Sunil Shanbag: A Theatre Yatra!by Aparajita Krishna July 20 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 33 mins, 39 secs
Aparajita Krishna takes a deep dive into the life and theatre times of Sunil Shanbag and walks you through an interesting telling of her story.
All the world’s a stage indeed! Sunil Shanbag’s theatre has travelled from Mumbai to Bareilly to remote India to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London! This article is not just a salutation, but also my re-connect and study of a person’s body of work that has over the decades lived in my aesthetics and world-view. Sunil Shanbag’s work in theatre has been one of the most significant for our times. Lest this sounds like a lifetime achievement tribute, let me hasten to add that he is still a work in progress.
On a personal note I stake my claim of having worked as an actor under Sunil Shanbag’s gentle and effective assistance to Shyam Benegal on tele-serials and film and directly under his expert direction on stage. My disconnect as an actor from theatre was for a medical reason. But for the longest part, I have been a healthy and devoted audience of Sunil Shanbag’s theatre.
Connecting with the backstory of Sunil’s familial turf, the socio-political-cultural camaraderie and influence of his parents, sister Anuradha Ghandy and brother-in-law Kobad Ghandy beckon me journalistically and for reasons of my own. Dear readers, I hope Sunil’s very informative and edifying talk will enrich you as much as it has value-added to my effort. For technical reasons this talk is carried out in two parts. Do read both in sequence.
At 65 is age just a number, or, some kind of drawing of the balance sheet of life happens?
I don’t really know. I am just glad I have the energy to continue working, though what I want to do may have changed a bit over the last few years. The continuing pandemic is a huge challenge, not just artistically, but also in terms of survival for so many. Doing theatre was always precarious, so you can imagine what it is like now!
You are one of the most creatively energetic, politically conscious and innovative theatre practitioners in India. Do you feel a sense of achievement? Trust the journey itself would have been the destination.
I’m not done yet, so it might be premature to feel a sense of achievement in personal terms. When I began doing theatre seriously, around 1975, I knew that I enjoyed it very much, but I had no clue that I would still be doing it 47 odd years later. Would you call that an achievement? I think privilege is such an important factor. It allows you to take the kind of risks that being in the arts usually involves, and I have always felt that responsibility.
The journey has been exciting and fulfilling and I am grateful for all the wonderful people I have worked with, and met along the way. Will the years add up to anything? I don’t know. I hope they do. Being in theatre has meant having to do many other things to make a living. I know I have worked very hard, but all those “other things” have been almost as exciting as doing theatre, so honestly I have been very fortunate.
Has the Coronavirus set-back innovated theatre as an online activity, giving it a new dimension? How do you see the immediate future for theatre and the performing arts?
The continuing pandemic will force us to relook at the way we do theatre. Perhaps we have to be prepared for a start-stop existence. We may have to do without some things we hold very dearly - the “live” experience for instance, or performing in the controlled spaces we are used to. The online space is tricky and people are still figuring it out. Will the continuing pandemic lead to the dismantling of a way of making theatre? I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but at the moment it’s a matter of survival for so many people. In a situation of such uncertainty, and the abysmally low priority accorded to the arts and to arts practitioners, will our community, our colleagues and friends who depend on theatre for a living survive this? This should cause concern. Again, those who are invested deeply in a particular system of theatre making are at a disadvantage because adjusting to a new normal becomes more difficult. Those who are flexible, nimble, imaginative, and understand the importance of working together may have a much better chance of emerging.
Now to revert to the beginning. Your immediate family comprises your mother Kumud Shanbag, father Ganesh Shanbag, sister Anuradha Ghandy. Your father was a lawyer and public prosecutor and your mother was with the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health, Women’s Studies department, SNDT University, and then with VACHA. They were an older generation of left progressives. Your sister Anu was a revolutionary leader and one of the pioneers of the democratic rights movement post Emergency. She worked with industrial workers, women, and tribals. How would you summarise your relationship with Anu? I have met your mother and admired her. There was some kind of a connection between your parents and my parent’s political youth and marriage. She must have shared a kinship with her daughter’s very radical choice. Coping with her passing away would have carried a shade of sentiment different from what another parent of a different make would carry.
I was close to my sister. I have admired her since childhood. She excelled at most things. She was vivacious, warm, talked incredibly fast because she had so much to say. She and my father shared a special relationship. Both my parents encouraged her to ready, study, argue, and live life in full.
