Thought Box

Sunil Shanbag: A Theatre Yatra! Part 2

Sunil Shanbag: A Theatre Yatra! Part 2

by Aparajita Krishna July 20 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 54 secs

Aparajita Krishna continues telling the story of Sunil Shanbag from where she left it in Part 1


From its inception Arpana, the theatre group founded by Sunil Shanbag, staged plays and molded players in the kind of theater that established its definite mark. The plays have been innovative and original. Sunil Shanbag’s play-list with independent direction credits include: Striptease & Circus  (1986) written by Slawomir Mrozek, translated into Hindi by Ashok Mishra, Kisse (1987) written by Shafat Khan, Pratibimb (1987) written by Mahesh Elkunchwar, Chit Ya Pat (1988) written by Rajeev Naik, Avinash (1989) written by Shanta Gokhale, Cyclewallah (1991) written by Vijay Tendulkar, Ramu aur Malik (1992) written by Milan Kundera and translated by Shama Zaidi, Mayavisarovar (1995) written by Shankar Shesh, Do Qaume (1997) written by Sadat Hasan Manto, Khel Khel Main (1997) written by Milan Kundera and translated by Nirmal Verma, Tumbara (1998) written by Sayaji Shinde, Poetry and Motion (1999), Garam Kamra (2001) written by Firentz Karinthi, translated by Raghuvir Sahay and Pramod Pathak, Bansuri (2004) written by Divya Jagdale and premiered at the Prithvi Festival 2004, Cotton 56, Polyester 84 (2006) written by Ramu Ramnathan, which won the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award in 2007 for Best Play, Best original script, and Best Actor, Turel (2007) written by Swar Thounaojam was commissioned by the Writer’s Bloc Festival 2007, Mastana Rampuri, urf, Chappan Churi (2007) commissioned for the Prithvi Musicals festival 2007, inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, written by Chetan Datar.

S*X, M*RALITY AND CENS*RSHIP (2009) was developed by Shanta Gokhale and Irawati Karnik; Dreams Of Taleem (2009) written by Sachin Kundalkar, Walking to The Sun (2010) written by Vivek V Narayan, Stories in a Song (2011) had Sunil collaborate with musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan - using musicology, ethnography, history, and theatre it tells stories of a wide variety of Indian musical forms and genres.

Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon (2012) happened with Sunil being invited by the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London to produce a Gujarati adaptation of Shakespeare’s Alls Well That Ends Well - he worked with writer Mihir Bhuta on the adaptation and used the popular Bhangwadi performance style to stage a musical production. Club Desire (2013), written by Sapan Saran is a contemporary adaptation of the French opera Carmen, Loretta (2016) written by Pundalik Naik and translated by Milind Dhaimade, is a play in the popular tiatr style of Goa - it was originally produced for the AADYAM Theatre Festival. Deewar ( 2018) for the Prithvi Festival was a re-creation of the original, first staged in 1945 by Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatres. Deewar is a fascinating allegory of colonization and partition.

In 2014 Sunil co-founded Tamaasha Theatre with writer Sapan Saran to create work with younger actors, writers, musicians and designers, and to explore alternative performance spaces in the city. Its repertoire include Marriage-ology (2014), Blank Page (2015), Words Have Been Uttered… (2017).

Taking our talk further from the earlier part let us come to your experience with the other creative mediums. You have done extensive work on television, films, documentaries as researcher-writer-assistant and as director.

Actually my first foray into the nascent television scene was in 1984 with Manju Singh’s series Ek Kahani, which presented short stories from different Indian languages as short films. Television was very new, and outside of Doordarshan there weren’t too many people who knew how to shoot video. Video technology anyway was pretty primitive. I had done a short course in TV production in London, and that possibly made me an expert! But Dayal Nihalani and me were brought on to the project because of our writing and film experience. It was really a pioneering time, and we were among the first people making television programmes outside of Doordarshan. We learnt as we worked, made mistakes, corrected them, and then sat back as lakhs of people saw our shows on TV! Ek Kahani tried hard to shoot at authentic locations across the country, cast actors from the region of the country the short story came from, and really produce quality television.

Manju had an excellent team, and she herself was very supportive. No wonder it was so popular. Some years later Manju asked me to research and write a series on legal rights for women, which were again presented in a dramatic format. I enjoyed working on that project because that was a time when women’s issues were on the national agenda and there was a lot of discussion and debate happening in the country.

