The theatre that Sunil Shanbhag believes in has a strong social consciousness. He says much of theatre has been reduced to a marketplace, and it can be fought only through good work and not disillusionment

Where did Dubey saab say all this…?” asks Sunil Shanbhag, as we settle down for a conversation. It’s important to know where an individual comes from and where he wants to go. Satyadev Dubey, among the doyens of Indian theatre, had perhaps meant this when he chose to speak about his student Sunil Shanbhag. He said in an interview – “Sunil Shanbag is the person whose career I am fond of and would like to see his plays. I would like to see him grow. He is a challenge. He is still doing very fine work though I don’t think he has taken anything directly from me.”

The influence of Satyadev Dubey’s style can be seen among many theatre practitioners all over the country, considering that the man set in motion a larger Indian theatre sensibility. However, for someone who was with Dubey for long years, Sunil Shanbhag is clearly his own. “It was a productive relationship and I learnt a lot from him. Also, I gave myself to him completely. If you were keen on learning, it was easy to work with him…,” says Sunil of the maverick genius. Dubey was a contradictory personality, swinging between being feudal to blindingly democratic. “It was only when I began to make my documentary film Maihar, on Baba Allauddin Khan, did I understand my relationship with Dubey. I belong to the Dubey gharana, which is more a value system than theatre.”

Watching Sunil Shanbhag’s plays will tell you the kind of person he is. Devoted to theatre, but also committed to the world he inhabits. In 1985, Sunil, along with friends founded the theatre group Arpana, and has ever since been doing socially relevant plays. “It’s been a long journey, but doesn’t feel like that,” recalls Sunil. “In the arts you have to be able to adapt in order to survive and keep yourself fresh. The skill is not to compromise on your core. In the 35 years that I’ve been here, many have lost. If you do not adapt, you fall by the way side. The society has changed, and to renew oneself is a key factor,” he explains. Vijay Tendulkar’s The Cyclewallah, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Pratibimb and Ramu Ramanathan’s Cotton 56, Polyester 84, his own Sex, Morality and Censorship, and several others -- Sunil’s always believed in the social purpose of art.

Lots was happening in the 70s, and unlike the youngsters of today, Sunil says there was no conscious decision as to what he wanted to do. When he landed in theatre, a “historical accident” he says, he associated himself with theatre persons who believed that theatre was an instrument of social change. Over the years has the articulation of resistance changed, if not diminished? “It’s easy to find compromises, and you’re always encouraged to,” says Sunil. Bordering on the obstinate, Sunil has had huge arguments with the hyperactive Scrutiny Board in Maharashtra and has managed to convince them, more often than not. “You cannot stifle artistic expressions and the scrutiny board has often relented. But the morality brigade is notorious and dangerous. Since I work mostly on the margins, I’ve not caught their fancy and therefore spared.” When he was thinking about these issues, his play Sex, Morality and Censorship was born. “The play was a huge challenge. It was just a string of ideas and no storyline. Anyway, my endeavour has always been to engage the audience,” he holds. That abiding rule has never meant dumbing down for Sunil. “I am happy that theatre is not on a pedestal. Lots of people are watching and engaging with it. But sadly, it has become a product of consumption and it’s worrying.” Understanding the situation hardly leaves Sunil feeling helpless. “You have to be aware of it and learnt to deal with it. If you are serious about what you are doing, you can subvert this trend with your idea of theatre. Over the years, I have deepened the content of my plays, and have found the audience more than willing to engage. Resistance from the audience is a myth. Construct your work in such a way that even the simplest in your audience understands it.” Even when he did a play like “Stories in a Song”, one that’s so unlike a Sunil Shanbhag play, it was a conscious decision that both the uninitiated and the ethnomusicologist must find value in it. “Theatre is basically a commitment to communicate. In fact, my biggest fear is that I won’t be understood. I work very hard on content and its articulation.”

The play, which is many ways is reminiscent of the sangeet natak tradition is important for Sunil. “Renewing old traditions has great relevance. There are so many different kinds of theatre that’s happening and a substantial chunk is theatre for the marketplace. When we abandon the larger idea of theatre, all is lost. As I see it, it’s the biggest problem ailing Indian theatre. Every generation reinvents the wheel. But each of them starts from scratch. There is no system of passing on knowledge. We are also not worried about who’s doing what. I want to tell a young man that he’s part of a tradition. This tradition should give him strength, responsibility, and guide him in his dark hours. I am not going to be disillusioned…,” he adds resiliently.