Thought Box



by Nilakshi Sengupta January 7 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 30 secs

On the 7th of January, his first death anniversary, we remember Gerson Dacunha through one of his last conversations with Nilakshi Sengupta.

The journalist, the Adman, the social activist also played a huge role in the English language theatre of Mumbai. In this piece he recollects how he got involved in the English language theatre and how it helped him evolve as a person. Ad verbatim, from GERSON DACUNHA.

How did you begin Gerson?

I began in the theatre in Bombay, when it was still Bombay, in St Xavier’s college. I was in the St. Xavier’s college dramatic club and I got in there by sheer accident. A professor of English there said to me one day, after hearing a reading that we were doing - are you a member of the dramatic club? I said – no. Have you ever acted in the St. Xavier’s College dramatic club contest? I said, No. He said, I will make you a member, I will find you something to do. And thus began my love for theatre.

So, it was never an ambition, was it?

I never intended to be a part of the theatre in this city. But, once I was part of the theatre in Bombay, it was like a never-ending ailment. I could not leave it. In fact, that theatre was the beginning of a relationship with people like Alyque Padamsee and me. The theatre nourished my life. We made our living from advertising. I was in advertising. I began in journalism, but then I was advertising with JWT (J Walter Thompson) for a year. And then for 26 years in Lintas, where I had joined as a copywriter and left as its head.

How did theatre grow in those days?

English theatre brought development, advances, novelty in the theatre in the city, because it was the natural conduit for what was new. And at that time, soon after the war, World War Two, which ended in 1944, 1945 there was a lot of relief. This relief developed into lots of openness and novelty.

For instance, Satyajit Ray in cinema, the progress of artists groups in Bombay, the Hussain's and the Gaitonde’s, Manto, Kaifi and so forth, all this was a result of the ferment that followed the awfulness of World War Two. All were a product of that great wave of relief and the novelty that swept the country.

This also reflected in the lives of the students of St. Xavier’s?

In St Xavier’s College, we were in the shallows of this surge and we had people like Adi Marzban, Derek Jeffries and later Ebrahim Alkazi who chose the plays that we would do and directed us.

Adi Marzban and Derek Jeffries are two people who were very busy. Adi Marzban ran a daily newspaper, The Jam-e-Jamshed, and Derek Jeffries ran the city's buses. It is not as if they did not have anything to do. In fact, they did have a lot to do, but still found time to be involved in theatre. They enjoyed and thought it their duty to give time and attention and their experience to St Xavier’s College. And that made the St Xavier’s College dramatic club the seedbed of a lot of people - Alyque Padamsee, Pearl Padamsee. And that group grew out to become the St Xavier’s College dramatic club of that era.

Now, the major contribution of the college, Adi Marzban, Derek Jeffries and Alkazi was that they made the English theatre in Bombay, the best of modern European theatre. And the modern European theatre at the time was taking a new direction. For example, you had Samuel Beckett with Waiting for Godot in 1951, which is really post war 51. And we did Waiting for Godot here. It is in fact a play in which nothing really happens, in which performance takes precedence over plot. And that was one of the many directions that the theatre was taking after the tragedy of World War Two. And we were swept along. Alyque Padamsee for example, was very much a product of those years. And Alyque had directed 77 plays in his lifetime.

Were there many English theatre groups then?

There was at that time in the 1950s and 60s, something called the Oxford and Cambridge societies. There was the Oxford society, there was a Cambridge society, and there was the Oxford and Cambridge society plays. The two societies came together to do a play every year. Now, the great thing about the Oxford and Cambridge societies was this: the people in them were people that the amateur theatres would never be able to afford. These were people who came here from Oxford and Cambridge, like Barry Barker, like John Smith R. These are people who were in theatre in their universities, in their colleges. And they did Shakespeare there.

I mean, I remember doing A Midsummer Night's Dream with Barry. Barry was the director of the play and he taught me about speaking. Now, the marvellous Shakespearean lines, how to speak them was more or less taught to us by these chaps. They had done their stint in colleges and in those great universities in England. And they transferred that knowledge to us.

Could our Indian actors adapt easily?

There were no worries about ethnicity. No worries about the colour of skin. Yes, there was a certain problem about speech, because you had to speak and speak the language correctly. But as long as you spoke it correctly, they did not worry about the accent, for example.

