Shaili Sathyu, IPTA- Mumbai’s co-ordinator knows her job well. You only have to look at her before or after one of IPTA’s shows and you know that she understands her business. She is young but is managing quite ably, the Mumbai unit of a theatre institution that has carved a special place for itself in the history of Indian theatre. Despite having parents with well-known credentials, Shaili Sathyu is her own person. She has a diploma in early childhood care and education and is currently working on a handbook on early language skills for pre-primary teachers and a series of books for children. She has conducted puppetry workshops for teachers and children and has even conducted a theatre workshop based on improvisations and games. She has work experience in design and has designed costumes and sets for theatre productions. She wants to work in media dedicated to children, particularly as a content writer and developer. The following conversation has IPTA as its focus and Shaili Sathyu’s answers are frank, straightforward and well, truly informative!
For how long have you been involved with taking care of all the administrative functions of IPTA Mumbai and seeing that things proceed smoothly? Since Oct 2003, that’s about two years.
What initiated you to get involved with IPTA? My initiation into theatre was obviously because both my parents were very active theatre people. So as a child I used to tag along for rehearsals and shows. In fact my mother was directing a play when she was pregnant! Till 1984 I was mostly accompanying my parents and at times joining the crowd scenes when they needed kids! That was in plays like BAKRI.and SUFAID KUNDALI. In 1984 IPTA started its children’s wing called ‘Balmanch’. We staged two plays – Munshi Premchand’s IDGAH and another play called NAYA GOKUL. At that time there were many kids and young people in IPTA including Rajeshwari Sachdev, Lubna Salim, Sagar Arya and others. I did the lead role of the grandmother in IDGAH. But since then I have not really acted on stage. 1989 onwards I have worked backstage, designed sets and costumes as well as done production work for IPTA. In between I have also worked with directors like Prasannaji in Bangalore, Dubeyji in Bombay as well as with Nadiraji. There have been times while I was in school and later in college when I was totally disinterested in theatre for 2 to 3 years at a stretch. But in the last few years I have been dabbling in it to some extent.
IPTA assumes a significant position in the history of Indian theatre. Many of the artistes connected with it have become famous. Some of them still continue to do plays along side other lucrative media. What according to you has kept them tied to IPTA? A lot of the artistes whom you are referring to started their careers with IPTA. Many of them started with backstage work, moved on to doing bit roles with one-line dialogues and then to bigger roles on stage. Some of them got work as character artistes in films and television and are today very known faces. For many artistes IPTA was like home and family, seeing them through difficult times as well as through successful periods. Their bond with IPTA is emotional. They are attached to the group and to other members. IPTA doesn’t pay its artistes professionally, so money has never been a factor to stay with the group. The group has always been bigger than the individual, however big a star he or she may be – from Balraj Sahni to AK Hangal to Sulabha Arya to Rakesh Bedi. IPTA has always functioned on democratic principles. Everyone has a place and gets importance, nobody is really pushed over. I think the respect and equal opportunity that artistes get within the group is also a factor that keeps bringing them back.
You’re one of the youngest people in the organization and have taken over the responsibility of running it. Do you find it an arduous task given that you may have issues like ego trips of the actors or the directors to handle? I think ego trips are a part and parcel of working in a group, be it in theatre or in any other field. Every office set-up for instance has egos to deal with. Actors may be considered to have more ego hassles, but these are all manageable. Coordinating dates of busy professional artistes is more difficult than handling their egos. Also, I don’t have to handle artistes and directors single handedly. IPTA has a committee of young and as well as senior members. This committee shoulders responsibility of the organization. We have many people to prevent ‘fires’ and many to douse them! Of course there are problems but we usually come around these collectively.
The leftist progressive philosophy that was once a guiding force for IPTA has virtually perished. Do you think its ideological absence has affected the quality of the plays that are now being produced by it? Does IPTA need to re-invent itself? A 63 year-old organization obviously has a long history. IPTA and especially IPTA Mumbai has gone through many stages since 1942. Even in the 70s there were people who would compare the group with what it was during the freedom movement. IPTA has been changing since the fifties itself. To start with the group and its whole ethos before 1947 was very different. Being a part of the freedom movement, the theatre workers had a commitment and spirit towards the cause of independence. By the end of the 40s IPTA could look back with pride on its achievements, its role in the freedom struggle, its work during the Bengal Famine and its efforts for promoting communal harmony in the tension-ridden days of pre and post Partition. At the end of this period many prominent artistes left IPTA and formed their own groups.
