World Theatre Day: All the world is a stage

Reviving a four decade old play

Reviving a play after four decades has to be a serious, even hazardous undertaking. Especially if it is ‘Mahanirvan’ or ‘The Dread Departure’ — a milestone in Indian theatre, written by playwright/theatre director/actor Satish Alekar, produced by the Theatre Academy, Pune. Its 400 shows were performed with the original cast, including the playwright himself. The Marathi play has been translated and performed in other languages.

 

Not that ‘Mahanirvan’ had no critics when it was premiered in 1974. “Vijay Tendulkar and Pu La Deshpande, both legends of Marathi theatre, disliked it, especially the idea of having different narrators for the two parts. Deshpande conceded: ‘The first part is all right. Why didn’t you end there?’” recalls Alekar, now a theatre legend himself, about the play he wrote at age 24. If the play was quirky then, it is disturbing now.

Reviving a four decade old play

When the National School of Drama asked Alekar to revive the play for its Theatre Olympics 2018, with the Vinod Doshi Festival making the same request, Alekar asked his original team mates if they were game for the task. Hovering between age 60 and 70, they suggested that he work with a new and younger group. Surely it would charge the play with fresh energy!

That is how Pune’s Natak Company came into the picture. Alekar had worked with the group before and found their approach very interesting, intriguing to be precise. “They are not like us — the old guard. They are techies and self-employed business people. Their professionalism is perfectly suited to the new age. They have their own audiences, they can fill the hall with their social media publicity strategies.”

But Alekar’s real worry as director was whether a 40-year old play will be relevant now. Would the revival end up as a foolhardy ‘dread departure’? Can today’s youngsters empathise with and understand ‘Mahanirvan?’ As a veteran was he imposing on them? The uncertainties continued through auditions and rehearsals. “These youngsters have a modern lifestyle in upmarket suburbs. They had not even seen the chawls of Pune where the play is located, where busybody neighbours are part of daily life.”

So Alekar found himself talking not only about the play, but the world of the play. He screened clips from the original version. And he made one significant change — he gave the woman character more space and time.

Reviving a four decade old play

Since Alekar’s ‘Mahanirvan’ had often been double billed with Tendulkar’s classic ‘Ghashiram Kotwal,’ cast members accessed a treasure house of information. Production Manager Prashant Vaishampayan explains, “We had never worked with a director who knew every minute detail about the play. And we were learning a new language of old wadas and chawls which has disappeared now.” Again, it was a whole new experience for actors and musicians to handle Anand Modak’s ironic original score of traditional Marathi keertans, playing with the irreverent scenes.

The content was striking — the form of stylised movements and dark comedy totally contemporary. Chawl dweller Bhaurao struggles to convince his wife that he died in his sleep, and imagines how his last rites will be performed. He insists on being buried in the old crematorium (now shut down), and not in the modern one. So son Nana has a Sisyphean battle with civic authorities, with father’s stinking corpse refusing to stay put in the attic, and mother’s amorous crush on one of the unidentified pall bearers. Meanwhile the neighbours are a raucous presence, representing the community grappling with death in their midst. Surreal images of crows and black goggles add to the nightmare effect.

I ask Alekar, how did the crematorium become so central? “Around that time Pune got a brand new crematorium to celebrate Independence Day. I could not write without responding to something so bizarre!” he chuckles.

The revived play was premiered in February at the Vinod Doshi Memorial Fest, and showcased at the NSD’s Theatre Olympics. Ticket sales at the premiere grossed one lakh thirty thousand rupees. For the actors it was incredible to see their parents experiencing the play at two levels — the original performance which they had seen years ago, layering the new show they watched now!

Filmmaker/writer Arun Khopkar saw the play and mailed Alekar. “It is easier to write plays by putting together observations that give characters and plots. That is theatre as imitation. But your kind of theatre is the theatre of the soul. It is a hall of mirrors, a mayasabha where land is water and water is mirage. In your two great plays, theatre is both the medium and the theme. It is truly theatre of theatre in the best sense of the word.”

And how does Satish Alekar rate the new version? His cryptic comment, “Too early to say. Let it settle down with a few more shows. Then we can decide.”

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 3:18:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/mahanirvan-revival-and-relevance-today/article23321806.ece

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