that time. It is invaluable to watch them search for the right words to articulate their observations and criticisms, to watch them arrive at insightful conclusions and then change their mind. To see some refer to the work happening at Chhabildas as a movement and then to see others dismiss it with the wave of a hand. To see them speak makes the stories, the time as well as the work concrete and accessible. It brings forth the intricacies involved in the making of a body of work. As urban theatre practitioners, one can often feel that one has no roots. The interviews answer many questions about where we urban theatre makers today come from.


Many years ago, I was at Ravindra Natya Mandir as an audience member for an interview with Vijay Tendulkar. We all sat in this one large hall. Tendulkar sat in a plastic chair in front and the audience sat on the floor looking up at him, literally as well as metaphorically. Most of us in the audience were young college students who were enthusiastic participants in inter-collegiate theatre competitions. I don’t remember who it was that was interviewing him. The interviewer was doing a rather shoddy and shallow job and we were all happy when it was over and the interviewer opened it up for questions from the audience.  After a few questions, a boy who had been straining to have his raised hand noticed finally got a chance to ask his question. He had the most grateful smile on his face. He was so happy he could barely speak. With stars in his eyes, he asked, 'We’ve heard so much about the golden age of theatre…the '70s…all you stalwarts working together…', as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. 'What was it like?' He waited with bated breath for a response from Tendulkar that he believed was going to be no less than some magical revelation.  'Just like this', Tendulkar said. 'It was just like how you are all trying to make something right now.' The boy looked disappointed. But it was so important to hear Tendulkar say that, I thought.


There is no doubt that it was an electric time when passionate and brilliant individuals were exchanging ideas and ‘living’ the theatre. And of course, it is a reasonable response to be inspired by the spirit of that time. But it is as important to understand what was going on; to understand that these were people, trying something new. They did not happen to be in a magical time. They were working and making and struggling. Getting a lot of things right, getting some wrong. Tendulkar has repeatedly spoken about how he was sick of the kind of playwriting that had become synonymous with the Marathi stage. Most of the plays that were revered at the time were these romantic, regressive, flowery pieces often dripping with nostalgia. They felt outdated to him and a lot of his work was a reaction in order to break away. The constant reference to the ‘golden age’ has done just that to some practitioners.


An artist has an idea of what makes relevant art. No one likes to ‘live up’ to preset standards. Most young theatre practitioners have heard ‘legendary tales’ from ‘that time’ repeatedly narrated to them. Unfortunately, more often than not the narrations are dripping with reverence. As though the more devotion you render them with, the more chances there are that the glory of those days will rub off on you. As though a nostalgic surrender to the greatness of the ‘golden age’ is action. While an understanding of history, of ‘tradition’ is a prerequisite for wanting to challenge it, with theatre it is often baggage that gets piled onto one’s back even before one has barely learned to walk (in theatre terms). Even before you learn to make work, you learn to touch your earlobe piously while referring to certain names. To be seen as serious about theatre, you must constantly bow down to the ghosts of the glorious past.


The role as well as approach of directors and writers in theatre is constantly shifting. As we become more exposed to the ways theatre has been made and is being made across the world, we find ourselves trying to reimagine, redefine our inspirations, our methods. Today, generations after the times discussed in The Scenes We Made, we are in a different kind of time in theatre-making. But it is as important to be aware of the various factors that contribute to our ‘processes’. To view theatre right now in the present as it is being made, the way we have tried to understand it by viewing it in its past in the book. To keep track of the ‘scenes we are making’ so to speak. As part of this effort, we have tried to look at a few spaces that exist today that seem to be supporting as well as inspiring theatre practice. It is impossible to have a comprehensive understanding of one’s time as one lives inside it. Certain patterns become clear, certain currents more pronounced, only in retrospect. These interviews conducted for the book construct a three-dimensional understanding of that time. That it is subjective adds to the vividness of the experience of it. Whether it makes one want to defy it and blaze one’s own trail or become inspired and drive one’s work forward is an individual choice. But the interviews definitely remind us of the living breathing being that theatre is as it continues to work its rebellious charm on the world.