Pune: The City & Its Culture

Satish Alekar

It's been 60 years since I have been living in the city of Pune. It has undergone several changes in these 60 years. Looking back, these changes can be defined by two major events. The dam that broke in Panshet in 1961 leaving the city of Pune in ruins, and the ever expanding boundaries of Pune city post the economic boom of 1990-95 after the 'Urban land sealing' act was passed. After 1955 there has been rapid industrialisation taking place in Pune. While previously Pune had only Khadki's ammunition factory, after 1955-1960, Kirloskar, Bajaj, Telko, SKF, entered into the middle class Pune household. It led to the downfall of the chawl culture giving way to bungalows and ownership flats. Later, during 1990-95 even the bungalows were demolished and ownership flats were built. Eventually, all this had to have an effect on the cultural circuit of Pune.

A highly educated section of the middle class born in the post Independence era started settling in Europe and America during the 1970s while the well qualified engineers preferred Arabia, Kuwait and Dubai. Since Pune had a better education system than the rural areas, several students from the smaller towns came to Pune to stay. The famine that struck these rural areas in 1972 also led to much relocation. This strangled the slums of Pune which regained their balance owing to the support from the various political parties. Later, these migrants became a part of the social and political life of Pune.

After 1970, the representatives of several political parties built commercial educational institutes in the vacant spaces of Pune. As a result the associate industries from rural areas belonging to these political representatives got the support of the urban educational institutes. The sugar industries that were a social model were labelled 'sick units' and the urban educational institutes started making a profit.

The social and cultural disparities between east and west Pune that existed before the 1960s began fading away. This change was inevitable. By 1990-95 the past had been left behind and the children of the migrants who relocated during the 1970s were studying in colleges. Many of these colleges belonged to the political representatives of the villages to which these migrants originally belonged.

Post the economic boom of 1990-95 there were several people from outside Maharashtra who relocated themselves to Pune. These relocations took place majorly in two segments. One was the group of students migrating for educational purposes and the other was the group of labourers. Also, parents preferred to educate their children in English medium schools. Gradually, the boundaries of Pune which were limited to Deccan Gymkhana, Peths, Camp, Khadki started spreading from Hadpasar to Hinjewadi in all directions. The political representatives revised the estimates of progress conveniently to suit themselves. As a result, the progress that Pune made was half-baked and not up to the mark.

After the havoc caused by floods of 1961, there was an opportunity to rebuild the city which was wasted by the politicians. After 1990 there was a constant inflow of money but progress and development remained inadequate. The roads remained narrow which resulted in two wheelers dominating the city traffic and the public bus service collapsed. The Mutha river degenerated into a nala. Several dams dried up for a few months and Pune city which used to have abundant drinking water supply had to find ways to preserve it. In spite of 60 years of Independence, narrow roads, power cuts, lack of water supply, public transportation woes continued to be the major issues facing the city. The economic changes also led to increasing social inequality.

All said and done, entertainment is essential to the mind! In the 1990s, the Colour Television industry stabilised. There was an explosion of Television serials during this era. The Internet, mobile phones with cameras and the television serials gave way to a new sensibility that images were stronger than reality. The experimental theatre circuit which was dominant before the 1970s began to struggle during this era. Youtube, Facebook, Skype along with the Television serials saw the advent of a new artistic sensibility influencing the younger generation. The focus of experimental theatre shifted from content to the visual design. These new sensibilities led to the discovery of short film making. Just as directing a one-act play is a preparatory tool before graduating to full length plays, short films became the preparatory tools before making full length films. Single screens gave way to Multiplexes. The number of auditoriums staging commercial plays increased. Several I.T. companies opened up new auditoriums. Several private schools and colleges built air-conditioned auditoriums and rented them to theatre groups.

One important aspect of popular cultural entertainment is the artistic sensibility. A play based on experimental sensibilities might not be very popular but on several occasions, the origins of popular entertainment are derived from the experimental stage. Significant plays like GHASHIRAM KOTWAL, MAHANIRVAN, SHANTATA COURT CHALU AAHE originated from the experimental stage. Thus, popular/commercial theatre and experimental theatre are two sides of the same coin.

