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Theatre Zindabad: A message from India for World Theatre Day




Ramu Ramanathan


First things first.

Gerukatte Gangaiah Shetty is no more.

The founder of the Kateel Yakshagana troupe, who trained and performed for more than 47 years, suffered a cardiac arrest, and collapsed on stage in Yekkar (near Mangalore).

He was more than 60.

He was essaying the role of Mahisasura (the demon).

He lent a voice to the anti heroes, the bad guys.

That was the specialisation of Gerukatte Gangaiah Shetty.

Mahishasur means the Buffalo Demon.

Goddess Durga vanquished Mahishasur after nine days of battle-strife and a bit of cunning.

A year ago, our Parliamentarians invoked Goddess Durga and Mahishasura during a debate about the death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and the charges of sedition against students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

The story was told and re-told.

In most mainstream renderings, the Asuras and the creatures of the underworld have been damned.

But Asuras are important, and the creatures of the underworld are very important.

More so, in today's India.

To understand why, let's travel back into time.

To 1876.

To the enactment of the Dramatic Performances Act (DPA) XIX of 1876 by the British Government.

To understand the ebbs and flows of what happens in today's India, one has to grasp the first scene of the first act.

In the 1870s, two plays were on the DPA radar. These were: CHAKA DARPAN in Bengali and MALHARAOCHE NATAK in Marathi.

The then British official who ruled against the plays, said:

''I do not know who was the author, or what his motives were, but the work itself was as gross a calumny as it is possible to conceive. The object was to exhibit as monsters of iniquity the tea planters and those who are engaged in promoting emigration to the tea districts,—bodies of men as well conducted as any in the empire. These gentlemen... have what is called a Mirror held up to them in which the gratification of vile passions, cruelty, avarice and lust, is represented as their ordinary occupation. I do not know that this play was ever acted, but it is written, and in all respects adapted, for the stage, and it might, for any power of prevention the Government have, be acted at any moment.''

Give and take a few prepositions and semi-colons, the arguments remain the same in 2017.

The 1890s was a turning point.

The polemics of patriotism was in the air. Lokmanya Tilak had launched the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav (Public Ganesh Festival) in 1893. The solidarity of Hindus during the 10 day festival became a political tool in the hands of the Indian National Congress. Tilak introduced the melā which entailed hundreds of singing troupes and performances. It was Brecht before Brecht became an -ism. The mela in outdoor performance spaces provided a solid political message for the masses.

On cue, this form of earthy theatre was under surveillance.

''During the ten days festival'' wrote S M Edwards, the Police Commissioner of Bombay in The Bombay City Police, ''bands of young Hindus gave theatrical performances and sang religious songs, in which the legends of Hindu mythology were carefully exploited to arouse hatred of the 'foreigner', the word mlenccha or 'foreigner' being applied equally to Europeans and Muhammadans.''

Lokmanya Tilak and his Ganapati melās became the bad boys of Indian theatre.

Tilak was prosecuted.

Maharashtra with its rich tradition of povādas (ballads) was silenced.

The chorus and the duffs were muted.

The seven act plays with their allegories and delicious dialectics were imprisoned.

As and when the DPA XIX of 1876 proved benign, the Government deployed the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code plus the Bombay City Police Bill of 1898.

Like me, the UAPA was waiting to be born in 1967.

These laws became an instrument of political coercion.

The point is, it was Tilak hundred years ago.

It is the Ambedkarites, Marxists, Maoists, Muslims, Secularists, Socialists, Feminists, Trade Unionists, Human Rightists, Students, Workers, YOU (for reading this), and basically everyone else, now.

The DPA of 1876 has been rebooted.

There are a mind-boggling 50+ licenses for a live theatre show. This means, technically every show in Maharashtra is ''illegal''.

Ques: What's the way forward? Ans: The ultimate trump card in any theatrewallah's armoury, budmaashi.

