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Naatak Nights On Tejpal Heights





Capers to thrillers, Parsi plays have enjoyed great runs at the 59-year-old Tejpal Auditorium in Gowalia Tank. Tracing the journey of this drama genre here, ahead of Navroze week

The young guard takes forward a tradition: Veteran actor Bomi Dotiwala clowns with Vistaasp Gotla at Tejpal Auditorium. The director's variety revue on Navroze day (August 17) is a tribute show to his "king of comedy" mentor, Dinyar Contractor. Pic/Ashish Raje

She laughed till she choked. A naatak-nutty aunt I trundled in tow with, for almost every Gujarati play possible, was an asthma patient. Mid-show she would guffaw aloud-heaving heartily, then heavily, at the farce unfolding on stage. That set off a paroxysm nursed with a pill pulled from her sequinned purse. Spasm fixed in a bit, she resumed chortling at the shenanigans. After an attack in the middle of a 1970s show in Tejpal Auditorium, she huff-puffed: "Marvaanu toh chhej, hasta ramta javaanu (We have to die anyway, might as well go laughing like this)."

In her lexicon, "like this" meant while watching a Parsi play. Which was wonderfully often in that half-century-ago heyday when audiences were regaled year-round with sparkling comedies. At least four prolific writers presented a rollicking oeuvre-Pheroze Antia, Adi Marzban, Dorab Mehta and Homi Tavadia. Unlike the literary famine today, which, barring a few original scripts by playwrights like Meherzad Patel, sees poorly rehashed plays of that formidable quartet. This too in the week of Navroze alone.

Scene from the 1973 INT hit thriller, Hello Inspector, showing Ruby and Burjor Patel with Nitin Dasundi. Pic courtesy/Meher Marfatia: Laughter in the house

At the time, though, impresarios vied furiously for four halls: Tejpal on the slope up from Gowalia Tank, Birla at New Marine Lines, Patkar at Churchgate and Bhulabhai Desai Auditorium at Back Bay. Like Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan before it, Tejpal boasted serial naatak runs thanks to writers employed by the Parsi wing of Indian National Theatre. This happened initially with Pheroze Antia, who was on the INT payroll as a director from 1954 to 1960. Then followed a strong second wave in tandem with producer-actor Burjor Patel.

"Getting a Sunday evening show at Tejpal was like winning a lottery-it was that tough to be allotted dates," says Burjor. "When I moved from INT and launched Burjor Patel Productions, I'd meet Radhakumar Tejpal in his office near Excelsior Cinema at VT. He was a gentleman. Chatting on a variety of subjects, I built a good rapport with him. Next door was the famous Vithhal Bhelwala where I went after the meeting to savour the occasion. Tejpal on the schedule meant good box-office innings."

Jiju Daroowala, Moti and Pheroze Antia perform in Rangilo Behram at the theatre in the early 1960s. Pic courtesy/Moti Irani

It was at the initiative of Radhakumar, the great-grandson of philanthropist Goculdas Tejpal who came from Kothara in Kutch, that the Sheth Goculdas Tejpal Auditorium opened its doors on September 3, 1960. Significantly, 75 years ago on December 28, 1885, the Indian National Congress was formed at the Tejpal Sanskrit College on this stretch of Tejpal Road.

Morarji Desai inaugurated the air-conditioned, 639-seater hall which soon attracted thousands of theatregoers. Honouring Gokuldas Tejpal with a sculpted bust at the entrance, its amenities were meticulously conceived by the foremost professionals, Parsis prominent among them. With architects Gregson, Batley & King was B E Doctor, the marble installation was by A P Hodiwala & Co, while Nariman Bharucha & Sons executed the sanitary works.



"Our father assigned specialisations to experts like the civil engineer B E Doctor," says Sudhir Tejpal, Radhekumar's elder son. "Actors and audiences have always appreciated the acoustics of our auditorium." The superb standard of acoustics drew the Bombay Madrigal Singers Organisation to fill the house at each Tejpal concert they had. Opera buffs enjoyed local sopranos like Celia Lobo essaying the role of Violetta in La Traviata in 1962. Rostered to host diverse entertainment, the hall was the venue for qawwali shows-and subsequent film shoots like the Amar Akbar Anthony qawwali sequence with Rishi Kapoor booming "Purdah hai purdah".

The Tejpals nurtured close relationships with their Parsi performers. Bomi Dotiwala was befriended by Radhakumar and Sudha Tejpal the day he debuted on their stage in August 1961, paired with wife Dolly in Dhong Song, directed by Marzban. Singing stars, the Dotiwalas lit up many musical revues, when "variety entertainment" programmes were starting to catch on. "Dolly tied a rakhi on Radhakumar at Raksha Bandhan," says Bomi.

Radhakumar Tejpal, great-grandson of Sheth Goculdas Tejpal, whose initiative saw the hall open in September 1960. Pic courtsy/Subhir Tejpal

Sudhir and his younger brother Shishir remember accompanying Radhakumar to Chapsey Terrace, Marzban's Altamont Road residence across from the theatre. His apartment was the hub of rehearsals and all things theatrical. Awed by the writer-director's exceptional collection of books, the boys listened to the men discuss emerging drama trends in the city.

