Six different theatre personalities: One Platform The Masters' panel discussion at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2014 – Features

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On the second-last day of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival this year, Avid Acceleration hosted a very interesting panel discussion. Its very premise promised that the discussion would shape into a lively one- theatre greats reminiscing about other theatre greats. Moderated by Deepa Punjani, each panelist picked a theatre personality they wanted to speak about.

Playwright and director Ramu Ramanathan started the discussion by talking about Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat. Bhagat is a ‘Lok Shahir’ or a Peoples’ poet from Maharashtra, a practice that is almost dead today. Sambhaji is a staunch supporter of the Dalit movement and performs his poetry and plays in the streets for the masses. He does this by making the plays and poetry much cruder and direct. It was ‘flawed art’, as Ramu Ramanathan referred to it, which lacked in aesthetics, but did its job in putting the message across to the people and helping it spread.

Ramu Ramanathan then talked about Bhagat’s play SHIVAJI UNDERGROUND IN BHIMNAGAR MOHALLA. Sambhaji Bhagat came up with the idea for this play as a way of reclaiming Shivaji as a Dalit mascot, rather than as a militant, right-wing mascot of the Shiv Sainiks. Sambhaji’s story is one of standing up- the play initially struggled to find an audience as people feared retaliation from right-wing politicians and their followers. Later, though, the play began to run to packed shows even in Shiv Sena and MNS strongholds such as Dadar and Parel. Ramanathan told the audience an anecdote from one the shows of SHIVAJI UNDERGROUND IN BHIMNAGAR MOHALLA that he had attended. Someone in the audience yelled out some inflammatory statements during the play. Instead of staying quiet and letting it go, Sambhaji stormed onto the stage and demanded that they get up and face him directly. No one responded.

The Masters panel discussion at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2014
The Masters’ panel discussion at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2014

Ramanathan was awed by Sambhaji’s willingness to confront authoritarianism directly, where other artists would have retreated. Nowadays, Sambhaji is underground, evading arrest by State powers under the UAPA (Unlawful Acts Prevention Act). SHIVAJI UNDERGROUND IN BHIMNAGAR MOHALLA is not the most skillful of plays, but in spite of that, is a very important voice in theatre and society today. And Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat is making sure that his voice is being heard.

The second speaker was Anup Soni, who spoke about Nadira Zaheer Babbar. Starting with an anecdote from her childhood which cemented her acting abilities, Anup Soni spoke about Nadira Zaheer found herself enrolled at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi and of her later years when she formed her own Hindi theatre company Ekjute.

Apart from directing plays by many well-known playwrights and acting in them, ‘Baji’ as she is fondly referred to by members of her company, also wrote her own plays like DAYASHAKAR KI DIARY, SAKUBAI, YAMRAJ JI KUCCH KIJIYE and YAAR BANA BUDDY. Anup Soni emphasized that all of her plays have an underlying social theme and humour was appropriately employed to balance out the serious scenes so that the audience could enjoy as well as connect with the play’s social message.

In YAAR BANA BUDDY, she commented on how English has taken over and crushed Hindi; and how people look down on those who speak incorrect English. She did this very directly, by making fun of those who spoke incorrect Hindi. Anup Soni also spoke about her theatre workshops that are easily accessible, and are ways of sharing theatre experiences, skills and giving students opportunities.

Shernaz Patel spoke about Rahul Da Cunha, her friend and classmate from St. Xaviers. Both of Rahul’s parents were involved deeply in theatre, which according to Shernaz, may have been the main reason for his earlier disinterest in it. Studying plays in his Literature course gave Rahul the incentive to direct a play, so he directed his college’s production of Pinter’s play A NIGHT OUT, which went on to win the ‘Best Play’ prize at Mood Indigo, IIT Bombay’s college festival. This launched Rahul into the world of theatre.

For many years, his plays had characters with exaggerated American accents, like all the other English plays in India. After this, however, he was dissatisfied and decided to adapt Indian plays and perform them in English. The aim was to allow the different rhythms of the regional languages to color the speech of the actors, and perhaps have them break out in their own regional languages from time to time. I AM NOT BAJIRAO was the right step in that direction. Boman Irani who acted in it is now a successful film actor.

Shernaz complimented Rahul’s methods of working with the cast. He was always ‘very gentle and open’, and discussions and one to one sessions were the norm for his plays. She also commended his ability to ‘take a text and mine it for everything it has to offer.” Also, when working on CLASS OF ’84, he would insist the cast go out almost every day for dinner or drinks to develop a sense of camaraderie that was very essential to the play. Shernaz found this method a little strange, but loved the outcome.