It was a wonderful time. It really truly was a wonderful time. The Oxford and Cambridge societies were an education in themselves. And that was a feature of the 50s and 60s in Bombay; they must have done about 20 productions here. They left in their wake, a tradition of production and direction for us to use in the days to come.

Your collaboration with Alyque is well known. Tell us more please.

Alyque did Jesus Christ Superstar, Death of a Salesman, Cabaret. He brought a vigour and a professional expertise to the theatre in Bombay that did not exist before. And whenever he tried something new, whenever he tried to localize something, as for example, he took Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and made it a Hindu Muslim story where the tensions between the Montagues and Capulets became a reflection of the Hindu Muslim tensions, whenever he tried to localize a major play, a classic, he would fail. But when he did a play that respected its origins, he was wonderful.

He did Man of La Mancha for example. He did wonderful musicals. In fact, it was Alyque and Pearl Padamsee, his wife, who brought the musical to Bombay. Pearl began the musical with Godspell. And Alyque followed immediately after, with roughly the same story as the story of Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar. When I think of Jesus Christ Superstar, I am not just in admiration of the quality of the performance or the quality of the direction. But I am in admiration of the difficulties that it conquered.

For instance, I saw Jesus Christ Superstar. Soon after he performed here in Bombay, I saw the production in London, and ours was better. Ours was better not only because of the quality of singing and acting, which were wonderful. We had marvellous voices here as a matter of fact. But the handicaps that we mastered, for instance, there in London, you had a full-scale orchestra. And each singer was mike-d whereas here, our orchestra was a keyboard, a guitar, a drum set, and a violin - four people. And we had three microphones, and those microphones had to be placed after you use them. You had to place them without looking in a precise place on the platforms that we used as a set, because if it was not placed there, the next person would have to reach for it without looking and pick it up. So, it was full of difficulties. And we, I thought, did remarkably well.

You had mentioned how much you learnt in theatre. Would you like to elaborate?

That was another thing about the English theatre at that time, certainly about the theatre group. It was an education for us, just by belonging to it.

We learnt from Derek, Adi and Alkazi. We learnt about sculpture and about poetry, we learnt about TS Eliot, WB Yeats. Yes, we had heard of TS Eliot, Yeats, but had not appreciated and savoured the quality of their poetry. Sculpture, painting; these were all things that came to us as a result of our belonging to the theatre group. Being in English theatre at that time and by ‘at that time’ I mean in the 50s, it was an education, and besides, it was a wonderful social life.

Every week, every Saturday, we had what we called ‘hunts’. Hunts? Why ‘hunts’? Nobody knows. And nobody can explain why there were parties. Everybody brought food, and the host, it happened at the different hosts’ house every week, he supplied the drink, and the drinks were not alcohol as there were many prohibitions then. Not that we cared about prohibition, but alcohol was not that important to us either. We had things like lemonade, strawberry, and raspberry. And we all brought some food. They became very popular, not only with just the core group, but with a lot of others who became interested in the group in order to attend the Hunts.

So, the English theatre at that time, certainly for me, and certainly for people like Alyque and Pearl, was something that gave us a lot of fascinating things to do and kept us from wasting our time. 

How difficult was finding finances for the English language theatre then?

In fact, the theatre in English and in Bombay, was always a bit of a problem because we never had the money that we needed. But after we had been at it for a while and when I say a while, I mean something like 10 or 12 years, it was no longer a struggle to drum up the money to start, that money was there. The theatre group to which we all belonged, had laid a kitty that enabled us to start and we knew that as long as a production was not an utter failure, we would be okay.

What was society like then?

At that time in Bombay, the economics of the city was changing. Jobs were becoming more plentiful. So, we had no problem getting a job and rising in the places we joined. For example, I joined as a copywriter, became copy chief and became creative director because there was a process called ization that was happening. ‘Ization’, which meant Indian-ization of jobs in commercial companies, and among which, of course, you had advertising agencies.

Jobs that once were occupied by the English people and the French people began to be occupied by Indians - the ization part of their policies. So, during the day we were earning our living in offices of one kind or another and in the evenings, we spent a lot of time rehearsing. So, we had a damn good time, a damn good life.

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