Dina Gandhi (Pathak) formed Natmandal in Ahmedabad, Balraj Sahni formed Juhu Art Theatre, Shambhu Mitra formed Bahuroopi in Calcutta, Shanti Bardhan formed Little Ballet Troupe, Utpal Dutt formed the Little Theatre Group, Sheela Bhatia formed the Delhi Art Theatre and Habib Tanvir formed his Naya Theatre. But they all came from the same discipline of IPTA. Other stalwarts like AK Hangal and VM Adil held the IPTA banner, but it was only in the late sixties and early seventies that there was a sort of revival of theatre activities in IPTA.
People like Balraj Sahni, Sagar Sarhadi, MS Sathyu, Ramesh Talwar, Javed Siddiqi and others joined IPTA. I consider this as the next major phase of IPTA Mumbai, which saw productions like AAKHRI SHAMA, SHATRANJ KE MOHRE, BHAGAT SINGH, TANHAI, BAKRI, HORI and LOK KATHA. All through the forties till the seventies, it is a fact that leftist progressive philosophy was a guiding force for IPTA. There were a lot of members who were very involved with the party, but by the eighties it was not so. Many members had progressive ideas but they were not necessarily hard-core leftists. This phenomenon is not unique to IPTA Mumbai, but also to some units of IPTA in other parts of the country.
I don’t think ideology alone can guarantee a high quality of theatre. Yes, the frequency of political plays has reduced, it cannot be denied. Even in the seventies and eighties there were plays with different subjects, but there has always been an effort to have a progressive outlook in what each of these plays have had to say. Sometimes we are successful in achieving this goal at other times we are not.
Talking about whether IPTA needs to re-invent itself – I think it has been re-inventing itself since the sixties. Each generation brings along with it, its sensibilities and creative ideas. Today’s scenario, I don’t think is as much about re-inventing as it is about setting goals and coming up with new ideas to present one’s thoughts and beliefs through the medium of theatre.
In the recent years, have you seen new and encouraging talent emerge from your celebrated annual inter-collegiate festival in Mumbai? New talent has always emerged from the inter-collegiate competitions. In the early years of this competition there were a lot of students who became a part of IPTA after participating in the ICDC. The numbers may have gone down, but there are still a few students who join IPTA every year after the ICDC. But its not just about getting new recruits into IPTA. We are happy that youngsters are joining different groups and performing in different languages on stage after their experience and exposure at various inter-collegiate competitions including IPTA’s ICDC.
How do you envisage IPTA Mumbai in this new millennium? Do you forsee any challenges or do you think there is not much to worry about? Worry doesn’t get you anywhere. But as I said before, we need to set goals and aims and work towards them with new fervour and spirit. There are many challenges, the main being able to do meaningful theatre and at the same time use and create new forms of performance. There is a need to get more young faces at this juncture when we have a lot of experienced senior artistes and directors. It will be good for the new comers because they can learn a lot from more experienced theatre persons and hopefully take the group forward in a positive and progressive manner.
If I am not mistaken, IPTA is supported by the government. Can you elaborate a bit on what kind of monetary or other added support that your organization receives? This is one of the biggest misconceptions most people have about IPTA. To date IPTA Mumbai has not received any monetary support from the government. At different times members have approached the state and central governments, but to no avail. For the last 63 years we have been asking the government for land to build a theatre complex in Mumbai. We are still waiting… Regarding how we manage our finances (which is what this question is basically about), it is mainly through ticket sales, sponsored shows in other cities, sponsorship during festivals and advertisements in our brochures and other material. Sometimes individuals and other organizations give us donations and we are very grateful to them for that. Most often we do not break even and at times our annual losses continue for years. We are a registered public trust and our accounts are all submitted with the concerned govt. departments. Anyone is most welcome to check what is going on, we are after all answerable to the public.