A tribute to five formidable women who have rewritten theatre history

A salaam to five women of theatre

Theatre in Mumbai is about two things for me: language and space. While attending The Theatre of E Alkazi, a retrospective of Ebrahim Alkazi organised at the NGMA, I chanced upon Alkazi’s experiments at Megdhooth Terrace on Cumballa Hill in Mumbai. This was before theatre thespian Mama Warerkar identified the talent in this young lad; this was before Pandit Nehru requested the young lad to think about a national theatre institute; this was before NSD. As one studies the structure of Megdhooth Terrace you realise that the plays were made possible by “the humble carpenter.” It was a timely lesson for me that theatre is about the small things. It is about the nuts and bolts.

A peek at the halls in Mumbai where our plays are staged gives a good indication that most of them have been designed solely by male architects without consulting theatre persons. Most Mumbai groups have suffered while transferring their sets in and out of the Gadkari Rangayatan (Thane) on a rainy day. The Zaverben Hall (Ghatkopar) is located on the fourth floor and has only two lifts with no emergency exit. The sets have to be carried by an open lift. It is most cumbersome for transporting large pieces. The theatre thumbrule is that the size of the backstage area should be twice that of the stage. A walkway to the backstage is a must.

Which is why, when Sulabha Deshpande, a school teacher offered a makeshift hall to a Marathi theatre group on the top floor of a school in Dadar, no one dared imagine that “a dingy decrepit guerrilla space” would become the bastion for the avant garde Chabbildas Movement in Mumbai. Who could imagine that a rectangular hall on top of a rickety staircase would be the cradle for the most important theatre productions in 20th century Mumbai? One reason was for these doubts was that theatre had got stuck in a rut. The audience was accustomed to seeing plays in just one way. Chabbildas demolished those myths. For 18 years, Sulabha Deshpande was the backbone of the theatre symphonies at Chabbildas. Awishkar theatre group charged fifty rupees as rent for the hall, a fiver for spots, and three rupees for dimmers. For ₹150, you could stage a show and in many cases, even this was waived off.

Very few know that it was Sulabha Deshpande who played Virgil to Tendulkar’s Dante and coaxed him to pen children’s plays by promising to stage them in her school. Thankfully, Vijay Tendulkar complied.

Meanwhile, in a distant suburb of Mumbai, another space was born. Jennifer Kapoor created Prithvi Theatre at Juhu. In a way that curtain-less intimate space in Janki Kutir and her vision unshackled the performance praxis. I had a massive school boy crush on her (as I suspect everyone did). She was ironing costumes backstage when I saw her for the first time. She then placed the costumes on hooks (for a quick dress change) and on horizontal rods attached to the wings (for a double-quick costume change). The rest of the pile was carried to the greenroom and, in a short while, she emerged resplendent and ready for the show. For me, it became an allegory of life in the wings.

A few years later, thanks to Sanjna Kapoor who produced The Boy Who Stopped Smiling, I used to potter around Prithvi. On one such occasion, I chanced upon a pile of papers propping up a three-legged chair in the balcony. Among them, I found back-issues of PT Notes which Jennifer Kapoor published along with Tyeb and Sakina Mehta (exquisitely letter-pressed). And beneath that history, I found another history: Jennifer Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre manifesto.

It contained a lot of simple tips. For example, “keep the stage area small and do not allow actors and audience to use the same entrance into the auditorium. Also, the stage area must be low or it will be impossible to light without a glare in the eyes of the audience. One must keep the actors’ world and the real world alone together but strictly separate.” She says, “beware of the multiple frame since it is suitable for everything, but good for nothing.”

She concludes the note by saying, “About Prithvi, let us not pretend we have not made enormous blunders. Every company which performs will have its pet complaints, some of which we will have to take seriously enough to make changes later. But let us present the theatre we intended to build, - perfectly meshed, no shabby curtains that ill-trained people hang around, and so on. Let us hope companies will use it in its ideal way, with the minimum of scenery, cameo sets within the area available. Or let us hope that eventually it will be used as a producing theatre with every production specially designed for this particular space.”

