Witness to the brilliant heights theatre reached during the British era and post-Independence, Shimla’s famous Gaiety Theatre though structurally restored has to return to the grandeur of yesteryears
Artists like Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, Robert Baden Powell, Balraj Sahni acted in plays staged in this theatre; Prithiviraj Kapoor and Geoffrey Kendal brought their troupes to enact plays here — Shimla’s famous Gaiety Theatre. Once considered the Mecca of theatre, today this British-era theatre modelled on London’s Royal Albert Hall is trying hard to relive its past glory.
Constructed in 1887, the Gaiety Theatre was part of the magnificent Town Hall building (now called Gaiety Theatre Complex) designed by Henry Irwin with Gothic style of architecture — a one-of-its-kind in Asia.
Amateur theatre took shape in Shimla more than 125 years back during the British rule under the aegis of Amateur Dramatic Club of the Indian British Army. Time Will Tell was the first play staged here on May 30, 1887. Kipling, who wrote Kim and The Jungle Book during his stay in Shimla, acted in the play A Scrap of paper. Powell, who went on to become the founder of the Boy Scout Movement, was a part of the cast of The Geisha, a spectacular production of Amateur Dramatic Club in 1896.
Referring to those times, a chapter on the Gaiety Theatre in the coffee-table book Every House has a Story to Tell brought out by the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department says that the VIP boxes in the theatre at that time were normally let out for the whole season at exorbitant rates. It says that in 1899, the box holders included the Viceroy, the Commander in Chief and Lieutenant Governor of Punjab and each of them paid a whopping Rs. 638.
The theatre remained closed for three years after Independence. The period between 1950 and 1970 saw a number of good plays when famed dramatic clubs from outside Shimla staged plays with big-ticket actors and producers, including Geoffrey Kendall, Prithviraj Kapoor and actors Balraj Sahni, Anupam Kher and Manohar Singh. Theatre activist Srinivas Joshi, who directed and acted in plays for 13 years and had his own theatre group called Amateur Evening, remembers plays like Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, Balraj Pandit’s Panchva Sawar and Under Secretary by Ramesh Mehta being staged at the Gaiety Theatre in the 60s.
In his reminiscences, included in Every House has a Story to Tell, Amrit L. Bhasin talked about the day in the 1950’s when Pandit Nehru, his sister Vijay Laxmi Pandit and daughter Indira Gandhi watched the play She Stoops to Conquer.
Among the other famous names connected with this theatre of colonial legacy are legendary singer K.L. Sehgal and Manohar Lal. Even Master Madam is said to have given his first performance at the Gaiety Theatre.
However, from early 1970s, for over a decade and a half, the theatre was almost turned into a club for the elite of the town to spend their evening gossiping or playing cards. Many a times the theatre was rented out for activities that had nothing to do with dramatics.
It was in 1990 when there was resurgence in theatre activities with local drama clubs staging plays like Aashaad Ka Ek Din, Kabira Khada Bazar Mein and Court Martial, says Mr. Joshi.
The theatre was closed for renovation in 2003 for almost six years and while the physical magnificence of the structure has been authentically restored, the grandeur of drama of yesteryears is still to return.
Mr. Joshi says that one of the reasons why Shimla does not have drama audience is because of the culture of free passes. He says unless people pay for tickets for plays staged, they tend not to be serious about it; genuine lovers, on the other hand, do not mind paying for it. Mr. Joshi also feels that except for a spark here or there, plays of ‘high standard are not being staged by local clubs’.
The Language, Art and Culture Department of the State government has been giving incentives in the form of bearing expenditure and free use of the theatre to promote drama. In fact last year saw a 23-day-long festival of drama. Actor Anupam Kher, who hails from Shimla, held an acting workshop last year for children. Inter-school drama competitions are also being organised and theatre groups from across the country are invited to stage plays.
There are several drama clubs in Shimla, some of which are truly passionate about theatre. Kedar Thakur is one of them who directed Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus that drew large crowds. He says there is a need for training, workshops and hard work for qualitative productions.
Will these young dramatists succeed in re-engaging audience interest in drama and bring back Gaiety Theatre’s golden era? Only time will tell.