Portrait of an actor as an acitivist

Bhaskar Shewalkar, a theatre personality who has brought cosmopolitan and global experiences to the local theatre audiences.   | Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

Sporting grey hair and clad in white kurta and pyjamas, and a jhola to boot, Bhaskar Shewalkar looks like a weather-beaten well-behaved arty or NGO type. But a few minutes into conversation, and you will find the Professor in him coming out with nuggets like this:

“The director is, along with the playwright, an equal and co-creator of the drama on the stage. He is the ‘digdarshak', as we say in Marathi or Hindi, because he not only conceives and designs the show from the writer's and his own points of view but also figures out that it works for the audience. After the director has done his job, the theatrical space becomes the actor's own.”

And then an endless stream of anecdotes, experiences and plans. Like way back in 1973, how Rangadhara's early production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot won all the five major prizes amidst stiff competition from the bigwigs of Marathi theatre like Satayadev Dubey, Amol Palekar and Dr. Sriram Lagoo at the biggest annual theatre competition of Maharashtra: “They were stunned that a group from Hyderabad could do it! It is a very difficult play to translate and work out in an Indian language. It took us one and a half years to translate but we got it right in every aspect.”

Bhaskar ‘sir', as he is fondly called, exudes a quality for which the Marathi literary and theatre cultures of Hyderabad are known for: an understated quest for excellence.

So there is Panchdhara, an outstanding literary journal in Marathi brought out by the Hyderabad Marathi Sahitya Parishad. And Rangadhara, the theatre stream, with a venerable record of over a hundred plays produced in 38 years. Rangadhara has enriched the theatre landscape of not only Hyderabad but also Maharashtra, and beyond. “We should rightly be called a Hindi-Marathi troupe, though we have done plays in Telugu and English also. We choose a play script for production only after an elaborate process of group reading. What do we look for in a script?

New possibilities and challenges! Often we also get the script translated into the language in which we chose to produce it in.” The ‘play'list of Rangadhara features great works of contemporary world drama as well as works from Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Telugu and reveals a remarkable catholicity.

Theatre has been Prof Bhaskar's companion since his childhood days in the bylanes of Shah-Ali-Banda in the old city. “As it is said, if three Marathis come together, they will end up doing a play! And in the Ganesh Navaratri season, all Maharashtrian localities in the city used to be, even more than now, agog with music, dance and theatre activities, ” he remembers. 1956 was a turning point.

Toofan Se Pehle Aur Baad, a moving play on the emotional dislocations caused by the reorganisation of states on linguistic basis in which he participated, won the first prize at a competition in the city and was a big hit.

And since then no matter what he did for a living (veterinary assistant/ school teacher/ compounder/ clerk-cum-attender/ cashier) theatre has been his constant companion. “In theatre, I never bothered about what work I had to do. Sweeping, cleaning, carrying chairs and props, selling tickets, or just assisting anyone, you name it, I have done it all. I attended every theatre event and training or workshop I could go to. It was hands-on learning all the way!” With such involvement, good luck was never faraway.

The beginnings of Rangadhara, for instance. “Three gentlemen — Vijay Parlokar, Anant Kulkarni and Bhaskar Kulkarni, they saw me in a play at a local competition. They invited me to join them in serious mission of theatre. So we registered Rangadhara in 1971 and launched it with a comedy, Ek Naari Chaar Brahmachaari. It was a great hit. And since then we have not looked back.”

When Max Mueller Bhavan brought Grips Theatre, the celebrated German children's theatre company, they chose Hyderabad, and zeroed in on Rangadhara to be their partner. Bhaskar went on to direct three more productions for them based on German plays. He remembers with fondness the three shows of Tankred Dorst's play The Great Tirade at the City Wall in Hindi he directed in November, 1980.

The playwright himself was present and the performance in the open against the backdrop of the high compound wall of All Saints Boys High School in Abids.

“Although the play's plot dealt with the powerlessness of small people against the mighty, its main theme was the perpetual conflict between imagination and reality in human relationships.”

Or the teaching assignments in the theatre department of Osmania University and a regular faculty job at University of Hyderabad in 1983 from where he retired as Professor and Head of Department in 2002. “That was beyond my wildest dreams. But for a few friends, I would not have even applied for that job,” he says with a smile.

As teacher, director and critic, very few people could be as little controversial as Prof Shewalakar. “That does not mean I don't give my honest opinion, but I have no axes to grind and I am happy with what I have and could do,” he corrects.

The number of actors and theatre directors trained by him who have made it good in theatre, television and films either here or in Mumbai is legion. So also are the cross-cultural and linguistic currents which he and Rangadhara through its memorable productions have artfully streamed into the cultural soil of Hyderabad. As also his friendliness and accessibility. “I make it a point never to dismiss off the young people. It is important we understand them and never allow theatre to become an academic or snobbish exercise”.

Of late, he and Vinay Varma (himself a product of Rangadhara) have teamed up to create politically charged and controversial plays like Gandhi and Ambedkar, Main Nathuram Godse and Main Rahi Masoom which have received invitations and acclaim at many prestigious venues. Hale, healthy and never missing any theatre show, Prof Shewalkar is a figure you can spot easily. So the obvious question is quite appropriate.

“What I really want to do? Well, I am ready to serve any theatrical activity with all my limitations. I am interested in a lot of exciting Marathi plays written by new and young playwrights. Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Satish Alekar's Mahanirvaan, and yes, Vijay Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder! And let's see!”

The show must go on, yes!

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 8:18:18 AM |

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