Stage stomping forever




To say that the dynamic Joy Michael was an institution in her own right is no tired epithet. The doyenne of theatre, who passed away on Friday evening at the age of 92, had tirelessly devoted an entire lifetime to the stage as actor, producer, director, and indeed an all-hands person. As is often the case with those we consider pioneers, her art was driven by both cause and passion, and quietly provided the shoulders to stand on for generations of practitioners who came afterwards, quite unmindful of their antecedents since so little of the ephemeral experience of theatre survives into posterity.

Michael’s legacy could well prove to be much more robust and enduring. Yatrik, the theatre group she founded in 1964 with a bunch of like-minded peers, continues to gamely hold the flag of a specific strain of English theatre aloft in the capital, even after more than five decades in the business. This longevity is in part due of the systems and means of production put in place by Michael and her lifetime collaborators, their committed vision fashioning a semi-professional practice and a model of sustenance that has survived the vicissitudes of history and time. In a largely amorphous theatre scene, Yatrik was perhaps the first weekend repertory company of its kind and the first to pay a monthly salary to a full-time actor, and gave early wind to urban theatre in Delhi as we know it, along with other flagship groups — like Sheela Bhatia’s Delhi Art Theatre — that are sadly no longer extant.

At the forefront

What should be inscribed in stone is the fact that Michael, and her contemporaries like Bhatia, Vijaya Mehta, or Shanta Gandhi, were an early tribe of female directors who challenged the primacy of the male auteur. It wasn’t done in a direct pugnacious manner, but by simply taking up the reins of one production after another and irrevocably imprinting their own personae on the landscape. In the book, Muffled Voices: Women in Modern Indian Theatre, Kirti Jain writes about how these early women makers were not able to “break away from the accepted language and mode of theatrical statement”, yet many of them are now revered as prime movers in their respective genres, irrespective of their gender. They did certainly set the ground for other women to enter this uncertain, yet hugely gratifying, profession, and it must be said, parity between the sexes, if still hugely skewed, is much more balanced in the contemporary theatre than in any other creative arena.

The ‘legacy artefacts’ that brim to the surface with the passing of a great soul reveal moments that can be pieced together to create the texture of a life heartily and richly lived. Media influencer Rohit Bansal tweeted a photograph of Michael at her alma mater, St Stephen’s College, proudly wearing the Padma Shri, conferred upon her in 2012, as a badge of honour. She had been the first woman secretary of the Shakespeare Society at the college. Divya Seth, whose mother Sushma Seth was one of the founding members of Yatrik, put together a string of appellations for them, “Yatrik founders. Stalwarts. Thespians. Leading Ladies. Pioneers. Stage Stompers.” Thespo, the youth theatre festival that felicitated her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, shared a tenderly crafted video montage of photographs from her life and her plays, interspersed with commentary from an abundance of theatre personalities — it was obvious that Michael had touched the lives of many with her nurturing brand of joie de vivre (which appropriately always allowed for a pun on her name). Yatrik’s roughly 280 productions to date include many directed by Michael, among them: Molière’s Tartuffe, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Bertolt Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptmann’s The Threepenny Opera, Begum Qudsia Zaidi's Urdu translation of Pygmalion, titled Azar Ka Khwab, and Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest.

Eternal flames

An obituary by Alka Raghuvanshi gave us a touching window into Michael’s 15-year stint as principal of Delhi's St. Thomas School. She was an educator nonpareil, a quality that extended into the manner in which she would unearth and nourish talent in the arts. Raghuvanshi also revealed that Michael’s favourite perfume, aptly titled Joy from the House of Jean Patou was once voted the ‘Scent of the Century’.

One recent moment, captured by photographer Ram Rahman, featured Michael at the 90th birthday of fellow nonagenarian Rati Bartholomew earlier this year, alongside Sushma Seth and Roshan Seth. These were the original founding members of Yatrik (the fifth was Marcus Murch), who still seemed very much in the fray, and the image radiated as much optimism and innocence as photographs of the group during their salad days. The journey from the early beginnings, when she had cut her teeth with professional theatre troupes in London, to winning the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for theatre direction in 2009 was a chequered one, that has seen both poor houses and standing ovations in equal measure; both pretenders that she likely looked squarely at the face, before moving on with grace and felicity, as she has done once again, this time with a finality that brooks no encores.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:15:10 PM |

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