I think with Surabhi (1990) we exploded the myth that non-fiction does not work with Indian audiences. It’s a completely cynical view, which says that people only care about entertainment. This is what the worst of the mainstream uses to justify some of the dreadful things it churns out. And anyway, how do you define what is “entertaining”? I was pretty sure that an approach to culture, which was people centred, and contextualised in an accessible way would work with viewers.

In India there is a great desire to learn, great value is attached to it, and when you are not spoken to in a patronising top-down way, you are drawn in. Which is why when it was time for Surabhi an entire generation of children sat before the tv to watch, often with their parents. We stretched the definition of culture to be as inclusive as possible, and I think for the first time introduced lay audiences to disciplines like archaeology! It was quite a phenomenon and I am proud of being associated with the show.

Working with Shyam Benegal obviously occupies a special place and a special mention. 

Shyam Benegal is an institution for two generations of people! Working with him is like going to an informal university where knowledge about anything under the sun can be had. How much you learn is up to you. I worked with him on three television series, and one feature film. I was also involved in filming the making of his film Trikaal with Dayal Nihalani who worked as an assistant director with him for many years.

Shyam and Nira also have always supported our theatre work, so it’s a long association. The atmosphere during his shoots is very like when you are making a play. The sense of camaraderie and trust. I first did an advertising film with him for a popular bottled drink! Must have been in 1977-78. Then he cast me in his film Kalyug with my theatre buddy Akash Khurana. It was an exciting time for us to be on a unit with people like Shashi Kapoor (he was also the producer of the film), Rekha, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Om Puri. During the schedule in Mumbai one of our main locations was a huge bungalow on Malabar hill with many rooms. We were expected to be at the shoot everyday, so occasionally I used to call a few of my theatre colleagues and we would rehearse in any room that was free! Later I co-wrote with Shama Zaidi a feature film titled Antarnaad which was about Swadhyaya, a powerful social movement at that time.

But my most intense interaction with Shyam Babu was in television, first with the series Yatra and then later with Bharat Ek Khoj, a truly mammoth project. In Yatra the idea was to follow two fictional journeys by a set of colourful characters (including a theatre group) who travel by train along two distinct routes - Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi and Jaisalmer to Assam, basically the length and breadth of the country.

There was the research and recce phase where we travelled the routes and gathered material for the script. Shama Zaidi and I wrote the 14 episode series, and I assisted Shyam Babu during the shoot and later in the editing. For the shoot itself we had our own train which served as a shooting space, and also accommodation for the cast and crew. It was a little world on wheels with a kitchen, a dining car, a generator car for power for the shoot, a laundry, a small medical unit, and several coaches for us to stay in. I think we stayed 50 days on the train during the shoot, and basically saw the entire country! It was an unforgettable experience.

Bharat Ek Khoj was at a much bigger scale - 52 odd one hour episodes tracing 4000 years of Indian history, inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s book Discovery of India. I was on the core team of writers with Shama Zaidi, and we must have worked on the scripts for something like three years, almost full time. Towards the last stage we had to work extra hard to keep up with the shooting pace, which was furious. Everyone working on the series was aware that it was a once in a life time project, grand and ambitious in its ideas and scale.

Shyam Babu’s projects are always very strongly idea driven, and working with him and Shama taught me so much. They are both so trusting and generous with their knowledge. In those three years I developed a large view of Indian history and it was to be of great value in all my later work, be it television or theatre.

Your documentary Maihar Raag (collaborated with filmmaker Arunabh Bhattacharjee) won the National Award for Best Non-Fiction Film in 1994. Your directorial strategies came to be influenced by your experience in other forms of media.

Interestingly we had done a “story” on the Maihar Band for Surabhi. Ashok Mishra, one of our key writers at Surabhi is from Satna, which is the neighbouring town to Maihar, and he had told us stories of Baba Allaudin Khan sahab and his experiments with the Maihar Band. The idea of Maihar being the home of the Maihar gharana stayed in our minds. Documentary film maker Arunabh Bhattacherjee and I felt there was an interesting film here and we travelled to Maihar to research the project.