In showbiz, the men who ensure actors are comfortable and audiences happy enough to not demand ticket refunds, are the theatre managers. They rule, wooed by producers and directors clamouring for dates of their choice. Fifty years ago, these were predominantly Parsi. Cooversha Lala was the quiet powerhouse managing Tejpal for almost 30 years from its inception.

"My husband Cooversha, Burjor Pavri of Birla, Sam Kerawalla of Patkar and Jimmy Pocha of Bhulabhai Desai and later Sophia Bhabha hall, were a competitive yet collaborative foursome," says Goolu Lala. She attributes its popularity to cheap rents, imaginative lighting, quality mikes and "garma-garam batata wadas our theatre was the first to sell in the canteen".

Moti Irani, Pheroze Antia's wife and the lead in his productions, agrees-"Their wadas were second to none. Artistes reserved these hours before the curtain rose and people finished them. Pre-ordered plates got delivered hot to our separate ladies' and gents' dressing rooms." Snacks served under the Gujarati management were strictly vegetarian, of course. Egg-addicted Parsis thought this a mere titch of a hitch and calmly packed plump homemade pora-pao, omelettes wedged between bread slices. Moments before the interval, a rustling sound spread through the theatre. Women and children were trying to dig into their bags with as much discretion as they could muster, rifling in the dark for sandwiches they had cut and carried for the family.

At Tejpal, long-running plays from the pen of Pheroze Antia included Bapsy Bahr Pari, Mehera ne Khatar, Rangilo Behram and Wah re Behram, the last two from the hilarious series that chronicled the hysterical antics of a bumbling character, the titular Behram. Vouching this theatre offered "the best backstage facilities", Moti points to just one problem: steps leading to the green rooms.

An exit did cause Dolly Dotiwala to trip on these, performing Sagan ke Vagan, Marzban's bittersweet saga of a husband and wife from marriage to the autumnal years. In splendid show-must-go-on spirit, she continued with a bleeding shin. Fans marvelled on noticing that, given their proximity to the stage. "Tejpal was the only theatre where actors felt, 'Aapre audience na khora ma bethach'-like sitting in the lap of the audience!" says Bomi.

Sagan ke Vagan notched a neat 104 shows after premiering in 1968. Its writer-director's research involved a warm exercise. Instructing his chauffeur to drive to the Marine Drive promenade, Marzban watched the dynamics between old couples taking in the sea air. Veterans Ruby and Burjor Patel's vote also goes to Tejpal for Gujarati and Sophia Bhabha for English plays. "A nicely compact theatre with excellent acoustics, Tejpal was our favourite venue," raves Ruby. "The response to my plays Hello Inspector and Solmi January ni Madhraate (Ayn Rand's Night of January 16th) was unprecedented."

The subjective finale of Solmi January ni Madhraate remains a fine memory for Ruby. With the INT belief in staying audience-centric, the novelty this play introduced was a surprise jury chosen from among the crowd-"We were alert, ready with lines for either verdict, 'Guilty' or 'Not Guilty', not knowing till the end what the audience would find me. It was exciting being cued unexpectedly on different evenings."

Having co-starred with her husband Rohinton under Marzban's direction, Scheherazade Mody says, "I did a lot of shows at Tejpal. It had a very warm ambience with lovely, large green rooms. To me the play mattered, the theatre performed in was incidental. The stage is a stage."

It was not entirely fun and foolery on stage. Writer-director-actor Tarak Mehta had said, when I interviewed him for my book Laughter in the House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre-"In the 1970s there was no difference between Parsi and non-Parsi actors, they joined hands to create a new genre. Plays like Hello Inspector, Lafra Sadan and Khunnas made unforgettable theatre. That is why Parsi Gujarati drama spread its reach and hold, with social dramas and suspense thrillers becoming such superhits."

As Maltiben Jhaveri of INT, of which her husband Damu was a pioneer founder, explained, "Ours wasn't just a common language, Gujarati. INT and the Parsi theatre really understood each other well. That was the secret of their magic together."

The INT stable connected greats the Parsi stage had not tapped. Productions like Hello Inspector and Solmi January ni Madhraate at Tejpal broke fresh ground for this genre. Their thumping success owed considerably to the robust writing of Tarak Mehta, complemented by the crisp direction of Pravin Joshi, Arvind Thakkar and Chandrakant Thakkar. Polishing the brilliance were finishing touches by technical wizards like set designer Gautam Joshi. From Burjor Patel's company, two regular plays at Tejpal were Ek Sapnu Badu Shaytani and Chhabili Ramti Chhanumanu, both authored by Sitanshu Yashaschandra.

"I received so much recognition stemming from my association with Burjor's unit," said Tarak Mehta. "Even acknowledging that Marathi and Bengali theatre are superior, Parsi humour has no parallel in other regional theatre. The Parsis have converted me-and us all."

Meher Marfatia is a freelance writer with a special interest in the arts and the overall cultural heritage of 1990s Bombay. She has also authored the book Laughter In The House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre.

This article first appeared in Mid-Day, dated August 4, 2019, as part of "Once Upon a City", a fortnightly series.

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