The experimental stage was hit the hardest by the economic changes of 1990-95. From 1960 to 1990, actors of the experimental theatre as well as commercial theatre could manage their jobs along with rehearsals. These actors would be employed with a bank or have a government job or were employed with companies such as Kirloskar, Philips, Valchand. They could take a day off on show days or leave early. This was the encouragement that art and theatre received in those days, or to say it in today's terms, it was a kind of subsidy provided to art. Another encouraging factor was the decision to exempt Marathi Theatre from the entertainment tax taken in 1960 by the then chief minister, Yashwant Rao Chauhan. The Marathi Theatre circuit is reaping benefits of this decision even today.

However, after 1990, it became difficult to get such jobs. Today, an artist from the experimental stage is employed full time in computer related jobs or in television production, animation studios, malls or sound studios. They work for 12 hours a day and have several job pressures to deal with. As a result, they are unable to devote enough time to rehearsals or shows. They are torn between their love for the art on the one hand and their high paying jobs on the other. Owing to the economic uncertainty in theatre, these young artists are left with the option of either quitting their jobs to become full time professional actors or to save some money to train from a theatre school and then pursue a full time career, or to simply end up as an good and informed audience.

After 1990, although the number of shows of experimental plays reduced, their presentation improved considerably. Themes such as changing family relationships owing to economic changes, increasing loneliness, emptiness, changing man-woman relationships, socio- economic disparities, political thought, existentialism, casteism were portrayed through plays, films and other mediums. There began a healthy competition between different modes of entertainment. As a result there was an increasing need for formal training in the fields of theatre and film. The middle class began to encourage their children to participate in these financially uncertain professions.

Formal training in any art form requires good infrastructure and a professional set up. This is where we lag behind. Except for the NSD (National School of Drama) and the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), no other schools are particularly noteworthy. Several schools have made provisions for theatre training but they lack the necessary management, infrastructure, equipment, full time teaching faculty, technicians etc. Most of the training institutes in the State of Maharashtra in the fields of Music, Dance, Drama, Films, Painting are non-funded.

In the end, one wonders whose responsibility is it to ensure the smooth functioning of the theatre and film training schools- the elected government, arts' organisations or the profit making business class? In spite of having a huge Television and Film industry in the country, the question begs- what kind of facilities are available for training? The art school project developed by the Municipal Corporation on Ghole road in Pune remains unfinished for several years. How many theatres are undergoing yearly surveillance? There are several auditoriums developed by the Municipal Corporation which remain unused. What are the arrangements made for experimental theatre to sustain along with popular forms of entertainment? Sudarshan hall is the only auditorium in Pune where experimental plays are performed.

The governing body of a State is expected to channelize the energies and create opportunities for the youth not only in the field of art but in various other fields too. The State Government, political parties, social and cultural organisations are responsible for this. But along with these bodies, the responsibility should also be shouldered by the wealthy businessman. Several businessmen and corporate organisations benefited greatly from the 1990 economic boom. However they haven't shown enough interest in contributing to the fulfilment of the city's social and cultural needs. In the open economic structure of the western countries, several corporate organisations and businessmen share a part of their profits for social causes by creating independent organisations for this purpose, such as the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation or India's Sir Ratan Tata Trust which is more than 125 years old. Such corporate philanthropy takes place with the advice of the local political representatives of the region. These representatives prefer popular events over experimental art. However, it is important to attract their attention to the 'not so popular' parallel art forms.

People have lost faith in their elected political representatives. Time and again questions have been raised about their integrity which has resulted in grave resentment among people. Similarly, they are beginning to lose trust in the judicial system of India. Thus, it would be futile to depend on them for encouragement in the field of art. It is thus important that the corporate organisations and businessmen of Pune understand this fact and help in carving a path for the youth who want to participate in the experimental art forms. An informal platform needs to be set up to introduce them to the sensibilities of the young artists from various fields. Such a set-up will give the corporates a sense of the imaginative power of the youth and the essentials required for their growth can be arranged without the support of the government. Only then can Pune's cultural development go hand in hand with its economic development.

Satish Alekar is a prominent Marathi theatre playwright and director, who is best known for his ground breaking plays such as BEGUM BARVE and MAHANIRVAN. This article originally appeared on 9th July 2012 in the Maharashtra Times. It has been translated from Marathi into English by Sudeep Modak.

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