We landed in Maihar the day the Babri Masjid was demolished. The country went up in flames and train services were interrupted. Maihar was calm, but we were stuck there for days. During this time we actually found the story we wanted to tell. This was the first full-length documentary film I worked on, and I found it fascinating to  see how real material could be constructed to create a narrative that was argument and story-telling at the same time. I went on to work on many documentaries, and spent a lot of time watching the work of an amazing group of independent filmmakers, a part of the documentary film fraternity at that time. Sex, Morality, and Censorship was directly and deeply influenced by documentary cinema.

You have played an instrumental role in documenting an oral history project on historic experimental theatre spaces. This was published in the book Scenes We Made, edited by eminent theatre critic and writer Shanta Gokhale in 2015. Right?

One of our major concerns is the lack of rigorous documentation of contemporary Indian theatre. Shanta Gokhale felt that a documentation of the history of experimental theatre in Mumbai told through three spaces, which nurtured this kind of theatre, would be a good way to start. It was decided to do an oral history, meaning based on the memories of people who were a part of the activity at each of these three spaces. So we did extensive interviews with theatre people who worked at the famous Bhulabhai Memorial Institute in South Mumbai in the early 1960s, at Walchand Terrace in Tardeo in the 1970s and then at the Chabildas Boys School in Dadar West in the 1980s and 1990s. We also video shot the interviews so now we have a huge archive, and of course the sharply edited book. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in theatre. Somethings about the way theatre was done at that time are very different of course, but many things remain the same!

In 2015 you co-founded Tamaasha, with actor Sapan Saran. The company’s offshoot, Studio Tamaasha, its aim is to program interdisciplinary events. Talking about the financial sustainability of alternative spaces, you are quoted saying “Why do we demand that cultural spaces must be sustainable? Even banks are not sustainable.” So do you believe that the ‘State’ should not be duty-bound to help sustain the arts and that the arts ought to stand on their own feet?

I meant the opposite! I made that remark because I am sick and tired of people telling us that our theatre work must be financially self-sustaining. The fact is that most theatre practice, and actually most arts practice, does not receive any support at all. Not from the state, nor anyone else. Yes, the Maharashtra government has a subsidy system for Marathi professional commercial theatre, but none for non-commercial theatre. Some other schemes exist, but they are the exception. We look after ourselves, so stop lecturing us.

During the pandemic there has been no state support for thousands of artists who have been unable to perform and make a livelihood. Most support has been given by artists to fellow artists. Recently a prestigious government institution for music and theatre asked us to make videos extolling the virtues of yoga. That was their way of helping us deal with distress. On the other hand, look at the financial support given to other sectors like banks and corporates. These are entities that are purely commercial and declare huge profits, but one sneeze and generous tax breaks and subsidies are offered. Then they tell us, “you have to be self-sustaining my friend!” It all depends on how much a society values the arts.  I think it is pretty obvious where we stand in our country.

Tamaasha Theatre was started in 2014 with Sapan Saran,  poet, writer and now a theatre director, to do a very different kind of theatre work from what was happening in Arpana. The idea was to work mainly in alternative spaces and do smaller, idea driven productions. A few years after Tamaasha Theatre was formed we hired a space in Aram Nagar in Versova and ran Studio Tamaasha, a curated performing arts space. We opened the space to many theatre makers, dancers, academics, and musicians, and over two years Studio Tamaasha became very active.

We also designed several productions of our own for that intimate space and Words Have Been Uttered was one of them. There also was Blank Page, an exploration of contemporary Indian poetry in four languages, Soul, an evening of music inspired by the bhakti tradition; and Waiting for Naseer a freaky play about theatre and theatre actors, which Sapan wrote and directed.

India is still woefully lacking in adequate theatre spaces. How can you’ll facilitate the mapping of alternative theatre venues across the country? Is it directly related to having more and more audience? So, how do you get onto the task of enthusing the vast Indian populace to come watch theatre and pay for it?

These are very big questions and it will be hard to respond in any detail. Suffice it to say,  yes, we are woefully lacking in theatre infrastructure, and by that I don’t mean just large auditoria.

There are many diverse arts ecosystems, big, small, each with its unique needs. All solutions are not cost heavy. But all solutions need empathy and a genuine desire to support the vast creative community without extracting a pound of flesh. Once again it’s the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the theatre community that has seen a blossoming of smaller, intimate performance spaces across the country. Of course COVID has dealt a severe blow to most spaces, but while they existed they supported a resurgence in performing arts practice, of course mostly in urban areas.

