Theatre personality Sunil Shanbag spoke about his association with Satyadev Dubey

In his long tryst with theatre, Sunil Shanbag has come a full circle. “I have been on the theatre scene since 1974. In these years I have done many different things, most of them to earn a livelihood. But theatre has been the one concrete thing. Many of the other things I did influenced my theatre,” said Shanbag in the second lecture of the Creative Journeys series organized by Toto Funds the Arts at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Sunil recalled having watched his first play, part of a three-day festival of Satyadev Dubey’s plays, at his childhood friend Ratna Patha’s invitation. “I was awestruck by the entire atmosphere. I knew I wanted to do theatre. But I had to go back to school. Then I said to myself, I’m coming back.”

During his last years in the Rishi Valley School, when theatre personalities including Roshan Seth and Dina Pathak visited, convinced him that a future in theatre was possible. Soon after he passed out of school, Sunil serendipitously got the opportunity to work with Satyadev Dubey on a play.

That was the beginning of a long and remarkable association with Dubey.“I started working as an actor. But with Dubey you don’t just do one thing, you get pulled into everything. So I learnt to work on the lights, handle production, and set up the stage.” “Being with Dubey, we all had an incredible passion for theatre. There was tremendous honesty in his work, he believed in it. There was tremendous emphasis on rigour of craft which I learnt from him. I also learnt to work with text.”

In 1985, Sunil became one of the founding members of a production company Arpana.Meanwhile he was also deeply involved with what is known as the Chabil Das theatre movement where a private school in Dadar became a hotspot for theatre from all over the country. “This was a time when questions about the social function of art, the responsibilities of an artist and the debate between form and content were discussed.”

Another significant influence in Sunil’s career was the dancer Astad Deboo. “With Astad I was exposed to a completely different aesthetic in terms of music. He opened my ears and changed the way I light.” Sunil was also involved in documenting Astad’s work. Soon after, he decided to work with documentary films. “It was a revelation. I was fascinated by how filmmakers were using real life material and narrative techniques of fiction and bringing them together to create an interesting form of storytelling. After a few years, I began to ask myself why I was keeping all I was doing separate, instead of bringing them together.”

It was around this time that he heard that Ramu Ramanathan was planning to write a play on Bombay’s textile mills and decided to work with him. That’s how his production Cotton 56, Polyester 84 was born. “I saw that it had become possible to collaborate with amazing talents and put together a project, I could see myself playing that kind of role. When you work so hard on something before you get to floor, then you are very prepared. What happens in the floor is just another step.”

What next? “I’m interested in scaling up my collaborative work with Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan —Stories in a Song. I’m looking forward to doing an operatic piece using Hindustani music. I’m looking at Mumbai in 1900s.”