At age nine, I went away to study in a boarding school. I know my parents couldn’t afford that kind of education for both children, so I guess I was very fortunate. After this my relationship with Anu deepened. I think the distance helped. We were both prolific letter writers, and she was constantly writing to me about what was happening in the country - nationalization of banks in 1969, the abolishing of privy purses. I think she felt I was too isolated in my school, and she was probably right.
After I finished school I had several months before college began, so she asked if I would like to volunteer to teach English to school children at the BDD chawls (Worli) in Mumbai. I was asked to shadow a couple of regular activists - who were very warm and supportive. We were helping children finding it difficult to cope with English in school. The classes would take place in a loft in one of the chawl rooms. This was in 1974 when there was a fair amount of tension in the Worli area between the Dalit Panther Party and the Shiv Sena, which eventually led to some serious clashes.
One evening at the chawl where we taught there was a mini riot. Those few months gave me a very different view of the city and its politics. I continued my association with student politics after I joined college, and began working with Satyadev Dubey, but eventually drifted away as I got more and more involved in regular theatre. Anu always watched our work, and she and Dubey used to argue a lot about the politics of his work and theatre in general. But he admired her and I believe he persuaded GP Deshpande to actually write a play, which was inspired by her life as an activist. Anu had a very positive quality. She was passionate about what she believed in but always gave space to people to express their views. She could connect with so many different kinds of people - workers, housewives, tribals, artists, intellectuals…
At some point Anu and Kobad Ghandy, her husband, moved to Nagpur to continue their work there. During this phase she kept in touch with my parents, knowing how anxious they were about her. My parents were very proud of her work and supported her, but her involvement with the movement was far deeper than theirs when they were younger.
I stayed with her briefly in Nagpur in the little home she had in a Dalit basti, and that gave me a glimpse of how much her life had changed, and how she had adjusted to very difficult work and life circumstances. But she was happy and deeply involved in her work. Over time we saw less and less of her, though she did manage to keep in touch. The few meetings were very precious.
We knew she had health issues, but we were completely unprepared for her sudden passing. My father had passed away some years prior, so my mother had to cope with Anu’s passing on her own. She was very brave, and the support that poured in from so many people whose lives Anu had touched made the loss bearable for her I suppose. As for me, it was only after her passing that I realized how much I had been shaped by her ideas and spirit, especially when it came to my work.
Was your childhood, youth more in a political environment or more cultural? Do you recall the first memories of theatre, films that may have impacted you?
My parents’ politics and world view gave culture importance, but always with an eye on its politics. So, for example, we always saw Russian films, often travelling from Santa Cruz to the ‘city’ to Excelsior cinema which regularly screened Russian classics. I’ve seen most Russian cinema classics this way. My most favourite was Ballad of a Soldier! We watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin films, and films of Indian progressives from the late 1950s and 1960s. I will never forget the impact Jagte Raho had on me as a young person. Hindustani classical music was also looked upon favourably, but I don’t think either of my parents had much of a musical ear. I wasn’t allowed to read comics, “because they could stunt imagination”. But books were encouraged and both my sister and I read a lot.
There was an old association with the theatre group IPTA, not directly, but through the parents of one of my oldest friends, the well-known actor Shishir Sharma. Shishir’s parents, Mohan and Shashi, were both a part of IPTA, and Mohan uncle also did a little bit of acting. Shashi aunty was a regular actor and much later acted in my plays too!
Mohan uncle would take Shishir and me to see IPTA plays in town. I remember seeing the classic Aakhri Shama numerous times. As we grew older we would go on our own, and sometimes we’d get a ride back home with Balraj Sahni who lived in Juhu and dropped us on his way. Shishir and I were in awe of Balraj uncle, and we’d sit quietly in the back seat of his Ambassador car, listening to post-show conversation between Balraj Sahni and whoever else was with him. I guess that was my first exposure to theatre. Later in school I got very involved in plays. We had a dedicated drama teacher, Mr. Madan, a wonderful man, and I did a play with him almost every year he was there.
One learns that your entry into theatre was in 1974 as a 17 year old. It was perchance via an introduction to Satyadev Dubey. He was on the look-out for an actor for an art-school dropout character in a play. The marginal character was called Pansy, an aspiring artiste at the fringes of society.
