Vijaya Mehta, theatreperson, actor, director, filmmaker, abhors women being spoken of as weak and helpless. Self pity is a death nail, she insists

A glowing face and a sharp mind that infuses the air with warmth and enthusiasm, Vijaya Mehta belies her age. Veteran theatreperson, actor, and filmmaker, she is a picture of poise and grace. At 80, Vijaya Mehta is bubbling with life, talking to everyone who walks up to her with affection. “Let’s sit somewhere,” she says, putting her palm into mine, gripping it firmly.

As we walk those few steps to the nearby bench, I can feel her conviction from the power of her grip and what she’s saying. “I can’t bear anyone talking about women as weak, secondary citizens..,” she says emphatically, recalling one of the speakers at a session during the seminar on Girish Karnad’s plays at Rangashankara, recently.

Was that a political, feminist statement — I wonder. It’s beyond that — a primeval response that refuses to accept women being unequal to men. “When you start doing that you will fail to understand women in general, and the women in Karnad’s plays,” she explains. Vijaya Mehta sets out to clarify. “I may come from primitive times, but I was fortunate to grow up amidst very strong women who battled their circumstances with extraordinary courage.” Born into an upper caste household which believed that every girl in the family had to be educated, Vijaya (then Vijaya Jaywant) grew up in the company of men and women who were progressive in their views. “My father was Annie Besant’s secretary. M.N. Roy, the Indian nationalist revolutionary was also related to me. I was born in the thick of the Independence movement and Gandhiji was a great force in our lives. My grandmother was a tough woman looking after a family of 21, my mother was widowed when I was six and she brought us all up single-handedly, never crying over her fate. In fact, she learnt to read and write after her marriage and loved to read.” Also, the air in Maharashtra was thick with the values that Anna Karve was spreading – he continued the remarkable work of the Phules and promoted women’s education in every corner of Maharashtra. “My whole generation of women were created in this climate, not just me,” explains Vijaya.

Boys and girls of her times were all a part of some volunteer group like the Seva Dal or some other, and Vijaya was a committed sainika in the Jayaprakash Narayan movement. “When I went to theatre, I was a product of the Renaissance of art…. How could we wish away any of these…?” she asks.

Her entry into theatre was a happenstance. “One of my professors at college said, ‘do something interesting’. I tried doing theatre in college, and after those 15 minutes, I never retracted.” In fact, her family was happy with her involvement with JP and were rather worried when she decided on theatre. But they were glad that she didn’t choose cinema. Curiously, Vijaya’s aunt was the actor Nalini Jayawant and her cousins, the famous yesteryear stars Tanuja and Nutan. By the time she was 18, theatre was a major force in her life. Along with friends such as Arvind Deshpande, Shriram Lagoo, Bhaskar Chandavarkar and Vijay Tendulkar, Vijaya Mehta had set up her own theatre group Rangayan. “It was not easy. But we had plenty of enthusiasm and strong ideals, so we weren’t going to give up easily.” She recalls the times that they all spent together after the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute had been set up. “Painters M.F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Gaitonde did their paintings in their studios here. In another room Ravi Shankar used to hold rehearsals of his group called Kinnar. Sachin Shankar worked on his ballet in one room and sculptor Piloo Pochkhanwala worked in a shed. We too got a tiny space. We had very little money, yet we were able to do path breaking work.” Within a short span of time, Rangayan had enrolled over 1000 members in three weeks in Mumbai in 1960 and 600 in Pune. Some of the best experimental theatre in Mumbai in the 1970s was done in the Spartan hall of the Chhabildas school in Dadar.

During the thick of her theatre activities, Vijaya got married to actor Durga Khote’s son Harin. Few years into their marriage, Harin died, leaving Vijaya and their two sons. “The challenge was to make it work and not be browbeaten….” One day, she remembers Durga Khote calling her over: “I am there for you. However, you must take up a job and restart your life. You must get married again. For now, if you wish I can give you a job in Durga Khote productions. But I insist, you must be independent…,” she had advised Vijaya.

Vijaya later got married to Faroque Mehta, but kept her theatre and theatre research alive. When her husband had to go to Germany, Vijaya closed down Rangayan and left with him. She worked with Fritz Benewitz for several years. In the later years, she, along with Bhaskar Chandavarkar and others did a project in ritualistic Sanskrit theatre, staying in Kerala with Madhav Chakyar studying Koodiyattam. She used the traditional Sanskritic idiom to do modern theatre, for instance, she recalls how she infused those elements into Mudra Rakshasa, Shakuntala and some of the Girish Karnad plays she did.

“I got an opportunity to go the US and study the landscape of American theatre. It was the peak of the Feminist movement. There were revolts, processions… but I just found it appalling that women were wearing men’s clothes. I used to ask these women who worked with me why they wanted to disfigure themselves? Does equality mean looking like men? I had seen such strong women back home. Without uttering a word of feminism, they stood to change many things within tradition itself by their sheer inner strength.” Self pity, is a death nail, she says. “There are miseries, but never use it as a tool to destroy yourself.”

Vijaya acted in films, went on to head institutions like NCPA and NSD, made the remarkable television serial Lifeline, but her heart was always in theatre. “A film took away two years from my life,” she reasons. “I have had very fruitful experiences in doing Shyam Benegal’s The Rani of Jhansi, Pestonjee, Party and others… but I wanted to more interesting things.”

It is very satisfying when you do things for their own sake, says Vijaya. “I was always totally in love with my work. Popularity, fame and other things take their own course. But I believed, love thy art not yourself…,” she says holding my hand, as we get up to leave.

Keywords: Vijaya Mehta