The common belief is that the Indian governments have not done enough to improve the cultural ecosystem in the country, be it infrastructure, venues, goods and services tax on tickets etc. This has led to many theatre groups charging heavy ticket price. The economic parameters in India do not allow an audience from say even a middle income group to pay for the ticket such exorbitant sum. Moreover in India, families go for outings together. How does theatre fight its economics?

The economics of any activity are complicated and it’s not a simple equation as is suggested. Also do remember there are many diverse forms of theatre practice across the country each with its own economic model. It’s also a reality that in many parts of the country theatre groups struggle to get a paying audience, even for very cheap tickets. There is an entitlement - the “free pass culture”. At the other end of the spectrum are huge productions that sell out with tickets priced at Rs.5000.

But yes, I believe that theatre can be affordable to all sections of society. For that, our society must believe that it’s important for people to engage with the arts! I remember reading about a novel idea in a Latin American country where workers were given pre-loaded credit cards that only could be used to buy tickets to cultural events - music, dance, theatre and so on! Imagine what that must have done to the economy of the arts, and to the cultural engagement of the worker community. I’m sure it didn’t last long. It’s a bit like our resistance to subsidizing food for the poor while subsiding the banking sector, if you know what I mean!

And finally Sunil, which is your next production waiting in the wings?

Honestly I am not thinking about the next production in any concrete manner. The last 18 months have been quite difficult, and we have tried to do work on the online space with Studio Tamaasha. In the brief opening between November 2020 and March 2021 we set up a black box space on the open terrace of our studio and created three new plays designed for the small space. Audiences had started coming back enthusiastically. But the second lockdown was a serious blow. So at the moment some of us are trying to figure out a way to make work that takes into account the “stop-start” situation with live performance. We also are involved in an initiative called TheatreDost, which is supporting a large number of backstage and front of house theatre workers with food and medical relief. At the moment there is just no clarity, but I am hopeful we will survive and bounce back.

To that we say, Encore! Let Arpana’s offerings keep enriching us.

Part 1 of the Theatre Yatra!, of Sunil Shanbag can be accessed by following this link:!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

Aparajita Krishna Sunil Shanbag Mumbai Theatre Bareilly India Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London Shyam Benegal Anuradha Ghandy Kobad Ghandy Coronavirus Arts Kumud Shanbag Ganesh Shanbag SNDT University VACHA English BDD chawls Worli Mumbai Dalit Panther Party Shiv Sena Satyadev Dubey GP Deshpande Intellectuals Artists Nagpur Russian films Politics Cinema Filmmaker Documentary Film Charlie Chaplin Hindustani classical IPTA Shishir Sharma Aakhri Shama Balraj Sahni Tejpal Hall NCPA Prithvi Theatre Chabildas Hall Prithviraj Kapoor Ratna Pathak Shah Dina Pathak Hayavadana Anushthan Girish Karnad Amrish Puri Amol Palekar Sunila Pradhan Aur Ek Garbo Mahesh Elkunchwar Elphinstone College Theatre Unit Street Theatre Experimental Theatre Paresh Rawal John Mathew Marathi Theatre C.Y. Gopinath Sol Features VT station Naseerudin Shah RSS Shakha Padma Bhushan Lata Sharma Reetha Balsavar Arpana Theatre Harold Pinter The Caretaker Aada Chautaal Akash Khurana Utkarsh Mazumdar Ooljulool Aadya Rangacharya Vijay Tendulkar Ashi Pakhre Slawomir Mrozek Rajeev Naik Shafat Khan Dr Chandrasekhar Pahansalkar Sayaji Shinde Mahesh Elkunchwar Shanta Gokhale Milan Kundera Vinod Ranganath Ashutosh Datar Ramu Ramanathan Nagesh Bhosle Kumud Mishra Charusheela Sable Vacchani Hridaynath Jadhav Vivek Jadhav Chetan Datar Irawati Karnik Sakaram Binder Stories in a Song (2011) Shubha Mudgal Aneesh Pradhan Bertold Brecht Three Penny Opera Mastana Rampuri urf Chappan Chhuri! Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon William Shakespear All's Well that Ends Well Mihir Bhuta Uday Mazumdar Minal Patel Manasi Parekh Chirag Vora Satchit Puranik Nishi Doshi Natasha Singh Archan Trivedi Vivek Narayan Rabindranath Tagore Sachin Kundalkar Words Have Been Uttered (2017) Sangeet Natak Akademi