Shernaz ended her talk by revealing what Rahul would tell the crew before the first performance of any play, ‘Keep the pace up, listen to each other, and have fun’, which she called ‘great rules to live by.”

Mahesh Dattani spoke about Alyque Padamsee. His talk was sprinkled with personal anecdotes as well as readings from Padamsee’s memoirs, which made it very interesting on the whole. Dattani concentrated on Padamsee’s contributions to the field of English theatre in the country. We usually associate Padamsee with musicals like EVITA but Padamsee was very concerned about the way people spoke English on stage and what it did by creating a ‘pseudo-class structure and alienating audiences’, as Dattani put it. In 1961, Padamsee put up a play called BANDRA’S SATURDAY NIGHT, where he worked with youth from Bandra and had them speak conversationally, the way they normally did. The play was met with much skepticism and was attacked for using ‘slanguage’. Alyque Padamsee, however, did not care.

Alyque Padamsee was also the first to write Hindi words in the Roman script (like ‘Tom, Dick and Hari’), the first director/producer to print the name of the playwright bigger than his own, and the first person to give Dattani the push needed to become a professional playwright. Dattani mentioned a few others who, without Padamsee’s support, probably would not have become as successful as they did, such as Shyam Benegal and Shiamak Dawar.

Dattani ended with a few of Alyque Padamsee’s own aphorisms, like ‘To thine own self be true’, ‘Roots are relevant, the rest is just window dressing’, and my personal favorite, ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel, adapt it.”

Salim Arif discussed the work of his father-in-law Javed Siddiqi who is known for his plays and films equally. Arif was awed by the caution Siddiqi would exercise when choosing the words for a dialogue. His dialogues were always very well thought out, well crafted and flowed easily. Each scene would also have what Arif called a ‘punch’, a certain word that would form the high point of the scene. It did not necessarily have to be a word; sometimes it would just be a moment of silence or tension between the characters that would speak volumes.

Siddiqi had a very deep understanding of culture and human relationships, as well as respect for the latter. He wrote a play called TUMHARI AMRITA, which encompassed an inter-cultural, inter-religious relationship through letters. The nuances of the relationship were expressed expertly through these letters, as well as gave a historical perspective to how India evolved as a country.

Salim Arif was grateful to Siddiqi for teaching him to be non-judgmental. He revealed that being non-judgmental is an extremely important part of being an actor because ‘you have to understand and love your character to be them on stage.”

Vinod Ranganath, the last speaker, spoke about Satyadev Dubey very candidly and humorously- he had most of the audience in splits with his anecdotes and jokes about working with Dubey. According to Ranganath, those who worked with Dubey used to refer to the NSD as the ‘National School of Dubey’.

Dubey revived radio plays and discovered Amrish Puri with his production of ANDHA YUG. Ranganath called this Dubey’s ‘biggest contribution’ to theatre. He also nurtured a number of talents during his lifetime, such as Amol Palekar and Naseeruddin Shah, and was a great teacher. Ranganath elicited hearty chuckles from the audience when he frankly said that Dubey was a bad playwright, especially in his last senile years.

Dubey was also an extremely short-tempered, difficult and contrary sort of person. When Alyque Padamsee rose to fame for English theatre, he dismissed the English language completely; and when Padamsee started to call himself ‘God’, Dubey did the same; and mentioning Padamsee in front of Dubey was a cardinal sin. The punch line of this story came when Ranganath revealed that the two of them were good friends once upon a time.

Every group of people that would work under Dubey would be made to do the play SAMBHOG SE SANYAS TAK. It was a comedy that entailed numerous complicated entries and exits on stage as well as a lot of technical finesse. Ranganath theorised that this was Dubey’s way of educating the entire crew on the finer points of staging any play. Rangnath also narrated a funny incident in which Dubey was angry with him for changing a light’s position at the Karnataka Sangh auditorium but was saved by a certain Patil who was in charge there. It was the first time also that Rangnath had a sense of how Dubey could quietly listen if he was pointed out the right thing. Rangnath said that Dubey’s shouting and screaming, with which he came to be associated with, was actually his nervous energy and struggle with finding the right way to do things.

Overall, the panel discussion was a wonderful insight into the world of theatre through the eyes of those who are deeply immersed in it. It also, hopefully, achieved what its creator, Ramu Ramanathan intended- to document the little-known instances of our theatre and thereby keep the artists and their works alive in our collective memory.

*Srishti Raj is a first year BA student from Sophia College. She is the secretary of the English Literary Society of Sophia College for the year 2014.

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Six different theatre personalities: One Platform The Masters' panel discussion at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2014 – Features

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