Aravind Ganachari, historian and scholar, mentions how in the 1910s, ''The time between the two acts of a play was used to address the audience on the gospel of nationalism. At times, someone from the audience spoke on the theme of national interest. For example, during the performance of KANCHANGADCHI MOHANA at Thane, Dhonddev Kashinath Phadke, Narayan Atre and Diler Khan, a guard from the GIP Railways, made a speech on the desirability of unity between Hindus and Muslims. Many times, during the intervals, Swadeshi items, books and leaflets preaching nationalism and photographs of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal were sold.''

There are scores and scores of anecdotes about Mumbai's theatre budmaashi.

There is the delightful tale of the Swajan Hiteishi Natak Mandali (1907) who travelled to Ranibennur and Dharwar, plus Indore and Gwalior with their plays. In addition to the plays, the ''drop scenes'' curtains with its coded nationalistic graffiti were ''a must see''. The messages were simple: ''Be patriotic about your country'' and ''Don't import articles from foreign countries'' and ''Don't drink''. These ''drop scene'' curtains were deployed between two scenes or acts. The audiences loved it. The enforcement officers did not grasp the play within play. The subterfuge continued. It was much later that the DM of Satara confiscated the curtains under Section 42 of the District Police Act.

G B Phansalkar's credo after he lost the curtains: Too bad, but we must find another way to beat the system.

This was true hundred years ago.

More so, now.

The other reason theatre remains an important art is, Language!

A lesson I learnt pretty early in life from my German-speaking Physics-loving father is: In maths, the symbol ''!'' is called a factorial.

The not so humble ''!'' in mathematics has a special significance.

It makes numbers grow.

So, 2! Is 2x1 = 2.

5! Is 1x2x3x4x5.

It's the same with Language!

Isn't it?

Languages beget languages.

I met a Kutchi businessman from Mandvi. At that time, I was struck by the multiple Kutchi dialects being used in the radius of the port area in Mumbai. Bhatia Kutchi, Memoni Kutchi, Khoja Kutchi, Lohana Kutchi, Bania Kutchi. Each with regional variations. Then there were the Maplahs, the Jews, the Nagoris, the Marathas, the Mahars, the Mathadis, the Kunbis.

That's when I started to realise that in Mumbai, theatre is language.

And this language is shifting.

Did you know, the biggest 21st century crisis is: half of the 6000 languages which the planet speaks will die.

Over 50 languages have only one speaker left.

If you are reading this, you must know, one language will vanish from this planet in the next one month.

Never to be found, again.

Simply because many languages have never been written down.

Many languages cannot be read

They have never been.

This is a shame.

So many stories waiting to be told.

These languages are preserved through the theatre.

Theatre as a kind of living museum that preserves words.

Or else in this world of acronyms and abbreviations and global labels, we hurtle towards what Brien Friel and Vaclav Havel hint about.

We will be confronted by the world in an 1830s school in Brian Friel's TRANSLATIONS. This is a fictitious village in Irleand. A platoon of English soldiers are been commissioned to Anglicise place names and redraw territorial boundaries to the treasury's advantage.

The play is about the struggle between England and Ireland. The play focuses mainly on (mis)communication and language.

A character has to recite Virgil's Aeneid, which tells of the inevitability of conquest but also of its impermanence.

Yet, the stumbling attempts at recitation are evidence that "words" are vanishing and every word is a dead metaphor.

It is a play about words but about a man who is un-fluent (lovely word, no?) in two dead languages.

Then there is Vaclav Havel's THE MEMORANDUM with its uncanny similarity to the TV pronouncement in English by The Most Popular Leader On Our Land on 8 November; and what followed.

A deputy manager of a large organisation whose business is mysterious - (don't forget: Havel is the child of Kafka) - has introduced an artificial ''official'' language of gobbledygook into the office: Ptydepe (pronounced puh-TYE-duh-pee).

There are Ptydepe classes and an in-house translation centre and, inevitably, memorandums in Ptydepe that no one can understand. Ballas has a boss, Josef Gross who drafts a newer memorandum and wants to destroy this new tongue.

The story of an incomprehensible artificial language which is "imposed" on the people by governments and bureaucracy and departments.

