Retelling a classic tale of urban dystopia

What is likely to be a treat for Marathi theatre lovers is the revival of an iconic classic — celebrated playwright Satish Alekar’s Mahanirvan (or The Dread Departure) is slated to be performed in Mumbai on Sunday. More than 40 years ago, Alekar had directed the first production of his play, which had a long run of 400 shows over decades, and this time around, he has recruited the intrepid Natak Company and its young actors to tackle the politically resonant play. The new production opened earlier this year with performances at the Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival and the NSD’s Theatre Olympiad, attracting in droves both nostalgia-seekers and those hungry for well-structured old fashioned drama, in the best sense of the phrase. In both premise and execution, Mahanirvan is full of conflicts and resolutions, and holds the mirror to the ill portents of society with a sharp, satiric eye.

Universal tale

In the play, tenement-dweller Bhaurao passes away in his sleep but resurfaces as a cantankerous ghost who insists on being buried in a defunct crematorium. His wife, Rama, left to deal with the cadaver on her own, develops a fascination with a mysterious stranger. The macabre backdrop was almost a reaction to an incident of real-life black humour that Alekar recounts, of the Pune Municipality mind-bogglingly commemorating the silver jubilee of India’s Independence in 1972 with a spanking new state-of-the-art crematorium, at a time when civic amenities were in spectacular disarray. For this version, Alekar didn’t need to change anything substantial in the script. “Death is still everywhere, it has become even more prominent… but perhaps it has lost its glamour,” he says. The late Anand Modak’s musical score, with its mellifluous kirtans and abhangs, provides an ironically ritualistic soundscape to an irreverent tale.

The collaboration with the Natak Company took Alekar back to the heady days of the 1970s, when he and his cohorts had set up the Theatre Academy in 1973. One of its earliest ventures was Jabbar Patel’s production of Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal, with which Mahanirvan would very frequently be performed in a double bill of social-realist theatre over the years. In the 1970s itself, the group had carved out an indelible niche for itself in Marathi theatre, with Alekar-scripted plays like Mahapoor or Begum Barve finding them early audiences. “The exploits of the Natak Company has always filled me with a sense of déjà vu,” says Alekar, who had mounted the original production as a 24-year-old himself. Of course, his long tenureship at the Lalit Kala Kendra had ensured that Alekar was in direct contact with successive generations of theatre-makers based in Pune and beyond.

Time travel

The first step in the new production was to take the young group on a historical journey of the 1970s. This was achieved through a series of workshops. “I wanted them to treat the play as a social historical in the same was as they might approach a play on Shivaji. For this it was important that they understood the nuances of the period in which it is set,” explains Alekar. Alekar and his contemporaries were part of the generation born post-Independence, and were coming of age in a era when Gandhian ideals were being cast aside, and the Nehruvian economy was taking a backseat.

The clouds of dystopia that loom over Mahanirvan were clearly visible at a time when corruption was unchecked and the Emergency was in the offing. Alekar was impressed with the conviction exhibited by his new team, “They were able to empathise with a play that was essentially about the decadent values of the middle class, which were being systematically dismantled.” While the Natak Company is no stranger to classics, taking on Mahanirvan with a venerated director on board was definitely an ambitious move which, by all accounts, appears to have paid off rather well.

Mahanirvan will be staged at the Tata Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point at 6 p.m; more details at

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 12:41:03 AM |

Next Story