Yes, it all happened quite by accident, but I also think it was something that was waiting to happen! I had seen two plays directed by Dubey at Tejpal auditorium in 1973. His theatre company, Theatre Unit, would perform on weekdays at Tejpal at a discounted rent. IPTA also performed with similar arrangements at Tejpal. There was no NCPA and no Prithvi, no Chabildas; just these larger auditoriums.
Theatre Unit was one of the first companies to offer a student discount. I went with Ratna (Pathak Shah) to see Dubey’s Anushthan one evening, and then Hayavadana two days later. Ratna’s family was very much part of the theatre scene in Mumbai. Her mother, Dina Pathak, was also playing a role in Hayavadana. Anushthan was an abstract work, with a lot of beautifully choreographed physicality. Two days later we saw Hayavadana written by Girish Karnad, which was a completely different kind of a play and done in a different style. There was music, live singing, superbly written and fantastic performances by Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar, Dina Pathak, and Sunila Pradhan, among others. It was staged in a typical Dubey style. Bare stage, flat lighting, and just one slightly battered steel chair (probably picked up from the green room). But in this space Dubey and his actors created magic. I was stunned and overwhelmed. I really felt the power of theatre that evening. As we were leaving the auditorium we saw Dubey sitting outside chatting with a few people. Perhaps Ratna spoke to him, but I only watched him from a distance, a bit in awe. I think that evening I felt I wanted to be in the theatre.
A year later I had just finished school and one afternoon I was introduced very briefly to Dubey by Ratna. A few days later she called me and said Dubey wanted to cast me in a play and asked if I was interested. Of course, I said - and that was the beginning. Just like that. No warning, but as you can see this was coming! The play he was planning was Aur Ek Garbo by Mahesh Elkunchwar, in Hindi, and I was to play Pansy, a somewhat confused young man, one of four characters in the play. It was a big part for a new actor, and the cast had Amrish Puri, Dubey and Sunila Pradhan.
While at Elphinstone College you directed street-plays in the wake of the Emergency. You were doing theatre with Dubey in his group Theatre Unit. The experimental theatre based around Chhabildas School Hall in Dadar Mumbai, would have been your formative theatre. What was the learning or unlearning process like?
I had begun working with Dubey before I joined Elphinstone College. In a sense I missed out on the whole inter-collegiate competition experience. Elphinstone was not known for its dramatics. The star colleges were Mithibai, NM College, Khalsa College etc. But I did make it a point to attend the finals of popular one-act play competitions like the one organised by IPTA. It used to be a great atmosphere with all the cheering and booing! This is where I saw a young, gawky Paresh Rawal for the first time on stage, or even John Mathew who went on to become a film director.
But yes, for a while I was involved in street theatre. It didn’t last very long, because my work with Dubey became quite demanding. In addition I was also working in a Gujarati commercial play as an actor, and on free weekends I operated lights and sound for professional plays to earn a bit of money. Plus college - though we hardly attended classes. It was a time of great ferment and unrest all over the country. Jayprakash Narayan’s total revolution in Bihar with thousands of students participating, the Nav Nirman movement in western India, the great railway strike, the Emergency… it was all happening.
Elphinstone college had active student politics and was one of the centres of resistance to the Emergency. So I think most of our learning happened outside the classroom. In theatre too this was an interesting period. In 1974-75 the theatre company Awishkar had hired the assembly hall of the Chabildas Boys High School in Dadar west and used it as a theatre performance space after school hours. They threw it open to other theatre groups. Between 1975 and roughly 1990 it became the centre of experimental theatre in Mumbai. Though most of the work was done in Marathi, Dubey’s Theatre Unit worked there regularly in Hindi, Marathi, and English.
Dubey encouraged translations of contemporary Indian plays written in different languages and made them available to theatre directors. Many of these were performed at Chabildas, so for the first time we got a sense of belonging to a pan-Indian theatre scene. Film makers, writers, dancers, musicians, everybody came to Chabildas to see plays. Numbers were small, but it was a wonderfully alive audience, and we were bang in the centre of it all.
For me this was a period of tremendous learning. I was acting, doing technical work, managing a lot of production, planning, and helping conduct rehearsals. We used to perform through the month with workshops thrown in. I was also working as a writer for publications to make a living. So it was a busy period.
