Theatre As Religion: Veteran Thespian Kamlakar Sontakke On His Time In The Theatre

Ayushi Shah

The Drama School Mumbai (DSM) had hosted theatre personality Kamlakar Sontakke a while ago. He is quite the personality in spite of age having caught up. His presence cannot be missed and he is still quick to articulate his observations after a show as he delves into its various aspects in the span of only a few minutes! It was a good experience, lending ear to the veteran thespian as he spoke of his time in the theatre, complete with stories and anecdotes. Kamlakar Sontakke took the DSM students and others in the audience through his compelling journey across geography and time as if it had all happened just yesterday. Besides the DSM's venue of this tete-a-tete at the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh (MMSS), was special. It gives Kamlakar Sontakke's journey a full arc as revealed later.

Born in Wadod Chatha in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, Sontakke's initial idea was to take up law. However, life had different plans and he ended up auditioning for admission to the premier National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi. The reviewing panel comprised Ebrahim Alkazi, the legendary painter, poet, actor, stage designer and director of the NSD. He was to become one of the most influential figures in Sontakke's theatre journey. Impressed by his recitation of the revolutionary Marathi poems by Vinda Karandikar, Alkazi offered the young Sontakke, a three-year scholarship at the NSD. His teachers at the time were some of the most eminent theatre personalities in the country - Nemichandra Jain, Sheila Bhatia, Shanta Gandhi, Govardhan Panchal, and Panchanan Pathak. However, although they were all exceptional in their fields, Sontakke says that only Alkazi was actually trained to train students as far as imparting the craft of theatre went.

In the first year itself Sontakke was summoned by Alkazi to be his right hand. He became the script in-charge of the flamboyant production ANDHA YUG. Everything from keeping Alkazi's coffee handy to noting the script changes was Sontakke's responsibility. He still remembers that on the day of the show the Prime Minister, who was supposed to pass by for a few minutes ended up watching the whole performance. That was the power of an Alkazi production, reminisces Sontakke. FATHER, KANJUS, THREE SISTERS, THE TROJAN WOMEN, GODAAN, JASMA ODHAN, TUGLAQ, WAITING FOR GODOT, were some of the other productions that he was part of at the NSD.

Apart from that, Sontakke would assist Alkazi in all his plays and his personal projects. His roles differed depending on the production. Sometimes he'd be asked to replace one of the leads a couple of days before the performance. At the time Alkazi directed all plays at the NSD. Sontakke attributes this to the fact that none of the other faculty members had the experience, initiative or the confidence to pull off a production as extraordinarily as Alkazi could. Reflecting this, Sontakke said, that in some ways sharing theatre is hard – whether it is credit or discredit, it has to be yours.

Then came the East or West Shakespearean festival where they performed KING LEAR with Sontakke playing "The Fool". He still remembers the full-page review of the production in The Statesman. Although he specialised in direction, Sontakke came to be known as an actor.

From 1966 to 1968, Sontakke taught speech, acting and production at the NSD. In fact, even as a third year student, he taught his juniors who included the acclaimed Surekha Sukhri, Amal Allana (Alkazi's daughter), Shrilatha Swaminathan and Savita Bajaj. This was the year Alkazi produced THREE SISTERS.

As a faculty member, he was called for a meeting to discuss the dates for NSD's annual production – the year's most awaited event directed by Alkazi himself. Alkazi was taken aback when Sontakke mentioned that GODAAN, a play he was reading with the first and the second year students, needed to be staged as well. Alkazi dismissed the meeting and asked Sontakke why he was not informed of this earlier, as it was not on the agenda. He then asked if it was ready. The next evening along with the students, Sontakke and Usha Sathe, performed the first act. Amazed by the performance Alkazi asked him come down to his office after the rehearsals.

Sontakke's vision of every inch of the set design was discussed in great detail that day, whether it was the space between two houses, or how the elevation of the shop would look like in the background. The script was set in a small village in Uttar Pradesh and demanded a farm on stage. Sontakke thought that was difficult but when Alkazi offered to design the set, they narrowed down on a bajra farm, which would take a month or so to grow. Alkazi summoned NSD's head carpenter who immediately got to work. All the boys and girls involved would pick up the sickles and the shovels to help. One of the days, impressed by the dedication of the students, Alkazi rolled up his pants and started ploughing the soil with his legs. GODAAN was a massive success and received more appreciation than any other play back then. Sontakke still remembers how Alkazi invited the President of India Zakir Husain Khan for the inauguration of the production.