Two beneficiaries of this new space were Arundhati Nag and Veenapani Chawla. During their formative years in Mumbai, when they staged Gidhahe or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they realised the importance of a well-designed auditorium. Whether they worked with a theatre veteran like Mahendra Joshi or with an ensemble pool of actors, they grasped the importance of the thrust stage in which the audience is seated on three sides of the acting area; the fourth side being reserved for a permanent background. And finally, they realised the key to theatre was to decide on a form and make it as flexible as possible rather than adaptable to two or more forms.

A couple of decades later, Rangashankara (Bengaluru) and Adi Shakti (Puducherry) were born. Rangashankara is an honest tribute to Prithvi. Arundhati Nag had learnt her lesson well that there are basically two aspects to a good theatre: design and maintenance.

I recall my first tour around the work-in-progress structure, and I realised that most of the requirements had been fulfilled. Plus Nag had created a maintenance staff which ensures hygiene and upkeep. Since the designing of Rangashankara was done with assistance from a theatre person, it caters to the sensibilities of backstage and onstage requirements.

It has good depth of stage and technical backup. The light and sound arrangement along with the fly bars makes it easy to stage productions having large sets. Its backstage accessibility suits the heavy mountings that are required for a stage production.

Adishakti is less brick-and-mortar. It has a main auditorium plus a courtyard space which is deployed for training. The space is pretty and there is very little distance between the performance zone and the audience. It is the sort of theatre stage where you say to yourself that, if, like Moliere, I have to die on stage as an Imaginary Invalid, then it better be here. Since the death of Veenapani in 2014, Vinay Kumar and Nimmy Raphael are ensuring that the show goes on.

The one time I was in Pondicherry, Veenapani talked about "the quality of hereness" in theatre. I had no clue what she was saying. She spoke for a long time. The penny refused to drop till she pointed to a flower in bloom. “An actor's body is like that flower,” she said, and “the space should permit the actor to express those things.”

Such a thing is possible because of the intimate space. Which is perhaps why Adishakti productions have opened with visual metaphors. In The Hare and the Tortoise, for example, the performer is contained in a small box or square of light. Likewise in Adishakti's Brhannala, there is a scene where Drona is teaching the Kuru children. He does this through gestures, eyes, speech rhythms, content of word and movements. One can see the influence of a shadow puppet performance where the static puppets acquire mobility because of the mobile flame lamps. In 2001, Adishakti produced Ganapati. Again, the space permitted the Koodiyattam performer to be seen through a keyhole vision by the spectator.

Chandralekha’s dance pieces extend this vision. She once said, “In India, feminism has not been a failure because we have not even started trying it.” My final memory of her, stealing my sookha bhel on the Marine Line promenade. She was not permitted to eat “kachra” so it was being done stealthily. As the sea breeze blew in, on cue, the sookha bhel flew around here and there, and she remarked, “like dancers, they scatter in all directions”.

Like most theatrewallahs, I am attracted by unlikely juxtapositions and chance accidents on stage. I had made post-modern notes about Chandralekha creating visual poetry on stage. When I visited SPACES in Chennai, it offered me a vicarious experience. That is when I realised her rehearsing stage had no entry and exit. This may be a misdiagnosis but perhaps this is why her choreography had so many crisscross patterns in the background.

Chandralekha was the Pina Bausch of theatre for me. I mentioned this to her light designer and comrade Sadanand Menon. He recalled that when, in 2004, he stood with her at the SPACES main porch when the tsunami struck Chennai, the sea roared and the waves were 25 feet high. Chandralekha rushed to the main gate and commanded the waves to halt, and of course they did. Could your Pina Bausch do that?

As a theatrewallah what fascinates me are the turning points due to which our history has been rewritten. I salute all these five formidable women for doing what they did.

Salaam: Our plays would not be the same without you!

Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 6:44:53 PM |

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