You joined C.Y. Gopinath’s Sol Features, an agency of freelancers. You all were encouraged to undertake what Gopinath described as ‘first person journalism’. You mention impersonating a shoe-shine boy outside VT station in order to write a felt-account.
I joined SOL in 1978 I think, soon after finishing college. I had taken a break to figure out what to do after college, and I happened to read a very interesting article in a magazine on a boy who had been lost in the jungle and brought up by wolves. It was a fascinating story and very skilfully written. The by-line said C.Y. Gopinath, SOL Features.
I was always interested in writing, so I located Gopinath and told him I wanted to work with him. He said he didn’t need anyone at that time. I said ‘Don’t pay me. I just wanted to learn from you’. So that was the beginning of another intense period of learning. Gopi was a wonderful teacher and full of exciting ideas for feature journalism. This was also a time when there was a plethora of new publications and everyone was looking for good writing. Gopi would pitch story ideas to editors and offer them a full package of well-researched and edited stories with photographs.
We were three or four young people writing with Gopi guiding us. He was very keen on participative journalism. One story, among several I did, was to write about the experience of living on the street for three days around the VT area working as a shoe shine boy. It was scary - I got pushed and slapped around by other shoe shine boys until a kind elderly cobbler took me under his wing and let me sit beside him. Those three days gave me a glimpse of the intense competition to survive on the street. We worked from a tiny office near Lion Gate. In the evenings I used to race from there to Churchgate station to catch a train either for rehearsals or to a show at Prithvi. People at Sol knew very little about my theatre life, and my theatre colleagues knew nothing about SOL.
Politically and creatively, as directors, Dubey and you were diametrically different. And yet theatre forged a bonding in which he became an influencer of sorts. I recall him telling me in an interview while assessing people he has worked with and moulded, “Amrish Puri ofcourse. There has been a book on him. Ratna has been my favourite actress. Naseer was not my student. He was my actor who has done about 12 productions with me. But I would say that Sunil is the person whose career I am fond of and would like to see his plays and I would like to see him grow. He is a challenge.” So, how did theatre and politics remain separated between the two of you?
I worked with Dubey almost 24/7 for ten years. It was a long and intense association and really my school of theatre. He gave me space to grow and develop my own thinking, and was very generous with his knowledge. Of course there were rules to follow, especially in the early years. There was no question of working with other directors or theatre groups. NSD was on the “hate” list and all his current enemies were our enemies by default etc.
I tried to find my way around some of these restrictions. For example, if I wanted to hang out with a particular theatre group I would offer to do their lights. Dubey didn’t care about technical stuff, so doing lights for another group was not seen as a betrayal and I usually got away. He had strong views politically, but despite all his talk of attending RSS shakhas during his youth, I think he was more influenced by the deep sense of morality, good manners, and humanism of his Anglo-Indian foster family. He was very well read, and he chose to do the most progressive plays of his time.
Several major playwrights of his time will complain that he often changed things in their scripts, but they will admit almost without exception that he was one director who drew out the essence of their writing. I think he has done more plays by political playwright GP Deshpande than anyone else. The women in his plays were always very powerful characters. So I had no major issues with any of this. But I did have issues with how he often created too much tension during a rehearsal, how he yelled and screamed at an actor. Many actors understood he was not being personal in his attacks, and they hung in, and eventually grew. But I was uncomfortable. I thought there could be other ways to achieve the same thing. Too many of Dubey’s students imitated him when they became directors. Yelling and shouting, but sadly without his brilliance!
In later years when I was directing independently I didn’t allow him to attend my rehearsals. It was a horrible thing to do, but I was trying to guard my independence. But the sweet man would come in quietly during a technical rehearsal, watch the run and leave, offering his feedback later over a drink or chai. He never questioned the politics of a play I was doing, but he always had structural suggestions, some which were quite crazy and only he could have carried off. Sometimes he would encourage us to do a pre-opening run-through at a workshop he was conducting so that we got a feel of an audience response. His instincts about what was good for a play were very strong.
So while we never worked together after 1985 we remained close. Then he was ill for several years. The last exclusive time we spent together was when he asked me to accompany him to New Delhi where he was to receive his Padma Bhushan. He had frequent seizures so it was a bit of a tense trip, but we got time to talk a lot about theatre, about the past, and also how he saw his own future. He felt his time was over and that we shouldn’t over worry about him. He had made peace with his situation. He passed away a few months later.