Another important duty that Sontakke had as a faculty member was to show visitors around the NSD campus and then drop them off to Alkazi's office at the end of the tour. He jokes how they'd do a 35 or a 45 minutes tour depending on the time they had. This was the routine for a long time until one day – after he dropped off the guests at the office – Alkazi summoned him in the middle of class. This had never happened before. Wondering what had gone wrong he was introduced to the visitors, Bapurao Naik from the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh (MMSS), and the director of Textbook Bureau. The other person was Madhukar Rao Chaudhri who was the Minister of Culture and Education at the time. It was then Alkazi asked Sontakke if he wanted to initiate teaching at the MMSS. The next chapter of Sontakke's journey in teaching theatre began.

What started off as an idea to introduce bi-weekly classes for three months, evolved into a two years drama course – the first ever to be offered in Maharashtra. This was no small deal. Sontakke refused to take up any other professional commitments and loved teaching his students only. It was a gamble but it proved to be a successful one. Over the years they put up performances across genres that were received well by the audience as well as critics. Many acclaimed actors owe a lot to this taskmaster. Barring one performance, all his shows were staged at the MMSS without any professional assistance. Whether it was costume or music – the entire show was produced and handled by his students.

Sontakke strived to imbibe fluidity of skills and would allocate ad hoc duties in rotation to students irrespective of whether they were boys or girls. These included costumes, production, design and lights. The students had no option here. Sontakke strived to create well-rounded theatre practitioners and theatre leaders. For many years ahead Sontakke singlehandedly taught these students who passionately attended his classes. He tells us how his dedicated students would never miss practice – whether it was high fever, or their sister's engagement. His students just like Sontakke, treated theatre as a religion. And no joy in the world is more fulfilling than that, Sontakke reminisces.

Today Sontakke has a lot to look back at and look forward to. His widespread career includes having been Director of the South Central Zone Cultural Centre, Nagpur (1986-1991), Director of the INT Training Wing, Director of Culture under the Government of Maharashtra, Head of Department of Drama at the Marathawada University in Aurangabad and the head of Nehru Centre in Mumbai (1992-1999) as well. Among those roles, he recalls a few special experiences. In 1977 for JAG UTHA HAI RAIGARH, written by Vasant Kanetkar, one of the leading playwrights of Marathi theatre, Sontakke shared stage with his wife and daughter Kanchan and Manasi. Originally produced in Hindi for the Sangeet Kala Kendra, the play was based on the relationship between Chattrapati Shivaji and his son.

In 1988 as the director of the South Central Zone Cultural Centre, Sontakke led the Indian contingent to the International Festival De La Mer. With teams from across the world including China, France and Africa, the festival held in Mauritius, was inaugurated by then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. With more than 145 folk artists and 36 classical kathak dancers among others, they performed at more than eight different venues across one week.

In Sontakke's opinion, Marathi theatre today, is bustling with activity thanks to the efforts by NGOs and Marathi newspapers like Loksatta. However the problem with most professional plays, he says, is that actors settle for mediocrity. Few want to take the risk and most actors spend only weekends rehearsing and performing. Profits persuade productions. Another startling statistic that he shares is that out of the 35 plus productions staged across Mumbai, Pune and Nashik daily, not even 7 or 8 of them are amateur or experimental productions, which is the lifeblood of experimentation in theatre. However he is optimistic that old writers are wearing out, giving way to fresh, young actors. Some of the stellar productions he looks back to include STATUE OF LIBERTY, THASHTA and DEV BHABHALI.

Sontakke narrates an interesting anecdote from his days at IPTA, Mumbai. During the production of GODAAN, one of the actor's mother religiously attended rehearsals and Sontakke took her onboard for costumes! Her inputs helped the students significantly. She made it mandatory even for the boys to learn how to drape a saree.

Sontakke wove snippets of his life together as we listened intently that day. His journey in the theatre is a sum of passion and dynamism and a religion worth having followed.

*Ayushi Shah has a Bachelors Degree in Mass Media with a Major in Journalism. She has worked in various media and in public relations. She enjoys theatre and has acted in and directed inter-college festival plays.

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