Queen of the stage

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STRONG AND SIMPLE Nadira Babbar in New Delhi.
STRONG AND SIMPLE Nadira Babbar in New Delhi.


Nadira Babbar on a life in theatre.

Theatre must say something to the audience - to think and ponder over.

Veteran actor Sarita Joshi became Nadira Babbar's “Sakubai” yet again. Even after 10 years it was first staged, the tale of a people hardly dwelt upon — maids who run households — continue to cast its spell. A packed house at Kamani auditorium cheered and fell silent along with the turning fortunes of Sakubai at the ongoing South Asian Women's Theatre Festival.

For Nadira, playwright and director of “Sakubai”, the idea stemmed from observations of a lifetime. Sitting in the living room of her home on Mahadev Road, Nadira says, “Nobody has written about them. It was needed to put light upon them sensitively, with consideration, probe into the issues. What makes them the way they are. They have courage to fight, strength to survive, be optimistic and cheerful under all circumstances.”

As the granddaughter of Sir Wazir Hasan, a chief justice in the British era, Nadira recalls a childhood in a Lucknow mansion — the air unmistakably feudal. “There were innumerable servants in the house which had about 50 servant quarters. Yet in that very child-like mind, as a small girl, so many things struck me as injustice towards them,” she says.

Despite the material excesses around, her parents — Razia and Syed Sajjad Zaheer — both Marxist leaders instrumental in evolving the Progressive Writer's Association and Indian People Theatre's Association, ensured a grounded childhood. “We lived in an outhouse as my father had ideological differences with my grandfather. There were hoards of writers, poets, singers and dancers in the house and it's when we grew up that we realised they were not blood relations,” says Nadira.

Probably, a take-off from the rich IPTA tradition, Nadira's theatre always unravelled a message to take home, yet never abandoned entertainment. In the past 30 years, her Ekjute Theatre Group has staged over 40 productions, including “Begum Jaan”, “Dayashankar ki Diary” and “Yahudi ki Ladki.”

“Primarily, theatre must say something to the audience — to think and ponder over. That's the first reason to do theatre, but simultaneously it must entertain.” Not for her the intellectual aura of theatre. “We theatre workers should not get carried away by our own intellectual mindset.” She does not want her theatre to be staged in a room with 30 people, where she says, 20 of them leave after the first fade out.

In India, she says, “You have to create an audience, a movement in theatre where people go and buy a ticket and watch a play.” Yet by “entertainment” she doesn't mean “frivolous comedies or bedroom farce.” It is the delicate balance of thought-provoking theatre wedded to entertainment that Nadira seeks to attain. “It is difficult to maintain that balance. I think (Bertolt) Brecht achieved that balance. They all had strong messages, yet were most simply written.”

Nadira and Ekjute had steadfastly in these years stayed away from performing in English. But a change may dot the future as Ekjute, she says, is being extended to The Performers. “A lot of young people join us as we do workshops twice a year. We want to expand ourselves to give young people more and more theatre, get them hooked and make them stay on. Then we will have the freedom to experiment.”

On keeping clear of theatre in English, Nadira says, “It doesn't really reach out to small cities. It might work in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai or Delhi. But what about Raipur, Bareilly or Dharamshala? We do plays there.”

However, keeping together a group for long comes with sacrifices. “People drift away, new people come in and drift away too. I was like a pole which held on. I had to give up personal interests like acting. It has just been ‘Begum Jaan' and may be ‘Sandhya Chaya'.”

Trained under the iconic Ebrahim Alkazi — a “living miracle” for Nadira at the National School of Drama and also under masters Grotowski and Peter Brooks, she says, we lack only on two fronts — “excellent scripts and technical achievements.” As one who gets to read a lot of scripts, she says, there are hardly any that make the cut as “behetarein natak.” “Even after a reading a whole script I realise they don't even begin.” That has cajoled Nadira to script plays and she has done six so far. “I am working on 4-5 of things now.”



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