In 1985 you went independent in theatre and formed your own group Arpana along with Shishir Sharma, Akash Khurana, Lata Sharma, Reetha Balsavar. The name was bestowed by Dubey himself. I have been an audience and for the initial years an actor. Arpana has consolidated itself as a path-making theatre group. From its inception to today it has created its audience and enlarged its footprint nationally and also internationally. Do inform of its trajectory.
I don’t think we had any reason to leave the Theatre Unit and form a new theatre company! We were all doing very well with Dubey. Our plays were being watched and appreciated. Harish, Akash and I had just done an independent production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker in Hindi and it was well received. I had directed my first independent play, Aada Chautaal, written by Dubey. But one day Dubey called us aside and said our time with TU was over and we needed to leave and make our own work. I guess he knew it was inevitable, but it was also very generous of him to cut us free.
After the initial shock we were excited. We had enough theatre experience between us to start a new company and make plays. Shishir’s father, Mohan Sharma, gave us 10 thousand rupees to start us off, and Akash, Shishir, Utkarsh Mazumdar, Lata Sharma, Reetha Balsavar and me started Arpana. The first play Ooljulool, a translation of a Kannada play by Aadya Rangacharya, was deftly directed by Utkarsh Mazumdar. This was followed by Vijay Tendulkar’s popular romantic comedy Ashi Pakhre directed in Hindi as Mat Yaad Dila, a delightful production by Akash Khurana. I began directing a couple of years later, and my first production for Arpana was a double bill of two short plays by the Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek titled Striptease and Circus.
Because we had always been close to the Marathi experimental theatre many of our plays were Hindi translations of new plays from Marathi. We did plays by young writers like Rajeev Naik, Shafat Khan and Dr Chandrasekhar Pahansalkar, Sayaji Shinde as well as by senior writers like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Shanta Gokhale. We also did Harold Pinter and adaptations of East European writers like Milan Kundera.
We slowly developed an audience that came for the original and stimulating texts we chose, strong performances, and interesting use of lights and sound. Our staging tended to be minimalistic, mainly because we had no money for anything elaborate. We were a busy company, often with four to five productions running at any given time. There were younger directors too - Vinod Ranganath, Ashutosh Datar for example. This was the first phase of Arpana’s work that lasted a long time from 1985 to almost 2002/3. The next phase began in 2006 with Cotton 56, Polyester 84.
With COTTON 56, POLYSTER 84 and your collaboration with playwright Ramu Ramanathan you developed a presentation style in theatre with music and live singing as very important tools in narrating stories shaded with political-social concerns. Now this has come to be recognized as the Sunil Shanbag stamp.
Cotton 56, Polyester 84 marked a very clear change in direction in my work. When I heard that Ramu Ramnathan was writing a play on the story of Mumbai’s millworkers I was instantly interested because I’ve always felt that working class history and stories are rarely seen in our very bourgeois theatre. Mumbai, especially, has a powerful working class history, rich in cultural expression, which has significantly moulded the character of the city.
Ramu agreed to let me direct the play, and I soon realized the play allowed me to explore what I had learnt making documentary films, journalism, my interest in history, and my own understanding of the Indian situation. It also opened me up to the idea of creative collaborations with writers, music composers, designers, and actors. In Cotton 56, Polyester 84 everyone had a huge contribution – the actors Nagesh Bhosle, Kumud Mishra, Charusheela Sable Vacchani, Hridaynath Jadhav, the musicians, composers, Vivek Jadhav with his spectacular Girangaon cityscape backdrop design, Ankush who painted the backdrop, and Chetan Datar’s translation in verse. All of them added layers that make up the play.
Sex, Morality and Censorship (2009), written by Shanta Gokhale, was credited with introducing a new idiom in modern Indian theatre with its bold combination of history, folk-art, modern theatrical techniques, and multi-media to talk about morality and censorship. You and co-writer Irawati Karnik presented an unique and exciting journey of the play Sakaram Binder from an idea to a full- fledged production.
You are quoted saying - ‘It took me twenty years to find my own vision’. And as an aside you quipped, ‘What can I say, I am a slow learner.’
I said I was a slow learner because it took me 20 plus years of directing plays to find my “voice” as it’s called! But I have no regrets; it happened organically. Actually I see myself more in the artisanal tradition than the artistic tradition, so it’s really the doing again and again that takes things forward.
