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VASTRAHARAN: A Landmark in Indian Theatre

Ramu Ramanathan


Bhadrakali's VASTRAHARAN is back; and how.

Special 30 shows. Stellar star cast. A box office plan of Rs two lakh per show. First few shows houseful through advance booking. Audience applauding each and every line; so much so a two hour play duration stretches to three hours. Actors request audience to tone down their laugh so that they can complete the show in one theatre shift.

I manage to procure tickets twice through Chander Patil, who 'made-up' the late Machindra Kambli and his cast for almost 2,000 shows (of the 5,000 shows the play did); and then when the cast dwindled, Chander Patil had to perform 200 shows as Shakuni Mama; since actors were not available.


VASTRAHARAN is a play I love and relish. I've seen it 17 times, excluding the two times in its latest avtaar. It still manages to surprise with its rustic verve and deliberately talent-less style.

VASTRAHARAN - the play is about a play within a play that almost doesn't happen (remember the climax in Kundan Shah's film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron). It's Malwani, it's lok natya, and in spite of being rooted within the tradition of the Mahabharata, it's cutting-edge contemporary. In fact with Machindra Kambli's deliberate-style of misdirection, it is able to move outside the usual Marathi middle class milieux and language. There's nothing snobbish or smug about it; nor clumsy-preachy.

This was perhaps the reason, that in spite of the thousands of shows, the play never morphed into one of those 'classic productions', which could nationally encash in on its fame and glory like lesser productions during that time. Makrand Sathe's recent three-volume tome on Marathi theatre overlooks this play; and so do other well-researched theatre encyclopedias.

Tis a pity.

VASTRAHARAN - never given its just dues

One big reason for the lack of official recognition for VASTRAHARAN seems to be: the play is immensely enjoyable. Critics say it lacks gravitas. I disagree. I think it's a delightful satire of a nationally constructed notion of tradition which has been shoved down our throats. It has hilarious peccadilloes which are spot on, even prescient, and its call for a real organic memory of Mahabharata is a superb antidote to anyone suffering through the excesses of 'taking one's culture too seriously.'

There's a lot more to say about VASTRAHARAN but that would require a long essay.

When I used to praise the show to the Late Machindra Kambli, he used to laugh, hic-cup, belch-burp and say, 'Mr Ramu, art is long dead. In the meantime, this is the best we can do.'


Tatya Sarpanch is no more

When the spotlight faded on Machindra Kambli on Sunday night during October 2007, it caused a tiny tremor. A show of BHAIYYA HAATHPAYA PASARI (a play about the assault on Mumbai by the north Indians and the inferiority complex among the Marathi Manoos) was houseful at Damodar Hall. It was a no show. Kambli had a fatal heart attack.

If it was not a real world, Kambli would have completed 100 shows of BHAIYYA HAATHPAYA PASARI; and fulfilled his dream of staging 5000 shows of VASTRAHARAN. And Tatya Sarpanch would have gone on living.

The Man from Malwan

Passion drew Machindra Kambli to theatre. His background was penuried. Born in Rewandi in Sindhudurg Zilla, he lost his father at an early age. His mother nurtured him. He earned Rs 15 doing odd back-stage jobs. He ironed stage costumes for Vijaya Mehta's theatre group. He hung curtains. In 1973, Mohan Tondwalkar (who became an adversary in the Marathi Natya Parishad)) offered him a tiny role. And thus began his flirtations with acting.

His tour de force was, of course, VASTRAHARAN. The play had an 'inauspicious' start. It was 16th February 1980. The premiere was at Shivaji Mandir. But the stars were not in their rightful place. On 14th February, Mama Pednekar pointed out that it was a solar eclipse and the future of the play would be periled. An impromptu show was organised on 15th February. Kambli was unavailable. He was in Pune performing MAHASAGAR. But the constellations had to be appeased. So the first show of the play had Gangaram Gavankar performing Pandu Tatya Sarpanch's role.