Prague = Delhi.

Malá Strana = North Block.

This is the brief history of how an omnipotent government manipulates.

This is the short history of words.

It is true.

Time debases history.

Time debases language.

Today, every word is a dead metaphor.

This in itself is a dead metaphor. A couple of more things.

Every time I say something.
I realise what I didn't say.
Is a great injustice to those un-represented.

As a child I accompanied my friends to see a play performed for the LIC class IV union in the Community Centre in the LIC Colony. My first serious play was a Lok Natya called RAMNAGARI by Ram Nagarkar, who was also the songadya in the superhit lok natya, VICHA MAJHI POORI KARA, along side the inscrutable Nilu Phule. The play begins, "Saala, Hajjam, Ahe, Hajjam." It is a roadside altercation. Ram Nagarkar, the son of a barber, who is watching the entire episode, wonders. "Why do people, drag "our" hajjaam profession into their petty fights?"

That's was the day when I started to realise that in Mumbai, theatre is language.

Also, I realised theatre is everywhere. Even today, there are more than 1500 play performances in a month in four main languages Hindi, English, Gujarati and Marathi (You can add Telegu and Kannada and Konkani and Malwani and Bhojpuri and Maithili to this list). This beats the mono-lingual mono-culture theatre of New York or London or Berlin, hands down. Plus unlike the subsidised art of Delhi or government grants, the top Marathi and Gujarati plays net Rs 2,50,000 at the box office. This is for a single show. All cash. No cheque.

So much to say, so much to say.

So let's start in South-Central Bombay. This is the area from Khetwadi to Kamatipura: the epicentre of Bombay after the British royalty were gifted the island city by the Portuguese. The first thing to spring up was the theatre. There were 35 makeshift theatres which featured plays performed in English for the recreation of the British soldiers since the 1790s.

As old timers say about the theatre of Mumbai. It has to fulfil three conditions. 1). Be close to a tram stop or railway station 2). Be in proximity to a dingy bar 3). Be located in a red light area.

It's most befitting that Falkland Road and the Golpitha chauraha is called the Patthe Bapurao Marg. Patthe Bapurao is the doyen of tamasha. Besides the 16,000 songs he composed, there is the legend about how he (a novice) participated in a jugalbandi and defeated the opponent (a veteran) in a sawaal-jawaab. A young and very pretty courtesan from the Mahar community called Pawala was besotted by his singing and his poetry. The Brahmin Bapurao married the girl. On cue, the theatre performances were banned.

But the manager of the Bangdiwala theatre, a Mohammedan, ensured ''the show must go on''.

He got the Brahmin-Mahar husband and wife to sit on the stage and charged two annas for the tickets. The audience watched the banned wedding on stage. The manager made more money at the box office from a staged wedding than the actual show.

In the sultry days of 1944, when there were no air-conditioners, there were theatres like Baliwala Grand Theatre (Playhouse), wherein a play opened with a loud bang of exploding potash, whilst the curtain was being raised. And even as the audience went silent and attentive, occasional shouts from the vendors around the theatre percolated the auditorium. Pista-Badam – Chopdi – Punkha – Uthav Jaldi and the incessant extolling of the ticket-seller ''Khel Abhi Chalu Hua.'' For some of the performances in the Gothic-style theatre like Victoria, Rippon, Baliwala, the drama companies used to bring their own main curtain, which was operated by two men. Since the curtain pullers often dozed off, the cue to bring down the curtain was a shrill blast of a whistle. During one of the shows, the curtain pullers who were asleep were awakened by a shrill whistle, and so, they hurriedly brought down the curtain in the middle of the scene. It was only later that it was found out that the whistle was not blown by a prompter but by a BEST traffic conductor on the street.

I used the above scene in a play about the 1944 dock explosions in Mumbai which I wrote called 3 SAKINA MANZIL.

I plagiarised from reality.

I borrowed from the city.

Whether 3 SAKINA MANZIL rediscovered the magic of theatre, I don't know. Whether the play is a success or not, I don't know. Whether the play was understood, or misunderstood, I don't know. For me what mattered is, I had to write the play about the 1944 dock explosion which tore this city apart!