In Sex, Morality, and Censorship the structure of the play was quite complex. It was an argument constructed as a performed theatre piece. The idea was to explore the many forms of censorship using the story of the attack on Vijay Tendulkar’s play Sakharam Binder, as told by a Shahir and a dancer from the folk tradition of Tamasha, itself a “sanitized” form. All the elements supported the argument - the scenes from Sakharam Binder and other plays, the arguments and debates between the Shahir, Lavanya, the dancer and the young historian, the videos of re-enactments and of historical events, the music.
Shanta Gokhale created this structure and the argument of ideas, and we were to build it theatrically. Irawati Karnik contributed hugely to the theatrical body, and again, the musicians, the designers, and the actors contributed to the flesh and blood of the play. We played to all kinds of audiences and all this complexity never came in the way of comprehension for the audience. I think that was our greatest satisfaction.
I honestly believe that a large section of what we call “lay audiences” actually does enjoy understanding how a play is made. I try to share this whenever I can, usually in my short chat with the audience before every performance. So when the pandemic pushed us into the online space we thought a guided viewing could be a good idea. And it worked quite well judging from the number of people who showed up, and the feedback.
Stories in a Song (2011), conceptualised by Shubha Mudgal, Aneesh Pradhan takes as its subject the history of the Indian musical forms like Kajri, Thumri, Dadra, Khayal. Do share your inputs.
By the time Stories in a Song came along we had been using live music quite frequently in our work. One day Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan came to watch our adaptation of Bertold Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Our title was more colourful - Mastana Rampuri urf Chappan Chhuri! That day one of our actors decided to sing off key! I was devastated. I mean, what would Shubha and Aneesh think? But they were so generous and gracious. They said they just loved the way theatre actors express themselves in song. Now that’s something we take for granted, right? Actors must express!
Later Shubha and Aneesh proposed that we do a play about music, through stories that reveal the context in which a particular kind of music is made. Stories that illuminate the music for us, and in many ways, illuminate our society. I thought this was a great idea. Shubha and Aneesh have spent years gathering material of this kind. So, we dipped into all that research, did some of our own and created the material. We got several writers to write the stories and so there is an interesting diversity of styles in the different narratives and of course in the music itself which Shubha and Aneesh so beautifully composed. Next we did a series of friendly auditions and gathered a wonderful group of young actors. The play opened in 2011 at the Gaaja Baaja music festival that Shubha and Aneesh used to organise in Pune. In February this year, we completed ten years of performing the play with 95 percent of the original cast and musicians intact.
Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon was a remarkable Gujarati production of William Shakespear’s All’s Well that Ends Well. It was written by Mihir Bhuta, directed by you with music by Uday Mazumdar. It got invited by the Shakespeare Globe Theater in London at the prestigious Globe International Festival in May 2012. In 2014 it was invited back to the Globe for another run of shows in a month that marked the 450th birth anniversary of Shakespeare. The Hindi version played as ‘Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon.’ Shanta Gokhale described the production as ‘a truly remarkable achievement.’ It has travelled to several European countries. Tell us of the experience.
The only condition I insisted on with the Globe to Globe Festival organized by the Shakespeare Globe theatre in London was that we would make the play by Shakespeare “our own”. By this I meant that the way we adapted it and staged it would be inspired by our theatre traditions, our way of telling stories, and our understanding of Shakespeare. We were only too aware of the politics of Shakespeare and colonial rule in India, especially in education. The festival director was in complete agreement. He was excited when I said that our musical theatre traditions were perfectly suited to rendering Shakespeare. The play decided upon was the problematic Alls Well That Ends Well, which though categorized as a comedy is in fact quite a dark story!
Since the play was to be done in Gujarati we had to find a way to make it attractive for a wider Gujarati audience. I thought by placing the play around 1900 AD in Bombay, then a fast growing international port city, the Gujarati audience would be attracted by the prospect of seeing their own mercantile history being played back before them. I also decided to use the Bhangwadi style of theatre, which was in fact very popular in Bombay in the 1900s and beyond. The Bhangwadi style was characterized by live singing, painted backdrops and high emotional drama, which was perfect for us. Mihir Bhuta wrote the adaptation and what he did far exceeded my expectations. Uday Mazumdar is an accomplished composer and he brought very interesting musical ideas to the production.