VASTRAHARAN opened. It was a huge hit. It received an invite from the Maharashtra Mandal in London. There were budgetary constraints, especially since it entailed the travel of 22 actors. It was Breaking News. The Pride of Maharashtra would not travel to London. Kashinath Ghanekar (the houseful samrat) agreed to play a part in the play, as part of a fund raising show. Others followed. The who's who of Marathi stage. Master Bhagwaan (Dhritarashtra), Nana Patekar (Bhim), Ashok Saraf (Dharma), Master Sachin (Vidura), Dilip Prabhavalkar (Dev), Bali Dhuri (Duryodhana) and Ghanekar (Dushasana). The play was staged. Every entry was greeted with thunderous applause. This meant a three hour performance became a five hour show.

VASTRAHARAN travelled to London.



When I first saw VASTRAHARAN, I was perplexed, I didn't understand the 'dialogues' between the Pandavas and Kauravas. I said to myself, this Marathi is beyond me. A friend told me, this is not Marathi, its Malwani. Those days, Malwani sea food and the Konkan coast were not in vogue; so it took me a while to grasp what was being told to me. Subsequently, I attended a show at Dinnanath for a non-Konkani audience; and VASTRAHARAN was crystal-clear. I was told, the show varies from venue to venue; and Babuji (as Kambli was known) made linguistic adjustments, on the spur of the moment.

Later, I revisited VASTRAHARAN at least 15 times. The key to the play is, Kambli's Konkani quirkiness. It is pointed - and an integral part of this sprawling play. It is more than evident that Kambli - the Man from Malwan, had an ear for language and people's parlance. He would include Tukaram's daarucha adda. On an impulse he would surrealistically speak about Indra being the Lord from Kamathipura.

Nothing was sacrosanct. Arjun, Bhim, Krishna, Draupadi. Naturally, in the post Babri Masjid era, the right wing objected to the denigrations. Once or twice, they tried to stop the staging. The actors (and Hindu Gods) on stage gave them a thrashing. The right wing had another problem, the play was hugely popular. Particularly among Hindus who applauded at the shenanigans and humanisation of their gods. Tatya Sarpanch would pray: Aaychyaa Ghovaacha Namaha and Nalaayakaaya Namaha - and the entire audience would repeat it along with it.

This was subversion at its best.

A handful of self-righteous cranks resorted to picketing outside the auditorium before each and every show. Kambli used to serve chai and batata wada for the picketers. I must thank them, he mischievously remarked. They are giving me free publicity; at no extra cost!


A final adieu

On a few occasions, I've booked Kambli's theatre bus. It belonged to his group: Bhadrakali. I tried to negotiate; and he would glare balefully at me and be blunt, 'You're an English theatrewallah. You make more money than our people even though you don't deserve it.' The logic was infallible.

The last time, I met Kambli, he was chasing an actor, back-stage, with a chappal in his hand. I was horrified. I brought up the matter with a crew member. Oh, but Babuji also helps us and funds more than two hundred of us when we need the money. He said, it was generous, but I thought it was a feudal fiefdom.

A small town boy who was grappling with the transition he had made from the Kamgar Rangabhoomi to the big bad world of Marathi Commercial theatre. Like all theatre producers he was tight-fisted, had an eye for detail and was a solid administrator. His theatre bus was a case in point. It was superbly designed with sleeper berths, a tiny bathroom, and a little visitor's lounge.

His final finale on a truck originated from Shivaji Mandir. Everyone was present. Friends, foes, fans. The accolades poured in. Sharad Pawar, the then CM, Deputy CM, Narayan Rane, MPs, MLAs, actors, artistes, audience.

It included, a young man from Rewandi. He wanted to become an actor. He had called Babuji. For the first time in his life, Kambli did not attend the annual Ganeshotsav Festival in his home town. So the young man travelled to Mumbai. He was informed the Maharaja of Malwan had exited.

Tatya Sarpanch Namaha! Machindra Kambli Namaha!

And a final tribute would be to see VASTRAHARAN in its new avatar. Digambar Naik's performance is not as 'halkatt or haraami' as Kambli's was when he performed Tatya; but hey the show is still super duper.

A must-watch.

*Ramu Ramanathan is a playwright and his play SHANTI, SHANTI, IT'S A WAR penned in 1992, is a tribute to VASTRAHARAN

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