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Bringing a theatre alive

In 2010, at Kolhapur’s Keshavrao Bhosale Natyagruha, noted theatre personality, Vikram Gokhale left the stage in the middle of his play Nakalat Saare Ghadle, leaving the audience flummoxed. It was later learnt that the veteran actor was upset with the dilapidated state of the century-old theatre.

“I had sworn never to return,” says the actor, who once considered the venue to be his favourite. His concerns with the establishment were many. “The acoustics of the place were from the 60s, and warped. As performers, we knew that performing there meant that we had to be loud, and throw our voice across the auditorium. But over the years, even basic amenities such as toilets had been rendered unusable.” Gokhale wrote to the Kolhapur Municipal Corporation and other local authorities for years before they decided to take up the project to revive it.

The theatre completed a century last October, and given that restoration work was in progress, Gokhale returned to perform Yeh Dil Abhi Bhara Nahin with Reema Lagoo. He was happy to note that his grievances were finally being addressed. The restoration work took two years, but Maharashtra’s oldest theatre finally reopened this March.

Commissioned to restore the theatre’s lost glory, conservation architects Anjali and Surat Jadhav felt their job was to make ‘subtle changes’ or ‘invisible mendings’ while retaining signs of use. Surat says, “The goal wasn’t to erase a century of use, but to clean up the building, remove a couple of generations’ worth of accretions, renovations, deteriorations, and allow the original structure to return to its glory.” While the duo has been credited for restoring several other heritage structures, puffing life back into this hallowed birthplace of Marathi theatre was no mean feat.

The grand scheme of things

Keshavrao Bhosale Natyagruha, which holds pride of place in the State’s cultural history, was commissioned by Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj (1874–1922), the then ruler of Kolhapur. He had just returned from a trip to Italy, and had been inspired by the Colosseum in Rome. He hoped to replicate it in Kolhapur, a melting pot of arts and culture at the time. After six years of construction, the curtains of Palace Theatre, as it was initially called, went up on Dussehra in 1915, with Kirlosker Natak Mandali’s Manapamaan, a romantic musical with a social message.

The first thing to draw attention was its grandeur. Mimicking European theatres, the architecture features included a raised stage and cast iron columns to hold up the balcony, a section originally meant for families.

“The roof was imported from Belgium and took 100 days to transport,” says Pandit Kandele, a popular personality in the city’s cultural circles for over four decades. “Brick-arched doors, basalt stonewalls, wooden floors and side panelling made the interiors of the theatre.”

But the theatre’s best-kept secret was under the stage. Surat says, “The stage was built over a well to enhance acoustics and also act as a reverberation chamber. It was a time when microphones and loud speakers didn’t exist.” So when a play was staged, every spoken word would bounce off the corners of the auditorium, a feature many found fascinating, and which has been retained during the renovation.

Hard times

The theatre had a good run in its initial decades, attracting the best-known theatre companies from across Maharashtra. In 1957, it was renamed Keshavrao Bhosale Natyagruha as a tribute to the popular Marathi theatre personality ‘Sangeet Surya’ Keshavrao Bhosale.

“It continued as a premier venue for decades and was considered a place to get ‘dressed for’,” says Kandele. The sexagenarian remembers going there with his family as a toddler, when a visit to the theatre was considered a much-celebrated occasion.

With the advent of silent movies, followed by talkies, the numbers drawn to theatre dwindled. And if the industry heading for a slump wasn’t enough, dwindling finances reflected on the theatre’s upkeep.

“I remember the first time I performed there in 1968,” recalls Gokhale. “It was a play called Vahato Hi Durvanche Judi, produced and directed by the legendary Bal Kolhatkar. The loudspeakers, that had been sourced locally, were of such a poor quality that my dialogues were hardly audible. I was almost hooted off the stage.” The actor says that since he was an amateur then, he couldn’t voice his concerns.

The many inadequacies that plagued the institution included damage caused by leakage, peeling plaster and time-worn furnishing. These were only made worse by ill-advised paint jobs, and unplanned alterations to the structure. Over the years, the historic institution was reduced to little more than a crumbling relic.

“During the earlier renovations, a lot of alterations were made to the structure,” says Anjali. “Collapsible gates, air-conditioning, toilets and other amenities were added later to keep up with evolving needs.”

Rising from the ashes

For the State-led initiative to revamp the heritage structure, the budget slotted was a handsome Rs 10 crore. Surat says, “When we were approached for the project, a lot of people advised us to raze down the entire theatre and build the new one. But then, that would have been the easier job. The hard part is restoring a heritage structure.”

The first step was to dismantle the additions made in the past 30 years. “We made the original structure free from the haphazard additions of concrete,” says Anjali. “The strengthening and repairs were executed in such a way that they perfectly matched the original structure.”

Over the years, the theatre was painted numerous times. The result: the original basalt stonewalls were caked under layers of paint. “It was a tough and tedious task to remove the layers of colour from the stone surface,” she says. “The entrance is now assertively symmetrical after the porch was demolished while the roof has been repaired and strengthened. The interiors were decidedly minimalistic and the woodwork only extended an old-world charm to it.”

But a crucial part of this makeover is invisible to the naked eye. It is the theatre’s sound design, which had to be overhauled to meet international standards. Mumbai’s Ashutosh Pande, founder of Bajaao.com was tasked with the job. Pande, who invested two and a half years to develop an amplified sound system that best suited the theatre, says: “During the earlier renovations, loudspeakers were added and they lacked audio intelligence, and the sound came out muffled. We had to change the entire system. I had access to a detailed layout of the theatre and architectural acoustics, so we were able to build a world-class sound system for what is now a multi-purpose auditorium.”

Today, this gem in Maharashtra’s cultural legacy resembles its century-old former avatar. Those responsible for this transformation assure us that it’s geared up to take on another 100.

The author is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 4:32:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/refurbished-keshavrao-bhosale-natyagruha-bringing-a-theatre-alive/article8603519.ece

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