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Stalwarts take a dramatic step

The coming together of four leading theatre groups in Mumbai opens up exciting possibilities for Hindi drama. V. GANGADHAR talks about the new-found unity.

The laughter augurs well for Hindi theatre... (from left) Kuldip singh (IPTA), Om Katare (Yatri), Nadira Zaheer Babbar (Ekjute) and Dinesh Thakur (ANK).

``ONE FOR All and All for One!" Remember this famous slogan of the ``Three (later Four) Musketeers"? At Bandra's Sheetal Arch restaurant a few days ago, this slogan was repeated, not by sword-wielding Musketeers but representatives of four of Mumbai's major Hindi theatre groups.

Till recently, they were artistic and business rivals and the competition to woo audiences will certainly continue. Can creative people really work together? Look at what happened at the International Writers Meet in Delhi where Nobel Laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul and other stalwarts were snarling at each other all the time. It is hard to deflate king-sized egos.

But at the get-together, Kuldip Singh (Indian People's Theatre Association- IPTA), Dinesh Thakur (Ank), Nadira Zaheer Babbar (Ekjute) and Om Katare (Yatri) sounded optimistic. Step one of the unity move began with the staging of three-day theatre festivals one after the other by individual groups from March 1, at the swanky new venue, the Mysore Association Hall, at Matunga.

Yatri set the ball rolling with ``Choo Mantar," followed by Ekjute's ``Ballabhpur ki Roopkatha", ANK's ``Hai Mera Dil" and IPTA's ``Ghalib Nama." After the festival is over, each week individual groups will stage plays three days of the week at the Matunga Hall, which has a capacity of 300.

The unity will extend to other areas besides the new avenue. The groups can exchange production expertise, discuss scripts of interest, undertake joint publicity campaigns and work together in holding seminars and workshops. They are prepared to adjust their schedules for their productions. Why this sudden unity?

Unlike the Gujarati commercial theatre, the English ``sophisticated" theatre or the traditional Marathi theatre, serious Hindi theatre in Mumbai has been floundering for several years.

New plays are scarce and collections low. Sponsors favour cheap English bedroom farces and not serious Hindi plays. More important, there are a limited number of halls to stage Hindi plays.

Prithvi theatre in Juhu is becoming overbooked and the South Mumbai auditoriums are expensive. Nadira Babbar who has been staging plays in the city for nearly 20 years dwelt on the need to create audiences for Hindi theatre in different parts of Mumbai. She pointed out that the classical arts are attracting smaller audiences than loud and garish modern presentations. Mediocrity is becoming more and more acceptable. Good theatre has to spread out and members of the fraternity have to be united, she explained. In fact, the shortage of suitable halls is a more serious problem than the shortage of scripts, observed Dinesh Thakur. The new arrangement will have a lot of flexibility. ANK will be able to hold its yearly festivals often spread over 15 days. ``We will co-operate with each other in such ventures,'' said Kuldip Singh. When asked if the emotions of the newly-united partners included mutual admiration, respect and occasional pangs of envy, he smiled and said, ``Artistes are human beings. What others feel in their hearts, we also feel!'' The groups, of course, will continue to perform at Prithvi and other outlets. But by reaching out to Matunga, they hope to rope in new audiences for Hindi theatre. ``At Prithvi we had one kind of audience,'' said Nadira Babbar . ``It will be interesting to note how we are received at Matunga which has a mix of Gujaratis and South Indians.'' The new unity and the move to Matunga will also keep the groups busy. They will have to come up with newer productions, polish their old hits.

The initial impact appeared favourable. For instance, the hall was packed for ANK's ``Hai Mera Dil." But the groups have the talent and capacity to face new challenges. IPTA has been around for 60 years and had played a crucial role in the Freedom struggle. After independence it continued to be the thinking man's theatre with its focus on social evils. It has tackled major social themes and the group has launched the career of hundreds of actors and actresses who have gone on to make a mark in television and films.

ANK, which has been in existence for 25 years, has gone through a gamut of themes — from the thought-provoking and the serious to the tragic, from court room drama to comedy and farce.

Thanks to ANK, Vijay Tendulkar's plays reached vast audiences not only in Mumbai but in other cities also. Its ``Hai Mera Dil" with 907 shows is the longest running comedy in Hindi theatre.

Ekjute's meaningful theatre has reached out to vast audiences all over India. A pioneer in street drama and the Parsi theatre format, Nadira Babbar also successfully adapted several Western classics to the Hindi stage.

Ekjute's theatre workshops have proved extremely popular over the years in preparing young men and women for the theatre.

Om Katare's Yatri has excelled in popular comedy. Native of a small town, Datia in M.P., Katare has risen to the challenge of the bigger Mumbai groups.

The informal atmosphere of Prithvi suits his plays, which have popular appeal. The unity forged among the four groups offers exciting prospects for Hindi theatre in Mumbai. Provided egos are kept out.

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