Bombay Showcase

Backstage with experimental theatre

For those who came in late, and that includes this writer, our first introduction to actress Alaknanda Samarth was a rollicking short film by Satyadev Dubey, titled Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal (literally, Mountains of Unknowing ). It was screened at one of those tribute events customarily held at Prithvi Theatre to mark the late Dubey’s birth anniversary: July 13th. Samarth, the actress, was a classic beauty with high cheek-bones and eloquent eyes. She spent the film looking utterly albeit fashionably bored, even as Dubey and celebrated mime Irshad Panjatan (both impossibly young and dapper; but this was 1965) played fervent suitors, eager to win her reluctant hand.

On stage, a taciturn woman she most certainly was not. Indeed, she’s counted amongst India’s pioneering stage actors, albeit one whose legacy is slowly being forgotten. This month, memories have been rekindled by Shanta Gokhale’s new book, The Scenes We Made , which takes a look at Mumbai experimental theatre’s great strides in the 60s through oral accounts of stalwarts and journeymen alike. The cover photograph is from a 1959 production of August Strindberg’s naturalistic play Miss Julie , and Samarth appears alongside director Ebrahim Alkazi. It was a performance that carried her to Brandeis University when an impressed professor in the audience arranged a scholarship.

In the book, Samarth remembers Miss Julie as a series of heightened, distanced, restrained images. For instance, the book reports, “the final exit, an excruciatingly slow, steady walk on high heels through a guillotine-like door on to a ramp horizontal to the lit cyclorama.” These plays were performed at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute. It included Dubey’s Urdu adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit , titled Band Darwaze , with Samarth, Amrish Puri and Sulabha Deshpande (who played a lesbian post office clerk) in 1964. The Indian adaptation of the philosopher’s work opened to never-before acclaim that resounds to this day. In his testimonial, Dubey somewhat demystifies his muse. He remembers a cohort, impervious to Samarth’s charms, telling him (of Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal ), “Burn the film. There is nothing to it.” However, Dubey insisted on completing it because of Samarth’s “marvellous performance”. He took pride at the London-returned manqué’s dutiful diligence in following his instructions during Band Darwaze . To her face, he would embarrass her by stating, “She’s India’s only properly trained actress.” Samarth followed Brandeis with a stint at London’s Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts (RADA) and she was one of the very first Indians to train there; following in the footsteps of Devika Rani, Priya Rajvansh and Alkazi himself.

Samarth’s memories of Band Darwaze as a revolutionary act of theatre cannot be put down to the narcissism of an actor. She reminisces, “The moment language shifted palpably on the Bombay stage and gave rise to a new, inclusive audience.” This is just one of several compelling stories that emerge from the book. The venerated Gokhale has been an avid documentarian of a world where the prime movers have been men like Alkazi and Dubey. Women practitioners like Samarth, or for that matter, even the formidable Deshpande, leave behind few custodians.

In the middle, the book features archival photographs. Several black and white images of a bygone era are suddenly followed by a singular colour photo of maverick Jyoti Dogra ominously in silhouette, taken during a performance of The Doorway , a solo piece that brought her first into the public eye. This could be a happy coincidence dictated by a lack of archival resources rather than editorial intent. However, Dogra’s sudden appearance — for work that is relentlessly independent — is a refreshing anomaly in a book that establishes the inviolable structures within which experimental theatre flourished.

The formal launch of Shanta Gokhale’s The Scenes We Made , published in India by Speaking Tiger Books, will take place on Satyadev Dubey’s death anniversary, on December 24, at Prithvi House at 7 pm.

Actress Alaknanda Samarth’s memories are rekindled by Gokhale’s book

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Printable version | May 29, 2022 6:09:25 pm |