We were very fortunate to have gorgeous costumes, and a fine set of actors, a combination of veterans like Utkarsh Mazumdar and Minal Patel, and young talent like Manasi Parekh - who sang like a dream - Chirag Vora, Satchit Puranik, Nishi Doshi, Natasha Singh, and the amazing Archan Trivedi who would travel to Mumbai from Ahmedabad for every performance! The play was very well received at the Globe Festival, and the adaptation and staging was widely discussed by Shakespeare scholars. It was very heady for all of us! Especially when we were invited back to do a second, week long, run of shows at Globe a couple of years later.
Your technique of placing plays within plays and using theatre to comment on the history of the form has met with resounding success. Walking to the Sun written by Vivek Narayan, was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar and on an incident surrounding Dak Ghar’s performance in the Warsaw ghetto of Poland during the holocaust.
I like to draw attention to the theatricality of theatre. I like laying everything open so that any illusion of reality is broken and there is no subterfuge. There are many ways contemporary theatre people do this, and it’s also one of the fundamental assumptions of a lot of our folk theatre. The audience is in no doubt watching the theatre. There is no “fourth wall”. With plays like Sex, Morality, and Censorship, Walking to the Sun and also Dreams of Taleem (written by Sachin Kundalkar) the plays are about the making of plays and what that meant in their historical moments. I think audiences find that fascinating.
In Walking to the Sun we see how the performance of Tagore’s Dak Ghar, by Jewish orphans in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, gave the children dignity and strength to face the horrible death awaiting them in the gas chambers. No child should ever have to face that, but that’s what seemed an inevitability in that historical moment and performing Dak Ghar helped them deal with the idea of death. I think after experiencing that you get a very different understanding of Dak Ghar!
Research is obviously such an important part of your plays. Your plays are rooted in history and reality. So what kind of a time investment comes into play?
The plays that were built from scratch took almost a year of research, reading, discussing with the writers, and many drafts of the scripts. For me this is really the most exciting and critical period when you are building the idea. Most of my thinking happens during this period. When we get on the rehearsal floor I’m pretty sure about what I want, but actors always come up with surprises, which can make you see the material in new ways. With plays that already have some kind of a base, like the script of Prithviraj Kapoor’s Deewar, it really depends on how quickly you are able to find a way into the text. But I don’t like to hurry the pre-rehearsal process.
Words Have Been Uttered (2017) talks of political dissent too while featuring songs, poems and excerpts of other plays. The play opens with the lines: “Dissenting, or holding an opinion in opposition to a prevailing idea, is an integral part of the Indian tradition in which we accept that there are many ways of looking at and living in the world.” How would you define cultural-dissent and its importance?
All dissent is critical. It’s through dissent that societies move forward. Yes, dissent can be painful and hard to deal with, but you just have to find ways to deal with it positively. That’s the fundamental responsibility of the state. Dissent in the form of poetry, songs, theatre, cinema - the arts, has a unique quality. It can be more nuanced, and often gentle, appealing to both reason and emotion, leaving a deep impact. With Words Have Been Uttered we take the audience on a journey through theatre scenes, poetry, music, satire, and personal letters that deal with the idea of dissent. The material comes from about eight different countries. The idea was to underline the universality of dissent, across time, across geography, across cultures, and hope that this would allow for a reasoned conversation.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (SNA) controversy of 2018 which fortunately with the intervention of SNA president Shekhar Sen saw you receive the award would find resonance in Words Have Been Uttered. How do you look back on it? In any imperfect society the relationship between the state and the artist will be fraught or rather ought to be fraught. So it kind of validates the work.
You’re right. The relationship between artists and any form of authority has a certain tension at the best of times. But I haven’t seen such sustained hostility and aggression towards dissent as what we are experiencing now. I didn’t take the objections raised to my being awarded as an attack on me personally. It was an attack on the kind of work many theatre people have been doing and continue to do. I guess we do make an impact over time despite our marginal existence. But I was very gratified that the SNA took a principled stand and resisted the pressure to change the recommendations of the awards committee.
To that we say, Encore! Let Arpana’s offerings keep enriching us.
Part 2 of the Theatre Yatra!, of Sunil Shanbag can be accessed by following this link: https://thedailyeye.info/post.php?id=316c80c9b2330bf1&title=Sunil-Shanbag:-A-Theatre-Yatra!-Part-2