That's the beauty of theatre in this city. It springs up in the most unlikely of venues. From maidans like the Jambori Maidan which hosted the month long Kamgar Fest (the oldest theatre fest in this city with its origin in 1939) to a cult play like VASTRAHARAN whose 5000 shows have been performed by mill workers from Lower Parel and Naigaon. In ''the good old days'' of working class solidarity, the plays were performed in the compound of the chawls or in the bylanes. The shows were mainly mythological productions, with artificial ornaments and gaudy costumes. The performances used to go on till the wee hours of the mornings, and the audience contributed to a noble cause.

Why is all this important?

As my Guru-ji Jorge Luis Borges asks, What is a book?

Then Guru-ji Jorge Luis Borges pauses in his public lecture (available on YouTube).

It seems to be like a picture.

We ask it something, but it does NOT answer.

The book is dead.

Fortunately a man called Plato invented the Platonic Dialogue.

Plato is the dramatist
Who invented Socrates
To help us hear
The voice of the master
He wrote the Dialogue
Today, even though Socrates is dead
Having drunk the hemlock
Socrates is still with us

Like Narendra Dhabolkar
Like Govind Pansare
Like Malleshappa Kalburgi
And even the playwright from Navsari
Ram Ganesh Gadkari
Whose bust may be at the bottom of a river
But his words have resurrected
After Three Days
Because of the Dialogue

The incorrigible Talliram is back
Gadkari's classic EKACH PYALA is back
Socrates is back
He never went away


Consider the extraordinary Kenyan playwright and novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

In 1977, he wrote a play called NGAAHIKA NDEENDA (I Will Marry When I Want).

To quote the blurb: (It is) The story of a farmer swindled out of his land by corrupt elites, it dealt directly with the plight of ordinary Kenyans and cast untrained villagers in starring roles.

The play was a super duper hit. But after six weeks of a box office run, the authorities shut it down.

On New Year's eve, then vice-president and later dictator Daniel arap Moi despatched Ngugi to the notorious Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o could not be silenced.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o penned the Devil on the Cross.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o penned on a prison-issued toilet .

Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote in his own language: Kikuyu.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o preserved ideas.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o preserved words.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o preserved Kikuyu.

And that's the point isn't it? Many people mistake the buying of a book with buying of its content or owning the author.

There is a beautiful book called BIBLOMANIA by Gustave Flaubert in which a fanatical bibliophile and antique bookseller lets his rival die in a fire so that he can get his hands on a highly coveted Latin Bible.

Charged with murder, he cheerfully accepts his death sentence.

But the twist to the plot (!) is that the bookseller cannot read The Bible.

Since Bhasa, Kalidasa and the Greeks, ideas have been considered dangerous.

There is no need to be surprised.

Which is perhaps why, the ancients had no great use of books.

Most of the great teachers - have not been writers.

But speakers.

Pythogaras.

Socrates.

Buddha.

Christ.

Ved Vyasa.

Tulsidas.

Even Tukaram sang his abhangs.

So, the Brahmin threw a bundle with Tuka's kirtans into the Chandrabhaga river.

Three days later.

The Pandas (priests) opened the doors of the temple.

The Pandas found a wet sack on the head of Panduranga.

This is the brief history of ideas in India

I culminate this, with a reference to the LES COMBUSTIBLES by Amelie Nothomb.

The play transpires during a war, three figures are trapped in a library in the middle of a hard winter, with only books to provide the heating. They argue with one another about the relative merits of the books and order in which they should be sacrificed to the flames. The last book left comes to symbolise beauty in the face of the horrors of war. When this last book is thrown into the flames, the characters leave the cold library and offer themselves up to soldiers on the road outside.

They are shot dead.

All those books in their brain cells.

A life without books (and indeed words) seems meaningless to them.

Theatre zindabad!

Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright. This piece was first published by QTP on their blog: www.qtpthescript.blogspot.in


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