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An ode to Marathi theatre

Anant Panshikar’s ‘Chi Sau Ka Rangbhumi,’

Anant Panshikar’s ‘Chi Sau Ka Rangbhumi,’  

Anant Panshikar’s latest musical celebrates 175 years of Marathi theatre

To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Marathi theatre, producer Anant Panshikar has come up the musical, ‘Chi Sau Ka Rangbhumi,’ on the relationship between Rangbhumi (stage) and Rasik Raj (audience), narrating their life together, through a selection of songs and scenes from classic Marathi plays. As the nephew of the legendary Prabhakar Panshikar, Anant has seen the glorious days of Marathi theatre.

“It was in 1843 that the first sangeet natak, ‘Sita Swayamwar’ was staged, so our production covers a period from then to 1980. Nobody has attempted to do a retro project in a play format.”

The idea for the play took root, when Panshikar was commissioned to do a production of Vasant Kanetkar’s classic ‘Matsyagandha’ (the story of Satyavati from the Mahabharat). “I asked Sampada Joglekar Kulkarni, with her background in dance and theatre to direct this; also because I thought a play about such a fascinating woman from the Mahabharat should be directed by a woman, and she did prove herself. We wanted to promote youngsters, so we spread the word through social media for audition. We received over 150 videos on Whatsapp and the selections were done by eminent people. The cast, all aged between 20-30 , was so talented that the play turned out very well. The Goa Hindu Association that assigned me the play wanted only 25 shows. So we had to do another musical quickly to retain this wonderful bunch of actor-singers. I thought, Marathi sangeet natak has a fascinating history, why not do something with that?”

Sampada came up with the idea of the theatre-audience marriage, which she wrote, directed and acted in as Rangbhumi (in Marathi Rangbhumi is referred to in the feminine gender). After a lot of research, plays, songs, and scenes were shortlisted, which were incorporated into the lavish production. “We tried to incorporate as much as we could. There is so much material, that I can do another version of this play with different songs and scenes. Sangeet Natak is so popular, that even today, there are revivals of 100-year-old plays such as ‘Sangeet Saubhadra’, ‘Sanshay Kallol’ and ‘Ekach Pyala’.”

Anant Panshikar

Anant Panshikar  

Anant’s parents were classical musicians, but it was his uncle who drew him to theatre. “When I was in the tenth standard, I joined Amrut Natya Bharti, at the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangha — a two-year diploma course in theatre, introduced by Kamlakar Sontakke, who had returned from the National School of Drama with a gold medal. A popular venue for Marathi theatre, I learnt a lot there, and also saw a lot of plays, some of them several times. In every middle-class family, it is important to have a job, so I went to college and also got into inter-collegiate theatre. I directed and acted in quite a few plays, but soon realised that acting was not my forte.”

After spending years working in the advertising and corporate world, in 1996, Anant decided to quit his job and do something connected with theatre. “Luckily, a Marathi channel, Tara, was launched, headed by Rathikant Basu, and I produced a lot of classic plays for television, including some by Prabhakar Panshikar, which got me closer to him. Then, around 1999, I saw an interview with him on television, in which he said, he would close down his company Natyasampada, because there was nobody to run it after him. I told him, what if I took over? That’s how I got involved with Natyasampada.

“ I gave up everything to focus on theatre. Our first production together was a new Marathi sangeet natak, ‘Avagha Rang Ekachi Zaala.’ It turned out to be a huge hit, because after ‘Katyar Kaljat Ghusli’ in 1967, for 40 years, there had been no new musical. It gave me a lot of confidence. My interest in prayogic (experimental) theatre, led to my production of ‘Waiting For Godot,’ in which for the first time Tom Alter acted in a Marathi play.”

Over the next few years, Anant produced some new plays and many revivals of the classics, like ‘Vichcha Majhi Puri Karaa’ by Vasant Sabnis, ‘Varyavarchi Varaat’ by Pu La Deshpande, ‘Lekure Udand Zaali’ by Vasant Kanetkar, ‘Lagnachi Bedi’ by P. K. (Acharya) Atre. “Prabhakar Panshikar was with me till his death in 2011; he had retired from the stage, but he toured with us. Now, of course, the company is called Natyasampada Kala Manch, because I want to work with the new generation. With every production, I introduce a new actor, director or playwright.”

Anant also invests his own money into his productions. He confesses that not all his plays have been hits. In fact, the failure of two consecutive productions — ‘Sangeet Jagne Vhave Gaane’ and ‘Begum Memory Athvan Gulam’ — landed him in soup. “I drew on my provident fund and gratuity till the next productions pulled me through. Every business has its ups and downs. But in any other business, a down can devastate a person; at least in theatre, the creative satisfaction is very high,” he says.

On his fondness for reviving old masterpieces he says, “When I took over Natyasampada, the great playwrights like Kanetkar and Atre were no more. I thought, let me revive their plays, so I can have the credit of doing plays by those doyens. All those plays were successful—in fact for Pula’s Varyavarchi Varaat, for 25 shows I did not even advertise the celebrity cast, people came for Pula; picking new plays is a challenge, however, since there is no formula for success. Nobody can predict what the audience will like and what will make money for the producer.”

One big hurdle that he sees is that Marathi theatre is losing a young audience. “The youngest viewer must be 40; I have been trying for many years, but the average age of the audience is just not coming down. That’s why I try to work with new people and fresh concepts — young people can make a major difference to the kind of plays we do.”

He is also content being a producer, the man who brings the right talent and the right project. “The producer is usually taken for granted and seldom gets enough credit, but I am happy to stay behind the scenes. When the audience appreciates a play, there is a kind of satisfaction, a ‘kick’ in that.”

The writer is a critic and columnist

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 7:09:37 AM |

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